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Tony Lombardi: The offensive line did a great job last year protecting Steve McNair but it was criticized for its run blocking. Did you see it that way?
Rick Neuheisel: You know I didnâ€™t. I think our offensive guys â€“ Chris Foerster coaches the offensive line and Greg Roman assists him, Wade Harman our tight ends coach is also involved in protection as is Tony Nathan our running backs coach. I think those guys did an unbelievable job, each and every week in trying to highlight where the match up problems were. We had some young guys in the front. If we felt like an end had an advantage over a tackle, Tony Pashos being our right tackle last year â€“ we usually didnâ€™t have to worry much about J.O., then we would push the protection to him. We have found ways to try and protect Steve McNair. That was one of our huge sticking points in our game plan. We were going to make sure that we were going to do everything that we could to keep him healthy and have him play as many games and as many snaps as we could because we felt that he was a real important piece of our offense. I canâ€™t say enough, not only about the effort of the front, and the coaching staff but also the effort of the game planning in terms of trying to minimize a guy like Shawne Merriman of San Diego or Dwight Freeneyâ€¦trying to make sure that those guys donâ€™t beat us.
Now you have to give to get and sometimes we had to eliminate a potential [receiver] in our pass offense because we had to utilize a tight end or running back to help. Weâ€™re trying to play that game as well as we can in terms of having a numbers advantage our way.
TL: There is improved athleticism on the offensive line. Talk about how that helps to open up your playbook.
RN: I think our offensive line is in as good a shape depth wise as itâ€™s been since Iâ€™ve been here. The draft with Ben Grubbs and Marshall Yanda both being part of our front now has given us a young athletic front. Chris Chester I think is going to be a great player in our league, Jason Brown proved last year that he belongs in this league so four young players there in the last three drafts that are going to be cornerstones for the offense.
Youâ€™ve got Mike Flynn coming back, heâ€™s the blood and guts guy, the old veteran that puts his leadership stamp on all those kids. Youâ€™ve got J.O. whoâ€™s probably the best thatâ€™s ever played at his position. Keydrick Vincent is fighting for his spot and it creates competition and competition makes you better.
Adam Terry also in that draft just two years ago has emerged. He had to play a little when J.O.â€™s toe began to bother him late in the season last year and Adam did a nice job.
So we feel like weâ€™re as good as weâ€™ve been on the offensive front and because of that we feel like we donâ€™t have to help them as much with our tight ends and backs. And given one back and four wide receiver formations gives us a chance to get some receivers down the field vertically which hopefully can open up some big passing lanes and some big chunks of yardage.
TL: Some lines are described as zone blocking lines, some as cut blockers and other man to man pile drivers. Where did the Ravens fit in last year and how might they be classified in â€™07?
RN: I think we had both last year. We had a lot of man schemes and a lot of zone schemes. Now a two back offense lends itself to more man schemes. You give the fullback a man and every one else just fits off him. When youâ€™re in single back you tend to lean more towards zone schemes. Zone meaning your offensive linemen are on tracks and depending on which gaps the defenders take will tell who the offensive linemen take. You kind of take who comes to you.
The running backâ€™s job then is to pick the available air and hit it with authority. Weâ€™re probably more of a zone scheme right now but we certainly know how to run the ball in man schemes and did so very effectively a year ago.
You made the point and I didnâ€™t touch on it, why we werenâ€™t a great running team last year at least by the numbers. A couple of things come to mind. Number one we felt like there was more air than our running backs were taking advantage of a year ago. Not trying to place blame on any one particular person but we feel like we can get more air and weâ€™re going to coach it harder and hopefully take advantage of more running seams this year.
The second thing is that we were very fortunate to finish 13-3 during the regular season. And when youâ€™re 13-3 you are playing ahead a lot and our philosophy when you get ahead is to protect the ball and not do anything outlandish that is going to put you in harmâ€™s way via turnover and so forth. So youâ€™re running the ball in a lot of downs that the defense knows you are running the ball and because they know you are running the ball theyâ€™re going to put 8 and 9 defenders up close to the box. The NFL is predicated upon a box count and we put ourselves in some uphill running situations just because we felt that was the best way to win the game.
We think we can improve in all of those areas and hopefully weâ€™ll be even more aggressive this year.
(Part 3 will focus on the receivers, quarterbacks and expectations for 2007)