I love the trenches. Everything about them. Even as a young boy, sitting in front of the TV with my dad, my eyes were glued to the behemoths that broke the huddle and came to the line of scrimmage on a given Sunday. While other kids may have wanted to be a quarterback or a linebacker, I wanted to be smack dab in the middle of the action, reveling in the physicality and chaos.
I rooted for these massive men, enamored with the idea of someday playing like them. Like armored sumo heavyweights, they would come to a crouched position, eyeing each other across some invisible line that I didn’t fully understand at the time.
Then, in an explosion of sound and fury befitting an ancient battle fought somewhere long ago in time, two men would come together in a furious clash of blood, muscle and sweat. Yeah, I’ve loved this game since I can remember.
Offensive line was my calling as much as my preference.
Meat-Eater matchups. The T-Rexes of the trenches. The guys that can tip the game either way, like they tip weight-watcher scales. That’s where the game is won or lost. That is my focus.
This week’s matchup goes to the very heart of the trenches, featuring Patriots center Ted Karras lining up against the Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave.
Standing 6-foot-4, weighing in at 305 pounds, Karras has only five starts in his four years. Three at guard, two at center.
The Patriots normal starting center, David Andrews, went down for the season with blood clots in the lung. For insurance, the Patriots traded for former Bengals and Bills Center Russ Bodine.
Though Bodine has 74 starts over five seasons to his name, and well may assume the snapping duties down the road, I have to believe that Karras will make the start on Sunday night.
Bodine came to the Beantown party late in the pre-season, with little time to get acclimated to the Patriots system. The center position calls for someone who knows the blocking calls, no-huddle or hurry-up situations as well as audibles, and pass protection pickups. And he’s got to know them inside and out.
The center is the guy who directs traffic for the rest of the line, someone who needs to mind-meld with the QB. This takes time. And this says to me big Ted has the start.
Karras is upper body powerful, sporting arms like legs and legs like people. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some Greco-Roman/freestyle wrestling in his background.
Karras comes off the ball with a good pad level, sometimes a little high, but always in the “pocket” of good leverage. While his feet tend to the heavy side, he is competent and decently quick in short areas.
A good run blocker, Karras will accelerate his feet after contact and get his “four wheel drive” on with power. Karras has powerful hands and grip, using them well in getting singled up or in combo blocking.
He does a good job of turning and shielding an off-set defender on his nose by taking a proper angle while using his body positioning and a powerful core. He’s not afraid to over-hook and latch onto a defender’s arm when the defender attempts to club him.
Pass pro wise, Karras is a bench presser, meaning he will absorb the force of a pass rusher, and then extend his arms as if he’s benching his opponent away from him. Because of his excellent strength, Karras is very effective when he does so.
And because he is so strong, when he gets that lockout on an opponent, it’s very hard for the pass rusher to break down Karras’ arms and get on the pass rush hunt. Once Karras latches on, he’s a tough one to get rid of.
For Hargrave, this will be a test of his power, quickness and his leverages. Using his 6-2, 305 pound frame to counter Karras will be worth watching all night long.
Hargrave has the advantage in quickness, no doubt about that. And he must use that cat-quick advantage to the utmost when he locks up with Karras come Sunday night.
Hargrave plays with natural superior leverage, positioning himself so as to take advantage of the great strength in his ham-hocks and enabling him to hunker down against the double-team.
Keying the snap while maintaining a power position will be Hargrave’s repetitive best opportunity to gain the advantage. It will come in that heartbeat of time following the snap of the ball and Hargrave’s ability to react to it.
Whoever gets their hands inside with a powerful lockout has the greater advantage.
Hargrave’s first step after the snap is one of the quickest I’ve seen of any defensive lineman in years. If he can use that quickness and power coupled with his natural leverage advantage, Hargrave has an opportunity to have a great night.
Hargrave has enhanced his value by increasing his pass rushing skills. He’s more than just a nose tackle. Hargrave used his quickness and strength last year with limited opportunities in pass heavy downs to post 6.5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 8 QB hits.
Meat-Eater matchups like this are keys to victory and defeat. While bigger strategies like game plans and WR route-trees, coverages and audible schemes capture the headlines and attention, the world of the trenches still boils down to the mano-y-mano encounters in close quarter combat.
Life in the trenches is as simple as a frying pan to the forehead. Line up, execute technique and dominate. Wash, rinse and repeat.
All night long.
Craig Wolfley is a former Steelers offensive lineman and current member of the Steelers Radio Network broadcast team.