My “Welcome to the NFL moment” happened during the third preseason game of my rookie year. I was playing offensive guard and was lined up against Gilbert Brown. You might recall Gilbert as the scariest looking human being ever.
So, here I am, this fresh-faced 22-year-old kid, hoping to hold his own against a guy nicknamed The Gravedigger. On one play, I was assigned to do a combination block with Steve Everitt, our center. He would go out and engage a linebacker, and I had to get Gilbert. The ball snaps, and Steve goes out to block the ‘backer. I grab The Gravedigger, and push him right through the secondary and completely out of the play.
No, not really.
What really happened was, as soon as the ball was snapped, I tried to block Gilbert but he proceeded to hook me under my armpit, toss me right to the ground and then tackle the running back for a one-yard loss. Of course, the cherry on top was having him do his signature gravedigger dance right on top of the pile of humanity he had created.
That was the moment when I fully grasped that the NFL game is played at a different level.
I’ve been an offensive lineman since the first time I went out for football in seventh grade. Of course, in my mind, I’ve always felt like I could be a great wide receiver, leaping for touchdowns and shaking DBs. But the reality is that I was always destined for the trenches because, for the most part, offensive linemen are born rather than made. I say that because an offensive lineman is only as good as his feet. And it doesn’t matter how many drills you run or exercises you perform, being quick on your feet is something you either have or you don’t. In the NFL, it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are — if you can’t move your base very quickly, you’re going to look silly out there.
I still remember that play when I got my grave dug because, as an offensive lineman, you’re defined by your screw ups much more than your great efforts. The only time we really hear our name called over the stadium speakers is if we jumped too early or held somebody. So throughout my career, I focused much more on my bad plays than on my good ones. I could successfully block a guy on 35 pass attempts, but if he got a sack on that 36th attempt, I’d watch the tape of that play all week. That’s how I got better.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been tasked with blocking many, many talented guys. Honestly, I loved it. The best players always respect the best players, and relish the challenge of facing them. But when I reflect on the toughest players I’ve ever blocked, it’s these five guys who stand out amongst the rest.
The first person that comes to mind is Derrick Thomas. As a lineman, you face speed guys, power guys and then you have wiggle guys. A lot of wiggle guys don’t have power. A lot of power guys don’t have speed. And a lot of speed guys can be controlled if you anticipate their movements. Every play my job was to take away whatever skill a guy relied on most so that he became one-dimensional.
But with Derrick, there was nothing I could take away, because whatever move he’d pivot to was just as lethal. The player in today’s game that most closely resembles him is probably Von Miller.
It was Derrick’s ability to bend — which is his ability to change direction, get low and turn speed into power — that made him an almost impossible assignment. In terms of quickness, his first step was only barely behind Dwight Freeney’s. But what made Derrick so difficult to block was that he was constantly moving and changing direction, so it was impossible to guess what he’d throw at you. You just knew, regardless of what he was going to try, it would be tough to stop.
He had such a diverse array of moves that there was no way to really prepare. I’d spend a lot of time in the film room watching tape of what Derrick did to people. It was like a horror film for offensive tackles.
I only played against him twice, and both times we were at home, so the crowd noise put us on an even playing field. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to try to block him at Arrowhead. The guy left a very big impression on me. He was a very special football player.
Of all the guys I blocked during my career, Dwight is the one I’m asked about the most often.
The week before I had to battle against him was always a little different because I had to make specific adjustments. Stuff like practicing getting out of my set quickly and limiting myself to only one trip to the food table during team meals so I’d feel just that much lighter on my feet. Dwight presented a unique challenge because he was six or seven inches shorter than me, so when he’d go low, I’d have to maintain my knee bend and keep my balance. The balance part was crucial because the second you leaned on him, he’d hit you with that killer spin move.
You know the one I’m talking about.
A lot of people had spin moves, but what made Dwight’s so deadly is that his feet never stopped moving. It was just pure explosion. It’s a move that has been often replicated, but never duplicated. Blocking him was like facing the most talented fighter in the world who happens to be in one weight class below you. This is a guy who made a lot of really talented tackles block thin air on play after play after play.
Battling Dwight in that dome in Indianapolis, when it was rocking, was damn near impossible. Here’s a guy who has one of the quickest first steps in NFL history, and then he gets a jump on you every play because it’s too loud to hear the cadence. I hated when we called pass plays there. I’ll never forget when we played one game in Indianapolis, and threw the ball 45 times. That’s 45 plays when the team said, “Hey, Jon, figure out how to stop this guy nobody stops. Thanks.” I allowed two sacks, but this isn’t a job where performing well 43 out of 45 times gets you a pat on the back. People thought I was making up excuses after the game when I was frustrated, but withstanding 45 Freeney spins on the road is a tough task.
When it came to stopping him, of course I always kept that spin move at the top of my mind. Honestly, I’d have to choose the lesser of two evils. As an offensive tackle, you never want to give up the inside lane. Ideally, you’re riding your guy past the quarterback. With Dwight, I always tried to make sure I was looking right at him. If you let him get parallel to you and turn your hips, it’s over. Freeney’s just too fast and could explode around the corner in the blink of an eye. So I’d try to sit on his spin move with my inside hand and then force him to commit to the outside.
You know how I said before that you can control some speed guys? Dwight wasn’t one of them. Honestly, he wasn’t a guy you could try to engage; you just had to let him come at you and time the spin right.
Despite the rivalry, there was always nothing but respect between us. He’s just a really good guy. We met at a few Pro Bowls, and now that I’m retired, we’ve played a few rounds of golf together. I’m comfortable calling him the most dominant pass rusher of my era.
Not who you were expecting to be next on this list? Well, let me explain.
I don’t have massive respect for Clyde because he’s the biggest guy I ever faced or the fastest. Clyde has a spot on this list because he fundamentally changed the way I approach the game of football.
I’d always gotten by on my physical talents, but Clyde was the first guy who forced me to become a film room junkie. When I played against him early in my career, he knew exactly how I liked to punch, and could just grab my hands, cross them up and then walk me back to the quarterback. He did that to me a few times while playing for different teams, and I was kind of helpless against it for a while. Clyde didn’t possess any otherworldly abilities that I hadn’t seen before — he was just a crafty veteran who knew how to give me the business. He was just sneaky. I’d be blocking him fine all game, feel good about myself, and then he’d wait for his opening and expose me.
Clyde taught me how important it is to vary your movements and strategies in the NFL. Once you perform one move during a game, that’s on tape for every coach and player in the league to dissect, and figure out how to counter. Once I started hitting the film room, I got better at knowing the different ways I can attack a pass rusher. Instead of just blocking them the same way, I began planning out well ahead of time where the most effective place was to punch them would be when I came off the line. I looked at their go-to move and their counter to that. I tried to find their tell.
Clyde ended up trying the move where he crossed up my hands up later in my career and it didn’t work. Not this time, buddy. By then the student had become the master.
Simeon Rice and Jason Taylor
I’m going to group these guys together only because they were both great players with similar body types.
Sim had his deficiencies in the run game. He wasn’t a guy who would hold his ground if you hit him straight up. But as a pass rusher, he was definitely in an elite class. Anytime you have an athlete as long as Simeon was with the ability to change direction on a dime, it’s not going to be an easy day at the office. Like Clyde, he also had certain sneaky qualities about him. He was far from being a predictable pass rusher.
Jason was similar to Simeon in that he was very long, fast and athletic. If you were building a defensive end in a video game, you’d want them to look something like Jason. For his go-to move, he’d thrust his long arm at you and basically stab you in the chest while pushing you back. His hands moved so quickly, it was really difficult to bat him away.
When it came to stopping both of these guys, I’d visualize that I was on a basketball court playing defense. My goal was to stay between the man and the basket. I never played with many mobile quarterbacks, so the basket analogy is pretty apt. Instead of engaging Jason and Simeon, I’d try to mirror their movements. I was bigger than both guys, but if I got off-balance, it was game over. But keeping your weight steady when you have these amazing athletes trying to punch, shake and shimmy around you is … not so simple.
Both players would always get pretty close to the quarterback because they were just too good to be pushed completely out of the play.
I’m 6-foot-9, 340 pounds and blocking all of these guys took every ounce of me. So these days, I’m enjoying my retirement by focusing on golf, which is a completely different kind of challenge. You see, football is tough. But golf? Golf is evil.