Continuity Up Front Aids Cardinals' Push
TAMPA - At times early in Edgerrin James' first season in Arizona, he had to make a point to check out which of his blockers was lining up where on a given Sunday. The Cardinals deployed six starting combinations on their offensive line in the first 10 games of the 2006 season, losing eight times in that span. Constantly in flux, the line had little hope of jelling into the kind of cohesive unit that usually breeds success in the NFL. One lineman, Chris Liwienski, started at right tackle in the season opener and left guard the following week, then made a couple of starts at right guard before returning to left guard. "It's difficult when you can never really perfect your skills or perfect your craft," James said. "That's one thing that this offensive line didn't have a chance to do in the early years."Those days of week-to-week shuffling are gone, though, and the resulting continuity up front is one of the unsung reasons behind the Cardinals' rise from oblivion this season. Arizona has started the same five linemen in all 19 games it has played this season - Mike Gandy at left tackle, Reggie Wells at left guard, Lyle Sendlein at center, Deuce Lutui at right guard and Levi Brown at right tackle - and those around the team say there's no question the familiarity makes a difference. "That's been the biggest thing," Cardinals offensive line coach Russ Grimm said. "We put this group together last year and we've been fortunate enough that they've been staying healthy and playing beside each other for a while now. I think the confidence level goes up there, I think the continuity is definitely a plus, and it allows you to build that chemistry. You're not just having to plug people in and shift them around and stuff like that." The trend began last season, when Gandy and Wells started all 16 games alongside one another and Lutui missed a perfect mark only because a knee injury kept him out of the season finale. The biggest change this season has been Sendlein holding down the middle on a full-time basis. An undrafted rookie out of the University of Texas in 2007, Sendlein got a pair of starts in relief of Al Johnson last season before moving into a regular role this year. He's one of the guys now, to the point that his mates don't need to hear his line calls to know what he wants them to do. "It's nice because it gets loud out there and I can talk to these guys without speaking to them, because they know what I'm thinking and I know what they're thinking," Sendlein said. "We all kind of just have a real comfort out there." That feeling will be tested Sunday like never before. The line will be tasked with holding off the league's best defense long enough to allow James and quarterback Kurt Warner to do their jobs effectively. Known primarily as a passing team throughout the season, the Cardinals have achieved greater balance in the playoffs, putting up 111 yards per game on the ground. That guarantees them nothing against Pittsburgh, of course - "It's going to be tough to get yards," Gandy said - but the Cardinals will take their chances with the group that cleared the way for them to get this far. "What better than to go out there versus the No. 1 defense?" Sendlein said. "We feel we're a pretty good offense, so it's like a benchmark here. We think we're all right."
Reporter Marc Lancaster can be reached at (813) 259-7227.