Sports

Raiders laying it on the line

ALAMEDA -- Tom Cable won over the Oakland Raiders' offensive linemen in his first meeting with the beleaguered group in the offseason.

Tired of being pushed over on the field and criticized off it, the linemen were ready to embrace the zone-blocking schemes being talked about by a position coach with the personality of a Marine drill sergeant.

"I knew it was going to be better after about 30 seconds," center Jake Grove said.

Four weeks into the season, the rest of the NFL is learning that, too. One of the most-maligned units in the league last year is one of its most improved this season as the Raiders lead the NFL with 194.3 yards rushing per game and have cut their sack rate in half from this time in 2006.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," left tackle Barry Sims said. "You want your front guys to get things done whether it's running the ball or giving the quarterback time to throw."

It's a far cry from a year ago, when highlights of Shawne Merriman's sack dances against Oakland were replayed almost any time the Raiders' struggles were talked about on television.

The Raiders allowed an NFL-worst 72 sacks and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. The joke around the team was that its best linemen were on the coaching staff, where head coach Art Shell and assistant Jackie Slater each had Hall of Fame playing careers.

The line has undergone plenty of changes since last year, but the biggest difference is Cable. A successful assistant in college and the pros for years, Cable brought his zone-blocking scheme that heavily features cut blocks to a team that had tried to overpower defenses a year ago.

Cable learned the style from zone blocking guru Alex Gibbs, the former line coach in Denver and Atlanta. The Falcons led the NFL in rushing in 2006 under Cable's guidance, gaining 2,939 yards on the ground -- the most in the league since 1978. The Raiders barely managed to gain half that amount, finishing 29th in the league with 1,519.

The play of the line is the biggest reason the Raiders (2-2) have already matched last year's win total and are only one offensive touchdown shy of the team's output of 12 in 2006.

Robert Gallery, the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, had been considered a bust before showing great improvement this season at left guard. Sims flipped spots with Gallery, moving back to his old left tackle spot. Former Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry was signed to play center and has shared time there with Grove because of injuries. Cooper Carlisle and Cornell Green were signed as free agents and anchor the right side of the line.

Running back LaMont Jordan is second in the league in rushing with 424 yards. Backup Justin Fargas' 261 yards are only one fewer than last year's rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson.

"It's great that we have a system," Grove said. "That's something we haven't had here in a while. The guys are buying into it and working to get better at it every week."

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