Tackle Duo Making Strides

Posted Nov 11, 2010

For those that haven’t met them yet, it’s probably not too early to make the introduction. Meet Stud and Bud, for if you don’t know who they are yet, you’ll want to get familiar because if things continue as they have for the Rams’ enthusiastic young offensive tackles, they’ll be around for a long time to come.

“Since you got the handshake, you have got to remember Stud and Bud,” right tackle Jason Smith said, a big grin creeping across his face. “He’s Stud, I’m Bud. Stud and Bud, Stud and Bud.”

The he to which Smith is referring is rookie left tackle Rodger Saffold, Smith’s bookend and the Rams’ second round pick last April. The origin of the nickname is unknown though Smith says he has people back home in Texas who have called him Bud for a long time.

As for that handshake, it’s a creation of Saffold from a phrase that the duo has been using as a motto for the better part of the season. Before each game, Smith and Saffold would approach each other and repeat the theme “Lock it Down.”

After the Sept. 19 game against Oakland, Saffold came up with the idea for a handshake in which he and Smith pound fists, stick out their thumbs and turn their still joined fists downward to symbolize the saying.

“We were already saying it and he just came up with the handshake to go with what we were saying,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for nothing so we have to stand for something together every time we go out on the field together, work in the training room together, working together, protecting the quarterback together, blocking for the running back, in the meeting room communicating.”

It is that bond that has been a revelation to an offensive line that has long sought stability on the edge. Even with stalwart Orlando Pace dominating the left side for most of the past decade, the Rams often found themselves looking for a consistent performer at right tackle.

But from the moment coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney took over, the offensive line became a major priority. Never was that more evident than in the past two drafts as the Rams used the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft on Smith and then surprised some by grabbing Saffold with the first pick of the second round this year.

Still, not many teams would entrust a newly minted No. 1 overall pick and face of the franchise to the hands of two tackles with a grand total of five starts between them.

“I really love the way they put a lot of trust in us,” Saffold said. “It’s a challenge and from that challenge you are going to see whether you can play in this game or you can’t. I think we have been stepping up to the challenge each and every week. That’s helped us throughout the season. It keeps you hungry instead of worrying about a rookie wall or all these other things that play into the equation of the season.”

And if their first half of a season together is any indication, rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is going to be in good hands for a long, long time.

“I think they’ve done a tremendous job,” Bradford said. “I think our whole offensive line has done a great job this year. They’ve kept me protected, I’ve had plenty of time to go through my reads and make my throws, so I’ve been extremely impressed with the way those guys have worked and the way they’ve gotten better as the year’s gone on.”

Therein lies the rub.

While Smith was technically a rookie last season, his game repetitions were limited by a concussion that kept him out most of the season as he played in just eight games with five starts.

So for all intents and purposes, Smith is almost as much of a rookie as Saffold and is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.

“I think the more he plays the better he is because he can experience and see when a guy does something different to him that he hasn’t seen, that next time he is better at it,” offensive line coach Steve Loney said. “He’s a tremendous worker. He wants to be good. From that standpoint, because of the work ethic and how he cares about his job, he will continue to get better.”

Of course, Saffold is in much the same boat as he is only just now able to settle in because he’s been through enough that he’s seen many of the things that defenses are going to throw at him.

Early in the year, Saffold saw plenty of overload blitzes at his side designed to confuse him and Bradford. That sharp learning curve didn’t come without some bumps along the way for Saffold but he’s better for having seen the myriad ways defenses try to attack.

“The first few weeks I was getting a lot of different blitzes, things like that,” Saffold said. “There were a lot of corner crashes they were doing late to see if I would be able to pick it up and be able to see it. I think I have done a good job of that and I have been seeing it less and less. I think it’s been more balanced on each side rather than just me.”

Saffold’s ability to adjust to things on the fly and improve with nearly every repetition has been a pleasant development for Loney and the Rams, especially considering the importance of the left tackle position in the offense.

“You never know (with a rookie),” Loney said. “You really don’t. You don’t about their maturity, you don’t know about when they do hit a lull, do they fight through it? There are a lot of intangibles and so I don’t think surprised is the correct word. But I have been very pleased. I think he has maybe exceeded my expectations that way.”

As a pair, Saffold and Smith have been among the league’s best at limiting sacks, keeping Bradford clean and providing running room for back Steven Jackson.

According to STATS, Inc., Smith and Saffold have allowed just three sacks between them and Bradford hasn’t taken many more hits coming off the edge. While the duo could still find ways to improve in terms of penalties (they’ve combined for nine this year), it’s evident that they are feeding off one another and regularly challenging each other to get better.

“The good thing is that we are able to critique each other so it makes it easier,” Saffold said. “Usually, if you have a veteran somewhere, you are not going to be like ‘Hey man, you should probably get your feet right.’ With us it’s cool because we can tell each other what’s going on so it’s almost like we are working together rather than somebody talking down to somebody because they are a rookie or didn’t play as much. That’s been good.”

Back in the spring, many assumed it would be Smith on the left side and Saffold on the right, if for no other reason than Smith’s lofty draft status. But Saffold jumped in on the left right away and has proved to be an adept pass protector while Smith has been a nasty run blocker as advertised.

Never once was there any concern from either party about where he would line up.

“You have got to give it to him,” Saffold said. “That’s just his character. That’s the type of person he is. When you are loyal to a team like that then you are going to do what’s best for the team. I think he took that role better than anybody else could.”

The always humble Smith says where he lines up has never been an issue and he simply wants to do whatever possible to help the team win.

That’s why Saffold and Smith regularly spend extra time before and after practice working on the little things like hand placement, foot work and other details that help them improve.

“It’s fun knowing the guys and knowing how we have similar backgrounds and similar accomplishments and being a part of the same offensive line with coach Loney teaching us the same stuff and we both have the desire to be great at what we’re doing whether it’s football or sweeping the porch,” Smith said. ‘At the end of the day, we both want to do what we have to do and do it to the best of our ability.”