They practiced football’s cruelest position as one, with steps that seemed choreographed and blocks that were synchronized.
Brian Allen, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein performed the drill near one hash mark. Joe Noteboom and Andrew Whitworth mirrored them from the other.
They executed another set of precious preseason practice reps together — a reconfigured offensive line reaching for perfection.
These are the members of the Rams’ front five. Whitworth and Havenstein bookend the unit at left and right tackle, a pair of pillars around which coach Sean McVay’s flashy offense has flourished. Blythe, the right guard, is another mainstay, back for his second season as a first-teamer.
Allen and Noteboom are new. At center and left guard, respectively, the untested second-year pros are taking over positions once held by established veterans. On a team returning 18 starters, they are among the depth chart’s biggest question marks. For the Rams to replicate another postseason run, the new-look offensive line still needs to be solidified around the two new starters.
“That’s going to take time,” said Whitworth, the leader of the group in both stature and status. “There’s going to be bumps along the road. But we’re going to continue, like anything else, to every day try to get better.”
Erecting an offensive line is an exercise in stability. The delicate process is dependent on cohesion and chemistry, yet demands durable results. To incorporate Allen and Noteboom this preseason, the Rams have worked slowly, deliberately, wary that even one weak link could bring the whole group tumbling down.
“We have great communication, on the field and off the field,” Havenstein said. “Where, maybe something doesn’t feel right, and it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s work on [this]. My backside technique didn’t feel great. Let’s get a couple, let’s feel it out. Let’s make that an emphasis the next day.’ That’s something we’re doing a good job with, and that’s something that doesn’t stop the whole year.”
Three years ago, the Rams had one of the weakest offensive lines in football. Like a bridge built with faulty beams, they would topple under the slightest stress. Jared Goff, then a rookie, was often buried beneath the debris, sacked 26 times in just seven games. Todd Gurley couldn’t run through the wreckage either, suffering his first and only sub-1,000-yard rushing season. The Rams’ hamstrung offense ranked last in yards, and the team finished 4-12.
Upon McVay’s arrival after the 2016 season, the franchise rectified the line. Havenstein and former guard Rodger Saffold, draft picks from the team’s St. Louis days, developed into stalwarts. Whitworth and Blythe were acquired during the 2017 offseason. Veteran center John Sullivan also was signed in the offseason. He anchored the line as the Rams won back-to-back NFC West titles.
But Sullivan and Saffold weren’t re-signed this summer. Instead, Noteboom and Allen — third- and fourth-round draft picks in 2018 who played sparingly as rookies — were bumped to the first team. They performed well enough in training camp and during joint practices with the Chargers and Oakland Raiders to be held out of preseason games. Just as the Rams had hoped, they appear primed for their promotions.
“There’s a reason why we took them the way that we did,” McVay said of the draft. “This kind of was the plan all along.”
Allen struggled to find personal stability when he first arrived in Los Angeles. An Illinois native, the thickly built, 6-foot-2, 303-pound center had never lived so far from home. In four years at Michigan State — where he played alongside his two brothers, also offensive linemen — Allen started 38 games and was a team captain. On the West Coast, he initially felt out of place.
“The weather is nicer, but I’m a homebody,” he said. “All my friends and family are back there.”
Sullivan became his closest confidant, bonding over a relationship that went beyond the Rams’ detailed blocking schemes and the centers’ ancillary responsibilities. In training camp, they roomed together. During the season, Allen almost moved into Sullivan’s guest house.
“He was always there for me,” Allen said. “Kind of took me on like a little brother.”
Occasionally, the veteran would pester his understudy. Allen would clean Sullivan’s house, sign for deliveries, move the cars. “But sometimes,” Allen pointed out with a laugh, “I needed that.”
Now, the Rams have tasked Allen to fill his mentor’s void.
“You look at what a great job John Sullivan did for us the last couple of years — how smart he was,” McVay said.
“For Brian to be able to see the way John led and the way that he interacted with [Goff] I think is such a great example of what it looks like to do it right.”
Noteboom, meanwhile, has thrived on a career of constant change. A 6-5, 321-pound left guard now, he was at defensive end in high school in Plano, Texas. Until his junior year, he played ice hockey too.
“Everyone would back away,” Noteboom said of his presence during his hockey days. “I couldn’t even hit anybody. They wouldn’t let me.”
He moved to the offensive line in college and found his niche as a swift-footed steamrolling tackle in Texas Christian’s physical rushing attack.
A full-time guard for the first time this season, he has a simpler goal in mind: “To be a starter, and not have a dip after losing veterans like Saffold and Sullivan,” Noteboom said. “Go in there and not hurt the team, make the team better. Try not to be a liability.”
The early indicators have been positive. Pro Football Focusranked this Rams offensive line as the 13th-best in the league. Goff has exhibited early confidence in his budding center-quarterback relationship with Allen.
And, after their de facto redshirt seasons last year, the two new starters are cementing chemistry with the rest of the front five.
“That experience, it’s shown up,” run game coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “We were all a little rusty coming in. You can see now, more and more production that we’re having up front as a unit. I think they’re really starting to come together.”
The most noticeable aspect of the transition so far is how unnoticeable the introductions of Allen and Noteboom have been.
“Those guys have a long way to go,” McVay said. “But they’re in a good place right now. We’re very confident in them.”