The sun pierced through the clear blue sky and looked down into the breezy stadium, on to each team’s sideline, dividing them between light and dark. In the light was the Denver Broncos, a high-powered team playing for records and a first week bye in the playoffs. In the darkness was the Oakland Raiders, a perennial loser and men fighting for another contract.
This was Week 17 of the 2013 season and the Raiders were quickly down 7-0. 24-0. 31-0. Mercifully, halftime finally hit.
The Raiders struggled. They couldn’t deal with the Broncos’ speed and power, which posed problems to even the best Raider, Jared Veldheer. Veldheer was their prized player, their franchise left tackle, their quarterback protector. Their speed and power.
But Veldheer wasn’t playing like it. He was beaten around his hips and through his heart. On one play, his 6-foot-8 frame uncoiled from a two-point stance and slid out to a Broncos pass-rusher. The rusher came fast and hard, diagonally and directly, bypassing a speed rush to come straight after Veldheer’s soul. He sank his hands into Veldheer’s chest.
That startled the 27-year-old left tackle. His shoulders raised, his knees extended, and his feet backpedaled. His powerful arms weakened. He lowered his rear to anchor and slow down the pass-rusher plowing through the pocket, but it did little. His last effort was to grab inside the rusher’s jersey, where the armpit cutout was, where referees couldn’t see it, and pull. His quarterback scrambled, twirling in the pocket before flushing outside of it and throwing an incomplete pass.
The man teammates knew as “Hulk” was succumbing to power. He was bull-rushed.
It was an out of the ordinary performance for Veldheer. He was typically good when dealing with speed and/or power. He could slide out to pass rushers quicker than they could get upfield. And when they tried to convert speed to power, he quickly shut them down. Now he was constantly giving up pressures. Seven total this game.
Months earlier, in August 2013, Veldheer tore his left triceps in training camp and had surgery to repair the injury. At the time the Raiders coaches hoped he would back at some point during the regular season. They needed him. But they weren’t sure he would fully recover.
After intense rehabilitation Veldheer came back to play the final five games of the season. He wasn’t fully fit, wearing heavy black wrapping around his the arm to protect the injury, and he struggled to get back to his dominating ways of the 2012 season. He graded out -1.7 in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
In 2012 he graded 12.1 in pass blocking, tying for 10th best in the NFL. He dominated with speed and power off the line, punching pass rushers then robbing them of their speed and confidence at the corner.
In Week 10 of that season against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker Paul Kruger tried to stutter-step to bait Veldheer forward and then run around him. Veldheer stopped and struck Kruger, slowing his outside rush before it began. Then he leaned in toward Kruger to extend the rush behind and past the quarterback. Typical.
Pass rushers went into Sundays thinking they could blow by Veldheer because of his 33-inch arms (average length) and 321-pound frame. But by the game’s end they would find themselves changing up their rush moves to find some way — any way — to get by him. It didn’t matter what they did. He was there every step of the way, sliding out, punching them, and engulfing them.
The Raiders saw what he meant to them. They saw what he did in Week 14 during the 2012 season, against the Broncos, when he was fully healthy and a relentless pass blocker. When he had the strength to withstand a bull-rush.
Not even Elvis Dumervil could get by him that week. Dumervil typically bull-rushed tackles into oblivion with sheer strength by using his natural leverage. It seemed like an obvious solution to getting by Veldheer, who was eight inches taller. But when Dumervil sank his hips he knocked Veldheer back a couple of steps and then he stopped. He couldn’t go any farther. He hit a wall.
The Raiders wanted to keep Veldheer. He was their best player. Losing him meant more darkness.
When free agency rolled around, they failed to franchise tag him, instead trying to negotiate a deal. It didn’t work. They were outbid by the Arizona Cardinals, who also desperately needed a quarterback-saving left tackle. They have the slow-footed Carson Palmer, the same quarterback Veldheer was protecting in 2012.
Feature photo courtesy of Jake Roth / USA Today