Larry Allen

Cowboys offensive lineman

Dallas's offensive line, with Allen leading the way, has been the secret to the Cowboys' sustained success as marquee players Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith advance in age. Since Allen was drafted out of tiny Sonoma (Calif.) State in 1994, the Cowboys have given up an NFL-low 115 sacks (1.4 per game). Over that same span, Smith has rushed for 6,867 yards and 75 touchdowns.

Allen will start at left guard this year. He started at right tackle in 1994, moved to right guard in 1995 and played left tackle in 1997 and 1998. Despite the moves, he has been to four consecutive Pro Bowls.

While protecting Aikman's blindside last season, Allen faced some of the league's best defensive ends: Simeon Rice, Michael Sinclair, John Randle, Derrick Thomas, Joe Johnson and Hugh Douglas combined for 68A sacks a year ago. Allen handled them all, allowing 1A sacks for the season.

In an age when the average weight of an offensive lineman is climing faster than the Dow, Allen is an anomaly. At 6 feet 3 and 325 pounds, Allen is big (he bench-presses 605 pounds and squats 800), but not huge by today's standards. However, his technique is what makes him one of the league's top linemen. His impeccable footwork makes you wonder how such a large man can move so fluidly. Allen's low center of gravity makes him almost impossible to bring down.

Then there is the "Allen Punch," the legal jab Allen delivers to the chest of an oncoming lineman, who then has to re-start his rush again. This creates time for Aikman to find a receiver and often keeps Aikman from getting knocked to the turf.

Warren Sapp

Buccaneers tackle

and Derrick Brooks

Buccaneers linebacker

Sapp and Brooks are one of the NFL's ultimate 1-2 defensive combinations. The scenario often goes like this: Sapp draws a double- or triple-team at tackle, leaving Brooks, a highly mobile linebacker, to attack whoever has the ball. Or maybe something like this: the quarterback drops back and finds Sapp in his face, so he dumps the ball off to a running back, who is immediately leveled by Brooks, possibly behind the line of scrimmage.

Since Sapp and Brooks entered the league in 1995, the Buccaneers have had one of the league's elite defenses. In the four years before they entered the league, Tampa Bay allowed an average of 5,187 yards per season. Since then, it has given up 4,874 yards per year. Last season, Tampa Bay gave up 4,345 yards, its lowest non-strike total since 1979.

In addition to being first-round draft choices -- Sapp was taken 12th overall, Brooks 28th -- both players went to high school and college in Florida, with Sapp at Apopka High and the University of Miami and Brooks at Booker T. Washington High in Pensacola and Florida State. Brooks has led the Buccaneers in tackles in two of the past four years. The same can be said of Sapp in number of quarterback sacks.

But most importantly for the Bucs, Sapp and Brooks both recently signed contract extensions.