An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
21 Aug 2009
by Doug Farrar
The Philadelphia Eagles went into the 2009 offseason having missed the Super Bowl by a touchdown. They were very interested in adding more playmakers to their roster, and were evidently willing to do just about anything to beef up the offense and match teams like the high-flying Cardinals. While all eyes are focused on their new backup quarterback, the Eagles may have found Donovan McNabb's first elite target since He Who Shall Not Be Named in the person of Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin, selected 19th overall in the first round.
When I watched him before the draft, I thought Maclin was more illustrative of the concept of "functional football speed" than any receiver in this class. His mid-4.4 40 times at the Scouting Combine and Missouri's Pro Day put him two-tenths of a second behind the straight-line speed of Darrius Heyward-Bey, but Maclin actually seemed faster than his time in his cuts, while DHB cut more like a 280-pound tight end. The latter is fine if you're convinced that you can win a Super Bowl running nothing but 9-routes (hello, Raiders), but Maclin seemed primed to impress more as a receiver than as a track guy. New England's secondary has a very different look this year after posting the second-worst pass defense DVOA of the Bill Belichick era in 2008, but Maclin would still find himself tested here. The one consistent debit on Maclin's scouting reports was the ability to run more complex routes. If he wasn't developed to a certain degree, the NFL might chew him up and spit him out to start.
Maclin didn't have a pass thrown to him in the first quarter, but McNabb began the second quarter by overthrowing him on a go route about 40 yards downfield from the Philadelphia 18-yard line. McNabb was doing a lot of short-left and short-right early on, focusing on rookie back LeSean McCoy and trying to avoid the aftereffects of Jason Peters' blown blocks. Maclin's first reception would have to wait until just before the two-minute warning on the first half. On first-and-10 from the Philly 29, the Eagles lined up four-wide with A.J. Feeley under center. Maclin ran a drag route from outside left as part of a combo with Jason Avant, who ran a little out route from the inside. As the route exchange froze linebacker Eric Alexander, Maclin sped through the New England zone for a 16-yard gain. The combo made the play -- you could see cornerback Terrence Wheatley pointing out where Alexander should have followed Maclin over the middle just before the catch.
We got to see Maclin's yards-after-catch ability with 8:32 left in the third quarter. Down 24-6, the Eagles lined up in an I-formation, then motioned to split backs with Maclin wide left. Feeley threw him a quick out right after the snap, and Maclin turned on the jets. He took one step inside after catching the ball, making Wheatley miss right away, then headed downfield with Alexander and safety Brandon McGowan in pursuit. By the time McGowan pushed him out of bounds, Maclin had gained 28 yards, from his own 46 to the New England 28.
Maclin's speed had another rookie making tracks the next time he was targeted. With 2:16 left in the third quarter, Maclin lined up wide right with the Eagles at the New England 35. Maclin put a stutter-go on first-year cornerback Darius Butler, who was playing him tight, and zoomed downfield. Once he got outside position, Maclin was due for a touchdown pass until Butler gave him an armbar at the five-yard line. As Herm! said (as only he could) up in the Eagles' broadcast booth, "You MUST ... PLAY ... THE ... BALL!" Butler had the trail speed to take Maclin on, but Maclin's quickness prompted a brainfreeze.
If you count the pass interference penalty (and I certainly would -- Maclin had the touchdown unless he dropped the pass and Butler was just trying to prevent it), Maclin had three catches for 73 yards. Most of the yardage on his two actual receptions came after the catch. Through the preseason, I'd expect the Eagles to work him in with routes he finds familiar -- short stuff inside and downfield plays to break coverage. From what I've seen so far, Jeremy Maclin might be the threat McNabb's been waiting for.
No offensive lineman has ever come into any draft with more prominence than Ole Miss tackle Michael Oher. For those living under a rock the last five years, Oher was the subject of Michael Lewis' Moneyball follow-up, The Blind Side, which attempted to look at the evolution of pro football through the lens of the left tackle position. Lewis found a feel-good movie story in Oher, who fortunately turned out to be as good as advertised. He started his senior year as the highest-ranked lineman by NFLDraftScout.com, dropped a bit as the inevitable in-season shakeouts happened, and ended his collegiate career as a first-round lock.
Selected 23rd overall by the Baltimore Ravens, Oher slotted in at right tackle, where his physical play would be highlighted in his first preseason game against a redefined Redskins front seven. Baltimore's coaching staff wanted to insure that the first tackle the franchise has taken in the top round since Jonathan Ogden could man-block with power and consistency, avoiding the traps set for many linemen in collegiate zone and spread schemes. Mission accomplished -- this is no bulked-up tight end, using two-point stances against defenses poised to stop the pass.
The Ravens started their first drive of the day at their own 30 with 12:02 left in the first quarter. Joe Flacco took the ball out of an offset-I and dropped back, while Oher dropped to pass block Philip Daniels. Oher showed good punch at contact, but Daniels was able to get around the edge and harass Flacco in conjunction with Andre Carter, who had beaten left tackle Oniel Cousins and batted Flacco's pass in the air. Like a lot of power tackles, Oher doesn't seem to have a great ability to fan out and use a pass-rusher's outside moves against him; he seems more vulnerable to letting a defender slip off and bring pressure.
|Ravens' Overload Blocking|
On second-and-10, Baltimore went with an interesting tight bunch right, with tight end Todd Heap outside Oher, receiver Derrick Mason outside Heap, and fullback Le'Ron McClain bringing up the rear. At the snap, Mason blocked Brian Orakpo, who was rushing from the left edge. Heap took Daniels, while McClain pulled outside to deal with London Fletcher. Oher, pulling behind and inside McClain, blew Rocky McIntosh out of the play. Halfback Ray Rice got six yards before DeAngelo Hall and Chris Horton came up to bring him down. The Ravens used a lot of overload protection in their running plays last year, but that was more about lining up an extra tackle or two and going smashmouth. I like this particular idea, which reminds me of what the Steelers do with their bunch formations in run-blocking.
On third-and-4, the Ravens went three-wide against the Redskins' five-man front. Daniels was angled just off the left edge, and Oher cut him at the snap. This gave Flacco enough time for a quick slant to Demetrius Williams and an 11-yard gain. Oher pulled with McClain on the next play, taking Houston out to the right, but he completely missed Fletcher on the next level, and Fletcher took Rice down after a two-yard gain. Oher eased up when he was in Fletcher's area as if the linebacker was someone else's assignment -- perhaps McClain, who took Fletcher on the previous play -– but McClain was finishing off Horton, which leads me to believe that Oher was supposed to deal with the next defender.
On the next play, a second-and-eight from the Baltimore 49, Oher put on a power display. Washington went with another five-man line, and Baltimore countered with another offset-I. At the snap, Oher backed into pass protection, then bulled forward and just mauled Daniels to the ground, with an assist from a McClain chip. Flacco hit Rice with a short pass over the middle, and Rice got downfield for a 34-yard gain. Then, a sweep left on first-and-10 from the Washington 17, where the play went away from Oher and Rice picked up two more yards.
From the 15, Oher walled end Reynaldo Wynn outside on first-and-10 as Willis McGahee went up the middle for 5. Then, another overload to the right -- Heap and McClain bunched tight outside Oher, with Mason moving inside from wide right. Oher got tackle Cornelius Griffin to the ground at the start of the play, but the Washington pass rush flushed Flacco out to the right, and Griffin got loose to help on the tackle after a two-yard gain. You'd like to see Oher stay with his defender on plays like that.
The next play was Oher's marquee moment, as the Ravens lined up in an I-formation on fourth-and-1 from the eight-yard line. Someone must have told Oher about finishing his blocks during the timeout that preceded this play, because he engaged Wynn at the snap, kept him outside as McGahee ran up the middle again, and kept him outside again as the Wynn tried to angle toward the play. At the end of the play, Oher lifted Wynn off his feet and drove him to the ground with such force, Oher's helmet flew off his head and he opened a gash on his own forehead. Baltimore's drive lost steam at the Washington three-yard line, and they settled for a field goal. Oher was out for the rest of the drive, though he came back in the game in the second quarter after getting stitched up.
This was the next step in a long and interesting journey for Michael Oher, and I recommend The Blind Side to anyone who would like to see the story told with more panache than I could possibly manage. In telling the story of his first NFL game, a few things are apparent. His power is very impressive -- this is a guy who enjoys knocking people on their asses and asking them how they liked it. He shows great movement on pulls. However, his pass blocking is a work in progress. He's great when he's blocking straight on, but he can be beaten pretty easily by speed moves, as well as his own predilection for missing blocks at times.
Oher measured in at 6-foot-5 and 309 pounds at the Combine, but he plays heavier than that -- not with the chocko-blocko moves of Right Tackle For Life Jeff Otah in Carolina, but not nearly with the ability to mix movement and power we saw from Ryan Clady in Denver. Right now, he's a project, which was expected given his lack of experience at the position. Cover-3 will be back to visit Oher in the regular season more than once. Over time, I think he'll be a perfect fit for Baltimore's power-blocking concepts.
The star of his school's all-time best draft class, Connecticut's Donald Brown led the NCAA in rushing yards in 2008 despite one of the biggest efficiency disparities between run and pass in all of college football. The Huskies ranked 19th in Rushing S&P+ (adjusted Success Rate and Points per Play -- the S&P+ methodology is detailed here) and 103rd in Passing S&P+. While Brown was averaging 28 carries per game and 5.7 yards per carry, he was facing stacked defenses that had no reason to fear the team's 5-17 passing TD-to-INT ratio.
When I watched Brown on tape in preparation for a Washington Post interview in early April, I was immediately reminded of the old saying about running back success: It's not speed to the hole, it's speed through the hole. When the Colts drafted him 27th overall, they no doubt saw a quick, one-cut style that fits their blocking schemes. But what must have impressed them equally was Brown's instant acceleration when he hits a seam; of all his attributes, it's the one that stood out most to me. Brown carried the ball five times in his NFL debut against the Vikings, and that burst was on display from the start.
Joseph Addai got all the work with the first team in the first quarter, and Brown came in for the second quarter's second drive with Purdue rookie Curtis Painter behind center. Brown did have the benefit of the game's starting offensive line (from left to right: Tony Ugoh, Ryan Diem, Jeff Saturday, Mike Pollak, and Corey Hilliard), and he made good use of it. On first-and-10 from the Indianapolis 18 with 11:45 left in the first half, the Colts went three-wide with tight end Gijon Robinson releasing outside of Otah at the snap. Diem and Pollak pulled left on a trap, with Diem taking right end Martail Burnett out at the left edge, and Pollak heading upfield to deal with Letroy Guion. Brown shot up the left A-gap, between Pollak and Saturday (who had walled off end Otis Grigsby) and gained 11 yards before rookie safety Jamarca Sanford brought him down.
As you can tell from the names, the Colts had a first team-second team advantage over the Vikings line, but Minnesota read as much run as you'd expect, facing an offense trotting out their first-round running back for the first time. While I doubt the Colts line would have had as easy a time with the Williams Wall, Brown's second-level speed was the focus. He gained six more yards on the next play, running to the left in the ubiquitous stretch play before lineman Kyle DeVan sealed the left edge. Brown then cut inside on a dime, and this is where you saw the perfect fit with the outside zone stuff the Colts run as well as any team in the league. Not only does Brown hit a hole with speed and authority, he has remarkable cutting speed, even in short areas.
|Brown's Big Run|
Brown hit the mother lode on the next play, a draw to the left out of another three-wide, with Ugoh selling the pass blocking very well. Ugoh lured Burnett off to the far left as Brown cut inside from a run left, then took linebacker Erin Henderson inside while Brown extended the play outside. From there, it was off to the races for 38 yards, and Brown had excellent downfield blocking from receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Only the closing speed of end Jayme Mitchell prevented a 65-yard touchdown run. On this play, Brown showed an outstanding mixture of patience in waiting for the delayed aspect of the play to develop, and quickness when the blocking was there.
Burnett got to Brown for a one-yard gain on the next play, shedding Ugoh and heading inside for the tackle up the middle. He got three yards and a cloud of FieldTurf dust on his fifth and final run of the day, a sweep to the right. His 58-yard performance was impressive in many ways, but the next play showed that the rookie has some work to do on pass blocking. The Colts lined up in shotgun, single-back on third-and-7 from the Vikings' 24. Left end Jayme Mitchell stunted inside, and Brown completely whiffed on the pickup. Mitchell flushed Painter out of the pocket and forced an incompletion in the end zone. Scouts generally noted pass blocking as a weakness of Brown's, but a lack of familiarity with the concept is understandable when passing was generally a bad idea in UConn's offense.
The Colts didn't take Brown in the first round just to replace Dominic Rhodes; they want the feature back that Edgerrin James used to be, and that Joseph Addai has never consistently been. Addai's worrisome per-season drops in DVOA and DYAR, and the Colts' need for a backfield weapon to complement Peyton Manning, could put Brown in the driver's seat sooner than later.
23 comments, Last at 24 Aug 2009, 1:28pm by bingo762