Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
21 Oct 2009
by Doug Farrar
One of the primary reasons for the New Orleans Saints' turnaround and gradual climb into the NFL's elite over the last three years has been the front office's ability to spot small-school and late-round talent. There was Hofstra's Marques Colston and Jahri Evans of Bloomsburg in 2006, and fourth-round tackle Jermon Bushrod from Towson University in 2007. Bushrod's name wasn't notable until left tackle Jammal Brown was lost for the season to a hip injury in September. The switch from Brown to Bushrod hasn't made a dent in New Orleans' explosive offense, though -- the Saints currently rank fourth in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate, and they put up 48 points on what was supposed to be the New York Giants' bulletproof defense. Drew Brees put up the highest single-game DYAR in the history of our stats, and the running game looked strong as well. Brees and head coach Sean Payton knew right where to send the credit -- to the offensive line.
“That was a key statistic as we were looking at this game, you know, our ability to handle that front," Payton said. "New York’s got a really talented group, they’re well coached and they’re players that have had a lot of success when you start looking at Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, there’s a number of players you have to account for. And Jermon Bushrod stepped in, and I think the group in general did a great job of allowing Drew the necessary time to get the ball down field. It’s one thing in your game plan to say hey, we want to attack down the field. But the other aspect of that is protecting to allow the quarterback the time to throw it down the field and I thought we were outstanding in that area.”
Brees was just as complimentary. "The offensive line has been awesome," he told NOLA.com. "Look at what they've done protecting me the last few years, and now you throw in the balance of the running game. It's a direct correlation how that front five is playing for us."
The Saints started the game at their own 30 with Brees getting a short pass to Reggie Bush for seven, and missing Robert Meachem downfield. Here, Bushrod showed good pass protection skills, taking the straight-on rush of Umenyiora as Brees stepped up in the pocket and scrambled for a six-yard gain when he found nobody open. The Giants were content to bring three and let Brees work it out for himself, but Umenyiora is known as the sort of pass rusher who can overwhelm even the best tackles one-on-one. Bushrod had the balance and hand placement to take Osi's charge, and left guard Carl Nicks only helped with a small chip at the end of the play, when Brees had already stepped up and taken off.
With first-and-10 from their own 43, the Saints went twins right, offset-I left, and Brees handed the ball to Pierre Thomas, who headed up the left A-gap behind outstanding drive blocking by the entire left side of the Saints' offensive line. From center Jonathan Goodwin out to Nicks and Bushrod and to Jeremy Shockey, who got into a nice little handfight with linebacker Danny Clark to Bushrod's left, all the Saints headed forward and pushed their defenders back. Thomas shot through his gap for five yards before linebacker Chase Blackburn was able to peel off and make the stop. Bushrod, for his part, simply got his hands inside Osi's jersey and bulled him back. The potential problem with edge-rushers when you push straight back is that they will sometimes sneak past on one side or the other of the man blocking them, but Bushrod made that tough with a very wide base and excellent pad level -- he was blocking up, keeping Osi off balance, and winning the power battle from the ground up.
On the next play, second-and-5 from the New Orleans 48, Bushrod took Osi straight on again, fanning him out quickly and deflecting the rush. At the same time, Blackburn was blitzing off the left edge, which the Saints countered in three ways. First, tight end David Thomas chipped Blackburn as he released into the seam. Then, Bushrod actually held Blackburn up for a second with his block of Osi, sending one defender into another. By the time Blackburn released his way out of that, Thomas was up from the shotgun set and ready to block. Brees had time to scan his reads and hit Shockey for seven on the other side.
Bushrod had Shockey lined up to his left on the next play, first-and-10 from the Giants' 45. As Shockey released, Danny Clark backed off the blitz look and headed to the flat to cover fullback Heath Evans. This left Bushrod one-on-one with Osi again, a matchup he won with some outstanding pass-blocking. He first set Osi back with a hand charge, then matched his edge placement when Osi tried to spin outside, pushing him out of the rush as Brees dawdled in the pocket, pointing to his receivers like Aaron Rodgers in slo-mo. For all the hundreds of times Brees has bailed his line out in the last few years, the thought of this particular quarterback with enough consistent time to find the optimal read would be a nightmare for any defensive coordinator. Brees may have gotten a bit fancy on the throw, an incompletion to Shockey over the middle. On this play, I'd say the Giants' strategy of pulling back and employing more coverage worked to their advantage.
One play after Thomas went over right guard for two yards, the Saints went shotgun, two-back on third-and-8 from the Giants' 25. New York didn't run many line stunts or loops, but they tried one on this play, with Osi blocking inside to Nicks, while Justin Tuck engaged Nicks momentarily before looping outside and trying to get around Bushrod. Bushrod was able to disengage from the double-team and set the edge very well, which gave Brees time to hit Lance Moore over the middle for a great juggling catch and a gain of 18 yards. Then, a two-yard gain by Thomas in which Bushrod pushed Osi back, then to his left, and out of the scrum completely. Run or pass, a block that walls Umenyoira out of a play completely is something I'm going to find impressive.
On the next two plays, two straight short passes to Moore, Osi first tried the bull/spin combo to no avail, then went with a wider approach off the edge a la Kyle Vanden Bosch. I thought the idea in the latter play might be to upset Bushrod's timing with his initial block, as he'd have to engage Osi after the receiver released into his route. But Bushrod simply waited and blocked Osi away from the pressure. I liked his edge-blocking two plays later on Thomas' six-yard run to the four-yard line, and I was very impressed with his ability to chip off the line and hit the next level on Mike Bell's two-yard touchdown. Bushrod blew Clark up in the end zone, keeping the linebacker from filling the gap that Bell jumped through for the score.
I liked and agreed with what poster "ChrisNO" had to say about the Saints' tight internal line splits, and the way things are set up to help the tackles. I would add that Bushrod's skill set makes him potentially more than a plug-in at left tackle, which adds him to the Saints' list of great bargains.
If the Saints were defined by their first drive, the Falcons may have seen the most mileage from the final one they stopped on Sunday night against the Bears. The new-era Falcons have been DVOA stars on offense in just about every field zone, but their ability to put opposing offenses away in the red zone is a major surprise. Through the first six weeks of the 2009 season, Atlanta ranks in the mid-20s in Defensive DVOA throughout the playing field -- until opponents hit the Falcons' 20. From there, the Falcons rank first in the red zone overall (-73.8 percent), sixth against the run (34.4 percent), and second against the pass (103.4 percent).
The Bears started their final drive on their own 12, down 21-14. Jay Cutler came to the line in a three-wide set, and the Falcons playing tight on the edges. Jay Cutler hit Devin Hester for six yards, then Hester took one over the middle, in a zone the Falcons left open by way of a mega-safety backpedal in a Cover-2 look, for a gain of 34 to the Atlanta 48. Hester's unobstructed run was also aided by middle linebacker Curtis Lofton pressing the halfback and looking for the quick bailout pass. Not great strategy against Cutler. Of course, Cutler isn't stupid -- with the Falcons reacting by playing off in a nickel set, he hit Matt Forte with a dink pass up the middle for 12 yards, and all of it after the catch.
At the two-minute warning, and after a neutral zone infraction on end Kroy Biermann, the Bears had first-and-10 at the Atlanta 30. Cutler hit Hester on a quick out for six, overthrew speedster Johnny Knox in the end zone, and had third-and-17 to deal with after he was sacked by John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux. Abraham got the bull-and-spin on Orlando Pace in this play, the same type Umenyiora couldn't get on Bushrod in the Giants-Saints game. Because the Falcons could get pressure with four, Cutler found it more and more difficult to find the hot route. The Bears went five-wide, and Cutler threw to tight end Greg Olsen over the middle of the field. Olsen had some contact going back-and-forth with Lofton, and for the second time in this game, the Falcons picked up a pass interference penalty simply because the defender in question didn't get his head around to play the ball. If the Atlanta coaching staff needed a teaching point for this week, well, there's one.
The call put the ball at the Atlanta 14, but judging from our numbers, that's just where the Falcons' defense wanted the Bears. Would it play out that way? The Bears certainly seemed to be doing everything possible to throw the opportunity away. First, Cutler threw a slant to a wide-open Knox, but Babineaux deflected the ball at the line. Then, a false start on tackle Frank Omiyale, which the Falcons must have found hilarious, since Omiyale looked to be unseated by yet another example of center Olin Kreutz's headbobbing. An incomplete pass to Forte (who simply dropped an easy swing pass), then offensive pass interference on receiver Earl Bennett. A whiff to Olsen on some very nice coverage by linebacker Mike Peterson, then Cutler nailed a pass downfield to Bennett, and the Bears had action at the Atlanta 5 with fourth-and-1.
Cutler called the team's last timeout and the Bears came back with their play, only to get upended by Pace's false start. With fourth-and-6 at the 10, the Bears had to take the run off the table, leaving the Falcons to throw a net of intermediate coverage, led by Jamaal Anderson's zone drop. Cutler had Desmond Clark for at least the first down on a little square-in -- or so he thought -- but Anderson's drop was the difference-maker just as Atlanta's intermediate coverage was the secret to their late-game success.
Some people aren't happy with the 60-minute matchup -- they want to take it into the locker room and beyond, to lay down the smack. That was the case for Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher and Minnesota Vikings end Jared Allen, who had quite the set-to in the Metrodome last Sunday.
Oher started it off with a a frank assessment of his own performance to the Baltimore Sun: "In the second half, I feel like I shut him out," Oher said. "There is nothing really special about him. I think if we played them [in Baltimore], it would make a big difference. The (two) false starts were just mistiming the snap ... I think he found out I'm an OK player," Oher said. "Guy makes like $100 million. I think I did all right."
Allen was eager to respond. "Well that's just some idiot trying to talk himself up. I beat that dude like a red-headed stepchild, let's be honest. If he was so good why did they have to chip me all day? Ask him that. That's just a rookie trying to build his self-confidence up. Besides, you lost and your quarterback spent his whole day on the back of his head until the fourth quarter. That guy will watch film today and realize. Everybody else in the world saw me abuse him."
I had something else in mind for the third Cover-3 subject this week, having just written about Oher last week, but this was too good to pass up. How did these two do, and did either man walk away with the right to bark about it?
The Ravens ran Ray Rice away from Allen on their first two plays, as Oher contented himself with a couple of hand strikes to keep backside contain. On third-and-6 from their own 27, the Ravens went backward as Kevin Williams blew through the right side to sack Joe Flacco. Allen would have had a shot at Flacco in another half second, having beaten Oher and the chipping Todd Heap to destroy the pocket on the other side. Allen and Oher were already barking at each other after this play.
Oher did have the advantage in run-blocking for the most part -- when he took Allen straight on with force, he was generally able to establish position. But Allen isn't a star because he stops the run. By their third drive, the Ravens had resumed the strategy they employed with Oher in his first start -- give him help outside and have him block inside, using his excellent ability to block forward with power. On pass plays, Allen would frequently have to deal with a chipping Oher, then a tight end at the line, or a straight-on Oher pass-block followed by another block from a fullback in the backfield whose sole responsibility was to keep Allen and Flacco apart.
As the game went into the second quarter and Allen started to use more rounded edge moves, Oher developed the ability to take the pressure from the side and use it to keep Allen outside the pocket until he was past Flacco. On a six-yard pass to Rice with 12:37 left in the first half, Oher's blocking allowed the screen to develop, as he pushed Allen away from Flacco even as he'd been beaten to the perimeter. This is one of the things that has impressed me about Oher through the regular season -- he doesn't give up on plays in which he might look bad because a defender gets the speed edge on him. He will extend beyond his area to finish whatever block he can get.
Five plays later, with second-and-11 from the Baltimore 46, Allen simply beat Oher to the edge and stripped the ball out of Flacco's hand as he was either (depending on who you believe) winding up to throw or in the process of throwing. E.J. Henderson picked up the live/not live ball and ran it into the end zone, but the fumble call on the field was reversed on replay. More importantly for the purposes of our analysis, this is the one thing I think might keep Oher from being an elite left tackle -- he will get zapped by the real speed guys and struggle to get his feet planted out of the blocks before he's either engaged or trying to catch up. He's got the straight and forward power in run-blocking, and he can set a nice edge if he's taking a pass-rusher face-to-face, but he doesn’t yet have the smooth quickness of the best edge deflectors who fan out and keep step with players like Allen.
On the very next play, Oher walked Allen back to the quarterback, showing that he does have the ability to take the edge rush as long as it's coming right at him. I should be very clear that it's far too early to insist that Oher's future is one of right tackle or misplaced left tackle. In pure strength and body type, he reminds me very much of Walter Jones, who had unreal inside quickness and developed the kind of fast turns that allowed him to get his feet set before an edge rusher could take him. I think Oher has that potential (though not the in-line quickness of Jones), and if he meets it, he'll be one of the NFL's current great tackles.
How would I score the Allen-Oher matchup? Well, we know how great Allen is, and he played as expected. But one thing that impressed me about Oher was that as the game went on, the Ravens seemed to feel more comfortable releasing their tight ends at the snap, instead of staying into block. Allen had one sack, two quarterback hits, and four tackles for loss in this game, but it's worth noting that Flacco threw the ball 43 times. All in all, I think Oher earned the right to be proud of his performance, but not the right to quack at a player of Allen's caliber. On Allen's side, I'd say the "abuse" comment was slightly wishful thinking. For a rookie playing his second NFL Game at left tackle, Oher did a pretty remarkable job of keeping a guy playing at a superhuman level away from his quarterback.
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