Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
20 Oct 2010
by Doug Farrar
Having spent the last few years watching Seattle's offensive line turn into a sieve by injuries and horrible personnel decisions, it was nice to be at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center -- the Seahawks' official facility -- for the selection of the player who was tagged to lead that line back to prominence. The Seahawks' 2009 line was a joke, and nowhere were things more unintentionally humorous than at left tackle. Seattle's previous regime insisted that Walter Jones could play a full 16-game season at age 35 and following microfracture surgery, which is one of many reasons that regime isn't around anymore. Yahoo! Sports gave me a pass into the media room for the 2010 draft. Following the selection of former Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung, the new front office was happy enough to set up that rarest of experiences -- a media session with that press-averse line coaching genius, Alex Gibbs.
Gibbs, not prone to hyperbole when it came to the abilities of his players, could not help but gush a bit when Okung's name was mentioned. "We will throw him right in," Gibbs said. "He will be our starting left tackle -- day one, hour one -- and we will live with him through whatever the pain is. He's the line coach's dream all through the league. Thirty-one other line coaches are sad right now, because they know I got the one that is easiest to deal with. He wants to do it and doesn't have to be made to do it. Does that make sense real quickly?"
It made sense in the abstract, but the best-laid plans were set aside. Gibbs moved on for unknown reasons, and Okung went through a short holdout and some injury issues before rounding into shape just in time to face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field last Sunday. In his first full regular-season game as a professional football player, he would be facing Julius Peppers, who's been playing at a high level all season.
After a performance by Okung that netted Peppers one tackle and one quarterback hit, head coach Pete Carroll gave a passing grade for his new franchise protector. "He did really well. He played a very good game," Carroll said on Monday. "He got tossed around a little bit early, but then he settled in and was very consistent in pass protection. He did a nice job in the run game. So, he's really back now. He still so young -- it's still so early in his playing time -- but he came through in a big way."
Based on the tape I'd seen, and various observations I could glean from his limited involvement in practice and games, two things surprised me about Okung's performance against the Bears. First, his ability to get in space and be effective on tackle pulls outside was something new -- he had struck me as more of a straight-ahead blocker. He is also now able to drive to the second level in a way he certainly was not able to at Oklahoma State. Okung's college tape frequently showed a player who looked as if he was on roller skates at the linebacker level; he rarely looked comfortable and would often lunge at faster defenders. While I saw improvement in this area through the preseason and into the regular season, his performance against Chicago was still a bit of a revelation.
Against a guy like Peppers, pass-blocking is the point of emphasis, and I think the Seahawks' coaching staff did a nice job of alternating between two- and three-point stances to offset Peppers' furious charge at the snap. He couldn't take advantage of Okung being the slower player to get out of his stance, but Okung still had enough power to avoid getting pushed back. He has developed a decent kick step -- it's not really fluid just yet, but he's able to backpedal and maintain his upper-body power. Over and over, he frustrated Peppers, who couldn't get around, couldn't shoot inside in one-on-one situations (a common way to expose young tackles), and couldn't bull rush at all. Okung is still under development to a degree, but I'm already pretty sure that there isn't a defensive end in the NFL who could bull him back.
"He should be feeling like he's been against the best guy in the league, and he can handle himself," Carroll said. "I don't think Russell ever doubted that, but he really wouldn't know until he did it. He had enough opportunities where he was truly one-on-one, so he knows he can do that. He has a lot of growth and a bright future that's going to benefit from all these early experiences -- it's a good accomplishment for a young kid, without question."
The second-level drive blocking described earlier was evident on Seattle's first rushing touchdown. With 14:58 left in the second quarter, Okung headed upfield from the Chicago 9-yard line as Justin Forsett took the handoff and tight end John Carlson pulled to the left to block Peppers out. Okung engaged Brian Urlacher at the 6-yard line, started pushing him back, and didn't stop until Forsett was in the end zone. It isn't surprising that Okung has the raw strength to take Urlacher off his feet, but what I liked here was that he kept his base wide enough to prevent Urlacher from peeling off to one side or another.
Okung also popped a key block on Marshawn Lynch's first Seahawks touchdown. With 13:50 left in the game and the ball at the Bears' 1-yard line, Okung stood Peppers up and pushed him aside and to the ground as Lynch bounced outside and to the left for the score.
"There's nothing he can't do," Carroll told me. "He can do all the stuff that is required of a left tackle. He's got the length and stature to hold up, and he's got the attitude to come off the ball. He really did that well on another play, too -- the goal line play with Justin. He has the mobility in space to be a puller, which is one of the more difficult things for an offensive lineman -- tracking a defensive back or linebacker and getting on that with a lot of room (around him). He's a fantastic prospect, and as we said, getting through this challenge of facing one of the best guys in the league should only help him get better and believe in what's going on. He was able to do a little bit in all phases of the game, in this game in particular."
Okung still trips up on stunts where he's asked to switch his focus from one lineman to another. This first happened with 7:20 left in the first quarter, the Seahawks facing third-and-12 at their own 45. Seattle went four-wide, shotgun, and Okung lined up in a two-point stance. At the snap, tackle Matt Toeaina engaged him as Peppers swung around to Okung's right side out of a wider stance. Okung had one eye on Peppers outside, which allowed Toeiana to drive through him as guard Ben Hamilton picked up Peppers. This seemed to be a simple case of a rookie seeing, and trying, to do too much.
But overall, and against this great challenge, Okung looked every bit the first-round talent Seattle has desperately needed at left tackle since Walter Jones' inevitable decline. He proved more than adept with straight one-on-one blocking. The Arizona Cardinals, who come to Qwest Field this Sunday, will provide different challenges with their multiple fronts and more varied pre-snap looks.
Before he replaced Gary Brackett at middle linebacker for the Sunday Night Football game against the Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts rookie Pat Angerer was playing in a reserve role and had put up a few tackles as he got the hang of the NFL. I wrote about him in the preseason when Angerer was picking up his first two NFL sacks, with one extreme qualifier -- David Carr was the quarterback on both of those. Jacking up the guy with perhaps the worst pocket awareness in NFL history behind a line very much under construction isn't all that impressive, though it did put Angerer on the map. I filed him away as Bill Polian's latest example of an undersized, underrated defender who might come up with important plays at the right time. Brackett's groin injury gave Angerer a shot against Donovan McNabb and a line that is coming together with two new tackles in Trent Williams and Jammal Brown.
|Figure 1: Angerer's sack|
In that game against San Francisco, the Colts seemed to have hit on something with Angerer shooting through on delayed blitzes out of zone blitz looks as the front four or five dictated line movement. The sack he picked up against the Redskins followed this concept (Fig. 1). Indy had five at the line with 8:59 left in the first quarter. Linebacker Philip Wheeler (50) lined up as if he were going to blitz. At the snap, Wheeler backed off to cover tight end Fred Davis, and linebacker Clint Session (55) led the charge on a dual linebacker blitz. Halfback Ryan Torain picked up Session, but when left guard Kory Lichtensteiger moved to the right to deal with Fili Moala's swim move and left tackle Trent Williams kicked outside to help Chris Cooley block Dwight Freeney from a wide angle, Angerer had his opening. He shot through the left guard position unblocked and put McNabb on his butt. It was the same guard gap Angerer went through in the preseason game.
This was a very well-designed and well-executed play. Moala took the guard out, Session removed the halfback, Angerer didn't just bump into an assigned gap, and Wheeler's coverage down the right seam was a textbook case of how the zone blitz takes away hot reads under pressure. McNabb was looking for Davis, but Wheeler had him wrapped up.
However, middle linebacker blitzes are more of an exotic notion in a defense like Indy's, so it's worth mentioning that Angerer also reads and sheds blocks well (as he did on a first-quarter stop of Torain), has good sideline-to-sideline speed, and plays intermediate coverage to the level he'd have to in order to be functional at his position in this series of defensive schemes.
After ending his first start with 11 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry, and two pass deflections, Angerer got the good word from the man he replaced. "I thought that he did a good job," Brackett said. "He got all the calls right, and that's a tough enough job in a regular-season game. Everything moves so fast out there, it can be tough to take it all in. But he handled everything well."
High praise for a team in which such things are expected. More than most teams, the Colts have proven the ability to have "replacement parts" ready when needed. Brackett is expected to start against the Texans after the Colts' upcoming bye, but it's clear that the backup plan is working -- once again.
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