Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
06 Jan 2010
by Doug Farrar
It was an under-reported story until Michael Oher became the big media centerpiece, but the Baltimore Ravens have done an exceptional job in rebuilding their offensive line and blocking concepts over the last few years. The big haul came in the 2007 draft, when the team selected Auburn guard Ben Grubbs in the first round, Iowa guard Marshal Yanda in the third, and fullback Le'Ron McClain in the fifth. Left tackle Jared Gaither was taken in the supplemental draft after he was ruled academically ineligible at Maryland. From that draft, the Ravens got the foundation of a line that finished the 2009 regular season ranked fourth in Adjusted Line Yards, and top 10 in every other run-based line statistic we keep.
I spoke to Grubbs before that draft for an FO feature, and in reviewing that feature, I was very impressed at how he had taken the things he did well in college to the NFL. He is not a zone or move blocker per se -- he's more the old-school, man-on-man type of guard that fits perfectly in his current offense. When I asked Grubbs what he loved most about line play, his answer was on point for his game, then and now:
"I would say pancaking a guy because it just takes the guy's pride from him and you know you'll pretty much have him for the rest of the game," he said. "During my career at Auburn we always had competitions with who could have the most pancakes. Coach (Hugh) Nall, he'd put them up on the board (after) each game, and at the end of the year we'd see who had the most. (Right guard) Tim Duckworth and I had some good competitions. I had 38 (pancake blocks) and I think he had something like 41, so he won that one."
Grubbs had been on my follow-up list for a while, and he really stood out in the Ravens' season finale against Oakland. While many things about the Raiders are a hot mess, the front seven has been a pleasant surprise, and I thought it would be instructive to review Grubbs' performance against them in preparation for the wild-card game against the Patriots. The Raiders will run a few three-man fronts with a hybrid edge guy, but they're predominantly a low-blitz 4-3 with linemen that can pursue and get upfield. Richard Seymour is the obvious star, but you'll also see production out of tackles Gerard Warren, Tommy Kelly and Trevor Scott.
It didn't take Grubbs long to show up in this game -- on the Ravens' second play from scrimmage, a second-and-5 from their own 25-yard line, Grubbs pulled right out of an offset-I as Joe Flacco handed to Ray Rice. Not only did Grubbs lock left end Greg Ellis out of the play, he bulled Ellis to the second level as Rice found a cutback lane up the middle for six. Grubbs also showed good pass protection technique on that first drive, dropping back and engaging Ellis twice on first and second down from the Baltimore 31, as pressure elsewhere forced an errant throw from Flacco and then a sack by Warren. Finally, on third-and-13 from their own 28-yard line, Grubbs and Gaither doubled Seymour as the Raiders sent cornerback Tyvon Branch and safety Mike Mitchell on a blitz right up the middle, forcing another Flacco misfire.
The second drive was more successful, and Grubbs distinguished himself with the ability to pinch inside and dominate a defensive tackle, as he did to Scott on a Flacco incompletion with 6:03 left in the first quarter. (Side note: I just heard Phil Simms try to pronounce Nnamdi Asomugha's name. I may be scarred for life.) Perhaps Grubbs' best attribute is the sheer power he displays when he simply fires out and stands up a defender. You'll see some good guards, even those known for power blocking, slide off their men from time to time with bad footwork or improper hand technique. Not Grubbs. He consistently sets his feet, engages his hands at shoulder level, and starts pushing.
However (and as you might imagine), Grubbs is not always so agile when heading up to the second level. On first-and-10 from the Oakland 20 on that second drive, the Raiders lined up in a look they like -- they will leave a split on the center, moving the tackles out wide and bringing in different potential blitzers to affect line calls. I have also seen the Cowboys do this when they use a four-man front. On this play, Grubbs took the opportunity to shoot upfield and block Trevor Scott, who took a linebacker's role in this formation. He whiffed on the block and Scott was able to get in on the pursuit of Rice, who ran for a three-yard gain. On Baltimore's next play, a 22-yard pass to Todd Heap, I got my first good look at Grubbs' hand-fighting as he dealt with end Desmond Bryant in a straight man-blocking situation. Grubbs is nimble and practiced enough in his backpedal that he can strike out without losing balance or contain. Once he gets in a defender's space and starts pushing back, the power reemerges.
Willis McGahee got from the Oakland 7-yard line to the Oakland 2 by running behind Grubbs, who pulled right again and blew linebacker Kirk Morrison out of a lane that fullback Le'Ron McClain had started. McGahee then walked into the end zone behind the perfect tandem blocking of Gaither and center Matt Birk (blowing open the lane outside left and right) and Grubbs (clearing the way up the middle).
Grubbs' pulling block was a key factor in McGahee's second touchdown, a 77-yard run with 4:08 left in the first half. The Ravens had outstanding blocking at the second level, and McClain was already dealing with linebacker Thomas Howard on the outside right. Grubbs came though, chipped Howard, and ascended to take Branch out of the play. McGahee bounced outside, stiff-armed cornerback Hiram Eugene to an embarrassing degree (seriously -- Eugene is never going to live that down. It was just evil), and was off to the races.
It was the block on McGahee's third touchdown that put Grubbs in this column. Pulling to the right again from the Oakland 2-yard line with 13:20 left in the game, Grubbs absolutely smothered linebacker Sam Williams as McGahee bowled in behind him. What I love about the Baltimore offensive line is how these players work together. Grubbs was able to pull without losing anything up the middle because Birk shoved Warren out of the play to Warren's right. At the same time, Yanda stood Desmond Bryant up, and tackle William Joseph was doubled by Oher and sixth man Chris Chester.
Getting Birk from the Vikings has added crucial veteran acumen to the line -- I have no doubt that his ability to read protections and make calls has been a huge positive for the Ravens, just as much as the Vikings miss his skill. Gaither and Oher are intriguing players, and Oher has the potential to be truly special on the right side, but the more I watched this line, the more I saw Grubbs as the point man. When the Ravens need a power blast, even in a six-man overload, the call is for Grubbs to make that pull and bowl through any defenders. He is as strong at the point as any guard I've seen this year, but he doesn't sacrifice the ability to move quickly in short areas in pass protection. The Raiders' front line has more power in some ways than New England's right now. Grubbs and his line were up to that challenge, and I'm looking forward to how it goes this weekend.
So, the first thing we should do before we discuss Julian Edelman, the former Kent State quarterback taken in the seventh round of this year's draft by the Patriots, is to dispense with the notion that he's a Wes Welker clone. Yeah ... short, white, slot receiver, blah blah blah. But when Welker went down with a season-ending knee injury early in the first quarter against the Texans, New England didn't have to trot out the "In Case of No Welker, Break Glass" case -- Edelman was outside the bunch formation on the play that took Welker out of the game. This is not a speed-impaired dink-route guy with no other options. He wasn't invited to the Combine, but the 3.91 20-yard shuttle he ran at his Pro Day would have beaten every receiver time in Indianapolis.
Edelman got the quick throw from Brady on the first play of the Patriots' second drive, which started at the New England 40-yard line with 4:51 left in the first quarter. Edelman motioned inside right to trips against Houston's base 4-3. As Sam Aiken ran a 15-yard up-and-in to stretch the seam, Edelman came back on a three-yard stick route and was tackled immediately by the ubiquitous Mr. Bernard Pollard.
While he doesn't have Welker's ability to wriggle out of press coverage and he's obviously not on the same page with Brady to anywhere near the same degree, Edelman does have an intriguing measure of fluid speed, and the Texans got a look at that with 1:43 left in the first quarter. Edelman was in the left slot, bracketed at the line by end Connor Barwin and cornerback Glover Quin. But at the snap, Barwin headed inside to rush, and Edelman did a great job of losing Quin. He hit one step to the left -- a deep, over-emphasized dig step -- and dashed to the right more quickly than Quin could recover. That got him free for the crossing pattern from right to left, and he simply outran Quin on the cross. He then headed past the right hashmark, stutter-stepped Pollard into oblivion, eluded the "tackle attempt" of safety Brian Russell (yes, that Brian Russell) and turned back inside before Dunta Robinson finally brought him down after a 25-yard gain.
|Figure 1: Edelman Dig Bunch|
This is where I stopped caring whether his shuttle time was enhanced by a favorable field. Welker has outstanding functional agility in space after those quick receptions, but Edelman has another gear when he starts heading downfield. This speed may make up for the lack of complexity in the routes and timing he and Brady are able to use in exploiting any coverage weaknesses.
With or without Brady in the game, the Pats used a lot of bunch stuff to get coverage confusion going from the snap (Fig. 1). On Brian Hoyer's first completion to Edelman, New England had a bunch right, and then sent running back Fred Taylor in motion outside right from the backfield. The four right-side receivers started off on straight routes, and three of them kept going, which cleared out the under coverage on that side. At five yards, Edelman broke off from the middle with a dig route. This was a good example of how the Patriots use formation diversity to blow coverages just as they begin.
In 2008, the Miami Dolphins used the Wildcat to override specific passing game concerns and bring creativity to an outstanding running game. The only team consistently capable of stopping all that alleged gimmickry was the Baltimore Ravens, led by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. When Ryan became the head coach of the New York Jets, he went forward with a passing game under construction, a dynamic running game, and the kind of option weapon in receiver Brad Smith that would bring different looks to that ground attack.
The Jets used Smith on basic quarterback keeps and counter options, but the concept I really liked was their use of the Pistol formation. We've seen the Pistol from the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Dolphins, and it's a great way to bring read-option and passing threats against defenses primed to stop straight power running.
|Figure 2: Brad Smith Pistol|
The Bengals have a good downhill run defense, but offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer found different ways to use Cincinnati's aggressiveness to his team's advantage. The play that stood out to me came with 2:36 left in the first quarter, with the Jets at the Cincinnati 20-yard line on third-and-5 (Fig. 2). New York lined up in the Pistol, with Smith at quarterback four yards behind center. Halfback Shonn Greene was three yards behind Smith, and Tony Richardson motioned left-to-right as the H-back. The Bengals brought safety Tom Nelson to the line and went with a fairly vanilla Cover-1 -- the corners playing slightly off and a safety up top. This coverage told me that the Bengals had a pretty good idea what was coming, though defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer accounted for the counter by shading his linebackers slightly the other way. The Jets' timing, motion, and blocking, however, defeated any schematic advantage.
At the snap, Smith and Greene headed right as the Jets' line slid protection the same way. Left end Frostee Rucker came through as he read end, and as he pursued Smith, Smith pitched the ball to Greene. Nelson was held up by Richardson's block, which allowed Greene to hit the edge and get around for a gain of seven yards before Keith Rivers brought him down. When the Jets and Bengals face off again this weekend, I wouldn't be surprised to see that Pistol again. The questions are: Will the Bengals overpursue those read plays, and will the Jets throw other options at them?
26 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2010, 2:08pm by PatsFan