Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
20 Oct 2004
by Michael David Smith
Joe Gibbs won Super Bowls with three different starting quarterbacks and three different leading rushers, but that doesn't mean the pieces of his offense were interchangeable.
All three of Gibbs' Super Bowl winners had the services of tackle Joe Jacoby, guard Russ Grimm, and center Jeff Bostic, and from 1981 to 1989 his offensive lines were coached by Joe Bugel, who's back in Washington this year. It was those offensive linemen, known as the Hogs, who drove the Redskins' offense to three titles. So maybe during this off-season, as football fans celebrated the return of Gibbs, we should have paid a little less attention to the arrivals of Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis in Washington, and a little more attention to the offensive line.
On Sunday I paid a great deal of attention to that line. I taped the Redskins' victory over the Bears and wore out my rewind button examining what role the offensive line had in the great performance turned in by Clinton Portis, who had 36 carries for 171 yards in his best game as a Redskin. And I found that, at least for this one game, this looked like a worthy successor to the Hogs of old. Just as they did in the '80s and '90s, the Redskins ran the counter trey to perfection, with pulling linemen clearing the way for Portis slashing through the Bears' front seven. If you want to know more about the counter trey, Leonard Shapiro's Washington Post article is probably the best place for further reading.
As I did two weeks ago with the Chiefs' front seven, I graded each player on the Redskins' offensive line simply by noting how many good plays and how many bad plays he had. The Redskins ran 72 offensive plays.
|Player||Position||Good plays||Bad plays|
Samuels often looks too slow to get out of his stance, which is why he led the team in bad plays. When he does get into position, though, he's a powerful blocker, and at times he absolutely dominated. However, I'd have to say that all things considered, Samuels lost his individual matchup with Alex Brown, who on one play overpowered Samuels and tipped a pass that Bears defensive back Jerry Azumah returned for a touchdown. (Alex Brown had a great game, and on one play he perfectly revealed the biggest flaw with the counter trey: when it doesn't develop quickly enough, a speedy backside defensive end can pull down the running back from behind. On another play Brown fought through a Samuels/Dockery double team and got to Mark Brunell.)
I think the Redskins got a great pick when they took Dockery in the third round last year. He's the best on the line at pulling in the counter trey. The one fault I have with Dockery is that sometimes even though he's quick when pulling, sometimes he gets into position and then fails to block anyone. Once on the counter trey Brian Urlacher went right past him and made the tackle.
Raymer is good in pass protection, and because of that Brunell had very little pressure up the middle throughout the game. However, Brunell was (as Butch Davis would say) skittish when he dropped back to pass. On some plays he'd scramble when he didn't need to; on others he would throw the ball away when he still had time to find an open receiver.
Thomas, one of the highest-paid guards in the league, is a good run-blocker at the point of attack, but he doesn't seem to work as well as Dockery with all the pulls and traps Joe Bugel's scheme requires. Thomas is a good player, but I think he was a better fit in the Steve Spurrier offense. (And I can't believe I just suggested that any lineman is a good fit in Steve Spurrier's offense.)
Brown is the Redskins' starting right tackle, and that's the most important position on the line for a lefthanded quarterback. I suggested last week that Samuels ought to be the starting right tackle to protect Brunell's blind side, but I no longer feel that way. Brown doesn't dominate defensive ends the way Samuels can, but Brown has fewer bad plays than Samuels, and when you're looking for someone to protect your quarterback's blind side, it's the bad plays you want to avoid. Brown, incidentally, has had one of the most incredible careers of any player in NFL history. He was a role player in 1986, crossed his teammates' picket line in 1987, and started only one game in four seasons from 1988 to 1991. But since 1992, Brown, who is now in his 19th season, has played in 197 games, missing only one in that span. He'll turn 42 this season, and I see no reason that he can't keep playing.
I've watched the Redskins quite a bit this season, and after Sunday's game there's no doubt in my mind that the offensive line is improving. Joe Bugel is getting them to play his brand of football, and Clinton Portis looks like a faster version of John Riggins running behind them. Now if only Mark Brunell would start playing more like Joe Theismann and less like Stan Humphries.