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06 Oct 2005

Every Play Counts: Alex Barron -- A Star is Born

by Michael David Smith

Wow.

Alex Barron, the St. Louis Rams' first-round pick, made his first career start at right tackle in Sunday's game against the Giants. That meant the rookie matched up on nearly every play with a future Hall of Famer, Giants left defensive end Michael Strahan. I couldn't wait to watch this tape.

After watching every play of the game, focusing completely on Barron, I came away amazed. He put together a truly incredible game. It was a thing of beauty.

It got off to a bit of a slow start, as the first series, a three-and-out, wasn't great for Barron. On the very first play of the game he looked confused and didn't block anyone, but Steven Jackson ran to the left and it didn't really matter. On the second play Jackson ran to the right, and Barron overpowered Strahan, pushing him into the middle of the line. Marc Bulger had plenty of time to pass on the third play, but Barron got tight end help on Strahan.

Seeing that, I expected that the Rams would give Barron tight end help all day, figuring that a rookie couldn't keep Strahan in check by himself. I was wrong. Barron didn't have a tight end's assistance on another play until midway through the second quarter. For the game as a whole he only had tight end assistance on seven of Bulger's 62 throws, even though Mike Martz loves using a tight end for maximum protection on deep passes.

When the second drive started, Barron looked like a man possessed. On the first play he faced Strahan one-on-one in pass protection, and Strahan didn't even cross the line of scrimmage. On the third play of the drive, Strahan stunted to the inside and tackle William Joseph looped around to the outside. Barron had the discipline not to follow Strahan inside and kept Joseph at bay on the outside. On the next play Strahan got a good first step, but Barron recovered quickly enough that Strahan couldn't get close. After only two series, it started to become clear that Barron would have an excellent day.

St. Louis selected Barron with the 19th pick in this year's draft, and when he held out until Aug. 11, Martz suggested that Barron might spend the whole season on the sidelines. Blane Saipaia started the season but struggled through September, so Martz made Barron the starter in his place. After the Giants game Martz moved Saipaia to tight end. It'll be a long, long time before anyone can take the starting job away from Barron.

It might be tempting to conclude that the good game played by Barron is a sign of the declining effectiveness of Strahan. But looking at the plays when the two didn't face each other indicates that Strahan, at age 33, still plays at a high level. For instance, on first-and-10 in the second quarter with the ball at the Giants' 19, the Rams handed off to Jackson, and Strahan nailed him for a loss of two yards. But on that play the Rams' blocking scheme called for Barron to block down on the defensive tackle, which he did just fine. It was tight end Jeff Robinson who missed the block on Strahan.

Later in the second quarter, Strahan sacked Bulger, and it again came on a play when Strahan wasn't Barron's responsibility. It was another stunt, with Strahan crashing the inside and finding a hole in the Rams' line that allowed him to drill Bulger for a nine-yard loss. Barron had no trouble blocking Joseph.

Many teams try to beat rookie tackles by confusing them, sending the defensive end one way and blitzing the other way. The Giants tried that, once with Strahan going to the inside and linebacker Barrett Green going to the outside, and once with Strahan outside and safety Gibril Wilson inside. On both plays, Barron correctly let Strahan go and picked up the blitzing player.

I only have a couple of quibbles with Barron's performance against the Giants. He had one false start, and on a nine-yard Bulger scramble in the third quarter, Barron blocked Strahan long enough for Bulger to get by, but he stopped blocking when he thought the play was past him. That was a bad move, as Strahan caught Bulger from behind. Most defensive ends aren't as fast as Strahan (and most quarterbacks aren't as slow as Bulger), so I don't see that type of mistake as too big a problem for an offensive tackle.

Perhaps Barron's best quality is the quickness of his feet. On plays when Strahan seemed to have the advantage at first, Barron recovered well enough to keep himself between Strahan and Bulger. Being an effective offensive lineman isn't all about pancakes; most of the time it's simply about getting into the right position and not giving ground. But Barron got a couple of pancakes as well, twice driving Strahan to the ground. When was the last time you saw a rookie do that?

One caveat: The Rams played an atypical game to some extent because they fell behind early, which resulted in their throwing 62 passes and running only 15 times. The book on Barron coming out of Florida State was that he was a better pass blocker than a run blocker, and that he used his long arms to keep defensive linemen away, rather than overpowering them. So this game showed his strengths more than his weaknesses.

But I didn't see much evidence that he struggled on running plays. In fact, my favorite play of the day was Steven Jackson's one yard touchdown run. On that play, Barron lined up in his usual position at right tackle, but Orlando Pace, usually the left tackle, lined up next to Barron on the right in an unbalanced line. Pace and Barron next to each other make a formidable pair, and they cleared the way for Jackson to run into the end zone behind them. I predict this formation will become a staple of the Rams in short-yardage situations, and I further predict that Martz has a trick up his sleeve that involves either a play fake to the right and a pass to the left, or a pass to Pace as an eligible receiver.

In seven or eight years, when Michael Strahan is inducted into the Hall of Fame, I feel confident saying the video montage won't show any images of Sunday's battle with Barron. It's too early to suggest that in 20 or so years Barron will join Strahan in Canton, but his career is certainly off to a wonderful start.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 06 Oct 2005

17 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2005, 4:30pm by Billy D

Comments

1
by charles (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 8:53am

"On that play, Barron lined up in his usual position at right tackle, but Orlando Pace, usually the left tackle, lined up next to Barron on the right in an unbalanced line."

Nice

2
by Bockman (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 10:07am

The above article should also take into context that Strahan has been battling back spasms the past two weeks that almost kept him out of both games.

3
by NYCowboy (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 11:14am

I love this column. Keep up the great work.

4
by MDS (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 11:26am

Bockman, I know Strahan has been hurting, but the thing is, he looked great on the plays when he wasn't blocked by Barron. As I mentioned, he had a sack and a tackle for loss, but neither of those plays came against Barron.

5
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 11:32am

"One caveat: The Rams played an atypical game to some extent because they fell behind early, which resulted in their throwing 62 passes and running only 15 times."

What? The only thing that looks atypical to me is the number of total plays, not the distribution.

Also, I don't know if you excluded it because of complaints, but I really liked the boxing style score system. I know this would be a clear win for Barron so maybe that was why you didn't do it?

6
by MRH (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 2:11pm

Re 5: this past week the Rams had the 3rd highest pass-to-run ratio (4.1) of any game they played from 2002 to the present.

Week 9, 2003 the Rams had a P2R ration of 5.3 (42/8). Week 1, 2003 it was 4.2 (55/13).

9 other times the P2R ratio was over 3.

The Rams pass more than they run, but it's rarely as lop-sided as this past week: 1990 pass attempts 2002-2005, 1219 rushes (1.6 ratio).

MDS- great article. Maybe Bulger will survive the year after all.

7
by James Gibson (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 6:19pm

On the play in the second quarter where Strahan sacked Bulger, he didn't just find a hole, he found Rams C Adam Timmerman and just pushed Timmerman all the way back until Strahan was able to get Bulger. Strahan looked really strong on that play, so I'd say Barron did a good job based on this analysis.

8
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 6:22pm

Wait, wait, wait.

There's not nearly enough bile in these comments! Don't you people realize this is Every Play Counts, the weekly feature where MDS writes an excellent analysis of one facet of a game, then people take offense at everything for some reason? Come on, where's the pulling stuff out of context, misunderstanding words like 'underrated', or insults thrown at MDS because he said something less than orgasmic about someone on your team? I mean, even the one complaint was handled well, without swearing or accusations of homerism. I guess I'm going to have to handle it this week. Here we go.

ur and idiot if u think barrons better then strahan. strahan is a hallof famer and barron is just a rookie and if barron dominated why did the giants win by so much huh moron. i bet u never even play what makes u think u no wot your talking about. u have no idea go back to reading ur nerd books stat boy do u even watch football.

There, that feels a lot better. So anyway, I absolutely love the unbalanced line, there's so much you can do with it. My favorite is to unbalance right, then throw to the TE on the left. It's almost always mis-called by the officials as an ineligible receiver, so you get the fun delay while the offense explains the concept of an unbalanced line to the officials. Good times.

9
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 7:47pm

MRH,

No doubt you're correct, so it begs the question of why Martz is ripped for being pass wacky. He's not in this article but based on passed criticisms you'd think 45 passes and 15 runs was normal for him. That's what I mean by the total number of plays seems atypical if you figure 60 plays as normal. But from what you say he's only done the 45 pass, 15 run deal 11 other times since 2002.

So where do the pass wacky accusations come from? Is it because of when he chooses to pass?

10
by MDS (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 8:47pm

I think one of the things Martz liked about Barron was that he's a good fit for the Martz offense. I think there are some similarities between the Bowden Florida State offense that Barron learned in college and the Martz scheme.

11
by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 8:56pm

MDS,

Nice piece (again). I haven't seen any of the game, so I'll take your word on specifics. If Barron is as good as advertised and develops as the Rams would hope, maybe Bulger isn't fated to turn into Kurt Warner 2002 edition next year. (this is Bulgers 3rd year as starting QB- Warner lasted 3 years).

Was Barron drafted to play RT permanently, or is the expectation that he will move to the left side when Pace is finished?

12
by max (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 9:17pm

#11 - Barron was drafted to play RT. But nothing is permanent. Depending on when Pace is done, Barron could move to LT. But that likely is a several years away.

I was at Giants Stadium on Sunday very close to the field. Barron is the real deal. He'll be in the Pro Bowl next year.

13
by Jim (not verified) :: Thu, 10/06/2005 - 11:16pm

great analysis...

14
by Sean (not verified) :: Fri, 10/07/2005 - 3:55am

Nice article, as always. Good thing the Texans passed up Barron to draft Travis Johnson.

15
by MDS (not verified) :: Fri, 10/07/2005 - 11:30am

I'm a big fan of the unbalanced line, too, Trogdor. My sophomore year in high school we ran a few plays out of an unbalanced formation, and the other team's defense wasn't shifting at all, so it was like it gave us an extra blocker on every play. Of course, my coach didn't seem to catch on that we were picking up eight yards a carry doing that, so we ran the play maybe four times.

16
by Sid (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 2:52pm

RE: 8

Good posting!

Nice work again, MDS.

17
by Billy D (not verified) :: Sat, 10/22/2005 - 4:30pm

Great column. Thanks for the analysis!