The Seahawks' ability to cover New England's once-in-a-generation tight end will go a long way in determining who wins Super Bowl XLIX.
06 Oct 2005
by Michael David Smith
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.
17 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2005, 4:30pm by Billy D