Resident offensive line expert Ben Muth previews the three teams on which he'll be focusing this season: Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland.
29 Nov 2009
compiled by Bill Barnwell
At some point during each season, we ask our Game Charters to update us on what they're seeing from the teams they're responsible for. We're happy to provide their thoughts below.
Most of the comments were written about Weeks 1-10, so they may be slightly out of date. The charter is listed with the team he charted most in parentheses.
I think what I've noticed the most about Flacco is how much his receivers are holding him back. Flacco statistically is a top-13 quarterback and is on pace for 3,900 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, and is doing it with no receiver on pace for 1,000 yards or 8 touchdowns. That's just the straight statistics behind it, I don't know what the DVOA says.
But more than that, simply watching the games -- and I've watched every play of all of them, four of them more than once -- shows how badly his receivers are playing. Many Ravens fans complain about how little we throw the ball down-field. Even Jaws chimed in on Monday Night Football this past week, saying we needed to stretch the field more. The problem is, Ravens receivers simply aren't capable of doing so:
There are several plays where Flacco drops back and looks for a man to come open down field, and one simply never does. Flacco then winds up dumping it underneath to Heap or Rice (often Rice, who's been a spectacular receiver out of the backfield), or being chased around prior to getting rid of the ball. I rarely ever mark "coverage sack" as Flacco isn't sacked all that often because of coverage. Many times the play breaks and he dodges rushers and makes something happen or throws the ball away. Most of his sacks seem to be on straight blown blocks.
I feel fairly confident that Flacco's development into a top flight quarterback is being hindered by Baltimore's lack of a viable receiving threat, and it's more likely to get worse before it gets better. Kelley Washington is the only receiver on the team (I guess Tyree, but really, he's not more than a special teams player) that's under contract in 2010. Mason's age will limit his productivity, but he could still be an effective No. 2. Clayton is essentially worthless as a starter. Demetrius can't make the field anyway. It's unlikely all three will be re-signed. If a new CBA isn't reached, the free agent market will be very thin. This leaves the draft, and first round receivers are hit and miss (the Ravens have experience with this with Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton) and besides that, the Ravens have some other significant needs that also must be addressed.
The situation reminds me a bit of Tom Brady -- not that I think Flacco is or could be that good, mind you -- but I do wonder what he could look like if he had a receiver that was a viable threat, particularly a deep threat. Pair him with a Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald ... As a Ravens fan, it's simultaneously fun to think about, and terribly depressing to realize how unlikely it is to happen any time soon.
What makes him so special seems to be how he simply runs through tackles. Not just his ability to be elusive and/or break tackles per se, but the fact that, at 5'8" and 205, he is pretty much always moving or falling forward. I think many people underestimate how much of a difference it makes to have a guy that will almost always pick up an extra yard or two (if not more) whenever he's hit. The Kansas City-Jacksonville game highlighted the difference between Jones-Drew and a guy like Jamaal Charles. Jones-Drew was consistently moving defenders backward and falling forward, even in pile-ups in the middle of the field. His rushing touchdown in the second half was the perfect example of this. Yeah, he was helped by an offensive lineman pushing him from behind, but he was wrapped up by two defenders and still powered forward before breaking free into the end zone. Compare this with Charles, who, when hit, went down immediately without moving forward an inch after that contact.
Jones-Drew really looks like a special player. I'm not sure there's anything he doesn't do well. He runs with speed. With power. With elusiveness. He blocks well. He catches well out of the backfield. He's such a great weapon ... every team should want a guy like him on the team.
Until last week (against Dallas) the Packers have made very few effective in-game adjustments, which becomes painfully obvious when charting the games.
A number of Packers have played well this year (Rodgers, Sitton, Matthews, Pickett, etc.) but Charles Woodson has been exceptional. The defense seems to feed off of Woodson's play. For the Packers' offense to be successful they need to settle on an offensive line. In nine games in 2009 the Packers have used at least 6 different combinations on the offensive line.
It seems so cliche to say but if the Packers could get some consistent offensive line play and some some consistent pass rush on the defensive side of the ball they might be able to live up to the lofty expectations people set for them after the preseason.
As I charted the Lions through the first half of the season, two things became apparent to me. First was that Jim Schwartz has definitely made a difference in Detroit: When the team is healthy, they are competitive more often than not, even if they simply aren't good enough to beat most teams. Second is the size of the task facing Schwartz: When the Lions are not healthy, they are nowhere near competitive, and not just when big offensive players like Stafford and Johnson are out. On an average NFL team, the loss of a starting linebacker or defensive lineman may or may not have a noticeable impact, usually because the average team carries enough NFL-caliber players to rotate defenders in and out. Unfortunately, the Lions are so talent-thin that they do not have many NFL-caliber players on their bench. The defense is weak enough with the starters on the field, but when you replace a lineman or a defensive back with someone below replacement level, the entire defense suffers; replace a few starters and the defense looks like it did last year, with several players running around having no idea which man or zone to cover.
I think this also highlights one of the challenges we face in attempting to evaluate individual players in football. It's hard enough to determine, for example, whether a particular zone on the field is one that Larry Foote was supposed to cover when we don't know what defense was called. When substitutes are on the field for one reason or another it seems (with what we know at this point) nearly impossible to quantify the effect they have on the players around them. Did Foote fail to cover the zone because the backups around him didn't realize it was zone coverage, so Foote began to question the call himself? Did one or two players miss their assignments, causing Foote to shade toward their areas? Did he simply miss his assignment? Was it simply perfect execution by the offense?
Yes, this is the sort of thing you think about when you're charting a team like Detroit or Cleveland or Kansas City or Oakland or Washington or Tampa Bay ...
Well you can say one thing about Eli Manning -- the money didn't change him. For better or worse, Eli is basically the same polarizing quarterback he's always been. The much talked-about $100 million contract extension hasn't affected his play at all. His accuracy still runs hot and cold, he's still good in the two-minute drill and he still takes too long at the line of scrimmage at times. Charting Eli this year, I am surprised and impressed by his ability to manage the pocket. He is oddly elusive in the pocket. Untouched rushers flat out miss Eli more often than you would think they should and he often manages to find an outlet or throws the ball away. Besides that, I see the same Eli I saw last year. He will probably play three outstanding games, three poor games and the other ten will be somewhere in between.
Mario Manningham is the most talented and frustrating player of the Giants' wide receiver corps. He rarely catches any pass clean and his routes are sloppy, but he gets legitimate separation both down the field and on quick, underneath routes. If he polishes up his game he could be the No. 1 guy for a long time. Steve Smith has good numbers, but he is probably better as a complimentary receiver. He is much more effective in the slot than on the perimeter. That said, he is the exact opposite of Manningham; Smith runs very crisp routes and catches with his hands extended from his body. He is the extremely reliable type of wideout all quarterbacks need. Rookie Hakeem Nicks has developed quickly and should be a starting wide receiver for a long time. Nicks is not a burner but has enough quickness to get open on short and intermediate routes. He has good hands and probably the best yards-after-catch skills of the entire group. I'm disappointed in Domenik Hixon. While I didn't think he would be a go to guy, I thought he had a chance to be good complementary deep threat. Hixon is fast but he doesn't shield defenders away from the ball or have good enough hands to be a consistent threat.
The biggest difference between the Burress/Toomer/Smith group and this year's group of receivers is that this group is much more dangerous after the catch. This year with Manningham and Nicks, wide receiver screens and hitch routes are legitimate weapons.
Giants fans -- myself included -- had visions of a relentless eight-man defensive line that both stops the run and harasses the quarterback. Umm ... not quite. The Giants defensive line has been a major disappointment. Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield and Rocky Bernard have been invisible all season. There has been little inside pass rush this year and the defensive tackles have gotten pushed around in the running game. Justin Tuck has played well and draws double teams. Osi Umenyiora has not played well. Right now, he is strictly an outside speed rusher. Teams constantly attack him in the run game and he often loses. He gives up inside lanes in against draws, gives up the edge on off tackle plays and has been manhandled at the point of attack. Mathias Kiwanuka has played pretty well in the pass rush packages, getting quick pressure off the edge.
JaMarcus Russell: Often seen overthrowing receivers by ten feet. The Raiders have done many things for Russell to succeed: three step drops, max protect, shotguns, a solid running game. Despite all this, he continues to struggle with accuracy, often times unhurried. The only thing I would try would be the hurry-up offense, because the few good drives I have seen from him seem to come at the end of halves, where he has to keep the tempo up.
Believe it or not, there was someone who played worse than Mr. Russell on offense, and his name is Chris Morris. While subbing for Samson Satele at center in the first three weeks, I nearly JaMarcussed my pants charting all his blown blocks and inability to handle a simple stunt. Either he's getting bowled over on passes, or whiffing linebackers on runs. While he has returned to his natural position as a guard, every once in a while I'll see him diving around in on my TV, only to fall to the ground while his man wraps up the running back.
Andre Goodman (cornerback, Broncos): Great speed and instincts. I once saw him single-handedly break up a wide receiver screen, even though he started seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He darted once he saw the tight end pulling, made him miss and wrapped up the receiver for a loss.
Jamaal Jackson (center, Eagles): What's up with his pre-snap-head-snap? Pretty much only happens on pass plays. Right before the snap, he snaps his head usually to the right then back. Is he doing a line check? I've never seen him make an audible between snapping his head and snapping the ball. More importantly, can't defenses take advantage of this tell, and time their rushes?
Vincent Jackson (wide receiver, Chargers): A scary receiver who gave Asomugha fits. Look out for him in the slot: He seems really comfortable with those routes and that's where a lot of the big plays come from.
There has been a lot of talk this year about the deficiencies in the offensive line. This is most certainly true regarding the line's run blocking ability. The line has a lot of trouble taking on the down linemen, usually requiring one or two double teams (involving tight end Vernon Davis as well) to block the front four. This allows the opposing linebackers to plug any potential holes for Frank Gore or Glen Coffee.
Early in the season, Arizona, Seattle, and Minnesota frequently had eight defenders in the box against San Francisco on running or neutral downs. This led to a lot of stuffs in the running game, but Shaun Hill was able to make some plays in the passing game to beat Arizona and Seattle and to stay competitive with Minnesota. Frank Gore broke two long runs against Seattle due to bad angles and tackling by the Seattle defense.
Surprisingly the Rams, of all teams, used their front seven to contain San Francisco's running game. This plan was very successful, allowing few running lanes and often stuffing Glen Coffee, who replaced the injured Frank Gore. The extra safety deep in coverage also hampered the 49ers' passing game. Every opponent since then -- Atlanta, Houston, and Indianapolis -- has used their front seven to successfully contain the 49ers' running game, with the exception of a long Frank Gore touchdown against Indianapolis. Chilo Rachal in particular seems to have trouble run and pass blocking.
The offensive line has been better at pass protection than run blocking, but is still below average. When Shaun Hill was the starting quarterback, a lot of the sacks were his fault because he was likely to take the sack over trying to make a play under pressure or risk a fumble while throwing the ball away. Alex Smith is more likely to force a ball or escape the pressure with his mobility. Matt Maiocco has numbers to back this up: Hill was sacked on 11.6 percent of pass attempts while Smith was sacked on 8.2 percent of pass attempts.
Later in the season, against Atlanta and Houston, Hill seemed to panic a bit under pressure, going to his hot route immediately before waiting to see whether the pressure is a zone blitz or whether it has been handled by the offensive line. Of course, this just caused the defense to bring more pressure to limit the 49ers passing game.
Vernon Davis has dramatically improved his pass catching this year, but he still makes a few dumb mistakes each game. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but Davis seems to have a lot of problems with false starts. He also lacks awareness at times, such as against the Colts when he failed to get his second foot down inbounds, instead taking a giant second step out of bounds. He easily had room to get a second or maybe third step down inbounds.
The 49ers' front seven has played much better this year compared to last year. Aubrayo Franklin is having a standout year at nose tackle occupying the middle of the offensive line and allowing the edge rushers and pressure up the middle to harass the quarterback on passing plays. Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson play sam and will respectively and alternate as the fourth pass rusher under normal pressure situations. In particular, this caused problems for the Colts as they frequently had Joseph Addai stay in and block on passing plays since the offensive line was not able to account for the fourth rusher. Haralson also had a field day against Levi Brown of the Cardinals, forcing Kurt Warner to check down early or take a sack. I counted five blown blocks by Brown in the first half of the Week 1 matchup. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals account for the 49ers edge rushers in the rematch.
Justin Smith is also playing at a high level this year. I believe he has gained weight to play at an end position in the 49ers 3-4 scheme and has improved his play as a result. In one series against the Houston Texans, Smith easily shed his block to cause a tackle for a loss on first down, knocked down a pass on second down, and on third down again shed a block from the left tackle to pressure Matt Schaub into throwing the ball away.
The secondary looks better in coverage this year. I think a lot of that has to do with the increased pressure from the front seven. Shawntae Spencer has played well in his first season as a starter, and Tarell Brown appears to be adjusting to the NFL in his third season as a pro.
The most common story put out there about Chicago this year is true: the offensive line is awful. It's really the biggest problem; Forte is often dodging defenders behind the line, and Cutler doesn't get a lot of time. (Former) left guard Frank Omiyale and left tackle Orlando Pace have been the ones most criticized by fans and the media, but no one has looked particularly good. Center Olin Kreutz has really slipped off his former Pro Bowl standard, and second year right tackle Chris Williams has had problems too. Right guard Roberto Garza has stood out the least, which in this case makes him look like the best.
Defensively, this team looks a lot different without Tommie Harris. You don't see Harris himself making many plays, which indicates that he's drawing a lot of attention from opposing offenses. I don't know if it's warranted, but every team seems to do it.
Also, you can't ignore the effect that losing Urlacher had on this defense. He may not be at his prime anymore, but he's the only guy on the team with the skills to play the position and the knowledge of the defense to make the calls necessary of the middle linebacker. When Nick Roach has been in there, he looks confused and the defense is often not set up right. Hunter Hillenmeyer is better at making the calls but can't make the plays deep and sideline to sideline that Urlacher can.
The only other team I've charted more than once (so far) is Minnesota, and I saw them play St. Louis and Detroit. I can assure you that they are much better than those teams. I will say, however, that it is not surprising that those teams avoided the 0-fer; despite their overall inability, they have shown fight and some ability. The difference from last year is marked, even if the records aren't.
Chris Spencer has pretty much proven that he's not a starting-caliber NFL center. He's a detriment as a run blocker on almost every play. The bad news is that Max Unger, drafted to be Spencer's replacement, has started every game at guard and has looked even worse. The pinnacle of this duo was a play against Dallas when Unger and Spencer tried to double-team Jay Ratliff. Ratliff not only pushed the pair into the backfield, he actually put Spencer on his back. Spencer has also been fragile, missing three games so far. His backup, Steven Vallos, has been even worse; the 49ers had no trouble pushing him into the backfield.
The Seahawks have also had a lot of trouble picking up blitzers on both runs and passes. That's partly on Spencer for never learning to make line calls, and partly due to the injuries along the line, especially the revolving door at left tackle.
Speaking of guys who have proven they do not belong in the NFL, it's time to end the experiment with Seneca Wallace. He still has no pocket presence, scrambling when there's no pressure and repeatedly running out of bounds for losses when he has ample opportunity to throw the ball away. We'll never know if he could have been a great receiver, but we know for sure he's a lousy quarterback.
On the defensive line, Cory Redding has made more plays than you'll find in his stat line. On more than one occasion, he has gotten penetration to ruin a running play, only to chase the runner into the arms of his teammates, who get credit for the tackle.
Aaron Curry has made plenty of mistakes over-running plays and giving up gap control (see note on this later), but has also made plenty of great plays. For one example, he recognized a wide receiver screen against Arizona and zipped out to the sideline to tackle Larry Fitzgerald.
Seattle fans were ecstatic when Brian Russell was released, but his replacement, Jordan Babineaux, has been horrible. He takes horrible angles on both runs and passes and misses plenty of tackles. Remember when Frank Gore scored 80- and 79-yard touchdowns in Week 2? About 120 of those yards can be placed directly on Babineaux. I can't even say he missed tackles on the plays -- his closing angles were so poor, I don't think he even touched Gore. I'm sure he'll end up with more positive plays than Russell by the time the season is over, but he has made some terrible mistakes.
And if you read Audibles regularly, you know the woes the Seattle corners have had week in and week out. So in short, all the Seahawks need to get back to the playoffs is a free safety, two corners, three good offensive linemen, a starting quarterback who can stay healthy, and a backup quarterback who knows what the hell he's doing.
With regards to their opponents:
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