Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
11 Nov 2011
by J.J. Cooper
Besides wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals haven’t had much consistency on offense. They’ve gone from Kurt Warner to John Skelton and Max Hall to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, and they’ve tried a multitude of running backs as well.
But whoever is lined up under center, the Cardinals quarterback can count on one thing: that he’s going to have to worry about tackle Levi Brown’s pass protection. Since starting this sack project in 2009, Brown has consistently ranked among the worst in football in sacks allowed. By my count (which may be slightly different from the count of the FO game charting project) he gave up 7.5 sacks as the team’s right tackle in 2009. Left tackle Mike Gandy wasn’t much better, so it wasn’t that shocking that the Cardinals let Gandy leave. What was stunning was Arizona’s decision to move Brown, who had struggled at right tackle, to left tackle to replace Gandy.
Brown gave up 10 sacks in 2010. He’s on pace to blow those numbers away this year with 8.5 sacks allowed in only eight games. Brown’s problems all seem to stem from his slow feet. Brown has been beaten to the edge by speed rushes on five of his 8.5 sacks allowed. Another sack came when Brown overplayed to the outside, allowing a wide open lane for Charles Johnson to cut back inside.
A word of caution with all of these numbers: as Ben Muth has pointed out in Word of Muth, assigning blame along the offensive line is sometimes easy, often hard and sometimes impossible. All of this is done to the best that can be determined, and when there is a significant question of who was responsible for the sack, or if it does not appear to be a sack that was the responsibility of a blocker, it’s listed as a quarterback/play call sack.
There is one other left tackle that shares Brown’s shaky protection crown. Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold was a revelation last year as a rookie. He quickly moved 2009 first-rounder Jason Smith to right tackle, even though Smith was a top-10 pick, because he showed he had better pass blocking skills. It’s all fallen apart for Saffold this year, though. By my count, he gave up only two sacks last year, but he’s tied for the league lead this year. Saffold’s problems, in many ways, appear to be assignment-related more than any physical problems. On 3.5 of his 8.5 sacks, Saffold struggled to hand off or pick up a looping or stunting pass rusher.
The collapse of the Rams’ line overall is puzzling. They played well last year, and Steve Loney is back for his fourth consecutive year as the team’s offensive line coach. The Rams have benched Smith and center Jason Brown at different times this year as they try to fix a team that is 26th in the league in sack rate and 25th in adjusted line yards.
At this point, any Cardinals fan who pays any attention is probably aware of Brown's noticeable limitations. In Detroit, it may be noticed a little less that left tackle Jeff Backus is having significant problems in pass protection as well. Unlike Brown and his feet of stone, Backus appears to have trouble with technique. On two of his sacks he gave an initial punch but lost the hand battle and failed to lock up his man. On another sack he was caught leaning forward with his head down while trying to block Jared Allen, with results that you would expect. On two more, he was simply bulled right back into the quarterback.
Here are the other blockers who have been charged with four or more sacks this season.
|Sacks Allowed, 2011|
On to the notable sacks of the week.
Matt Cassel was on the run a lot on Sunday. The Dolphins took a page out of the Saints playbook and sent scores of six- and seven-man blitzes to keep Cassel from ever getting comfortable in the pocket.
Cassel did show some mobility. He scrambled nine times for 38 yards. But there were a pair of scrambles where he simply ran out of space. On the longest sack of the week, Cassel was hit by Cameron Wake at 3.5 seconds from the snap, after Wake had beaten right tackle Barry Richardson, but he managed to get free. He bought some more time, but failed to get rid of the ball before Jared Odrick ran him down 7.0 seconds after the snap. Cassel also endured the second-longest sack of the week as he took off to run but didn’t get past the line of scrimmage on a sack that took 6.5 seconds.
If not for Ronde Barber’s amazing sack two weeks ago, fill-in guard Joe Hawley would have a unwanted crown. Hawley let the Colts’ Philip Wheeler fly right by him for the second-fastest sack of the season. Wheeler pulled down Matt Ryan only 1.4 seconds after the snap.
Cassel’s rough day didn’t just produce long sacks. Tyrone Culver shot through unblocked to sack him in just 1.6 seconds as the Dolphins sent seven men while the Chiefs kept only six in to block. That was one of three sacks this week where the Dolphins rushed seven. Before this week, Miami had picked up only one sack all season on a seven-man rush.
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