Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
31 Jan 2013
by J.J. Cooper
In 2013, it apparently takes the courage to change things up to make it to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers swapped quarterbacks at midseason, but it’s fair to argue that the Ravens actually made a more dramatic in-season overhaul. In addition to firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron during the season, the Ravens completely changed up the offensive line for the playoffs.
Baltimore showed a hint of what was coming during their rather meaningless Week 17 game against the Bengals. After starting the game with their regular starting five, the Ravens quickly swapped Michael Oher from left to right tackle, brought Bryant McKinnie into the game as the left tackle, and moved former right tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard.
It didn’t get off to a great start. Oher gave up one sack in Week 17 while playing left tackle, then gave up two more at right tackle. McKinnie also gave up a sack in that game. But in the playoffs, the offensive line has been excellent -- the Ravens have given up four sacks in three games. Only one of those can be blamed solely on the offensive line.
The move managed to put Baltimore's three most sack-prone offensive linemen into easier roles. Oher gave up eight sacks during the regular season, but he’s looked much more comfortable at right tackle during the playoffs, largely because he has fewer one-on-one matchups against elite speed rushers at right tackle. Five of the six sacks he allowed at left tackle during the regular season came when he was beaten around the edge by rushers. Lack of foot speed was Osemele’s problem at tackle as well -- five of the seven sacks he gave up during the regular season were on speed rushes. But he’s been able to handle the easier pass-protection responsibilities at guard in the playoffs. By moving Osemele inside, Bobbie Williams, who gave up five sacks at guard, is now a reserve. The other two Ravens starters, guard Marshal Yanda (zero sacks allowed in 2012) and center Matt Birk (three sacks allowed) have been steady performers.
McKinnie has gone from overweight disappointment to a respectable starting left tackle for a Super Bowl team -- pretty impressive when you consider he’s faced Dwight Freeney and Von Miller in the playoffs. McKinnie held Freeney sackless and Miller’s only half-sack came when he beat Oher. Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich did beat McKinnie for one sack in the AFC Championship game, but that’s the only significant blemish in a three-game streak that has seen McKinnie do a good job of giving Joe Flacco time to throw.
The 49ers will likely get a sack or two on Flacco--for all his strengths, he still has less than ideal pocket awareness--but the revamped Ravens front five now appear to be an asset after a regular season where they often seemed a step slow.
While McKinnie has regained his reputation as a pass protector with a strong playoff push, the man he will line up against, 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, has been notably silent.
Smith appeared to have a chance at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 when he reached 19.5 sacks with three regular season games left to play. He hasn’t picked up a sack since. His current five-game sackless streak is easily the longest of his career -- his previous longest drought was three games, at the very start his NFL career.
But in watching every snap of the playoffs for Smith, it’s clear that there’s no one simple reason for Smith’s sackless streak. Smith himself has said this week that he believes it’s because teams are double and triple-teaming him now. It is true that at times, he’s beaten his man only to find another lineman waiting for him. You could also point to the triceps injury that first sidelined and now limits defensive tackle Justin Smith. It’s also fair to wonder if a shoulder injury that has been bothering (Aldon) Smith has played a role.
All of those things are true, but it’s also worth noting that Smith played extremely well against the Falcons. While he didn’t pick up a sack, he did generate pressure. He also was not far away from a couple of sacks against the Packers in the divisional playoff round.
But it is also apparent that Smith’s shoulder injury has limited him. As has been mentioned in a previous Under Pressure, for an extremely prolific pass rusher, Smith’s arsenal of pass-rushing moves is extremely limited.
Smith’s best pass rushing move is a bull rush where he uses his long arms to lock out the offensive tackle and then drive him back into the quarterback. With a sore shoulder, Smith hasn't seemed to get as much pop and power as he did earlier in the season. Where Smith would at times lift offensive tackles completely off their feet earlier in the season, in the playoffs he more often tries to pop and then shed them, with mixed results
His other go-to move is a line twist with Justin Smith where Justin Smith loops outside and Aldon Smith loops inside. In the playoffs, teams have been very aware of the stunt, and guards (and even centers) have done a good job of being ready to pick him up when he loops inside. Be assured that the Ravens will be well-versed in handling the Smith and Smith stunt.
When the offseason begins, Smith should have two items on his to-do list. First he needs to get healthy. Then, once he’s recovered from his shoulder injury, he needs to work on adding to his pass-rush repertoire.
For all the sacks he’s piled up in his first two seasons, Smith has yet to develop the counter moves that would allow him to take advantage of offensive tackles who are overly worried about his bull rush. Freeney’s spin move is so dangerous in large part because tackles often overplay to the outside to try to counter Freeney’s speed rush -- the spin move is the perfect counter that takes advantage of that tendency.
Smith’s job would appear to be easier: he just has to develop a speed move to the outside. For most elite edge pass rushers, that’s as natural as breathing. But for Smith, a 6-foot-4, long-limbed outside linebacker, he has never looked nearly as comfortable trying to get around the edge. If he can show enough ability to turn the corner on offensive tackles, it will make his power move all the more dangerous.
Even with McKinnie’s massive size and long arms, a reasonably healthy Smith should still generate some pressure with his bull rush; the one sack McKinnie has allowed in the playoffs came on a bull rush. But without a speed move to use as a changeup, McKinnie can start most pass plays with the knowledge that he needs to be ready to absorb Smith’s power move.
Smith’s inability to develop a speed move also keeps him from being as much of a factor in the running game as he could be. Smith has enough speed to potentially cause problems for runs the other way or up the middle, but because his initial move generally involves engaging the offensive tackle, he’s very rarely a factor on runs away from him or up the middle. Less encouragingly, there are running plays where he appears to take the play off if it’s a hand-off headed in the other direction.
But there is one other wrinkle we can expect to see in the Super Bowl: against the Falcons, the 49ers had some success moving Smith around. He was flipped over to left outside linebacker so that the 49ers could run an overload blitz from their right -- the idea being that San Francisco would send a couple of defensive backs from the other side and Smith generates enough pass rush to keep a team from thinking of slanting the protection the other way. Smith has shown that despite his almost-slender frame, his quick first step and power plays well as a surprise defensive tackle. He picked up a sack in the regular season at defensive tackle, and he generated some pressure against the Falcons while lining up at defensive tackle on three straight snaps late in the first half.
There haven’t been a lot of extremely quick sacks in the playoffs, only two sacks dove below the two-second line. The fastest came when Jonathan Babineaux blew by Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy to sack Russell Wilson only 1.7 seconds after the snap on the play that ended the first half. The other sub-two second sack came when Ravens end Paul Kruger beat Colts tackle Bradley Sowell with a speed move for a 1.8-second sack.
Wilson pulled off a pretty good impersonation of Fran Tarkenton on a first-and-10 snap against the Falcons. Wilson ran around for a full 9.3 seconds before Vance Walker ran him down for an eight-yard loss.
How rare is a 9.3-second sack? It’s the third-longest time of sack recorded in nearly 4,500 sacks logged since 2009. There wasn’t a longer sack during the entire 2012 regular season, and of the two longer sacks, one was a lateral reverse pass attempt by Bills wide receiver Brad Smith that fell apart. Smith, naturally, ran. Even with all that going on, it was only one second longer at 10.3. The longest sack since 2009? A 12-second beauty by Josh Johnson in 2009.