Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Oct 2013
by J.J. Cooper
It’s not often that a starting left tackle traded, but this past week we’ve seen two of them dealt in two days. The Jaguars, already in the lead in the drive for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, doubled down by trading left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Ravens. After the deal, Jacksonville is the clear favorite to be choosing between Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater at 1-1. Monroe is expected to replace Bryant McKinnie in the starting lineup for Baltimore.
Just a day later, the Cardinals traded away their left tackle Levi Brown, sending him to the Steelers as Pittsburgh tries try to slap a band-aid on the sucking chest wound that has been their offensive line.
For the Ravens, Monroe looks a lot like Bryant McKinnie looked earlier in his career. Monroe is a somewhat skinny (by offensive tackle standards), long-armed left tackle. McKinnie used to be a somewhat skinny (believe it or not), but extremely long-armed left tackle. At this point, no one would call McKinnie skinny. He’s failed every week to meet the weight clause bonus the Ravens inserted into his contract, and he’s generally playing 10-to-15 pounds over the Ravens’ desired weight for him.
That being said, after re-watching every snap of McKinnie’s game against the Bills last week, it’s worth noting that benching McKinnie seems to be more about McKinnie’s off-field demeanor and his struggles in run blocking than any need to shore up Baltimore’s pass protection.
In pass protection, McKinnie is an old pro. He doesn’t have the quickest feet at this point, but he’s big enough that he swallows up bull rushers like a bean bag chair. And when speed rushers try to beat him around the edge, he generally has a good enough kick step and long enough arms to keep Joe Flacco’s safe. McKinnie will give up some ground, but with few exceptions he either is able to anchor or to use the defensive end’s momentum to shove a speed rush behind the pocket.
On a pure sacks allowed basis, there isn’t a whole lot of difference this year between Monroe (two sacks allowed in 260 snaps) and McKinnie (2.5 sacks allowed in 298 snaps). But McKinnie’s old age and extra weight does make him a significant liability in run blocking, which is where Monroe will be an upgrade. McKinnie simply doesn’t get push at this point in his long career. It’s hard to find examples of plays where he fires off the snap and actually drives his man backward. In pass protection, McKinnie’s height and length is an advantage. In run blocking, his inability to get low is a significantly liability. McKinnie generally stands upright when run blocking, rarely doing more than locking up a defender with his long arms. He does not always block to the whistle. If he ends up with no one to block, he’s more likely to enjoy his unexpected siesta than to look to help someone else out.
McKinnie gave up 10 sacks in 2009, 4.5 sacks in 2010, 6 in 2011, and 1 in very limited regular season playing time in 2012. You could argue that 10.5 of those 21.5 sacks were not really his fault, as they occurred on plays where the quarterback held the ball for more than three seconds.
That’s not a problem for Monroe. Even playing on a Jaguars team that could sap the life out of anyone, Monroe plays to the whistle play after play. But like McKinnie, he does often give some ground before anchoring or applying a well-timed push to shove a speed rusher past the pocket. It’s in the running game that Baltimore will see a bigger improvement, as Monroe can still get push with his legs and leverage. Baltimore is ranked sixth in the league in runs outside on the left side, but they are 26th in the league in runs at left tackle. Monroe should be able to improve that.
Monroe gave up only four sacks in an excellent 2012 campaign. He gave up 8.5 sacks in 2009, 8 sacks in 2010 and 8.5 sacks in 2011 -- although those numbers were often hurt by poor quarterback play. A whopping 13 of those sacks came on plays where Jacksonville quarterbacks held the ball for more than three seconds. Flacco has been known to hold the ball a while as well, but he still gets rid of it quicker than Blaine Gabbert. (Also, when Flacco throws it, it’s much more likely to be thrown in the general area of the receiver.)
He will give a more consistent push, he’ll block to the whistle, and he'll be a slight upgrade in pass protection. But it’s worth noting that the Ravens were already 12th in the league in pass protection, and many of their problems have come from elsewhere on the line. Backup Rick Wagner has given up 2.5 sacks in only 62 snaps. Right tackle Michael Oher has given up 2.5 sacks in 233 snaps and center Gino Gradkowski has given up two sacks in 289 snaps.
For teams in desperate need of a left tackle, picking up McKinnie isn’t the worst idea in the world. You’d lose something in the run game, and by press accounts he’s not the best guy for the locker room, but if you’re most worried about keeping your quarterback upright, the old tackle still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
For the Steelers, going from Mike Adams to Levi Brown looks to be replacing a young sieve with an older, more reliable collander. With Adams, the Steelers never knew on what play he’d short circuit. Most of Adams’ problems in pass protection have been more related to confusion over who to block than the techniques of staying in front of his man. Of his four sacks allowed this year, three have happened because Adams struggled to handle twists or stunts. Twice, he failed to see a looping defensive lineman or linebacker who blind-sided him and knocked him off of his man. On another sack, he failed to hand off his original man to pick up a defensive tackle looping his way. The pressures he’s given up have often been for similar reasons.
Brown probably won’t have those problems. He’s a veteran who generally knows who to block. And thanks to his size, he’s a solid run blocker. But Brown won’t fix the Steelers pass-protection problems because he simply can’t handle speed rushers.
We saw it this year in Week 1 when Rams defensive end Robert Quinn blitzed him for three sacks. We’ve seen it a lot in the recent past.
Of the 7.5 sacks Brown allowed in 2009, 6.5 came when Brown was beaten by a pass rusher simply blowing by him to the outside. On 11 different sacks in 2010, Brown was beaten by outside speed. On seven Cardinals sacks in 2011, Brown was beaten by speed.
Against a bigger, slower group like the Bucs or Lions, Brown does OK, because he can anchor against bull rushes. But he starts to (understandably) get twitchy the further out a defensive end lines up against him. He simply isn’t fast enough to handle elite speed coming around the corner.
The Steelers still have two games against the Ravens (Terrell Suggs) and Browns (Barkevious Mingo), and one against the Packers (Clay Matthews), Patriots (Chandler Jones), and Dolphins (Cameron Wake). Brown might be a little better than Adams, but the Steelers better design plays with plenty of running back or tight end help if they want to count on Brown to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side through the rest of the schedule.
You’ve got to admire a well-designed blitz. And it’s hard to find a better designed one this past Sunday than the one the Chiefs threw at the Giants. Safety Husain Abdullah was lined up heads-up on tight end Brandon Myers, and defensive end Tamba Hali was lined up even further outside of Abdullah.
At the snap, Abdullah fired off on a blitz and made a point of engaging right tackle Justin Pugh, which meant that Hali came off the edge unblocked even though the Giants had slanted their protection to Hali’s side.
The Cardinals signed right tackle Eric Winston to help solidify what has been one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Winston has been solid, if not a lockdown right tackle since joining the Cardinals. He’s given up two sacks, including a 1.6-second sack this week.
It might not be surprising to hear that 1.5 of Winston’s two sacks have come because of confusion on his assignment. In Week 3 against the Saints, Winston and guard Paul Fanaika both let Cameron Jordan get a free run at the quarterback. This past week, Winston made the apparent mistake of looking to the outside first before shifting back to looking inside. By the time he checked his inside shoulder, Gerald McCoy had flown by unblocked for a 1.6-second sack.
Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn was sacked seven times this week. Four of those sacks were largely out of his control. Tony Pashos was beaten for a pair of sub-3.0 second sacks and Andre Gurode and Khalif Barnes each gave up one.
But one of the reasons Flynn went from starting to third string this week is the other three sacks. Twice he held the ball for 3.5-3.7 seconds only to watch a solid pocket fall apart. And there was an 8.1-second epic where Flynn held the ball, thought over what to do with it for a while, then eventually tried to take off, getting run out of bounds.
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