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?
07 Sep 2010
by Ben Muth
Welcome to the inaugural Word of Muth, a new weekly column on Football Outsiders devoted to offensive line play in the NFL. The column will focus on three teams throughout the NFL season, looking at the offensive line personnel, scheme, struggles, and success. Every week there will be an in-depth look at the previous game for one of these three teams and how the big guys up front affected the outcome, breaking down terminology and sketching out blocking schemes. The goal is to give you an understanding of what exactly the hogs are doing -- or not doing -- in a game.
We'll break down the teams that will be covered this season in just a little bit, but first I want to introduce myself. I'm Ben Muth, and I'm a former offensive lineman. (It feels good to get that off my chest.) I played at Stanford for five years. I lettered for four years, started for two, and my senior season I was named 2008 first-team All Pac-10. However, because we lost too many football games during my tenure, I had three head coaches and four offensive coordinators. That experience should really help the column, because I played in a lot of systems, and therefore will be able to recognize a lot of different schemes. After my college career, I was picked up by the San Diego Chargers. I was eventually released because I was injured, and then not picked up again because I didn't block that many people when I was healthy. I coached a little high school ball, and now I'm here at Football Outsiders.
Why we chose them: Everyone loves the Cowboys this season. There is a lot of talent at the skill positions and on defense, and plenty of Super Bowl talk to go along with it. However, the Football Outsiders mainframe, doing its best Big Tuna impression, isn't willing to bust out the anointing oil just yet. The Cowboys' offensive line is cause for concern, with four of five starting linemen either 32 or turning 32 sometime this season. It will be interesting see whether or not this unit can carry the fans' lofty expectations on its broad shoulders.
Staff/Scheme: With Wade Phillips as head coach, the offensive scheme is left almost entirely in the hands of the assistants. This offensive staff has direct ties to the Cowboys dynasty of the '90s. The coordinator is former third string quarterback/Thanksgiving day icon Jason Garrett. The offensive line coach, Hudson Houck, was also the offensive line coach for those great Dallas teams of the past. A hallmark of the Dallas system is to be very balanced, using a power running game, especially the lead draw, to set up a play action and vertical passing game. According to the FO game charting project, the Cowboys ran more draw plays than any other NFL offense in 2009.
The Cowboys are an interesting team because of the two different styles of their running backs. Marion Barber is more of a between-the-tackles grinder, while Felix Jones is more of a slashing speedster. The size of the offensive line and offensive scheme, particularly the lead draw, are generally suited more to Barber's strengths. A common misconception about the lead draw is that it is deceptive. It is not. The play is a lot more about an isolation lead with a token fake, rather than the deceptive pass-style blocking of your usual draw play. It is a smash mouth football play that involves a double team at the point of attack, and a fullback leading through the hole and causing a neck-snapping collision with the middle linebacker. But Barber was far less effective than either Jones or Tashard Choice last season, so it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys distribute touches in 2010.
The million-dollar question is whether this Cowboys' line is experienced or just old. "Old players" are all players over 30 that people decide aren't playing well. "Experienced players" are all players over 30 enjoying success. Players will often fluctuate between these two groups week by week depending on whether their team wins or loses.
If we put on our rose glasses, there are many signs that point to this being a very solid veteran group. Kosier, Gurode, Davis, and Colombo have been playing alongside each other for the past couple of years. Playing together as a unit, especially in the same system, is invaluable to an offensive line. Even the new kid on the block, Free, has been with the Cowboys since 2007 and started seven games last year at right tackle for an injured Marc Colombo. These guys haven't just been playing together, they've been successful. Last year they were third in the NFL in both Adjusted Line Yards and offensive DVOA, and finished in the top three in the NFC in both rushing and passing yards. Gurode and Davis both made the Pro Bowl.
The other side of the coin is that the line is old, with a question mark at left tackle. Everyone except Free is on the wrong side of 30. While the Cowboys line has a history of remaining relatively healthy, the injury risk increases with each year. Left guard Kyle Kosier has already sprained his MCL and could miss the start of the season. Even if the linemen stay healthy, recent history suggests that their performance should drop. In 2006, the Seahawks and Broncos had the oldest offensive lines in football. The year before (2005) they had finished first and second in offensive DVOA. In 2006, they plummeted to 20th and 27th, respectively. The only player under 30 on the Cowboys offensive line has never started a game at the position he is playing, and he just happens to be playing left tackle. This means that for all their experience up front, America's team is still trusting the backside of Tony Romo to a relative unknown. If all that weren't enough, their interior line is not as strong as the two Pro Bowl names may indicate. The Cowboys struggled mightily last year in short-yardage situations, finishing 26th in the league in converting "power runs." Also, they were far more effective running outside the tackles last year than they were in between the tackles.
The Cowboys acquired Alex Barron from the Rams for former first-rounder and oft-criticized linebacker Bobby Carpenter this offseason. He has started at left tackle in the NFL in the past, something that Doug Free can't claim. Barron was brought in as an insurance policy in case Free turns out to be a total nightmare, or, if you're an optimist, to add depth. Montrae Holland is an experienced pro who can replace either guard in a pinch. Robert Brewster is a third-round pick from a year ago. The fact that Barron was brought in to provide depth at the tackle position doesn't speak volumes for Brewster. Usually an offensive lineman picked that high should be at least a swing tackle (meaning the first tackle off the bench regardless of side) in his second year. This means one of two things. Either Brewster is being groomed to be the right tackle in the very near future (like next season) and they don't want to move him around too much and risk his footwork -- or he has been disappointing so far. Only time will tell.
Why we chose them: First, they have three new starters up front, including a highly touted rookie. Second, they have a new coach with a new scheme -- which happens to be the most talked about running scheme of the last 20 years. While Washington gives us two teams in the same division, that's not a bad thing. We can look at how Dallas blocks against an opponent one week, then look at how Washington blocks against the same opponent a couple weeks later. Finally, the Redskins offensive linemen will always be the Hogs, at least in name, no matter what the personnel is. It seems wrong to write about offensive lines and not include them.
Staff/Scheme: Daniel Snyder's big offseason acquisition was head coach Mike Shanahan. Mike brought his son Kyle from the Texans to be the coordinator. That means you can expect a "West Coast" style passing offense, and the zone stretch running game that both Shanahans have employed. It will be Chris Foerster's job to make sure the offensive line can execute these schemes. Foerster comes from San Francisco, by way of Baltimore. In San Francisco he coached young first-round tackle Joe Staley. He also coached one of the all-time great left tackles, Jonathan Ogden, when he was at Baltimore. That experience should prove valuable in coaching Trent Williams.
The zone stretch game requires athleticism from the boys up front, especially at the tackle and center positions. That's because these guys are either blocking defensive ends (playside tackles) or climbing to the second level and blocking linebackers who are running in a dead sprint (centers and backside tackles). The guards need to have a little more lead in their backside, as they are often charged with keeping nose tackles and three-technique defensive tackles on the line of scrimmage. The Redskins certainly tried to build their line this way, getting two first-round draft picks at tackle and a center that weighs under 300 pounds. (Remember that all first-rounders are incredibly athletic for their positions. Anyone who is not a freak athlete slides to the later rounds. Quarterbacks and Sebastian Janikowski -- and his beer gut -- are exceptions to this rule.) Their guards are both big guys more than capable of flattening defensive tackles. Of course having all the right parts isn't necessarily enough -- they have to fit together. This is especially true in a zone running game. Knowing when you can climb to the second level, and when you should stay with your teammate on the down lineman is vital to success. How quickly this unit gels could be the difference this season.
The 2010 version of the Hogs will feature a lot of new faces. Only Rabach and Dockery return from last year. Rarely is this kind of turnover a good sign, but in cases like the Redskins', any change from the status quo should be positive. The big additions come at tackle. The Skins used a top five pick on left tackle of the present and future Trent Williams. The recent success of tackles like Jake Long and Joe Thomas make this seem like a fairly safe pick, but that's what the Raiders thought about Robert Gallery. The good news for Williams is that a lot of pressure can be taken off him with the series of bootlegs and sprint-outs the Redskins will likely run. When teams move the quarterback's throwing point around, it becomes difficult for defensive ends to get an effective pass rush. Opposite of Williams, on the right side, will be Jammal Brown. Like Williams, Brown is a former first-round draft pick from Oklahoma. Brown comes over from the world champion New Orleans Saints ... where he missed the entire championship run with a hip injury. Before the injury Brown was a Pro Bowler, so how he comes back will play a key role for the Redskins offense.
The interior offensive line is a veteran group. Rabach and Dockery anchored the line last season. The problem is that they anchored a group that wasn't very effective (26th in Adjusted Line Yards, 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and a 23 percent QB hurry percentage, which was the worst in the league). The Redskins also brought in veteran reserve Artis Hicks. Hicks has started for both the Eagles and Vikings in the past but has been used mostly as a reserve in recent years. He will need to be able to hold up for a full 16-game schedule if the Redskins hope to have the chemistry that they'd need to make the playoffs.
All three of the Redskins' key reserves started in at least two games last year. It's always good to have some starting experience coming off your bench to provide depth. On the other hand, the front office was able to evaluate these players during in-game situations, and then decided that they needed to bring in three new offensive linemen to make up the starting unit. The Redskins will have to hope that these players (Williams, Heyer, and Rhinehart) learn from the sidelines this year and play at a higher level should they be called upon.
Why we chose them: The main reason is Russ Grimm. With Howard Mudd and Alex Gibbs in different forms of retirement or semi-retirement, Grimm may be the most respected offensive line coach in the NFL. Also, the Cardinals major in the Power play. The other teams might dabble in it, but the Cardinals will likely use it as their No. 1 running play. So they will offer a different style of running game than the other teams. And finally, I grew up a Cardinals fan and it's my column. I figure if I'm going to watch every snap anyway, I might as well write about what happens.
Staff/Scheme: Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm came over together from Pittsburgh and helped turn around a Cardinals franchise that had been awful seemingly forever. Success wasn't the only thing the coaching duo brought from Pittsburgh, they also brought a commitment to the Power play. If ever there was a coach perfectly matched to a play, it's Russ Grimm and the Power play. Grimm was elected to the Hall of Fame for his work with the famed Hogs of the '80s where he made his name pulling on the Counter Trey. It was in Washington where he learned about a between-the-tackles running game from Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel, two of the most influential offensive coaches of the last half century. And with a name like Russ Grimm and big-league mustache to match, a play simply called Power seems to fit. Power is the most common man-blocked running play in the NFL. The Power play involves a double team at the point of attack, a fullback with a kick-out block, and a guard pulling and leading through the hole.
Not only do Grimm and Whisenhunt have a history with the play from their days in Pittsburgh, all signs point to them relying heavily on the play this year. They brought in Alan Faneca, who has pulled on the power play for Steelers and Jets during the past nine seasons, the two best power teams in the NFL. Also, the play suits the running style of Beanie Wells perfectly. This could be a good sign for Cardinals fans, as for the most part you need two running back sets to run the play (you can go double tights and motion a tight end into the backfield, but then you're in a two-back formation). The Cardinals were far more effective running the ball in two-back sets last year, averaging a half-yard more per carry, with a far higher DVOA. Without Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals should be less likely to spread the field and air it out. A power running game can help make up for that loss of offense, as well as slow down opposing pass rushes.
The name that jumps out is clearly Faneca. A free-agent acquisition from the Jets, Faneca has made the Pro Bowl just about every year since 2001, and most of those Pro Bowl appearances (most) weren't lifetime achievement awards. Many of those great seasons came under Grimm's tutelage in Pittsburgh. Last season, however, he was the weak link of an excellent Jets front line on pass plays, having more Blown Blocks than anyone else on that team. Faneca is joined inside by returning starters Deuce Lutui and Lyle Sendlein. Sendlein was undrafted out of Texas but has been a solid starter for the past couple of years. Lutui is the lazy and overweight guy that sat out offseason workouts, but is too good to lose his job. The Cardinals did everything they could to try to replace Lutui, bringing in two free agents, Faneca and Rex Hadnot, and moving their other starting guard, Reggie Wells, to the right side. But despite showing up to camp out of shape, he failed the conditioning test, Lutui has not only played himself back into a starting role this preseason, but played Reggie Wells out of town.
Tackle is the question mark for this unit. Former first-rounder Levi Brown is finally moving to left tackle, despite having led the Cardinals in Blown Blocks last year. With the lefty Leinart now gone, Brown is in charge of protecting the quarterback's blind side for the first time in his NFL career. Brandon Keith will be charged with taking the opposite tackle spot. Keith played a fair amount last season after starter Mike Gandy was injured, and played well enough for the staff to feel comfortable with him in the starting lineup. Keith made a bad first impression this preseason, giving up a brutal sack on the first third down against the Texans. The ability of these guys to keep Derek Anderson upright and comfortable might very well be the key to the Cardinals chances of winning the NFC West again this season.
The Cardinals offensive line is deep in the middle and thin on the edges. Hadnot comes over from the Browns, where he started six games last year. Rex will provide experience off the bench if either of the starting guards is injured. Bridges has started at both left and right tackle in the past and should be the swing tackle for this team. He has played a lot but has also been released by a lot of teams -- including by the Cardinals. Claxton is another guy that has bounced around in his career. He has played for eight teams since being drafted in 2003. Despite all of his travels, he has only entered three regular season games, so he is still a question mark.
63 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2010, 3:20am by Topas