How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
07 Oct 2010
by Ben Muth
What a difference a couple of weeks make. Only two opening-day starters on the offensive line were in for Donovan McNabb's final kneel down this weekend. During the course of a 16-game schedule, injuries are bound to happen, but losing 60 percent of your o-line (either to injury, illness, or benching) in the first month of the season isn't typical. Despite the shuffling up front, the Redskins were able to beat the Eagles and move into a tie for first place in the division, thanks to the new faces in the trenches and a new-found running game.
Casey Rabach is the last man standing from the original interior of the offensive line. The veteran center has fared better after a rough first game facing Jay Ratliff. He seems to excel at working with his guards, whether he is over taking their blocks so they can climb to the second level, or the other way around.
That being said, he can still struggle when he is forced to block nose tackles one on one. Mike Patterson, in particular, caused some problems in the backfield. Once, he beat Rabach cleanly with a quick move off the snap to force a bad throw from McNabb. He would also get some good penetration in the running game when he wasn't being double teamed. However, Rabach usually did have some kind of help (as most centers usually do) and was able to handle his assignment and his man most of the game.
Derrick Dockery and Artis Hicks were the starters going into the season, but they have been replaced by Kory Lichtensteiger and Will Montgomery, respectively. As the season has progressed, Lichtensteiger has flat out beaten Dockery for the top spot on the depth chart, with injuries playing no role. This surprised me because I thought Dockery was more productive against the Cowboys, but I'm also not in position meetings or at practice, so I could be missing a lot.
Montgomery replaced Hicks in the game against Philadelphia due to an undisclosed illness. Hicks certainly looked well enough in the time he played this week. He didn't dominate, but he wasn't a liability out there. Montgomery did well for himself in relief, not making any major mistakes and generally finding work (finding work is coach speak for blocking somebody on any given play). If I had one criticism of him, it's that he had a tendency to lose his footing as plays would go on. He did a nice job on the initial block usually, but he would sometimes get thrown off onto the ground or his knees as defenders would disengage. It didn't really seem to hurt the Skins this week, but it can clog up running lanes, and is a good way to injure your teammates by rolling into their legs. If there is one thing Washington's line doesn't need, it is another injury.
I thought right tackle Jammal Brown was solid again, continuing to be very good in pass protection and improving his run blocking from the opening week, particularly on the Stretch play. The pressure on the interception did come from Brown's side, but it wasn't his fault.
In the protection scheme, the tackle (Brown) and the tight end (Cooley) are responsible for the defensive end and the strong-side (Sam) linebacker. Since the Sam was lined up inside, Brown has to look at him, while just offering body presence and a light punch to Cooley. Once the Sam showed he was dropping into coverage, Brown can go back and give Cooley his undivided attention. But by the time this happened, Cooley was getting beat to the outside (the last place you want to get beat when you know your tackle is helping) and Brown just couldn't get there in time. An unfortunate play that certainly wasn't Brown's fault.
Stephon Heyer had an interesting day. He started in place of Trent Williams and was matched up against a Pro Bowler (Trent Cole) for the majority of the game. He didn't give up any sacks, and only gave up one real pressure that I can remember (and that was on a twist). He also worked well on the edge with Chris Cooley or Fred Davis to help get the running game going.
That being said, he had three penalties and struggled in the running game when he didn't have a tight end or guard helping him. Two of the penalties were drive killers. On first-and-goal, he missed a cut block and reached out to grab the defender's ankle. He was flagged for holding. The other penalty was his false start during the four-minute drill. It turned a second-and-3 into second-and-8, which ended up being too much for Washington to pick up.
For those of you wondering what the four-minute drill is, it is the fat ugly cousin of the two-minute drill. It's used when you are winning a game, and you get the ball back with anywhere from two minutes to six minutes left. Your goal is to pick up enough first downs so that you can end the game with a couple of kneel downs. It is not nearly as exciting as a two-minute drill (instead of quarterbacks going no huddle, slinging the ball everywhere, and barking out orders, you get a lot of runs followed by guys trying to get up slow), but it is much tougher to execute and it can be just as crucial to making a deep run in the playoffs. While Heyer's penalties didn't cost Washington in the end, and he certainly played better than other NFC East backup offensive tackles (*cough* Alex Barron *cough*), you simply cannot commit drive-killing penalties and be counted on in this league too often. I'm sure Mike Shanahan, Donovan McNabb, and even the Hogettes will be glad to see Trent Williams back.
The good news for Washington fans is that Trent Williams should be coming back to an already improved running game. The Redskins were more effective running the ball this week than they had been in any of their first three games this season. A lot of Washington's success on the ground came from just two plays. One play, the Stretch BOSS, has always been a staple of the Shanahan running game -- it's the kind of play you remember the old Broncos running. The other play is a Counter Lead-type play that is more reminiscent of the Gibbs Redskins. Regardless of where these plays came from, the 2010 Redskins made them their own on Sunday.
The Stretch BOSS play was discussed in this column back in Week 2. The Redskins had a little wrinkle that made it more effective for them (Fig. 1). Washington would often motion the tight end across the formation and snap the ball while he was still moving. This puts the defense, and especially the play-side defensive end, in a tough spot.
Sometimes when you trade tight end (the technical term for motioning the tight end from side of the formation to the other, not swapping Antonio Gates for Jim Dray), you let the tight end get back in his stance. This allows the defense to shift their alignments and realign to the strength of the formation. But with the Redskins snapping the ball while the tight end was still moving the Eagles had no time to adjust, leaving their defenders in a poor position to defend the run.
|Figure 1: Redskins Force Play|
For instance, typically, teams with three linebackers off the ball want their three-technique defensive tackle (the defensive tackle on the guard's outside shoulder to the strength of the formation) to the tight end side. This is because there are more blockers to this side, and therefore the defense cheats its defensive line slightly that way. When a tight end trades quickly, the defenders can either stem (shift over a man) or stay put. The problem with stemming is that the offense can snap the ball while the defense is still moving and take away any explosion off the ball a defensive lineman would get. The other nice thing about a quick trade is that, since the tight end is still moving, he can make sure he is always outside the defensive end and has him outflanked before the snap.
Just putting a team's defenders in a poor position isn't enough; you still have to block the play. The Redskins did a great job of this for the majority of the game. Both tight ends, Davis and Cooley, were very good on the edge all night. Their job was usually to just blow a shoulder off the defensive end (blowing a shoulder off means firing into a defender hard enough to turn the defender's shoulder) and climb to the linebacker. By turning the defensive end's outside shoulder, it allowed the offensive tackles a chance to get their heads outside and effectively reach the defensive ends. If you are able to reach both the play-side linebacker and defensive end, the rest of the blocks become almost trivial. The running back is able to get to the edge so quickly, he is into the defensive backfield with a lead blocker before anyone else in the front seven can get outside to him. After really struggling to run the Stretch play against the Cowboys in Week 1, it has to be encouraging for the staff to be so successful running it this week.
The other running play the Redskins really leaned on this week was the Counter Lead play (Fig. 2). This is just good ole fashioned power running that would make Pop Warner (second Stanford Man in this week's column) proud. There are three main components to this play:
|Figure 2: Redskins Counter Lead|
When the Redskins executed those three blocks well, the results were positive, particularly on Ryan Torain's first quarter touchdown run.
The first thing I noticed about the touchdown run was Chris Cooley's release. With a head up defensive end, Cooley decided to release to the outside which set up Artis Hicks' pull block nicely. You see, when Cooley releases outside the defensive end's first reaction is to avoid being hooked, so he gets up the field and outside. That puts him out of position and unable to close down the space between him and the play-side offensive tackle, which makes Hicks' block very easy. In fact Hicks barely touches the defensive end but because he was so far out of position, it is enough to spring Torain.
The double team block between Heyer and Lichtensteiger wasn't a devastating block, but they did exactly what they needed to. The goal on this block is to pin the defensive tackle inside and keep him on the line of scrimmage. If you allow any penetration, it can get in the pulling guards way and can lead to an unblocked defensive end. Once you secure the defensive tackle at the line of scrimmage, somebody has to climb to the second level and block the Mike linebacker, who will be scraping over the top. In this case, Heyer came off the block and did a great job locking up the Eagles' middle linebacker Stewart Bradley.
Finally, no running play can be successful without good blocks by non-offensive linemen. In this case, fullback Mike Sellers made a terrific lead block on Akeem Jordan. In fact, it wasn't so much a block as it was a total annihilation. I half expected to see tire marks on Jordan when he got up. Of course, Ryan Torain did a little trucking of his own when safety Quintin Mikell tried to step up and make a tackle. I'm guessing this play went over pretty well in the running backs meeting room during film review.
30 comments, Last at 15 Oct 2010, 11:33am by ksiu1