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?
15 Sep 2011
by Ben Muth
One of the main reasons I chose to cover the Saints this year was their reputation of having a good offensive line. As I was watching the game live, I was a little concerned that they weren’t going to live up to expectations and that it was going to be a long year following a mediocre offensive line that is bailed out by a great quarterback. Not only did they get stuffed twice in key short-yardage situations that ended up costing the team the game, but then there was the play of Zach Strief, who I thought had the potential to be this year’s Levi Brown or Jonathan Scott. Upon further review though, the Saints offensive line played pretty well against a solid defensive line.
The thing that impressed me most about the New Orleans front was their ability to work together to pass off twists. Dom Capers was bringing a lot of pressure, and using a bunch of crossing rushers in order to get to Drew Brees. Most of the night, the Saints did a great job of staying disciplined and not chasing any rushers, but rather passing them off to a teammate and accepting the new rusher that emerged. The only guy that seemed a step slow in these transistions was the newly acquired Olin Kreutz. That being said, I thought Kreutz looked good physically, and he was only a half-second late a couple of times. I imagine that given some time playing in this system with Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, he’ll get on the same page.
Speaking of Evans and Nicks, I thought they both played well. Watching the game live I certainly heard B.J. Raji’s name called a lot by Chris Collinsworth, but when I re-watched the game, it seemed like Nicks and Evans more than held their own against the rising star. I thought Nicks in particular did a great job of getting initial movement, but he would get tripped up in other linemen’s feet and fall down. That doesn’t sound great, but that’s another thing that you can chalk up to a lack of familiarity. It should happen less and less of as the season goes on and he acclimates to playing next to Kreutz. I’m not saying they dominated, but when facing two run-stuffers like Raji and Ryan Pickett, that’s not going to happen. I felt they gave as good as they got against a tough matchup in the running game.
The tackles weren’t as good in the running game, but I expected that coming in. I think both guys, Strief and Jermon Bushrod, are much more comfortable running inside zone than they are the stretch play. The Saints tackles tend to play a little high when they have to go out and get wide defensive ends or outside linebackers. As a result, they let much lighter guys get under their pads and stop any stretch from occurring. I think there’s a reason the Saints stuck almost exclusively to inside zone in the second half.
In pass blocking, I was mostly impressed with Bushrod. He has a pretty natural set, and has a great wide base with his feet. A lot of times you’ll see an offensive tackle's feet start to come together when they are kicking out to wider rushers, but Bushrod really does a nice job of keeping his feet spread apart. That’s key for balance and redirection against counter moves. The other thing Bushrod seems to have is real strong hands. He’s not a big puncher, meaning his initial strike isn't overpowering, but he’s very good at locking onto people once he gets his hands on him. If I had one criticism, it’s that he tends to float at times when he isn’t matched up one-on-one with someone. By that, I mean he’s slow to help others and is a bit indecisive if he isn’t threatened by an immediate rusher. The best example of this happened on the key sack the Saints gave up on third-and-2 at 9:10 in the third quarter.
|Figure 1: Sprint right|
New Orleans had a sprint-out pass called to the offense’s right. On these types of protections the backside will typically use a technique called a "waterfall." Basically, you step towards the playside gap and make sure there are no immediate threats. After that, you pivot back outside and pick up any rushers coming from there.
At the snap the Packers had two three-techniques (lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard) and two standup outside linebackers acting as defensive ends. Green Bay also had two inside linebackers that were shaded towards the offset back. Seeing this pre-snap alignment, Bushrod’s only real inside threat was the three-tech. As soon as the ball was snapped that three-technique went inside into the A gap (between the center and guard) leaving Bushrod free to turn back out and get Erik Walden. But Bushrod drifts a couple extra steps inside and doesn’t have time to get back out. Now, ideally, the Saints running back would’ve cut blocked on Clay Matthews on the other side, which would’ve allowed Brees to get outside and extend the play. That didn’t happen, so Brees had to pull up, only to be chased down by Walden for the sack.
The Saints’ other offensive tackle had a rougher time than Bushrod. Zach Strief won the job in camp, beating out Charles Brown. In the first quarter it looked like Strief would be a disaster, as he gave up a couple of hits on the quarterback. Strief's main problem seemed to be a total lack of punch. The Northwestern product has a bad habit of placing his hands on a defender rather than violently jarring him with them. As a result, Matthews was able to simply knock the big tackles hands off of him and continue to Brees. I thought it was going to be a long night for both Strief and Brees. But as the game went on I noticed that Strief was pretty serviceable so long as he wasn’t matched up with Clay Matthews one-on-one. The Packers were moving Matthews around a lot so some of Strief’s problems were being alleviated by Capers, but the Saints also made a halftime adjustment to help out their struggling tackle.
Twice on the first drive of the second half, the Saints brought in Brown and used him as a tight end. Usually, when a team throws an extra lineman out there it is to run the football, but the Saints threw out of this personnel grouping both times on this particular drive. They also ran a Power play in the first half out of this package, and brought it out again on the last play of the game, which I’ll get to shortly. Anyway, the protection the Saints ran with this extra offensive lineman was 2 Jet Solid.
|Figure 2: 2 Jet Solid|
2 Jet was a protection I covered a lot last year because it’s one of the two most common pass protection schemes in the NFL. Basically, the playside tackle and guard (in pass protection the playside is determined by which side the running back goes to -- yet another example of big man bias in sports) are man-to-man with the down defensive linemen to their side. The center, backside guard, and backside tackle all slide to their backside gap. The running back is responsible for the Mike and Sam linebackers. If both linebackers blitz, the quarterback must throw to his hot read. 2 Jet Solid is a variation of that protection where the tight end stays home to block and is responsible for the Sam linebacker. This has two advantages: it eliminates any hot reads, and more importantly for the Saints in this particular case, it often creates a double team of the defensive end.
Oftentimes in this protection, the Sam will be lined up inside of the defensive end, so the offensive tackle and tight end will change responsibilities. With the tight end now responsible for the defensive end, it’s the strongside tackle’s job to make sure that the Sam isn’t coming at the snap, and then go out and help the tight end. What the Saints did was put an offensive tackle at tight end, and that created a double team, with two linemen, on Matthews (he's technically an outside linebacker, but was lined up like a defensive end for much of the game even though he was standing up). It worked very well, and really helped Strief start out the second half on a positive note.
Finally, I want to get to the last play of the game. As I’m sure everyone knows, the Saints got stuffed on the 1-yard-line to end the game. On Twitter, I earlier posted that Evans got stood up to kill the play. I was wrong. Evans didn’t get any movement, but he also didn’t kill the play. Pickett submarined him, and they stalemated at the line. The guy I thought was Evans was actually Nicks, who was pulling for some reason. I hate pulling guys near the goal line, because it’s too tough for those guys to get their pads back down to move someone. But even that didn’t kill the play.
What killed the play was the guy lined up at right tight end: Brown. The second-year offensive tackle stepped inside and then promptly fell on his face. Literally, that’s all he did. I expect to see a picture of him planking during an NFL game on Twitter any day now. As a result of Brown's dive, both Matthews and Morgan Burnett knife inside and t-bone Mark Ingram as he left the ground.
That’s all for this week, I’m not sure what game I’ll do next week, but I’m open to suggestions so long as they involve the Seahawks or Titans. You can send me your feedback at @FO_wordofmuth on Twitter.
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