Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Dec 2011

Word of Muth: Debating the Lines

by Ben Muth

As I was re-watching Monday night’s game between Atlanta and New Orleans, it occurred to me that the Saints offensive line is really, really, good. In fact, it might be the best offensive line in football.

That, of course, got me thinking about the Houston Texans offensive linemen and how great they are. There’s a good chance that I am now covering two of the top five offensive lines in football. While the third unit I’m currently covering, the offensive line of the Tennessee Titans, isn’t quite on that level, it is well above average and features the best left tackle of any of the three. This is pretty much the exact opposite of last year, where I covered four lines that struggled a good deal (Arizona, Dallas, Washington, and Pittsburgh). This season has been much more fun.

Back to thinking about the Saints and Texans: if I had to choose, which unit would I want blocking for my team? Let's break it down and make a decision.

Right Tackle


Eric Winston vs. Zach Strief

This is probably the biggest advantage the Texans have against the Saints. Eric Winston is a third-round draft pick who cracked the starting lineup in the second half of his rookie year and has been there ever since. He is a really good zone-blocker to the play side, and is able to generate consistent movement and sustain his block throughout the play. He plays with explosion in the running game, and consistently wins individual blocks. In pass protection, he's above average for a right tackle. He leans out over his feet sometimes, and can play off-balance, but is generally a good enough athlete to recover.

Strief had been a career backup in New Orleans before he beat out Charles Brown in training camp this year. He’s not as athletic or violent in the running game as Winston, but he’s not bad either. Strief can be effective, especially in space on screens and tosses, where he looks far more athletic than in conventional blocking schemes. In pass protection, he has heavy feet and average hands. He’s not a disaster, and has probably improved enough throughout the season to be considered a league-average right tackle, but he is probably the weakest link of either line.

Right Guard


Mike Brisiel vs Jahri Evans

Mike Brisiel is a good offensive lineman. He has a really quick first step in the running game, which makes him perfect for a zone-stretch system where he either has to reach or cut someone off on every play. He plays with good leverage in pass protection, and like most Texans is good at selling play-action.

However, Jahri Evans is just a little better than Brisiel. I think Evans’ biggest strength is his ability to drive his feet late in the block, when the defender tries to escape. Defenders are engaged with a blocker right from the snap and are struggling to keep their gap, eventually though, the defender has to try to disengage or shed the block to make a tackle. As the defender starts to try to pull away and escape, Evans is as good as there is at running his feet to drive the defender out of the hole or into the ground. He also has a nice mean streak that helps him dole out the punishment.

Center


Chris Myers vs. Brian de la Puente

It’s always tough judging centers because so much of what they do involves stuff that’s impossible to discern without being in the meeting rooms. Both of these guys are pretty good. De la Puente seems to be a little stouter, while Myers is a little quicker. I think Myers is better at the second level, dealing with linebackers, but I’d give de la Puente a slight edge in straight pass protection. I’m going to cop out and call this one a draw, but someone who has watched these teams for more than a season apiece might be able to judge their impact on the units better than I have.

Left Guard


Wade Smith vs Carl Nicks

I think Carl Nicks is the best guard in football. You could make arguments for a couple of guys (including his teammate Evans), but Nicks is my personal preference. He has really strong hands that just lock onto guys, and he hardly ever gets knocked back -- even a couple of inches -- on running plays. He is possibly the strongest guard in football. He probably doesn’t have as much of a mean streak as Evans, but that may be for the best, because he’s still plenty mean and seems to be more disciplined. I expect him to break the bank this year in free agency.

Smith is also very good, and in my mind was a Pro Bowl snub -- I think either Smith or Winston should have made the AFC team. He does everything well, and is great on the backside of zone stretches, which is where Arian Foster does the bulk of his work. Smith is underrated to begin with, and naturally in this column he gets matched up with the best guard in football. I’m probably not giving him enough ink here.

Left Tackle


Duane Brown vs Jermon Bushrod

This is another tight one. I think Bushrod is a little more athletic naturally, but I like Brown’s pass set more, and that is probably the most important tool a left tackle has. Brown also uses his hands more effectively in pass protection. I think Bushrod is a better run blocker, at both levels, but Brown is better in space. I’d give the nod to Brown because I value pass blocking more from a left tackle.

Final Verdict

Well, crap, that didn’t help much. The Texans have better tackles, but the Saints have better guards. At the end of the day, I’m going to give the slightest edge to New Orleans simply because I think they’re a little better in pass protection as a group. Adjusted sack rate backs that up, although Drew Brees certainly is a factor. Choosing between these guys is like choosing between Brees and Aaron Rodgers: it comes down to splitting hairs and personal preference.

Before I sign out this week, I wanted to draw up a neat screen that New Orleans ran against Atlanta on Monday. It was a play-action screen to the tight end on the first play of their second drive, and I really liked the concept (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Saints Pull Screen

The thing that really stands out to me about this play is that New Orleans pulls the right guard as part of the fake. Pulling a lineman is the best way to sell play-action, but teams are wary of doing it because it can lead to protection issues. Because it’s a screen though, that isn’t as big of a concern here.

So, Evans pulls to the fake side (left) and leaves a gap for the two-technique to run through. If this was an actual pass, Strief would have to really squeeze down to close that gap, and that would leave Jimmy Graham one-on-one with a defensive end, which is the kind of assignment teams fear on typical play-action passes. Here though, Strief does a half-assed job of closing down, so the defensive tackle can split him and the center.

John Abraham sees himself one-on-one with Graham, which had to seem like a gift from the pass rushing Gods to him. So, Abraham does exactly what he should do and beats Graham quickly and cleanly in pass protection. The only problem for him is that this is exactly what Graham wants.

While all this is happening, the linebackers have their heads turned and are running backwards. That’s because they bit hard on the play fake, thanks to the pulling guard, and are now scrambling to get back into their drops. With their heads turned, they can’t read the screen at all, and Strief and de la Puente (the kick guy and the seal guy, respectively) are on them before they knew what hit them. It was well-designed and perfectly executed, resulting in a 17-yard gain.

Follow Ben on Twitter for more off-the-cuff offensive line analysis and Starship Troopers references.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 29 Dec 2011

10 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2011, 10:07am by Uncle Rico

Comments

1
by dryheat :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 1:21pm

I love this series. I hope that you have a bunch saved up on Tivo so you can keep going during the offseason.

2
by FrontRunningPhinsFan :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 3:21pm

I'd love to hear Ben's thoughts on the OL prospects coming out of college for the draft at some point in the offseason.

Especially since I'm almost convinced the Dolphins will refuse to trade up to get a QB and will use yet another first round pick on their offensive line.

3
by Joseph :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 3:31pm

"Here though, Strief does a half-assed job of closing down, so the defensive tackle can split him and the center."

Ben, I am going to assume that this comment is not a knock on Strief, but that you are trying to say that he makes it look "bad" so that the DL gets sucked in toward Brees--thus he can get out and block for the screen.

4
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 4:57pm

Yes, it was intentially bad on Strief's part to draw the DT upfield.

8
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 11:48pm

One thing that strikes me is how comparatively cheaply these lines have been assembled, in terms of both draft picks and cap room.

Texans

Duane Brown - 2008 pick #26, $1.8m/year average
Wade Smith - 2009 free agent signing, $3m/year average
Chris Myers - acquired via trade for 2008 pick #200, $2.75m/year average (free agent in 2012)
Mike Brisiel - 2006 UDFA, signed new contract summer 2011, details undisclosed
Eric Winston - 2006 pick #66, signed extension summer 2008, $6m/year average

Other notable OL resource expenditure since 2006

Charles Spencer (suffered career ending injury in Week 2 of rookie season) - 2006 pick #65
Ephraim Salaam (swing tackle and occasional starter between 2006 and 2008) - cheap free agent signing in 2006
Kasey Studdard (still on the roster, quality back-up guard) - 2007 pick #183, signed new contract summer 2011, salary undisclosed
Rashad Butler (back-up swing tackle, still on the roster) - cheap 2007 free agent signing
Brandon Frye (out of football since 2009) - 2007 pick #163
Antoine Caldwell (still on the roster, quality back-up guard/center) - 2009 pick #77, $0.64m/year average
Shelley Smith (developmental guard prospect, still on roster) - 2010 pick #187
Derek Newton (developmental tackle prospect, still on roster) - 2011 pick #214

Saints

Jermon Bushrod - 2007 pick #125, signed new contract summer 2011, c. $4.9m/year average
Carl Nicks - 2008 pick #164, free agent in 2012
Brian de la Puente - 2011 cheap free agent signing
Jahri Evans - 2006 pick #108, signed new contract summer 2010, c. $8m/year average
Zach Strief - 2006 pick #210, signed new contract summer 2011, c. $2m/year average

Other notable OL resource expenditure since 2006

Jon Stinchcomb - seems to have got around $4m/year over various contracts through 2010
Jonathan Goodwin - 2006 free agent signing, I can't find contract details
Andy Alleman (out of football since 2009) - 2007 pick #88
Charles Brown (back-up tackle, still on roster) - 2010 pick #64
Matt Tennant (back-up center, still on roster) 2010 pick #158
Olin Kreutz - signed 1 year $2m free agent contract in 2011

The Texans have used more draft value, and the Saints more cap room, but neither have exactly gone wild with either. The Texans have invested a total of 1508.2 points of draft value by the standard chart (roughly equivalent to the 7th overall pick); the Saints an incredible 606.4 (roughly equivalent to the 31st overall pick, with nearly half of that going on two 2010 selections who have yet to crack the starting lineup). In other words, the entire offensive line rosters of the Texans and Saints combined cost less to draft than Jason Smith. The entire starting line-up of each team plays for around the same annual average as the sum of Smith and Jason Brown. The Texans' worst miss in that period was using a 5th round pick on Brandon Frye (Spencer won the starting left tackle job as a rookie and looked outstanding until a freakish impact injury smashed his leg), while the Saints' biggest misses have been using a late 3rd rounder on Alleman and giving Kreutz a 1 year deal. That's some incredible talent evaluation and player development.

5
by zenbitz :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 4:57pm

Joe Staley, pro bowl

6
by tequila (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 5:25pm

Muth - How does one account for the way the Rams and Chris Long absolutely destroyed the Saints OL? Was that just one of those weird freakish games?

7
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 12/29/2011 - 6:09pm

Yeah, it was weird combination of things. Strief wax out and Brown isn't any good so Long tore him up. Also, the Saints complained that the dline were really holding them and kept them from getting to the 2nd level. That's one of those things that either gets warned about early or it goes on all day. Plus New Orleans just looked flat. Really just a weird game

9
by nath :: Fri, 12/30/2011 - 6:53am

I think that was also one of the games where Payton wasn't on the sidelines.

10
by Uncle Rico (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2011 - 10:07am

Hey Ben, you covered the Steelers OL last year. Do you have an opinion why their inside screens have been such a mess? They just always look like total chaos, like it's the first time any of them have ever seen a football before. Lack of mobility, awareness? Everyone's always at random spots rubbernecking, like they're not sure where they're suppose to be, how they're suppose to get there, and/or what they're suppose to do if they do get there.