Bill Connelly takes a look at the early-season S&P+ outliers and whether his eyeballs agree or disagree with the stats. Spoiler: Alabama is underrated. Alabama! Underrated!
31 Aug 2011
by Ben Muth
Welcome back to another season of Word of Muth. Since I don’t have an idea for a clever intro, and I assume most of you don’t care about what I did during the lockout, let’s get right into the preview of this season's teams. This year we should be 100 percent Casey Rabach free, so readers won’t have to worry about any Under Siege jokes.
Why They Were Chosen
The Seahawks offensive line should be the most interesting to break down, much in the same way that a crash is the most interesting part of an Indy Car Race. Take this quote from the Seahawks chapter of FOA 2011 (available at this very site!), for instance: "Partly due to bad luck, partly by design, the Seahawks have put together a line in which no two starters have ever played a meaningful snap together." That seems impossible, but I tend to believe anything in quotation marks.
The "complete strangers forced to play on an o-line" hook is just one of the storylines that Seattle has up front. They have two rookies playing together on the right side, two former top 10 picks on the left side, and a center that hardly played at all last year. The task of leading this group of highly-drafted-but-unproven linemen falls to former Raiders head coach Tom Cable. Cable has a reputation throughout the league as one the best teachers of offensive line play, and he’ll need to be if he expects to turn this line from five talented individuals into a cohesive unit.
If all that isn’t enough, last year the Raiders, under Cable's direction, led the league in using sets of six or more offensive linemen. If Seattle continues this trend, I’ll be able to watch a lot of the best kind of football -- the kind where a team gets it's best athletes on to the field. Not only that, but I may even get to break down the holy grail of the offensive lineman: the tackle-eligible play.
Who They Have
Looking at last year’s numbers doesn’t bode well for this offensive line. They finished in the bottom third in just about every category we track, including dead last in Stuff Percentage. Of course, considering only two of these guys were on the team last year, it’s probably not a great indication of what they'll do this season.
Seattle’s tackles are both recent first-rounders. On the left side they have last year’s sixth overall pick Russell Okung. Reviews on his rookie year tend to start with "When healthy..." The good news is that after qualifying his struggles to stay healthy, the critiques are generally positive. He was carted off in the first preseason game this year with an ankle injury, but it isn’t thought to be serious enough to make him miss more than a few games. If Okung can stay healthy and keep Tyler Polumbus off the field, Tarvaris Jackson will at least have a chance to show off his deep ball this year.
2011 first-round pick James Carpenter will start opposite Okung at right tackle. A lot of people felt Seattle reached for Carpenter in the first round, but I was a big fan of his going into the draft. With the exception of Tyron Smith’s athleticism, I thought Carpenter’s run blocking was the most impressive tool any offensive tackle had coming into the league this year. His pass set needs a little work but he appears to be a good enough athlete to make the adjustment.
Inside, Seattle will have former tackle bust Robert Gallery, who has converted into a pretty good left guard. Gallery will have a lot of responsibility as he's not only the veteran of the group, but also the only one who has played for Cable before. Max Unger and John Moffitt need to saddle up next Gallery any chance they get, not only to learn more about the offense, but also to see how Gallery has overcome a rocky start to turn into solid pro.
Why They Were Chosen
First and foremost, the Titans were chosen because I’m currently living in Nashville. It’s nice to be able to get the local temperature on talk radio and in the sports bars about a team you’re covering.
The biggest reason though, is that new head coach Mike Munchak is a former offensive lineman. That, along with Chris Johnson, should mean a commitment to the running game. As a former offensive lineman I always preferred running the ball, and as a writer I prefer writing about running the ball. It's just more exciting from a blocking standpoint. It’s also pretty rare that a coach makes the transition from offensive line coach to head coach, so Tennessee seems like a safe bet to be in the upper third in rushing attempts.
One wild card Tennessee has is new franchise quarterback Jake Locker. The Titans have shown in the past, with Vince Young, a willingness to use the QB as a runner. That opens up a lot of interesting blocking schemes for the offensive line that could make for nice breakdowns. Hopefully, Tennessee manages to get Locker in a couple of packages that will show a unique look.
Who They Have
Despite being known as a running team the last couple of years, the 2010 Titans offensive line was more effective in the passing game. They only allowed 24 quarterback hits, the fewest in the league, and finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate. Unfortunately, the run blocking fell off a cliff. They finished 31st in Adjusted Line Yards, Power Success Percentage, and Stuff Percentage. For a team that wants to run the ball, that is unacceptable.
Tennessee opted not to shake things up and brought back all five starters from last year, which seemed like a logical move considering the lockout. The interior guys aren’t exactly names, but they are familiar with each other and the system. Eugene Amano replaced Kevin Mawae last year and proved capable, if unspectacular. Leroy Harris at left guard is another player that doesn't inspire much confidence, although I should point out that I’m not sure I had never heard his name before this year. At right guard is Jake Scott, who has really struggled in the preseason. That is not a good sign for a guy that has been regressing over the last two seasons.
Michael Roos is the "star" of the offensive line at left tackle. He has a strong reputation as a pass blocker, which is certainly what you want from the blind side. I really haven’t watched him much before this preseason, but he hasn’t been overly physical in the limited time I’ve scouted him. One play that stands out is a third-and-short against the Rams where he was driven straight into the backfield as he allowed his running back to be tackled for a loss. He’s certainly the Titan I’m looking forward to watching up close the most. At right tackle, the Titans have David Stewart. He’s struggled with speed rushers in the past, but so do many right tackles. He needs to return his run blocking to its previous high level to be a valuable contributor again.
Why They Were Chosen
There are two main reasons the Saints are part of this column. The first is that last year I picked three teams, and none of them were in contention after Week 11. The Saints should at the very least be competitive this year. The other, more obvious reason, is that they have a really good line. Last year the Saints finished sixth in Adjusted Line Yards and fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate, which is right in line with what they’ve done over the previous three seasons.
The other intriguing thing about the Saints is the variety of formations they use. The formations and Sean Payton get the publicity, but it’s the offensive line that makes it possible. They have to be able to protect against and identify linebackers that can be spread out all over creation. Seeing how the Saints do it should lead to some fun columns.
Who They Have
The Saints take the old baseball approach of being strong up the middle. Their guards, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, are considered the best tandem in the league. The two of them are a big reason that New Orleans finished in the top five in Adjusted Line Yards when running up the middle. The other interior lineman is former Bears center Olin Kreutz. Kreutz is getting up there in years, but playing between Evans and Nicks could rejuvenate anyone’s career.
The Saints have sent some mixed signals about returning left tackle Jermon Bushrod over his career. They shipped Jammal Brown out to make him the clear starter, but then they only resigned him to a two-year-deal, which is relatively short for a tackle. If Bushrod has a good season he could be in line for a much bigger extension heading into his walk year. On the right side things are supposedly wide open. Mickey Loomis released incumbent tackle Jon Stinchcomb and Payton declared a competition between Zach Strief and 2010 second-rounder Charles Brown for the opening. One would assume that Brown has the edge, but the fact that a starter hasn’t been named after three preseason games does not bode well for the favorite. The sooner the Saints can make a call and stick with it, the better off the offensive line will be.
Well, that’s it for the amuse-bouche version of Word of Muth. Join me again for the first official column of the 2011 season, when I break down the Saints-Packers game after Week 1. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter @FO_wordofmuth. I have the fewest followers of any of the writers here, which is probably fair considering everyone else makes occasionally useful tweets and I am still being shut out in that category. Still, I’m not above begging so please follow @FO_wordofmuth.
19 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2011, 3:30pm by Shooto