An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
20 Oct 2011
by Ben Muth
Apologies for the lack of a column last week, I was traveling and had some unfortunate computer issues. In the future I will try and have a better backup plan. Since two of the three teams I’m covering this season had byes this week, I’m actually going to be covering the Seahawks-Giants game from Week 5. I didn’t want to write about the Saints two columns in a row, and I plan on writing about the Titans’ Week 7 AFC South showdown with the Texans next week. So, that leaves me breaking down Seattle’s road win over the Giants.
Seattle went no-huddle a lot in this game. They came out in it, and stayed with it for the majority of the game. As an offensive lineman, I always liked going no huddle, as I felt it really affected the defense’s pass rush. The main reason has to do with fatigue. It’s much easier from a cardiovascular standpoint to play offensive line than it is to play defensive line. As a result, defensive linemen wear down much quicker in a no-huddle type situation. Not only does the no-huddle tire out defensive linemen, it prevents them from subbing out with the regularity they are used to. This can really take the steam out of a pass rush.
The other advantage a no-huddle offense gives an offensive line is that it becomes much harder for defenses to disguise blitzes and stunts. Everything is happening so fast that the defense is barely able to get the call in from the sideline and get lined up before the snap. As a result, the defense doesn’t have the time to show one blitz and rotate to another, all while disguising the coverage behind it. A no-huddle offense may seem complicated to run with a young offensive line, but it actually simplifies the game quite a bit up front. I think the no-huddle was a big part of Seattle’s fast start.
However, the no-huddle wasn’t the only bright spot up front. I thought Max Unger played a really good game. He was good in pass protection, but it was his run blocking that stood out to me. I mentioned in the last write-up of Seattle that Unger seemed to have the quickness to reach shaded nose guards on zone running plays. This skill is particularly useful if a team runs a lot of shotgun zones, like Seattle did against New York.
Not only was Unger consistently reaching the Giants’ defensive tackles, he was also generating a bit of vertical push as he was doing it. Usually when a center is directed to make this block, he’s asked to just keep the nose tackle at the line of scrimmage, and allowing a little penetration is even acceptable. Unger was quick enough off the ball to get his helmet towards the play side almost immediately, which allowed him to then focus on moving the defender up the field. You see, once the defender feels he’s reached (basically: he feels that the blocker has gotten his helmet to his play side shoulder) he begins to panic about losing gap control. As a result he starts focusing solely on moving laterally to try and get back outside into his gap. As he does that it becomes much easier to push him back, and that starts to create seams on the interior of the defense. Unger excelled in this all day.
John Moffitt was the other Seahawks lineman that impressed me. It’s not that the rookie from Wisconsin was dominant, but I thought there was noticeable improvement from earlier games. In particular, he seems to have gotten much better with his hands in pass protection. Against Arizona it seemed he had a hard time staying engaged with defenders on passing plays. Last week Moffitt was better at maintaining initial contact with pass rushers. More importantly, he was significantly better at replacing his hands in situations where they were knocked down. He also seems to be developing better chemistry with fellow rookie James Carpenter when it comes to passing off twists and other stunts.
Speaking of Carpenter, he had a game that’s hard for me to actually grade. On one hand, it’s clear that the coaching staff’s trust in him has grown. He isn’t being protected nearly as much as he was against Arizona. That is a positive sign. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much to affirm that new found trust. Carpenter struggled in pass protection more than any other Seahawks player, and gave up a couple of bad sacks. I think the biggest problem Carpenter has is that he seems to have only one speed, and it ain’t that fast. What I mean by that is that no offensive linemen is going to look blazing fast in his pass set, but some certainly look quicker than others: Carpenter has one of the more methodical sets you’ll see. That in and of itself isn’t terrible, as Carpenter is in control with his set, and seems to have a good enough grasp of angles and depth to use this slower pass set. The problem comes when Carpenter has to change directions, or when he has to go into panic mode.
Panic mode sounds worse than it is. You could define it as the time in a pass set where the defender starts to get the edge on you, and you are forced to turn your shoulders. You would turn your block almost into a drive block in an effort to try to run the defender by the quarterback. It happens fairly often to offensive tackles throughout a game. Far more than the name would dictate, in fact, and it’s essential for offensive tackles to be able to do this consistently. Carpenter hasn’t shown much ability to get his feet going fast enough at the moment of urgency to really change the defender’s rush path late in the play. It’s the same problem he has when a defender makes a quick inside move: The big rookie hasn’t shown the ability to change the tempo of his feet to shut sown sudden moves by a defender. If it’s a pure ability problem, he could be in trouble. But I‘ve seen a couple flashes of quickness that lead me to believe that it can be fixed.
One final note on Carpenter: He is the absolute worst three-step drop cut blocker I have ever seen. I’m sure most of you have seen a play where the offensive tackle takes a quick pass set and then a tackle throws a cut block at the defensive end as he comes up field. Carpenter is horrendous at this. His success percentage of actually getting the guy on the ground is worse than Vernon Wells’ OBP. The problem is that he doesn’t drive forward into the defenders knees, but rather throws his feet out from under himself and lands right where he was standing, similar to an elderly woman slipping on ice in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Sometimes he would get a defender’s hands down (which is all you really want from this technique), but I don’t think he got a single Giants defender on the ground with his "technique."
The left side of the line was far less interesting this week. I think Russell Okung did a reasonable job at left tackle when he could hear the snap count (he gave up a sack in the first half because he didn’t get off the line at the snap).Inside, I thought Paul McQuistan was still the weakest link of this offensive line. He just lacks some of the natural ability the younger guys have. Even Carpenter occasionally uncorks his hips on a running play and really rocks someone. I can certainly understand why McQuistan hasn’t seen regular playing time in quite some time.
|Figure 1: Fake Pitch WR Screen|
Schematically, the Seahawks didn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking, but because of the hurry-up tempo they were able to keep New York off-balance. One interesting play they ran early in fourth quarter was a wide receiver screen to Stanford man Doug Baldwin (Figure 1). Seattle came out in a basic single-back, three-wideout set with the tight end to the right. New York was in an over nickel 42, with a safety rolled down towards the tight end.
At the snap Seattle faked a quick swing screen to Marshawn Lynch This meant that Carpenter and Moffitt showed flash set (a very quick pass set that is meant to draw the defenders up field) and released into the right flat. Their haste drew both linebackers with them. Unger and McQuistan stayed in to pass block a half-second longer and released into the left flat unnoticed (well, Unger did at least, McQuistan ran into Okung’s block).
Charlie Whitehurst pump-faked to Lynch quickly before spinning around and delivering the ball to Baldwin, who was running an inside screen. Unger got out to the flat just in time to throw a nice cut block on the nickelback that sprung Baldwin for a 20-yard gain. It was a nice play made possible by a great design and Unger’s athleticism.
In Twitter news I am now over 500 followers (though you can still hop on the bandwagon if you are so inclined) and will therefore begin to do Twitter breakdowns of offensive lines that I’m not covering in the column. These will be much less in-depth obviously, and generally I’ll only watch one game for each team. But still, it should be fun. I’ll start with the first team suggested in the comments below, and should get to it sometime on Friday.
16 comments, Last at 05 Nov 2011, 10:45am by Hawkwiz