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?
13 Jan 2011
by Ben Muth
Welcome to the first-ever Word of Muth Q&A. A note: If I didn't answer your question, it was because it was similar to someone else's, didn't follow the guidelines from last week's column, or I just didn't have room to answer it. Thanks to everyone who wrote me.
Karl Cuba: As a 49ers fan, I still view the Bill Walsh offense as the apotheosis of offensive schemes. Jim Harbaugh used the same scheme at Stanford. What would you say are the distinctive features of the blocking scheme in this system?
When I think blocking schemes in the West Coast offense, I think protection. Bill Walsh's brain child was a passing-based attack in which the running plays could be interchanged based on personnel. So, I'm going to focus on the passing game.
The protections that Bill Walsh helped create became the basis for every man protection scheme you see today. The basic premise of these protections is that the offensive line is responsible for the four defensive linemen and the middle linebacker. The running backs are responsible for the outside linebackers. Often, only one running back will stay in, which means one of the outside linebackers, or any defensive back, is hot.
This hot read was the real innovation of the West Coast offense. Before Walsh, teams would go max protect and waste possible receivers by keeping them into block even when there was no blitz. Walsh was able to send running backs on routes that weren't just check downs (although those are also a substantial and successful part of the offense) and would still allow for a completion in the worst-case scenario.
Everyone thinks of Roger Craig and Tim Rathman as two of the great receiving running backs of all time, and rightfully so. But the reason they were so effective is that teams weren't ready to deal with running backs coming out of the backfield so often, whether they acted as check downs or the primary receivers. The protections were all designed to get the most guys out in the routes while always giving the quarterback an outlet.
Karl Cuba: Also, after watching Anthony Davis struggle with mental errors and hesitant play all season at right tackle, is the mental side of the game easier to pick up at left tackle, where you are less likely to have to communicate with a tight end and so less likely to get confused?
Anytime you have a tight end next to you, it is one more thing to worry about. That being said, you have to deal with a tight end no matter where you line up. There isn't a real difference mentally playing on either side -- it really only matters if you're used to playing one side and have to flip over to the other side without a lot of practice reps.
Joseph: Ben, you detailed a few weeks ago the three blockers' responsibilities on a screen pass. I would be interested to hear you elaborate more on this -- especially on the first lineman's responsibility to kick out that first defender, as far as locating him, determining what he will try to do based on if he is a defensive back or linebacker, and what technique you would use. My question is based off of the Saints' screen game -- they struggled mightily without Thomas and Bush, but have used it successfully the last couple of games. As far as I know, the linemen were all the same -- the difference was the running backs.
Anytime you're responsible for kicking out the widest defender, whether it is on a toss or a screen, you first want to get flat. Defensive backs are quick and they are always closer to the line of scrimmage than you think, which is why you want to run parallel to the line as long as you can. It is much easier to adjust and go upfield than it is to have to come back. (90 percent of the time if you have to try and come back for a defensive back you won't block anybody -- the other 10 percent you block a guy in the back.)
If you don't see a defender as you're running to the sideline, it's probably man coverage and you have to try to wheel around and get a hand on the man-to-man linebacker. The linebacker is going to be trailing the running back, so it won't take much of a block. You just have to get enough of him to break his stride and spring the play. This is the toughest block on a screen. Zone dropping defensive lineman are the easiest because they aren't used to playing in coverage and are usually slower to read what's happening. You can get on them before they know what hit them.
Another important thing about screens, especially in the NFL where you can't go downfield until the ball is caught, is that they are timing-based. The running back and offensive linemen have to have the right spacing for them to work. Not only that, but it takes a lot of patience to be a good screen receiver. You have to be willing to follow the alley blocker, and that usually means running at less than full speed (possibly less than 75 percent if Leonard Davis is involved). A lot of running backs, particularly young ones like Chris Ivory, have trouble setting these blocks up.
BenM: I'd be interested in hearing more about how line calls get made. Who makes what calls, and why? Obviously this is a very broad subject, but a basic breakdown would still be very interesting.
The center is the captain of the ship. As soon as he walks up, he'll identify the Mike linebacker. This isn't always a true middle linebacker; 3-4 and 4-2 schemes don't have a true middle linebacker, so the center makes his call based on offensive formation or game plan (sometimes you call the Mike to the tight end, sometimes the game plan says that a certain player is always the Mike). Once the Mike is identified, the play can take shape.
If it's a run, the center will announce where he is going first. Usually he's involved in some sort of combination block so he'll say something like "Scoop 54." The first word of the call tells which guard he is working with. All calls are designed as front-side or back-side calls. The technique of a block might be the exact same, but it will have different names to distinguish each side. The number identifies what linebacker the combination is working to. You can say what number you're working to because people are constantly calling out numbers on run and pass plays, whether they're back-side or play-side, so a number doesn't give anything away.
Once you know who the center is working with, and which linebackers they're going to, the rest of the play falls into place. After the center, the general rule is that the closer to the point of attack you are, the more say you have in making calls (this goes out the window if you have a big experience gap, like a rookie playing by a seven-year veteran).
For instance, if it's an off tackle play to the right, the center will get the ball rolling and no one can call him off. From there, the right tackle can make a call to direct the right guard, and the left guard can make a call directing the left tackle. Tight ends are usually told what to do by the tackles regardless of how close to the point of attack they are.
Passing plays are more complicated and probably deserve their own article, maybe in the offseason.
Anonymous Lurker10047: What does an offensive line coach teach a rookie about how to block? It's so under-discussed you could start anywhere -- use of hands, stance, reads and tells, gear/pads, conditioning/training, recovery from mistakes, snap timing ... I'd be thrilled with any of it.
Pretty broad question, so I'm just going to go over some of the advice that helped me the most, and what I would tell anyone who wanted play offensive line at any level:
Mike L: 1) What do you think of the Steelers bringing in Sean Kugler this past season?
2) What area should be the first to address for the Steelers in the upcoming draft? A young pass protecting left tackle to develop (Tyron Smith?) or a young guard who might be able to play immediately (Mike Pouncey, perhaps)?
It's tough to tell what Sean Kugler is capable of. I didn't watch a lot of Buffalo games when he was there -- or Detroit for that matter -- so I don't know much about his past. This year he's been more army medic than position coach, simply trying to bandage together a unit. Not only that, but the parts comprising that unit aren't premium ingredients.
I don't have any personnel experience, but one thing I will say is talent is always more important than position. All things being equal, a good left tackle should be at the top of the wish list, but a guard that can play right away is more valuable than a project. That being said, it's much easier to find a serviceable guard late in the draft than it is a left tackle. Basically, I am out of my element when it comes to personnel decisions except to say I don't think Jonathan Scott or Foster should be starting next year. This also answers a question from "NotMarkMalone," who is definitely not the former Steelers quarterback (unless Mr. Malone is even cleverer than I feared).
Knucklehead: So I saw that Tuesday Morning Quarterback named Dan Koppen of the Pats his long-winded version of MVP. What are you thoughts on this? What are his strengths/weaknesses? Does he benefit from the type of offense the Pats run?
I haven't seen much of Koppen, but that's ridiculous. No offensive lineman should ever win any version of an MVP award. A single lineman doesn't have enough of an effect on the game. I'm sure Koppen is good, but if you replaced him with Lyle Sendlein (an average NFL center) the Patriots maybe lose one more game.
Mike Jones: In your next week edition, would you please grade the starting offensive line for each team from A to D? I think the entire New England is B+, maybe even higher. The Steelers are a C- at best.
I won't grade the Pats because I haven't watched them closely enough. But I will grade the offensive lines I have covered. Here is the scale:
Pittsburgh Steelers: D. This Steelers offensive line is bad. The only reason they avoided the F label is that they are in the playoffs, so clearly they can win with the right supporting cast.
Dallas Cowboys: C-. Just below league average. They have a really good center and a pretty good left guard. Doug Free looks promising on the left side, but Marc Colombo looks past it on the right side. Leonard Davis' wife is on a reality show, and that was probably the highlight of his season. It was a rough season for Davis.
Washington Redskins: C. I think the Redskins are set at tackle for the next few years, which is a start. They need to work on the interior, but that is easier to handle.
Arizona Cardinals: C+. They are better than the Redskins, just not a letter grade better. They have a solid interior with Alan Faneca, Lyle Sendlein, and Deuce Lutui. I think Jeremy Bridges showed promise in the second half of the season. And Levi Brown probably won't be back next year, so I'm optimistic.
Dr O: Maurkice Pouncey is young; 21, if I recall correctly. You said that he struggles with the really big, powerful defensive tackles. Do you think he still has a little growing to do? Will he be better able to handle some of the stronger defensive tackles then?
Yes, he'll certainly improve. Functional strength usually increases for a player his first five years in the league, until injuries prevent players from working out enough to continue to build. By then however, players learn enough techniques and trick to handle all sorts of rushers. Pouncey will be fine and will probably have a great career.
Trill: My question is about empty backfields, and how five-man protection schemes affect offensive line play on passing downs. I've noticed a lot of teams at the college and pro level going empty on passing downs this year, especially "ahead of the curve" teams like TCU, Missouri, New England (less this year than last year), Green Bay, and New Orleans. Green Bay and New Orleans will even go empty in the red zone.
Obviously teams will sometimes call five-man protection on passing downs when they do have players in the backfield, but going empty telegraphs this call to the defense. There's still flexibility with slide protection and varying linemen splits/quarterback depth, but how do offensive linemen feel about the defense knowing that only five are staying in to block? Do you feel like the pass rush is more aggressive when they see the quarterback in the backfield by himself?
TCU had a lot of success in the Rose Bowl going empty on third-and-long, with Dalton having plenty of time to wait for receivers to uncover on deeper routes. Missouri focused more on the quick three-step passing game vs. Iowa, but both of those defenses have first-round pass rushing talent and neither was able to consistently rattle the quarterback against five-man protection. Was I witnessing superlative O-line play, or is empty actually a schematic advantage for the offense (forcing more defenders into coverage and simplifying the pass rush)?
I hated going empty, because there are only so many ways you can pass protect from it. Also, you are basically holding up a sign that tells the defense that you are passing it. Whenever a defense knows it's a pass, the defensive linemen become much better rushers. Basically, it's a nightmare for offensive linemen.
One positive is that defenses will often have empty checks -- meaning that whenever they see an empty package, they will audible to certain pass rush scheme. If you can find their empty check, you can know what they're doing before the snap. This is much easier to find in the college game -- some teams won't even change their empty check from game to game. If that's the case, you can find the best protection and use it to pick up any stunts. That may have been the case in the TCU game.
18 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2011, 12:50am by bigswa