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10 Nov 2011

Word of Muth: Seahawk Squadron

by Ben Muth

When Aaron Schatz and I were discussing which teams I would cover in this year’s column, the only team that he mentioned that I already had in mind was Seattle. Seattle’s appeal was that they had a bunch of highly-drafted players that not only had never played together before, but were playing for a well-known offensive line coach (Tom Cable). It seemed like there would be a lot of interesting stuff to write about. Plus, I was a big advocate of the controversial James Carpenter pick, and was looking forward to watching him play all year. Halfway through the season, I’m convinced that Seattle was certainly worth covering, but not in the way I had originally imagined.

Early in the season, to paraphrase the timeless Dennis Green speech (kinda sorta), Seattle’s line was who we thought they would be. There were a couple of nice individual performances by talented players (Max Unger and Russell Okung), but we mostly saw poor performances for the unit overall. It was clear that they were struggling as a unit when it came to passing-off games on pass plays and working in combination on running plays. Recently however, I have seen some real improvement up front. Especially in the running game.

I think a big reason for the recent uptick in play is Robert Gallery. Gallery missed the early part of the season with an injury and was replaced with Paul McQuistan. McQuistan struggled, and between him and the rookie right side of the line, the Seahawks were at a big disadvantage early in 2011. Watching Gallery since he’s come back, it is pretty clear why he was moved from tackle to guard in Oakland. The former top-five pick is a really good run blocker. I’m going to say that again with italics for emphasis (bold font seemed a little much, because he ain’t Randall McDaniel). Robert Gallery is a really good run blocker. It’s clear that Cable wants to run behind him, and that Marshawn Lynch wants to cut behind him on plays that aren’t called his way.

The things that Gallery does really well in the running game are simple, but probably the two most fundamental things a lineman can do on a run block. First, he always seems to have inside hands. What that means is that he shoots his hands into the defenders numbers, and makes sure that the defender has to reach around to get to Gallery’s pads and chest. It is so much easier to hold your ground (and just hold period, for that matter) when you get your hands inside. You can almost steer a defender if you get your hands inside his.

The other thing Gallery is good at is driving his feet when a defender tries to disengage. Defensive linemen are taught to explode off the ball, get leverage in their gaps, find the ball, and get off a block. It sounds like a lot, but it should all happen within the first two seconds of the play. There are two ways to effectively block defenders in the NFL. One way is to out-leverage them at the snap -- this is what the stretch game is based on. The theory is that once a defender loses his leverage on his gap, he panics and starts overcompensating to recover, opening up cutback lanes. The other way is to run your feet like hell when the defender is looking for the ball and he’s trying to disengage the block. When a defender is trying to do those things, he isn’t moving forward as much, and is less focused on the blocker. By running your feet, you can really move a defender right as the back is hitting the line of scrimmage. This is what announcers are referring to when they say that someone is "finishing his block." Finishing your block results in late-opening cutback lanes and a lot of arm tackles. Gallery excels at finishing blocks late by running his feet.

Clearly, I thought Gallery played well and was a big part of Seattle’s ground success on Sunday against Dallas. He was also pretty good in pass protection. That being said, I have to point out his getting absolutely trucked by DeMarcus Ware on a pass play in the first quarter. Ware was coming into Gallery’s B-gap on a stunt, and it looked like Gallery was a little worried about Ware’s speed and arm length (probably having flashbacks to his days of having to pass-block athletes like Ware every play). As a result, Gallery was giving ground quickly and seemed to be expecting some kind of pass rush move. Instead he got a straight helmet and ended up right on his back. The number of that truck was 94, Mr. Gallery. I hate bringing that up, but it certainly jumped off the tape. It was an inconsequential blemish on an otherwise nice game.

The guys on either side of Gallery also played well. I’ve complimented Unger a couple of times in this column, and everything I’ve said before remains true. He still excels at reaching nose guards on zone plays (both inside and outside) and he’s pretty good once he gets to the second level. My biggest critique on Unger is his pass blocking. It seems like there are times he over-commits to certain rushers and misses guy that replace their rush lane. I’ll see him chase or block a defensive tackle with a guard for too long, while a defensive end or linebacker loops inside unblocked. I’m convinced Unger has the tools to be really good, but he needs to play within himself a little more to reach his full potential.

Though both Unger and Gallery played well, I think the breakout star was Okung. Okung was matched against Ware the majority of the game and played really well. Watching the game closely it seemed like Seattle’s offensive staff has faith in him as a pass blocker. They didn’t send him a ton of help, and generally let him handle Ware one-on-one. His pass set is consistently great, and he seems to constantly be improving his hands. He’s still not a great run blocker, but he is far better than adequate on the ground at a pass block-first position. I don’t think he’s a top-flight left tackle yet (Jason Peters, Jake Long, Joe Thomas), but I do think he’s on his way to getting there.

The rookies, however, continue to struggle up front for Seattle. The backside of the running game is a massive problem for both John Moffitt and Carpenter, whether they're trying to cut guys off or chop block them. The only time they seem effective on the back end seems to be when they’re pushing defensive linemen past the hole for a cutback on inside zones. Moffitt is better on the front side of runs, especially when working in combination, and seems to be the better player overall right now. It helps that the Wisconsin product seems to be noticeably improving as the season goes along. The same cannot be said for Carpenter.

Nine weeks through the season it is clear that Seattle’s staff feels like Carpenter still needs training wheels. I could probably count on one hand the number of times Seattle left Carpenter one-on-one in pass protection. Most plays it was clear that they used a heavy chip with the tight end, a noticeable chip with the back, or just kept an extra man in on the entire play to his side. As distressing as that is, what disturbs me more is that Carpenter seems to be regressing in the running game. He got knocked back far too often for a run-first blocker on Sunday. He hasn’t been great on the backside all season, but his best skill always seemed to be generating movement at the point of attack, and he didn’t do a lot of that on Sunday. The only nice run block he made all game was a down block, which is the offensive line equivalent of a quick slant in off-coverage. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around, but right now it seems like I was wrong in my pre-draft assessment of Carpenter.

Before we wrap up this week’s column I want to point out the scheme that Seattle used to great success on Sunday. It was an inside zone play with a slice on the backside. Recently, on FO and other sites, the 49ers have gotten some publicity with the Wham play. As a result, I’ve seen color commentators mistakenly refer to the Slice play (Figure 1) as the Wham play (Figure 2). The difference is that a slice concept is basically an inside zone with a backside cutoff. The Wham concept is more of a classic trap concept with a back or tight end as the trapper instead of an offensive lineman. Slice is much more of a zone concept, while the Wham is more of a man play. Plus, 90 percent of the time, a Wham play will result in a non-offensive lineman on a defensive tackle, while the Slice play will often result in a non-offensive lineman on a defensive end.

Figure 1: Slice Figure 2: Wham

That does it for this week. Remember to follow me on Twitter. This week I’ll do a Twitter breakdown of the Vikings line and another offensive line that is suggested in the comment section. First come, first serve.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 10 Nov 2011

17 comments, Last at 11 Nov 2011, 1:39am by mikedewitt

Comments

1
by FrontRunningPhinsFan :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:34pm

Dolphins!

8
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:12pm

Miami it is

9
by FrontRunningPhinsFan :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:02pm

Yesssss!!!! I feel like I won the Muth Maniac Lottery!

2
by anon (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 12:54pm

Broncos? What happened to Ryan Clady, basically.

12
by nate_richards :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:59pm

The better question is: What happened to the rest of the Denver line? Clady is still a good player, the best lineman Denver has, but has been called for holding a few times when everything around him is breaking down or when Tebow is running around in circles behind him. Clady is an excellent run blocker and really good in space in the second level. Franklin is the biggest problem, just average in the run game, but really slow in pass pro. Which is even worse now that Franklin is protecting Tebow's blind side.

14
by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:30pm

Clady hasn't been the same since his knee injury. He's still their best lineman but isn't anywhere close to Pro Bowl level any more. Denver is still trying to establish who they are as an offensive line. They've really had no clue since Dennison left as their coach. They just don't function as a cohesive unit. They've made strides running the ball this year, but in pass protection they really struggle.

15
by IAmJoe (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 5:50pm

I actually would like to hear some insight on this too. Clady went from being one of the best young T's in the game, to being, at best, average. What the hell happened? This would require probably looking a bit at some older Clady footage, and comparing against newer Clady footage, but still, I think it's a very interesting topic. Maybe an idea for the offseason?

3
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 1:17pm

Would love to see the Packers. Not only because i'm a fan. But do they look better than they really are because AR is really that good.

10
by Guest789 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:24pm

He did the Pack last week, just check back on his Twitter feed.

4
by WaffleHouser (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 1:41pm

Cowboys? Maybe talk about the major changes to the line from last year and how they've adapted?

5
by Roadspike73 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 1:44pm

As a non-football player but a football fan, I was really impressed by Zach Miller's blocking throughout that game. He seemed to go one-on-one with Ware on several pass protections and not just win, but win big. Did you notice his play in particular as a blocker while watching the game?

On a side-note, I'm a little frustrated that they pay him Pro Bowl receiving tight-end money, and then have to use him as a blocker, but whatever keeps our QB on his feet long enough to throw the ball, I guess.

6
by tuluse :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 1:55pm

I wanted to give you a belated thanks for the Bears coverage on your twitter. Saw Chris Williams get lost trying to find someone to block in the 2nd level just like you said he did.

7
by zenbitz :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 2:01pm

Niners! Because this week could be the last important game they play before the playoffs.

17
by mikedewitt :: Fri, 11/11/2011 - 1:39am

I second this! With so much credit for the Niners' dramatic improvement being attributed to the coaching change, I wonder if maybe some of the credit should go to the improved offensive line play (assuming it has improved - I'm no expert). After all, they did have two rookies last year, and according to FO, rookie lineman struggle greatly at first . . .

11
by CBPodge :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 3:54pm

I noticed the Eagles used that slice play a lot against Dallas as well, having guys like Clay Harbor wash Ware out of running plays to his side. Seemed really effective.

What was less effective when they used that movement on a pass play (I think must have been play action!) which left Harbor blocking Ware 1 on 1. When Ware already had at least 2, and probably 3 sacks.

Also interested that you list Jason Peters as one of the top LTs. He's impressed me when I've seen him, but I didn't think his rep was as an elite guy.

13
by Alexander :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 4:58pm

I am interested in the Eagles' draw plays. They always seem to do a quick-draw to McCoy 3-5 times a game. It differs aesthetically from other draw plays that I typically see.

16
by nat :: Thu, 11/10/2011 - 10:08pm

Tasty run blocking technique! Great as always.