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19 Jan 2012

Word of Muth: Keeping Up With the Smiths

by Ben Muth

Saturday's Saints-49ers game was one of those rare games that is enjoyable both while watching it live and when rewatching it for article research. This game was incredibly physical and featured a ridiculously fast defense flying all over the field. It was everything the SEC claims to be, but with the added sprinkle of actual offensive execution. Still, despite what your pee wee coach told you, the most important thing is that the 49ers won. The defense made enough big plays to let Alex Smith pull it out late, and as a result San Francisco has a date with New York this weekend.

Everyone reading this knows that turnovers were probably the biggest reason San Francisco won. New Orleans kept giving it away in the first half (although I think it's more correct to say that the 49ers were taking it, but that's semantics) and the Niners kept taking advantage. While I agree that was probably the key factor in the game, that’s not what we’re about at Word of Muth. No, we’re about offensive lines. In particular, the Saints’ front five, which happened to play against the best front seven in football this week. So we’re going to focus on that.

I am convinced that Carl Nicks is the best interior lineman in football. He does everything well. He can pass block, pull, drive block, play in space, play disciplined, and finish defenders with a good nasty streak. Watching him closely this year has been a real pleasure. Nicks was dominant again (check out his trap block on the first drive of the game) on Saturday with one notable exception: when blocking Justin Smith.

Smith has gotten plenty of publicity this year as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and I saw nothing to prove that narrative wrong. The thing that makes Smith special is that despite playing so incredibly strong and physical, he doesn’t seem to get tired. Ever. There are players that play a similar style to Smith (Haloti Ngata, Geno Atkins, and Julius Peppers to a lesser extent), but what separates Smith is his constant and insane effort. Usually guys that bull rush and eat up double teams as much as Smith wear down over the course of drives and games. They either have to substitute out frequently or take plays off throughout the game. Smith doesn’t, and it’s inhuman. The term "high motor guy" somehow undersells Smith’s consistent effort.

This doesn’t mean Smith kicked the hell out of Nicks though. These two war daddies had an epic duel. Both players looked unstoppable when they weren’t matched up against each other, as Nicks owned linebackers on the second level and Smith drank Jermon Bushrod’s milkshake. When they played against each other, it was very give and take. Smith pushed the pocket against Nicks in pass protection more than anyone I’ve seen all year. Still, Nicks was able to keep Smith in front of him and sit down late. It was truly a joy to watch this avalanche of technique, effort, and strength. If I had to give the nod to one guy over the other though, I’d go with Smith. He and Aldon Smith gave Bushrod and Nicks trouble with twists all day long. I think Bushrod was more at fault than Nicks, but that's still enough to tilt the scale in (Justin) Smith’s favor.

Speaking of Bushrod, this wasn’t his best game. He gave up a sack to (Aldon) Smith early and settled down a bit -- but then he got beat a couple of times again late in the game. The other Smith for San Francisco was a tough match for the Pro Bowl left tackle. If I had to describe Smith’s pass rush it would be "relentlessly active." He picks an edge and just works his hands like a buzzsaw, always moving forward, never stopping. Because Bushrod isn’t a big puncher, it didn’t matter if Smith missed his intial move, since he was throwing another one almost as soon as it ended. If Bushrod was a big puncher (like Joe Thomas) and Smith missed that first hand swipe, the tackle could really rock the rusher and knock him off course. Since Bushrod never did that, Smith was able to run the loop and get some key pressures.

Bushrod wasn’t the only Saint who struggled up front. I felt Brian de la Puente played poorly. The center struggled in the running game against Isaac Sopoaga. Maybe Sopoaga is better than I’m giving him credit for, but the other Saints offensive linemen didn’t seem to have the same problems. In fact, there were a couple of plays where the big nose tackle tossed de la Puente around and made the play in the backfield. The only play New Orleans had any success running the ball with was a wham concept play that didn’t require de la Puente to block Sopoaga at all (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Saints Wham

New Orleans lined up in an offset-I formation with twins to the left. The 49ers were in a base 3-4 with their outside linebacker walked out to cover up the slot receiver on the offense's left. At the snap, both guards immediately move to the inside linebackers. This allows them to get there quickly and keep them from making any reads.

Meanwhile, de la Puente fires out into the nose tackle very briefly before going down the line to double team Justin Smith. They only ran this play to one side, so that Smith was always getting double -- that's probably not a coincidence. It’s a very effective double team, because it’s unusual. Smith feels a backside cutoff block from the left tackle, like it’s a typical inside zone, then all of the sudden another three-hundred pounder sticks his facemask in Smith's ribs.

By the time de la Puente leaves to double Justin Smith, the fullback (Jed Collins) is already hitting the nose tackle. This is the wham block in the wham play -- it’s basically a trap concept with the fullback as the trapper. Since the Saints were whamming a head-up nose, they chipped him with the center first, but other than that it's still a trap scheme. Collins did a nice job on this block all day, by the way. The right tackle and tight end are responsible for the defensive end and outside linebacker to their side. They aren’t really key blocks.

The Saints ran this play four or five times, and while they never broke one, they got consistent three-to-seven yard gains. Considering how the rest of the running game was going, that has to be considered a successful install for this week.

As far as the right side of the line goes, there isn’t much to say. Jahri Evans would probably grade out the highest because he played well and never had to block Justin Smith. He did give up a key sack on an interior twist, but other than that he looked good. Zach Strief also gave up a sack, on a pretty weak inside move by Ahmad Brooks, but was solid in pass protection other than that. In the running game, it was a different story for Strief, and he probably was the biggest reason other than de la Puente that the Saints never got going.

What comes next for the Saints? Nicks is an unrestricted free agent this year and is going to land a huge (and well-deserved) contract this offseason. He took a one-year deal once the lockout ended because he wanted to get into camp and get ready for the season. The Saints already backed up the truck for Evans, and I’m not sure they can afford to keep two highly-paid guards. If the Saints do lose Nicks, it would be a tough blow to a great unit.

That wraps up another week. The tentative schedule right now is to do a Q and A next week. Please post questions in the comments or send them to wordofmuth (at) gmail (dot) com. After that, I’ll probably do a Super Bowl preview of some sort, and then take a couple of weeks off.

The plan this offseason is to do a general personnel breakdown of a new team each week -- kind of like what I did in the last Titans column this year. Remember to follow me on Twitter, and submit some good questions for next week.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 19 Jan 2012

32 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2012, 9:42am by dryheat

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 3:34pm

Hear, hear. I'd rather watch Justin Smith than the run of the mill NFL qb 30-40 effort. My wife asked me on one of Brees' passes last Saturday why he was off the mark. I told her it is tough to maintain accuracy with a damned rhinocerous bearing down on you. What a player.

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 5:27pm

Ben, how much do offensive coordinators take into account re: line play, and the various blocking schemes and one-on-one matchups?

In other words, does Sean Peyton actively avoid calling running plays that put de la Puente on Sopoaga, or is it a higher level reaction, such as "I won't call middle runs, because de la Puente couldn't block a wall today"? How involved do OCs get into blocking schemes and line construction?

26
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 01/25/2012 - 6:03pm

Well, most of that is handled in game planning. Let's say you are playing the Ravens and you think there's no way you can block Haloti Ngata. You can run check with me's and always run away from him. You can call plays where you know you're gonna get a double. And things of that nature. Once a game starts it's hard to adjust a week's worth of game planning. Sure, you might shy away from running right at a guy that's kicking your ass, but it's hard to scheme a new play on the sideline. The only thing you can do is maybe go to a base play you've installed in the past that you can run at any time.

31
by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/26/2012 - 5:37pm

I remember an NFL Films feature from the heydey of the Parcells/Gibbs rivalry. Joe Jacoby, a helluva player, was in an absolute panic in the huddle, about Lawrence Taylor, screaming "I can't block him!!I need help!!" or something to that effect. The frightening thing was that he WAS getting help. Sometimes, you're gonna get whipped, no matter what you do.

32
by dryheat :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:42am

I can't block him!!I need help!!

No Shit. -- Phil Simms

3
by Felton (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 6:02pm

This one still hurts, and although I've got to credit the 49ers on a great game, I just don't know if I could bring myself to watch a 49er Super Bowl. Let's not gorget that the saints have racked up many painful losses versus the 49ers. One thing that was lost in this game was the Saints ability to power run by pushing the pile. 1) they could not push the 49ers and 2) every scrum led to the 49ers being dangerously close to stripping the ball. While I'd love to have seen Pierre Thomas slip at the goal line instead of taking on Whitner, it appears Payton switched his running game to a short passing game to Sproles. Thanks for an excellent analysis. Hoping for a better result next year.

4
by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 6:16pm

Hard to believe the 49ers wouldn't have gotten slaughtered if they played in NO. Scary how something as tiny as superior conference record can lead to such big difference in outcome.

5
by Deelron :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 6:37pm

It's not like the Saints didn't have their destiny in their own hands, losing to the Rams and all.

6
by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 7:35pm

I know that it would have not given us that amazing ending, but I do wish that Smith just fell down on the 1 on that qb sweep. If the game ended with the 49ers winning 26-24, then the narrative of an insane defensive performance making life so hard for Brees would have really held through. It still did, and I know how well the 49ers played, but having Brees toss 400 yards again, and the offense score over 30 hurts the narrative 10 years from now.

7
by beargoggles :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 8:04pm

Narrative, schmarrative. I'll take the ending we got.

Analysis very informative... for a Stanford guy-- :) turnabout is fair play. I love watching Smith play--my favorite play was the bullrush where he pushed Bushrod into Brees and then just grabbed Brees' shirt. But thanks for the observations on the battles that are harder to see at game speed.

8
by Jay Z (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 9:41pm

"I know that it would have not given us that amazing ending, but I do wish that Smith just fell down on the 1 on that qb sweep. If the game ended with the 49ers winning 26-24"

Why do people keep saying this? Why are the facts of a game that was played only 5 days ago so hard to keep straight?

Smith scored with 2:11 on the clock. The Saints had a timeout left. So assuming Smith could have actually executed the play, the 49ers kick their field goal with 40 seconds left or so. Now they are up two where a field goal beats them. And on the drive that actually happened, it only took 37 seconds for the Saints to score a TD, not a FG. So a FG doesn't really seem out of the question. The only way anyone is going to do this play is if the clock goes to 0:00 on the FG play, and that was far from the case in this game. This idea needs to die.

9
by beargoggles :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 9:48pm

Agreed. And even if it did mathematically give you the edge, it's completely unrealistic to expect any player to figure this out before the two-minute warning

10
by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 01/19/2012 - 9:56pm

I realize the game wouldn't have been over.

Being up 5 (which is what the 49ers ended up being ahead by) with 2:11 left is not as good a situation as being up 2 with ~35 seconds left.

You can't really use the fact that the 49ers gave up a TD in less than that time as proof that the Saints would have scored a FG in 40 seconds. The Saints also would not have had any timeouts in the scenario.

Of course, I doubt any player could rationally go through all of this when running down the sideline with the EZ ahead with eleven large men chasing him, but the fact is it would have been smarter to just go down.

11
by SFC B (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 12:39am

I would argue that being up by 5 with 2:11 and a NO time out is better than being up 2 with ~35 left. Going out at the one still requires you to execute 4 plays without a fumbled snap, the holder doesn't drop to FG, the FG isn't blocked, and the kicker doesn't shank it. It also requires the Saints to not get a decent KO return, and that Brees doesn't complete a pass, or that you don't get flagged for PI defending that pass.

12
by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 3:36am

Is that really going to make it harder than allowing a great offense, that has moved the ball to some degree all day, 2:11 (two stoppages - 1 TO and the 2-min) to score a TD?

It is a tough decision. Advanced NFL stats says that being up 2 is better. I don't blame Smith at all for not going down because this wasn't a totally sure situation like Brian Westbrook in 2007, or even Shonn Greene in teh divisional game last year.

14
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 11:51am

Those aren't the only options. The optimal play call combination is probably something like knee-sneak-sneak-run-kick. Up 5 with 1:20 left and no time-outs is a very real possibility there - maybe as high as 60%.

15
by Ben Muth :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 3:05pm

I agree that taking a knee would have been best, but it's unrealistic to expect someone to think that way. When you're trailing, you're in the gotta score mindset, not a run the clock mindset. It was third and long and I doubt Smith was thinking when the play was called "This is going to work perfectly and I'm going to have a walk-in TD. I should take a knee to run some clock." If it's a four minute drill, like Westbrook was in a couple years ago, it should happen, but not in a two minute drill. And then what really pisses me off is when a defensive guy gets a game sealing turnover and tries to return it.

Also, still need questions for next week. Post them here or email them to wordofmuth@gmail.com

21
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/21/2012 - 7:29am

I know hardly any player would ever do it, and I don't really blame Smith (though I think if Peyton Manning could run fast enough to ever be in that situation in the first place, he probably would know to take a knee - that guy's clock management sense is yet another outstanding facet of his game).

But I do think part of the reason more players don't think in that way is because coaches are so awful at clock management themselves, and therefore never teach good clock management to players.

22
by tuluse :: Sat, 01/21/2012 - 6:38pm

There's also another selfish reason. Getting another TD added to their stats is something that will follow them around forever. No one counts kneels at the 1 yard line to guarantee wins.

25
by dryheat :: Tue, 01/24/2012 - 1:55pm

Well, I know you were interested in doing a Q&A, but I'd love to know your take on why the Patriots were able to run so effectively on Baltimore. It seemed (Haven't re-watched the game) that they were able to repeatedly pull Mankins to the off-guard and cut Green-Ellis inside him, but it didn't look like a typical trap-block to me...maybe because the formation let to some unusual things happening, or maybe because it was an interior lineman getting his ass kicked and not the end?

Again, I haven't re-watched the game, so if this is just a run-of-the-mill trap / wham play, feel free to disregard.

In that case, why was Wilfork able to consistently abuse Grubbs?

27
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 01/25/2012 - 6:04pm

I'm doing a Super Bowl trench preview for Tuesday, I'll look at these things then.

16
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 3:42pm

You can burn a lot of time off the clock if you get 5 downs...

17
by omaholic :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 8:41pm

I thought that too until I realized that the "knee" refers to Alex's Smith's third down run.

20
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/21/2012 - 7:26am

Yes. Sorry, that could have been clearer.

13
by Tundrapaddy (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 5:07am

The only play New Orleans had any success running the ball with was a wham concept play...

Am I the only one to get horrific visions of some crappy off-Broadway musical starting with 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' when I read this phrase?

Having said that - thanks, Ben, for the analysis. I tell people who ask down here (NZ) that the best way to determine which team will probably win the 'gridiron' game is line play.

18
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 10:47pm

Hi Ben,
Before the game I was looking at youtube highlight videos.
Someone posted that the rush won't get to Brees, just like in the Lions game, since the Saints started chipping the edge rushers all the time a few weeks ago.
Someone else responded that it won't matter for the niners, "cause we bull rush."
I thought that was actually a good insight. Especially when talking about Justin Smith; the way he plays, having Darren Sproles or even Graham chip him before releasing would be a waste of time. Any thoughts on that?
On a similar note, it looked like in the Lions - Saints game, Lions got no pressure because their style is to rely on Suh and Fairley to get pressure up the middle, then their mediocre DE do cleanup and contain. That was a poor matchup against the Saints, where their strength is the interior line. Suh was totally ineffective. Did he get worse (possibly nursing injuries or something) or is it more a case of superior guard play on New Orleans part? In any case the end result was zero pressure on Brees hehe.

Earlier in the season, around the time when the niners did the dumpoff to Sopoaga on offense, they had him lining up at fullback. Then they would run the fullback, pulling Iupati, and Sopoaga up the right side of their line. It was pretty awsome - that's a lot of beef!
Now they don't seem to run that *as much* as they used to.
Against the Saints defense they ran it some more of course because you can really gash a blitzing defense if you can create some extra running lanes by pulling your blockers.
What do you think of Iupati? He used to be pretty ineffective last year, very raw. Now with more experience, and seemingly better line-play coaching from Harbaugh and his assistants, he seems to be getting the hang of it, but still hasn't maximized his potential.

- Reinhard

19
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2012 - 10:50pm

Oh and regarding Graham, I'm continually impressed by his blocking. He is strong and aggressive. You wouldn't expect that from a fast, tall, "skinny" tight end with little football experience. Especially with a basketball background.
I mean Gates is obviously amazing, and I'm sure a decent blocker, but I never remember seeing him block and thinking "wow, nice block" nothing that pops off the tape. Basketball players normally they just don't have it when they have to B-E Aggressive!
But I've seen Graham chip DE and almost knock them backwards and upwards with a solid punch. Elbows in!

29
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 01/25/2012 - 6:19pm

To me Jimmy Graham is a bit of a front runner. What I mean by that is that he'll get physical on plays where he thinks he can make a big hit. When he has an angle to blind side guys or if he's cracking someone. When it gets time to drive block or cutoff guys that are lined up right over him, he looks like a college basketball player. He isn't terrible or on a Gates level, but he isn't good either. But, it doesn't matter when you go get it like he does.

30
by Dean :: Thu, 01/26/2012 - 4:34pm

Are you sure you didn't misspell "Hines Ward?"

23
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Sun, 01/22/2012 - 12:37am

The Lions actually did get some effective pressure, but the 49ers LBs are substantially better than the Lions LBs, and the Saints killed the Lions with screens and draws. Also, you underestimate how much Pierre Thomas getting injured on the first series affected the game. Thomas killed the Lions.

(Also, NO was 9-0 at home, and 5-4 on the road)

24
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Sun, 01/22/2012 - 12:57am

I agree on Pierre Thomas - personally I really like him a lot.
I remember one of the last times niners and saints played Thomas was able to drag Willis for a few yards. I've NEVER seen another back be able to do that.
With him out, their other RB weren't well suited to play the niners. Sproles of course causes some problems with his speed (like his long TD) but in general just had no chance of going inside on them. With him in the backfield, no reason to respect the run at all.

28
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 01/25/2012 - 6:14pm

Yeah, it's hard to chip bull rushers because A) they're big and strong and don't really get rocked by RBS and B)There isn't a lot of surface area for the backs to hit once they engage the offensive lineman, the window is too small. The best way I've seen to chip bull rushers effectively removes your TE from the route. What you do is motion a TE down and have him crack the DE like you're running a toss. Basically, the tackle sets and while the DE is distracted the TE earholes him. The Pats did this to Terrell Suggs last week in the first quarter and Gronk buried him. Also, I've seen it where the TE cuts him on the same motion, but I think that's illegal in the NFL.

While I think Suh was generally less effective this year, but it was more Evans and Nicks being really good.

I haven't seen a ton of Iupati this year, but like a lot of young guys he seems to do some things well (pull, play physical) and others not so well. Danny Tuccitto emailed questions about a couple of 49ers sacks/pressures earlier this year and almost all of them were the result of mental errors by Iupati. On one hand that's good because mental errors are easier to fix than physical ones at that level, as long as Iupati is above the football IQ threshold.