An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
29 Jun 2012
by Ben Muth
Reading through the comments from last week, I picked up on the fact that the people demand NFC West breakdowns. The 49ers were particularly in demand, but the Seahawks got some love too. So, the next few teams we cover will all be from the NFC West (but we're not doing Seattle again, as I wrote about them last year). The plan is to go Arizona this week, St. Louis next week, and then San Francisco to round out the division.
In an ideal world, I would’ve done San Francisco first since they were the team people actually suggested. However, the last time I did a request for a Harbaugh-coached unit (the Ravens), I apparently picked a game that wasn’t indicative of the line’s performance for the season. So, I am asking any 49ers supporters to suggest what game(s) I should watch. If I don’t get any suggestions, I’ll just go with the NFC Championship. On a similar note, I need the last game the Rams played where both Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith were healthy. Those two guys took a beating from the media last year and I want to see what is going on with them, since they were highly regarded coming out of school.
With that bit of housekeeping out of the way we can move on to the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are my favorite team and I do watch every game they play, but like most fans I typically watch the ball on Sundays. So, while I definitely remember watch Arizona’s Week 17 game against Seattle, it was nice to rewatch it with a focus up front. I covered the Cardinals in 2010, so I was already familiar with a few of the guys up front. One of those guys is Levi Brown.
When the Cardinals released Brown at the beginning of this offseason, I thought his reign of terrible in Arizona was finally over. Instead, Arizona re-signed him to a cap-friendly multi-year deal. I was shocked. Even more shocking was talk among Cardinals fans about how good a move it was. People claimed that Brown had put it together finally, and actually had a nice second half of the season. I was skeptical, but figured it was time to take a closer look.
Much to my surprise, Brown looked better in this game than in any game I broke down in 2010. He played with much better balance in the running game and wasn’t getting thrown off blocks as much. He also did a nice job sitting down on bull rushes throughout the game, a feat that was even more impressive considering he was matched up against Red Bryant for the majority of it. Of course, he still can’t pass off twists because he has no lateral quickness. He did allow a sack, although it was off a linebacker stunt and not a straight twist. Brown also gave back 20 yards in penalties. Still, this was best performance I’ve ever seen Levi Brown give. So there’s that.
Next to Brown was Arizona’s big offseason acquisition, Daryn Colledge. The former Packer was brought in to replace the retired Alan Faneca, and I think he made a positive impact on the offensive line. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be "steady." He didn’t dominate, but he did his job. I thought Colledge pulled really well when given the chance to, but with LaRod Stephens-Howling getting the start, Arizona ran much more outside zone than usual.
Lyle Sendlein is still anchoring the offensive line at center. He played almost exactly the same as he did last year. He gets people going in the right direction and thrives in the grittiest aspects of the game: goal-line and short-yardage situations, comboing nose guards to middle linebackers, and things of that nature. (He did a nice job on Chester Taylor’s touchdown run.) He still can struggle a bit when he’s left in space, or when he has to reach a defensive tackle on his own. But overall, he’s an affordable veteran who is more than serviceable.
At right guard, Rex Hadnot probably struggled the most of anyone on the line. The biggest issue he had was getting his hands knocked down in pass protection: there were multiple occasions where Hadnot would land a decent initial punch before getting his hands knocked down by a defensive tackle. An even bigger problem was his failure to replace them quickly enough to recover. He gave up a sack, and another couple pressures on plays like this.
At right tackle, the Cardinals trotted out Jeremy Bridges. Bridges, along with Brandon Keith, has been rotating at the right tackle spot for the past two years. In this particular game, I thought Bridges played well. He probably had the best game of anyone asides from Colledge. Bridges also had the highlight reel block of the game, on a long run by Stephens-Howling in the first quarter.
|Figure 1: 96 Weak|
That block came on a basic weakside outside zone to the right. Seattle was in a hybrid alignment on defense. The front side (offense’s left) looked like a 4-3 Over with a walked up Sam. The backside (offense’s right) looked like a base 3-4. There are two ways to block a weak outside zone against a 3-4. One way is to fan it so that the tackle blocks the outside linebacker, the guard blocks the defensive end, and the fullback leads on the middle linebacker. Or you can stick to basic zone rules, which means you combo block the defensive end to the middle linebacker, and then have the fullback lead on the outside linebacker. A lot of teams fan it, because they don’t want a big collision between the outside linebacker and the fullback two yards into the backfield. The Cardinals didn’t, and it paid off when Arizona’s fullback delivered a nice cut block a yard deep in the backfield.
With the outside linebacker out of the play, it was up to the defensive end or the middle linebacker to make a play. Bridges blocked both of them. He took a good first step and got to the defensive end's outside shoulder immediately. Once he was there, Bridges did a nice job of ripping with his inside arm and leaning into the block to turn the shoulder. That allows Hadnot to get his helmet outside as well and hook the defender.
After Hadnot was engaged with the down lineman, Bridges escaped to the second level and not only blocked the linebacker, but knocked him down. If that wasn’t enough, he kept running and got in the free safety’s way too. On one play, he essentially blocked three guys, and knocked one of them to the ground. Not too shabby.
Before I go, I did want to plug one outside project I did last weekend. Matt Waldman, who contributes the Futures column here, put together a fun offseason exercise for a few of the most talented football writers on the web. He assigned values to every player in the NFL and asked us to build a roster while remaining under the allotted amount of points. I had a lot of fun with it and was happy with how my team came out. (Yes, there may be a Stanford alum or two on the team.)
21 comments, Last at 12 Jul 2012, 11:29am by chemical burn