Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
03 Jul 2012
by Ben Muth
The last time that St. Louis’ starting offensive line was completely healthy and playing together in the same game was in Week 4 against the Washington Redskins. A Twitter follower pointed out that this was not their best performance and that I may want to check out a different game. I decided to disregard that advice and watch Sam Bradford get sacked seven times instead.
Let’s start with Rodger Saffold since he gave up either three or four sacks depending on who you want to blame for a sack allowed on a stunt. From what I understand this is the worst game Saffold has had as a pro. Keeping that in mind, I like some things that Saffold does. He has a very natural looking pass set. He does a nice job of getting depth without turning his shoulders. In the running game, I thought he blocked well at the second level and got decent movement against down linemen (though he seemed to get the benefit of a lot of doubles). On top of that, he just moves well out there. He looks the part.
That isn't the story though; you don’t give up four sacks by doing everything right. The main problem Saffold had was Brian Orakpo’s bull rush. The Rams were constantly in passing situations due to their 317 false starts in this game, and as a result Orakpo was able to line up in a wide-nine technique. Saffold had to bust his butt to kick out to him, and because Saffold was so concerned with Orakpo’s speed, he wasn’t able to re-adjust his body weight to anchor down when the bull rush came.
What shocked me though was the Rams’ lack of a game plan to help Saffold. Early in the game, the idea seemed to be "let Saffold handle Orakpo one on one." This would allow them to send help (tight ends, running backs, and half slides) to help Jason Smith. Once Orakpo made a couple plays in the first half, the Rams came out in the second half and changed nothing. Actually, they went to a lot of five-man protections in the second half and removed Smith’s help as well.
I was honestly shocked at how much Saffold was on an island. The last time I saw a left tackle by himself that often was when I did a Twitter breakdown of the Dolphins: Jake Long was isolated pretty much the whole game. I’m not sure if Josh McDaniels thinks the world of Saffold, doesn’t think Smith can block a lick, or has no respect for Orakpo, but the lack of adjustments was truly baffling. It made someone I think can play left tackle in this league look disastrous.
Speaking of disasters, that’s probably how most people would describe the Smith pick at this point. As I just pointed out, Smith received almost all the help on the edge in this game. He still gave up some pressure. The biggest issue with him seems to be that he moves his front foot in his pass set too far back when he is kicking out to wide defenders. Because of this, his base all out of whack. He has a hard time anchoring on bull rushes, and he leaves too much space for defenders to come underneath him.
The Rams interior line played better than their tackles, but they had their struggles as well. In the running game, I actually liked both Jacob Bell and Harvey Dahl. Bell got some really nice movement a couple of times on both inside and outside zone plays. While Bell got better movement, Dahl was a more effective puller. He showed good quickness behind the line and did a nice job of sticking to guys once he made contact with them in the hole. If I had to pick just one of them, I’d probably take Dahl in the limited sample size.
The struggles, not surprisingly, came in pass protection. All three interior linemen (center Jason Brown in addition to the guards), had a hard time with the same thing. When defenders (particularly linebackers) started out wide, and made hard inside moves to counter underneath, St. Louis’ interior linemen always seemed to be hanging on for dear life.
Really, I don’t think the line is that far off from being decent. I like Dahl, and I think Saffold will bounce back from a tough year. Smith might make some nervous, but most lines have one guy like that. Plus, if they can get away from using so many five-man protection schemes, I think the unit will look much better to the casual observer.
Still, I cannot stress enough that seven sacks is a lot for an NFL team to give up under any circumstances. Before the game I was wondering how St. Louis would do it, and I got my answer with 5:35 left in the third quarter. The key is to call the play diagrammed in Figure 1 in a game in which your pass protection struggles were already apparent.
|Figure 1: Circle|
Looking at it on the board it doesn’t look that bad. In fact, it looks like an inventive way to run a play-action half roll and take a shot deep. The problem is that you are asking your center to do a bunch of stuff that is both really complex and completely different from what he normally does. At the snap, he takes three steps hard to his right, as if he’s running a naked boot. But rather than keep going in the typical "elephants on parade" fashion, Brown’s job is to circle back around and pick up anything off the edge.
You read that right: his job is to run in a circle and then block anyone off the edge. That sounds absurd to me. It sounds even crazier when you consider a couple of things:
1) The Redskins run a 3-4. There is a very good chance that someone will be coming off the edge
2) The Rams ran the play-fake to the right, meaning there is a very good chance that Brian Orakpo will be that edge rusher.
3) Brian Orakpo is the Redskins best pass rusher, and probably their best player overall.
4) Centers are generally not good at blocking elite edge pass rushers with speed and length.
5) Brian Orakpo has speed and length.
6) What if they bring two guys off the edge? (I assume there’s a kill, but what happens if it is well-disguised?)
Well, as you might have guessed, Brown had a hard time blocking Orakpo. I think the biggest issue was that he had to breakdown like he was making a special teams tackle after running in his circle. Brown couldn’t get his feet under him in time, and Orakpo just bull rushed the hell out of him and brought Bradford down for a sack.
That does it for this week. Next week it’s the 49ers. As of right now I’m planning on doing two games since I’ve gotten so much feedback from Niners fans. I’m leaning towards the Thanksgiving game against the Ravens and the Divisional Round win against the Saints, but I’ll take last-minute suggestions via Twitter or in the comments. Also, be sure to check out my RSP team and explanation.
40 comments, Last at 09 Jul 2012, 1:38pm by big0mar