Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

10 Apr 2012

Word of Muth: Scouting the Ravens

by Ben Muth

Word of Muth is spending the offseason going through the league team by team, and this week I looked at the Baltimore Ravens offensive line. The game I studied in particular was the AFC Championship game. I want to point out how great Vince Wilfork played in this one: The man was unstoppable. It didn’t matter if he was matched up against Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda, Michael Oher, or some combination of them. Wilfork was flat-out unblockable. Watching the game live, it was clear that he dominated, but watching the replay made it clear that he was on another level. Given the stage, it was probably the greatest game I’ve ever seen an interior defensive lineman play.

Perhaps you can see where I'm going here. One of the problems with the offseason version of this column is that I only watch one game, so everything is based on an extremely limited sample size. In that limited sample size, the Ravens line got it handed to them by the Pats. Baltimore’s offensive line had a strong year according Adjusted Line Yards (sixth) and was above average in Adjusted Sack Rate (12th), but that would be a surprise to anyone who just watched the New England game. I will say that both Ray Rice and Vonta Leach are very good and do a lot to make the guys up front look good.

Interior

Matt Birk probably played the best game up front for Baltimore. Watching him play he reminded me a lot of Jeff Saturday. Birk is good at getting to the second level in the running game, has great feet, and stays active on every play. He also struggled against the strength of nose tackles one-on-one in both the passing and running game. On a crucial fourth-and-6 late in the game, he gave up a pressure that forced an errant throw by Joe Flacco.

Figure 1: Daaaaa Bear

After a disastrous third-and-3 shotgun power play (an obvious Burn This Play candidate), the Ravens faced fourth-and-6. Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit for being a genius, and his call coming out of the timeout is a great example of that. Belichick didn’t call up some crazy blitz, didn’t try to show some crazy stunt and back out and drop out. No, Belichick lined up in a basic Bear Front and brought four (Figure 1). The reason is simple: Belichick had the best player on the field (Wilfork) and he called a defense that pretty much guaranteed that said player would draw a single blocker. The Bear front is a head-up nose and two three techniques. With both guards covered, there was no one to help Birk with Wilfork, and the big nose tackle walked the veteran center straight back into Flacco’s lap.

Birk wasn’t the only one who struggled with Vince though. Marshal Yanda made the Pro Bowl and has a strong reputation around the league, but he got man-handled by Wilfork. I thought Yanda looked pretty good against everyone that wasn’t wearing No. 75, but he was matched up with Wilfork for 70 percent of the game. As a result it’s hard to get a read on him. I will say one play that Yanda got ripped for was in no way his fault.

In the first quarter the Ravens motioned the tight end to the right side and ran an outside zone run. Wilfork was lined up head on with Michael Oher. On the play, Oher and Yanda should double team Wilfork up to the second level. Instead, Oher completely slipped Wilfork at the snap, barely grazing him, and leaving Yanda with the impossible task of reaching a defender who was two yards outside of him. Stuff like that goads me, because as an offensive lineman, you only get noticed when you mess up. It sucks getting noticed when someone else messes up for you.

Ben Grubbs was signed by the Saints this offseason to replace Carl Nicks. Grubbs certainly isn’t as good as Nicks, but I thought he did some things well. He is quick off the ball and seems like a good athlete. He probably had the best game of anyone in pass protection. That being said, he got stood up a few too many times in the running game. The Patriots played with good pad level all game and Grubbs struggled to match it at times. He would maintain his blocks well, but he was on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage more often than you would like. He was also late off the ball on that single back power play I mentioned earlier.

Tackles

Bryant McKinnie can’t move his feet anymore, it’s as simple as that. Every time McKinnie had to block a speed rusher on a seven-step drop it was mismatch. McKinnie would try and kick-step back a couple of steps, before giving up, opening his shoulders, and feebly trying to run the rusher past the quarterback. I assume he was beat up after a long season, because if he played that way all year, it’s hard to imagine that Flacco could have stayed healthy. If I had two words to describe his pass blocking against the Pats, those words would be "Levi Brown". All that being said, he can still blunt a bull rush, and if you run into him he’s good at holding. Yes, holding is a skill. Ask Lincoln Kennedy.

Michael Oher was better, but still not very good. The Ole Miss grad simply isn’t very physical. In the passing game, he doesn’t use his hands at all, he just kind of catches guys and tries to run them around. Luckily for him, he is quicker than McKinnie. In the running game, he gets knocked back by down linemen consistently. The first time he blocked Vince Wilfork, he got knocked straight back and bent over a pile, hurting his ankle in the process. With Oher, there are flashes of real ability. There was one set in the third quarter where he really let his hands go and rocked a defensive end (Rob Ninkovich, I believe) with his punch. It just didn’t happen enough for Baltimore against New England.

When Oher was out for a couple plays he was replaced by Jah Reid. We're dealing with an even smaller sample size here, but I thought Reid looked pretty good. He had a poor set on the first pass he was in: it was tentative and looked like he was trying to just avoid disaster. But after that he had a nice cut block on WIlfork, and a really good looking pass set where he used his hands better than Oher or McKinnie did all game. Again, it’s a limited sample size, but I’d be surprised if he couldn't beat out McKinnie next season. He probably could’ve done it this year if there had neen a real offseason.

I was planning on drawing up a blitz at the end of this column, but the Patriots didn’t really do anything too crazy from a stunting perspective. They basically went out there and beat the Ravens up with their base stuff. The only heavy blitz I can remember was on the Torrey Smith touchdown screen pass. So, I’ll end with a quote from a former offensive line coach that always made me laugh. The lesson is pretty self-explanatory, as offensive line coaches are not always the most abstract bunch.

“Better to die a baby than to jump offsides on third-and-1.”

Words to live by. That does it for this week, follow me on Twitter (@FO_wordofmuth) and feel free to tweet me your favorite coachisms. Maybe I’ll start using those to end these columns.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 10 Apr 2012

26 comments, Last at 17 Apr 2012, 8:11am by Mr Shush

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:16pm

“Better to die a baby than to jump offsides on third-and-1.”
---

There are times I wish the infant mortality rate was higher for Lions offensive linemen.

12
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 04/11/2012 - 8:56pm

Yes, yes, I know.... life is tough in the trenches for we Lions fans. The O-line doesn't run-block very well, Cherilus struggles to avoid penalties, Backus struggles against fast pass rushers going around him, Peterman was awful in 2010 while dealing with his foot injury, and Raiola looks like he's wrestling a giant vampire squid when he's in pass pro... I don't think I've seen these five guys produce anything that looks like a clean pocket. And yet, they've been near the top of the league of the NFL in pass protection the past two years. I think they have serious limitations, but on the other hand they seem to work well together in pass protection -- and I guess the Lions front office doesn't consider OL to be a huge priority, at least for now.
As I said in the last WoM post, it will be very entertaining to see how Ben evaluates them.

As far as that quote is concerned, the Lions D-line is far worse on violating that principle than the O-line.

16
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 8:05am

I'm thinking back on a quarter-century of Lions offensive lines. I can think of one good line, and by the start of the next season, one of them was dead and another paralyzed.

20
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 04/14/2012 - 12:28am

Ahh. I guess there's not much cure for 25 years of bad memories, except maybe for a bottle of Patron. It may a be many years before we see a tackle the caliber of Lomas Brown in Detroit. Hell, he wouldn't be considered big enough to play OL in the NFL these days.

2
by tuluse :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:57pm

Ben, is there a strategic change the Ravens could have made to get more help to deal with Wilfork? Or was it a case where he was just so dominant the only tactic is chuck and duck?

3
by AJ (not verified) :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:34pm

I have to believe you can get around any one defensive player, even if they happen to play at the most disruptive position on defense. I remember the 49ers using trap blocks against Suh to great effectiveness and i suspect there are different plays you can call to mitigate him some. With that said, nothing gets played in a vaccum.
The ravens skill personnel probably isn't the best, they were in a close game where their defense was playing well so they probably didn't want to gamble, and hell, maybe they figured wilfork would eventually tire out.

I remember what brian billick once said in a telecast in a lions game. They were down big and they were still trying to run the ball and quick screen despite it doing nothing. When he was asked he replied, "you practice a given scheme design a week for the opponent but when its obvious that the game situation is drastically different from what you were anticipating, you can't all of a sudden start calling whatever plays you feel like. Sometimes, you simply lack the personnel or the practice reps to execute them and so you are stuck."

With that said, as ben mentioned at the top, this was most definitely not indicative of the ravens season body of work. I know its greedy to demand this of ben, but he probably should screen two games of each team-a win and a loss- to get a better feel for the team. One could probably come away with the ravens o line as world beaters if they went off that week 1 Pittsburgh beat down.

5
by Will Allen :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 3:13pm

Most people who talk a lot about allegedly poor play calling have very little notion of how playcalling is dictated by personnel. The greatest play callers tend to have the largest number of players who do a wide variety of things well. What a coincidence.

17
by Dee Dee Ramone (not verified) :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 3:50pm

Belicheck has described the same situation as well. If you're too far off with what you install during the week, there's not much you can do.

4
by dpierre23 :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 3:09pm

Oh yeah Ben, I just wanted to point out that Yanda was playing injured for the entire playoffs. He developed compartment syndrome in his leg and had surgery for it the last week of the season. Also, Yanda got a rib contusion which probably affected his play even more. Wilfork's dominance was a combo of him playing out of his mind and a Yanda who wasn't playing at full capacity.

In addition, Belichick usually plays Wilfork a lot at DE against the Ravens because Oher is the Javale McGee of offensive line play. If you don't know who Javale McGee is, then watch this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgSYA3Gb7oI. But anyway, wherever Oher is on the line whether it be the left or right side, look for Vince to be the DE Oher's side.

6
by Will Allen :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 3:27pm

My high school coach played his college ball during the Vietnam War, when not going to college sometimes meant ending up with a M-16 in a rice paddy. He later played on the defensive side in the CFL, so he was, to my perception, harder on defensive players. The Mortal Sin, in his eyes, was a defensive end not setting the edge. When it happened, he would, during film session, play the offender in slow motion, forward and reverse, over and over, while shouting "ALLEN!!!! YOU HAVE BEEN HOOKED!! LOOK AT THAT!!! YOU!!!........ARE!!!........HOOOOOOOOOKKKKKKKEDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

He then would say, "IF I SEE THAT AGAIN, I'M GOING TO TRADE YOU TO VIETNAM!!!"

You have to understand the context of the guy. He was hilarious, and it always made everyone in the room laugh out loud, me included.

7
by BlueStarDude :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 4:14pm

It is too bad this is the one game you had to review. Having "always" (since he was a senior at Auburn) been something of a Ben Grubbs fan I was intrigued by this line in Aaron's Ravens-Pats preview: "Ravens running game has improved significantly over the last couple months of the season, ranking 22nd in rushing DVOA for Weeks 1-9, then third in rushing DVOA for Weeks 10-17". Grubbs went out with an injury in game 1 and returned to the starting lineup in game 9. That's an interesting correlation and it would have been nice to see some scouting to say whether there's some causation there or not.

8
by andrew :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 6:23pm

I've known that McKinnie was a shadow of his former pro bowl self, and even that pro bowl was not deserved.

That being said he was still probably better than Charlie Johnson or whoever the Vikings tried to replace him with, and that is part of the problem.

9
by Dan :: Tue, 04/10/2012 - 9:10pm

According to Pro Football Focus's numbers, the Patriots game was the worst game of the season for the Ravens' offensive line. It was Birk's worst game of the season, Oher's worst game, Grubbs' worst game, Yanda's 2nd or 3rd worst game, and McKinnie's 7th worst game.

10
by JimZipCode :: Wed, 04/11/2012 - 11:19am

O-line has definitely been a weak point for the Ravens, last couple seasons. That's interesting, because in 2009 they seemed to have one of the most promising *young* lines in football, with Gaither & Grubbs & Yanda & Oher surrounding Birk. The future seemed bright, but it did not pan out. Gaither's injury/implosion definitely hurt, and it seems Oher has failed to develop. Now Birk is old. (He wasn't young two seasons ago.)

Wilfork was a wrecking crew that day, one of the best performances by a D-lineman I've ever seen. Yet the Ravens still had an excellent chance to win that game. One pass play in the end zone was the difference.

11
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 04/11/2012 - 6:29pm

The story I've heard is that Oher was good as a rookie at RT, then flailed after being moved to LT the following year, and has not regained his form after going back to RT. Plausible or myth?

Shuffling players from one position to another along the O-line is notorious for causing problems.

13
by 0tarin :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 1:27am

That's exactly what I observed at the time. Oher was excellent at RT his rookie year, not so much as an LT the next year. Until now, I'd never seen such a strong argument against shuffling OL guys around at will. Makes me wonder what could have been when Gallery got the same treatment in Oakland.

19
by Ryan D. :: Fri, 04/13/2012 - 1:41pm

I think Jordan Gross bounced from RT to LT and back for his first four seasons in the NFL. I think it's worked out OK for him.

22
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 04/14/2012 - 7:26am

I can imagine it might have more impact on Oher than on other players, given his learning disabilities.

14
by AJ (not verified) :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 1:47am

there are two things worth mentioning...why do people assume the ravens o line is poor? based off this one game? I would argue its one of the better lines in the nfl and really, which teams have a good o line from top to bottom? How many teams can we honestly say have a good collection of tackles guards and centers? I can't name a single team that i feel comfortable saying has a good o line through and through.

And this is also what makes me wonder why lt is considered such a premium position and is drafted high. Nothing against lts as they do protect the blind side, but an effective o line really needs i would say 3 out of its 5 starters to be good and a few capable backups just in case. I witnessed what happened to the jets this year, who despite having studs at center and lt, were severly undermined by poor play from their rt and rg.

From a football standpoint, i understand o line values. The chiefs and seahawks come to mind as two teams with really successful offenses despite not having any elite skill players, but those are so hard to build and almost never happen. Easier, i would say, to go find one or two receivers and then just suck it up and hope you can tread water with some average o linemen. Or you could be the bears, have a horrible o line to go along with a horrible set of receivers and just be bad.

15
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 6:28am

The 2011 Texans were above average at every position on the offensive line. The 2012 Texans probably won't be.

18
by AJ (not verified) :: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 5:28pm

Damn, keep forgetting houston. You're absolutely right, houston's o line was definitely great last year but may not be this year :p

21
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 04/14/2012 - 12:33am

I'd say the 2011 Saints and Patriots both had O-lines well above the average also, unless you want to dock them for having Brees and Brady behind them. The 2012 Saints will probably not be as good as the 2011 version either.

23
by dryheat :: Sun, 04/15/2012 - 10:34am

I'd second that. The Saints had a dominant set of guards. In the Pats case, Light had his best season in years, Connelly was an improvement over Koppen, and Mankins and Waters were nearly as dominant as the Saints' pair. Of couse, Light looks like he's going to retire, Waters might, and Mankins is recovering from knee surgery, so they also could be primed for a decline.

24
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 04/15/2012 - 4:44pm

I'm not sure I'd say that every player on either the Saints or Patriots lines was above average, though. The lines overall were both excellent, but there's an extent to which very good players were covering for average ones. If indeed that's what the original poster meant by "through and through".

25
by LionInAZ :: Mon, 04/16/2012 - 10:57pm

Really, was there *any* team that had an O-line where *every* player was above average? How do you tell whether a player is actually good or being helped out by another? Seems to me that you can only single out the tackles for below-average play, outside of players who accumulate excessive penalties.

26
by Mr Shush :: Tue, 04/17/2012 - 8:11am

Well, obviously it's not particularly straightforward to evaluate individual offensive linemen. But do you really think it's so very implausible that a team could have one of the sixteen best left tackles in football, two of the thirty-two best guards, one of the sixteen best centers and one of the sixteen best right tackles? This Word of Muth column from December suggests that Ben agrees with me that the 2011 Texans were an example of such a line, and the contracts handed out to the two worst players on the line by other teams in free agency would appear to be further supporting evidence. Off the top of my head, I would suggest that the Packers and Chiefs lines circa 2004 probably also qualify (while also boasting out-and-out elite players of the sort the 2011 Texans did not, especially the Chiefs).