Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Apr 2012
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.
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.
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.
26 comments, Last at 17 Apr 2012, 8:11am by Mr Shush