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06 Sep 2012

Word of Muth: Selection Thursday

by Ben Muth

Last night’s game between the Giants and the Cowboys marked the return of professional football. This offseason saw plenty of changes around the league. Coaches were fired and hired. (And suspended.) Rookie quarterbacks came in and won every starting job that wasn’t nailed down. The officials were replaced by guys who were refereeing intramural games between the Delts and a team that prominently featured a balls pun in its name. Of course, all this means that everyone is just as excited about football as they’ve ever been. As Chris Berman would say, "As Rascal Flatts once sang, 'Everything‘s changed except for the way I feel about you.'” Well put, Boomer. Well put.

Now that I got through the mandatory awkward opening column intro, we can get down to business. For those of you that are new to my column, it’s a simple concept. I pick three teams to follow for the year, and rotate who I write about each week. The focus is always on the play of their offensive line. Some weeks will focus more on schematic parts of their game (diagramming plays, normally) and others will put more emphasis on personnel (how guys played individually, fundamental technique analysis). The nice thing about following teams for the season is that you see how a season progresses for a single unit. What schematic adjustments do the coaches make to deal with their own personnel and/or defensive personnel? How do injuries impact the line? How are players (particularly the young guys) progressing as the season goes along?

Here's a look at our teams for 2012:

Kansas City Chiefs

WHY I CHOSE THEM

During the offseason, I wrote about a dozen columns reviewing games from 2011. The Chiefs game I watched was one of my personal favorites of the series. The thing I loved was KC’s running game: it wasn’t just that they ran it a lot, it’s that they ran a lot of variations on traditional zone blocking schemes to make the most of a pretty sparse backfield. With the return of Jammal Charles and the addition of Peyton Hillis, I’m confident that the creative running game will remain, but the production will see a big upgrade.

THE PLAYERS

The Chiefs also offer three players I’m interested in individually tracking. The first of those is left tackle Branden Albert. The former first-rounder is gaining a reputation as one of the better left tackles in the league. When I watched him against the Raiders, he played well, but his technique looked funky enough to give me some concern. I’m curious to see if he’s a Luis Tiant-esque figure who is effective despite some different looking mechanics, or if he eventually gets exposed once people get used to his style.

On the opposite side of Albert is Eric Winston. The veteran came over from Houston in free agency this offseason, and replaces the biggest liability on the Chiefs offensive line from last year, tackle Barry Richardson. I covered Houston in this column last year, and thought he was a tremendous run blocker. The stats seem to back up the analysis, as Vince Verhei pointed out in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:

"Winston has started every game for Houston since 2007. In that timeframe, the Texans only once ranked in the bottom half of the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs to right tackle, and their average ranking was 12.0. Over that same period, the Chiefs were never higher than 19th, and their average ranking was 27.8."

It seems like Winston is a no-brainer upgrade for Kansas City, but I’m still anxious to see how blends in with a new scheme and new teammates.

The last player I’m looking forward to watching is Rodney Hudson. The first-year starter saw a lot of success at Florida State and was taken in the second round of the 2011 draft to fill Casey Wiegmann’s shoes. The preseason reviews were solid, and he certainly has all the tools to be an elite center in the NFL, but center is played above the ears. You never really know how that will go until real bullets start flying.

At guard, the Chiefs return Ryan Lilja and Jon Asamoah. Lilja is an aging veteran trying to hold on to a starting spot in this league. Asomoah, on the other hand, is entering his third year and trying to move from an average starter to a true asset up front.

San Francisco 49ers

WHY I CHOSE THEM

From an offensive line perspective, the 49ers were as creative as anyone in their play calling last year. They used tight ends, fullbacks, defensive linemen, and extra offensive linemen to gain an advantage up front wherever they could. They major in the Power play, but also run a series of tosses and wham plays to keep defenses honest. Plus, having played for Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno in college, I’m more familiar with their scheme than any other.

THE PLAYERS

The 49ers come in with a big reputation. They start three former first-round picks, and return four starters. The guy I’m most excited to watch is Mike Iupati. He’s entering his third year in the league, and has shown everything you need to be a perennial All-Pro. The problem is that he’s let pad level and some minor technical things prevent him from becoming the league’s best guard. Because of the scheme he plays in, and how much he pulls, he is one of the more visible interior linemen in the league. If he plays up to his potential, he can take the title of "league’s best guard" from Carl Nicks.

On either side of Iupati is a guy who has played in the Pro Bowl. In the middle is Jonathan Goodwin, who made the game in 2009 as a member of the Saints. At left tackle, the Niners line up 2011 attendee Joe Staley. The former first-rounder has had some ups and downs (like most guys who play tackle at a young age), but has emerged as a top-10 left tackle. He isn’t a guy that you can leave on an island for an entire game and forget about, but he is solid in both run and pass blocking, which is rare for left tackles. He's a true asset.

The right side of the line is what makes San Francisco fans nervous. At guard, the 49ers are going with first-year starter Alex Boone. The Ohio State product played tackle in college, but is making the move inside to replace departed (and underwhelming) guard Adam Snyder. On Boone's right is right tackle Anthony Davis, another former first-rounder, who was one of the worst starters in the league in 2010. He improved in 2011, though he was often protected with help from tight ends and fullbacks, but more than one 49ers fan alerted me via Twitter that he was a concern. But, considering he turns 23 this year, it probably is a little soon to write him off.

New England Patriots

WHY I CHOSE THEM

"Anyone could put up those numbers behind that offensive line." – Internet Commenter

The Patriots always seem to have one of the league’s best offensive lines. Statistically, they’ve finished in the top 10 in both adjusted sack rate and adjusted line yards in each of the past three seasons. Anecdotally, Tom Brady seemingly has forever to throw the ball. With some personnel changes up front, now is a good season to see if it’s scheme or personnel that is responsible for that sustained success.

On top of that, the Patriots do some things schematically that should be interesting. They led the league in empty formations. That leads to a lot of interesting troubleshooting in protections. With the new all-22 film available on NFL Game Rewind, we’ll have a better idea of how they decide where to send the five blockers they have. They also led the league last year in sets with six or more linemen, which is awesome. We here at Word of Muth believe that the more offensive linemen on the field, the better.

THE PLAYERS

For the first time in a decade, Matt Light will not be the Patriots left tackle. That honor goes to Nate Solder, who saw action on the right side last year in his rookie campaign. Athletically, Solder is as good as it gets on the offensive line. The former tight end from Colorado put on a display during the 2011 Scouting Combine that is rare for an offensive lineman. While he looked good at times last season, he showed a tendency to play high and struggle with his hands in pass protection. A full offseason of OTAs and mini-camps should help there, but he still has a ways to go before he's playing at Light’s level.

The other big change for New England is the retirement of Brain Waters. He hadn’t been in New England as long as Light, but he might have been their best blocker last year. He’s being replaced by Donald Thomas. I don’t know much about the fifth-year veteran except that he started 12 games in 2009 for Miami and has started just once since.

The rest of the Patriots are known quantities. Logan Mankins is really good, played with an ACL tear because he is Logan Mankins, and the only lingering question will be if he can continue to play like a top-five guard. Dan Connolly is solid, if unspectacular. Sebastian Vollmer is obviously talented, but has problems staying healthy. If Mankins can return to form, it should be a big help to Solder.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 06 Sep 2012

18 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2012, 5:21pm by Anonymous1001001001

Comments

1
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 10:48am

"The Patriots always seem to have one of the league’s best offensive lines."

Internet commentator has the causation wrong. Brady is what makes the OL run, not the other way around. Anecdotally, just look at the 2008 season when Cassell got knocked around to the tune to something like 40+ sacks, or the 2007 SB when an ankle injury negated Tommy's renowned pocket mobility.

Not that the OL isn't an asset (it usually is) or the that coaching isn't excellent (most definitely, that's why they are able to plug-and-play as well as they do). But Brady's ability to read the defense, move in the pocket and make quick decisions makes the OL look a lot better than they really are.

Looking forward to your write ups this year, Ben!

4
by Thunderbolt of ... :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 11:07am

The 2007 SB also was played against a team with a ferocious pass rush. The 2007 Giants led the league with 53 sacks that year, and made many lines look bad. But I agree, QBs with excellent pocket presence like Brady, Peyton Manning, or Marino can make a line look far better.

5
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 11:12am

They certainly were good, even great. But Brady played them healthy just a few weeks prior and you could see a marked difference in his ability to squeeze out an extra second or two. I know the defensive game plans weren't the same, but it was clear to someone who watches Brady regularly.

Manning a great example. His OL was absolutely brutal in 2010, one of the worst I've ever seen, but the stats indicated something closer to average.

13
by Vicious Chicken Of Bristol (not verified) :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 2:02pm

Matt Cassel also hadnt played a snap of football since high school. Brady has shown obvious trouble in the past when under constant pressure. He can make a line look better, but there are limits.

I agree that this year should be a decent test.

2
by ebongreen :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 10:54am

Naturally, given the Packers are my team-of-choice, I wish you'd chosen to include them. They've got a strong group with a potential weak link in Newhouse and an old link in Saturday, with generally good pass pro and probably below-average run blocking - plus McCarthy as the playcaller/formation-wizard is usually entertaining.

That said, your column is always worth reading, and I look forward to the teams you've chosen. Hopefully you'll pick the Niners-Packers game Sunday for review and I'll get a little joy next week. :)

18
by Anonymous1001001001 (not verified) :: Fri, 09/14/2012 - 5:21pm

Your wish has been granted. After the niner-packer game last week, I'd imagine that you now have little joy.

3
by dryheat :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 10:55am

I look forward to the column...loved it last year. On a personnel note, the Patriots will start Ryan Wendell at center, and move Connolly to guard to replace Waters. He played guard the previous year (Mankins hold-out), and it's really his more natural position.

Also watch for RT Marcus Cannon out of TCU, whom I'm sure you remember from his draft story. If Vollmer's back doesn't hold up, he'll be next up, and he was fairly disastrous in the pre-season....I can see a lot of Hoomanawanui on the field if that's the case.

9
by Paddy Pat :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 1:10pm

Cannon was disastrous in preseason, but looked quite good in the 2011 regular season. He certainly has the talent... maybe it was just preseason?

6
by t.d. :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 11:46am

love the san francisco and new england picks for different reasons

7
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 11:53am

"Last night’s game between the Giants and the Cowboys marked the return of professional football. "

That's not true. USC played on Saturday.

8
by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 1:00pm

Soooooooooooooo happy to see the 49ers on the list.

10
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 1:20pm

Wham! Pull! Power! Trap!

That's why the niners are a good choice.

The others should be interesting too.

11
by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 1:41pm

For a second there I thought you were reviving the old Batman TV show.

12
by dryheat :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 1:56pm

ZUFF! PAN! SNUH! BORT! POOO! NEWT! MINT! ZAK!

14
by zenbitz :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 5:19pm

Alex, I have to say "What does Jim Harbaugh say to the media after a loss?"

17
by Eddo :: Fri, 09/07/2012 - 9:56am

My son is also named Bort.

16
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 5:24pm

Well I've been running round the city's dark streets with the tights and a mask on and all it's got me was a place on the sex offenders register...

15
by zenbitz :: Thu, 09/06/2012 - 5:22pm

Also, I am thrilled that you have chosen the Niners, Ben. In particular, it seems that they have a reputation for being an awesome run blocking line, but the results seem to be wanting.

There is at least one hot head on NinersNation who is convinced that Davis and Boone should switch positions because of their respective body types (Boone is tall, Davis has a low center of gravity and poor footwork).