After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
10 May 2013
by Ben Muth
Welcome to the second part of Word of Muth's post-draft breakdown of the first six offensive linemen taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Last week we looked at the top two picks, offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel. This week we’re skipping Lane Johnson (for now), and going straight to the two highest drafted guards I can remember.
One thing I want to point out about both these guys is how hard both played in the games I saw. I know they aren’t undersized white guys, so that effort isn't going to be praised by a lot of reporters, but I thought both played hard enough that it warranted a special mention here. You always want guys to come in to the league knowing the kind of effort it takes to stick.
If you own a television and are reading this column, you have probably heard something about Jonathan Cooper’s athleticism in the past few months. He’s not the second coming of Jim Thorpe, but he really is a pretty amazing athlete, particularly for a man of his stature. His signature highlight, the one that was in every draft montage, is a play where he pulls on a screen and is almost stride for stride with Bengals second-round running back Gio Bernard as they run 30 yards downfield. The fluidity with which Cooper runs on the play is so great that no one cares that he doesn’t actually block anyone; it’s just impressive to see a guard move like that.
In reality, straight-line speed isn’t very important for interior linemen. What matters instead is if they can translate that natural athleticism to football effectiveness. For the most part, Cooper does that, particularly in pass protection. In the two games I watched Cooper play (Virginia Tech and Maryland), he was absolutely dominant in the passing game.
Cooper plays with good pad level and knee bend -- he doesn’t shuffle side to side as much as he glides. His set and footwork are smooth, fluid, and pretty much exactly what you want from interior lineman. His punch has a little bit too much load-up to it, but when he lands his hands they’re heavy and he anchors well against the bull rush. He is as strong an interior pass-blocking prospect as I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been looking at this kind of stuff.
On top of that, he pass blocks like the game is moving slower for him. Not only is he rarely out of position on his own blocks, he’s excellent at helping the center or guard when he can in slide protection. He has a knack for coming off of one guy and onto another at just the right time to prevent pressures. And, when he gets a chance, he knocks guys on their asses.
Here’s a play from the Virginia Tech game where UNC is half-sliding to the left. Cooper is arrowed at left guard. He had a defensive tackle line up on his inside shoulder, so he sets outside and makes the tackle declare where he’s rushing: the B-gap or the A-gap.
Once the defensive tackle rushes to the A-gap, Cooper begins to squeeze back into him with an arm and body presence. But as he does that, notice that Cooper’s eyes remain outside in case the offensive tackle needs his help.
Eventually the defensive tackle rushes so far inside Cooper can no longer feel him. Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech defensive end is using the timeless college pass-rush move of putting both hands directly into the offensive tackle's facemask. This technique is the little black dress of the NCAA: it never goes out of style. Cooper sees the offensive tackle could use help and leaves the center to assist the tackle.
Because the defensive end's arms are fully extended above his shoulders, Cooper has a free shot at the rusher’s rib cage and knocks his ass over right into the X of Great Shame. I love this play so much. Cooper shows schematic-knowledge (make the defensive tackle declare where he’s rushing), awareness (knowing when to help), explosiveness (getting from the center to the tackle quickly), nastiness (taking a legal shot a defenseless player’s ribs), and sweet justice (your ribs aren’t so open if your hands aren’t in the guys face mask, 90).
The concern I have with Cooper is that I really didn’t see him move anybody in the run game. He’s great at the second level, blocking guys that try to run around blocks. He can reach nose tackles on plays away and three-techniques on plays behind him, but when it’s time to flat-out move somebody, he didn’t blow me away. I think he’s good enough at everything else that he’ll be at least a solid pro, but if he can’t move anyone, he’ll never really be an All-Pro on the interior.
The Warmack/Cooper duo has a lot in common with the Eric Fisher/Luke Joeckel duo. Warmack and Joeckel were both seen as the clear-cut top guys at their positions during the season and immediately following it, but as the draft process went along a few people started arguing for Cooper and Fisher, and by the time the draft came around the non-SEC guys were almost unanimously seen as the top guys at their position. While I agreed with Fisher over Joeckel, I think I’d prefer Warmack over Cooper.
I think both Cooper and Warmack will be good, but ultimately it comes down to what I would want from my guards, and there’s nothing I like more than a guard who can physically move someone to create to hole for the running back. I think most people are aware that Chance Warmack made his name as a drive blocker in college, but I actually think Warmack was a very effective puller as well. A better one than Cooper, in fact.
My biggest pet peeve with people who "grade" offensive linemen for the draft is that they put far too much emphasis on how a guy looks when he’s pulling and not enough on what he does when he gets there. People end up judging a 325-pound guy’s running form and not whether or not he created space for a back to run through. Cooper was seen as an elite puller because he looked so fluid moving. He was a good one, particularly tracking linebackers over the top, but he could get stood up in the hole by a linebacker that was really ready to thump and plug the hole. That doesn’t happen to Chance Warmack.
Alabama is running a single-back power here. Power is probably the second-most popular running play in the NFL, behind only the inside zone. When you talk about guards pulling in the NFL, 75 percent of the time you’re talking about this play. The goal is to create a hole by having the tight end hold his ground on the defensive end, and for the double team to kick the hell out of the defensive tackle. The backside guard (Warmack) pulls and leads the back through the hole.
As the play develops, you can see the hole created by the double team is just big enough for Warmack to get through. The linebacker that Warmack is leading up to seems to have contain, and the defensive end seems to have the C-gap. Warmack decides to work through the defensive end to get to the linebacker and widen the hole for T.J. Yeldon. Notice that the right guard is about a yard away from the hash above.
The right guard is still a yard away from the hash mark, but look at how much bigger the hole is. That’s because Warmack has shoved the defensive end another yard outside. He kind of rumbles when he pulls on power, but all that matters is that when he gets there he’s able to sink his hips and drive his feet through contact. That’s what opens the hole, and that’s all I care about when guys pull. Warmack does it well.
The last picture is great because it shows you how little space a really well-blocked play actually creates. This is all you’re looking for as an offensive line. You’ve executed just about perfectly up front and still all you’ve given your running back is a yard-and-a-half hole to run through. Tennessee’s safety does a nice job of filling here and should make a tackle for a five-yard gain, but doesn’t because T.J. Yeldon is good at football. Making a guy miss in a phone booth is what separates the good running backs from the 300 serviceable ones. Yeldon looks to be a good one, but that conversation will have to wait a couple of years.
That does it for this week. Come back next week for third and final part of the Word of Muth draft extravaganza. If you liked what you read, be sure to follow me on Twitter.
48 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2013, 6:06am by hassan