Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
29 May 2013
by Ben Muth
Welcome back to the fourth and final part of the 2013 Word of Muth draft breakdown. It’s been a long journey, but one of great discovery. I was reminded how awful most college defensive linemen are: hey guys, you’re allowed to use your hands to do more than bullrush. Secondly, and more pertinent to my NFL-favoring audience, is that this was a really bad draft. I know a lot of draftniks reframed this as "it wasn’t a star-studded class," but every lineman I looked at after Luke Joeckel was a definite reach for where he was drafted. That includes the last two featured linemen we're looking at: Justin Pugh and Kyle Long.
I'm assuming the Giants drafted Justin Pugh thinking he can be a good guard and perhaps a serviceable right tackle. If you work me over long enough, you could talk me into him becoming a good guard, but I can’t see how he plays tackle in the NFL. I love his feet in his pass set, and everything before his initial punch is good. But at the end of the day he plays short-armed, high, and soft in the passing game. Not the combination you want to see from a first-round tackle.
Pugh’s short arms were discussed frequently leading up to the draft, but more disturbing than their length is his refusal to use the length he does have. Pugh alternates between throwing looping punches to the outside edges of his man's shoulder pads and simply waiting to clamp down on a rusher who has run directly into his chest. Joe Thomas, famously, has short arms. Thomas also throws a straight and accurate punch that keeps defenders away from his body. Pugh plays like a T-Rex in a straitjacket.
This problem is compounded by the fact that he tends to raise up as he gets deeper into his pass set. This isn't an uncommon problem among tackles, but Pugh is worse than most. The Syracuse product often becomes completely straight-legged (though he does typically keep a good base width-wise) when he engages a defender.
The result of those two problems is that Pugh plays soft in pass protection. I don’t consider Pugh a soft player, but when you play straight up and don’t punch, you’re going to get knocked around. Guys that get shoved around that easily look soft out there. Here’s what I’m talking about:
This is from Syracuse's game against Pittsburgh. You can see at the point of contact in the first frame that Pugh is almost completely straight-legged. Also, note that his arms are at 90 degrees and not extended at all. Fat, dumb, and stupid is no way to go through life. Straight-legged and bent-armed is no way to pass protect.
In the second frame you can see why. The Pitt player is directly into Pugh’s chest and lifting him off the ground. Pugh is 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, but is barely able to keep a toe on the ground when the defender unloads into his chest. I can’t see someone with arms this short and technique this bad playing tackle in the NFL. Obviously, this is an extreme case showcasing Pugh’s worst habits, but the flaws are on the tape, and that Pitt guy ain’t exactly Justin Smith.
After watching the Rutgers game and the first three quarters of the Pitt game, I was ready to write Pugh completely off. It wasn’t that he was a bad college player -- in fact he was a good one -- I just couldn’t see him at a position in the NFL. He had good feet, and he was a fluid athlete, but he played with terrible pad level and didn’t use his hands. Late in the Pitt game in the four-minute drill, though, Syracuse went to a goal-line formation and ran right behind Pugh five straight times. Pugh kicked the absolute dog crap out of the guy lined up over top of him.
I don’t care how many times you get bullrushed, when you continually dominate on drive blocks, you are not a soft player. Everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, Syracuse was running straight-ahead blocking, and Pugh was just firing out and knocking his man three-to-six yards off the line of scrimmage every time. It’s the kind of series that’s so impressive it made me re-evaluate and re-watch the tape for things I may have missed.
And sure enough, there are a couple more plays where he gets great movement in the running game, including knocking his man four yards into the end zone on a touchdown run. I also noticed that he looks much better in pass protection when he’s got a guy lined up right over top of him and doesn’t have to kick out wide. He’s able to get into them and mirror them before they can get the momentum to really rock him. He still plays high, but I don’t think it’s an athleticism issue. Taking him out of a two-point stance will do wonders on that front.
I’ll be honest, I really struggled to write about Kyle Long. He does most things pretty well, nothing great, and nothing truly awful. If he was going to a team like the Patriots or 49ers, who could put a solid offensive line around him immediately, I think he could have come in and immediately play solid football with limited mistakes. The added name value could have eventually "Jermon Bushrod"-ed him to a couple of Pro Bowls.
I'll explain. To "Jermon Bushrod" means to play with a really good quarterback and guard next to you, so that instead of looking like the merely above-average tackle you are, you make the Pro Bowl. (Hmm ... starting to realize Bears fans aren’t going to love this article.) Long is not going to a strong unit. He’s going to an offensive line that has been bad for a while and could very well be bad again. I don’t think fans account for how much it helps an offensive lineman to play next to other good offensive linemen.
I see Long as more of a tackle than a guard. I think he has naturally good feet, and while his initial set isn’t smooth, it’s efficient. He may not be a great puncher, but he uses his hands well and is above-average at replacing them when they get knocked down. Long is at his best when he’s trying to out-leverage defensive linemen as opposed to trying to move them off a spot in the running game. I could see him turning into a solid offensive tackle, particularly in a zone-based scheme.
When I first watched Long, I thought he could be a dominant pass-blocking guard in the Andy Levitre mold. Then, as I continued to watch, I realized a large portion of this was fool’s gold. Defensive tackles weren’t actually rushing to get to the quarterback against him, they were just trying to push the pocket and shadow Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to contain his running ability. Defensive linemen will not be rushing to contain against Jay Cutler, they will be rushing to maim him.
It’s not Long’s pass-blocking I’m most worried about, however; it’s his run blocking. I thought there were too many instances where Long got stood up at the line of scrimmage and was unable to generate even late movement. Once again, it’s best to show and not tell.
This clip is from the best college football game of last season. It’s third-and-6 in the red zone and the Ducks are running an inside zone (read) concept right behind Long. At the snap, Long and defensive lineman Ben Gardner stalemate at the line. Long wants to get his helmet to Gardner’s outside shoulder, and he kind of does, but he still leaves a lot of color (the area of the defender that the running back can see) showing to his outside, which scares the back into an immediate cutback.
When Gardner sees the running back cut, he goes to shed Long to attempt to make the play inside. This is where you have to win as a lineman: as soon as the defender isn’t using all his strength to stay stalemated with you, you have to restart your feet and drive him as he tries to escape. This is something that fellow rookie Eric Fisher excelled at in college. If you’re great at it, you end up driving your man off the line of scrimmage and creating a late cutback or bounce opportunity, depending on where the running back is.
Long can’t restart his feet though, and Gardner comes down and makes the tackle a couple of yards short of the first down. Watching your man make a tackle a couple of yards short of the imaginary yellow line is about as bad a feeling as you can have as an offensive lineman. I hate to pile on Long, but that image is just begging for the X of Great Shame. In Oregon yellow no less.
I realize that both Long and Pugh are starting training camp at the positions I said that they shouldn’t play. but anyone who makes playing-time predictions before guys play a single game is going to be wrong frequently. Also, remember that the Super Bowl champions got a lot of mediocre games from Kelechi Osemele at tackle before moving him inside at guard where he excelled. NFL teams can engage in wishcasting prospects at times.
34 comments, Last at 31 May 2015, 9:51pm by cheap