How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
16 Aug 2013
by Ben Muth
After a long offseason, football is officially back on television. That means that it’s time for me to start getting ready to write about the good, the bad, and the shameful for three offensive lines. Rather than doing one big preseason preview, this year I’m going to do three individual previews for each of the teams I’ll be covering. The goal isn’t necessarily to predict how I think the offensive lines will play, but to give a brief description of why I chose them, what I’m most looking forward to watching, and what might be a cause for concern.
This year's teams will include the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals, but first up, let's look at the Dallas Cowboys.
This one is simple. I’m following the Cowboys because I just happen to live in Dallas at the moment and I enjoy writing about the teams I listen to talk radio hosts and callers talk about. It’s the reason I covered the Cardinals in year one of this column and the reason I covered the Titans in year two. (I didn’t cover the Cardinals last season, when I was again in Arizona, because I knew it would have turned me into a drunken Harry Doyle from Major League for 2,000 words at a time.)
The good news is that there are plenty of reasons to focus on the Cowboys offensive line that go beyond my current mailing address. They drafted an offensive lineman in the first round, Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, and everyone thought it was a reach at the time. But Frederick is getting strong reviews in the preseason. The Cowboys also have third-year left tackle Tyron Smith, who is as physically gifted as any lineman in the NFL.
Then we have two guards returning from what was possibly the worst interior offensive line in the NFL: Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. These two are thought of so highly in the organization that, after failing to sign one guard that decided to retire instead of play for America’s Team (Brandon Moore), they have been actively trying to coax another guard out of retirement (Brian Waters).
Lastly, let's not forget to mention Doug Free, the homegrown left tackle that was moved to the right side and had to take a steep pay cut just two years after signing a hefty extension. This offensive line may not the best I’ve covered, but they should be interesting. I can’t wait to see what exactly this thing will look like at the end of the year, because it could go a few different directions.
While I’m curious to see whether Frederick was simply a little overdrafted or a flat-out bust, what I’m really looking forward to watching is whether Smith can become a top-flight guy at left tackle.
When Smith was first drafted I remember being in the camp that thought he would struggle at first due to his age (he was just 20 as a rookie) and slight frame for an offensive tackle. So, of course, he came out and played really well as a rookie and was probably his team’s best offensive lineman despite the fact that he couldn’t legally enjoy a beer. Because he played so well and had such great athleticism, the Cowboys moved him to the left side, and he followed that faith up with a bit of a disappointing year in 2012. It’s not that he played poorly; it’s just that he didn’t make a real leap like a lot of second-year offensive linemen do (Nate Solder and Trent Williams, to give two examples). He was still the best lineman the Cowboys had, and certainly an above-average tackle, he just wasn’t as great as his first year might have lead you to hope. I'm intrigued to find out if Smith is going to be a solid left tackle or an All-Pro type player.
After watching a couple of games last year I will say that Smith certainly has the talent to be compared favorably to anyone. His feet are as good as anybody currently playing the position -- and I’m including my personal favorite pass setter Ryan Clady. He’s quick, he’s smooth, he’s fluid, he does everything you want from just a pure pass-setting prospective. The issue is that where Clady is a very good puncher, Smith is a fairly mediocre one.
Smith isn’t a massive puncher, and he doesn’t have a great natural anchor against a bull rush, so as a result he can get pushed around a bit. He’s athletic enough to recover from getting knocked off balance, but he really can get disrupted in his set and at times it threatens the integrity of the pocket. I think either a bigger punch or a quicker, more accurate punch, would go a long way towards him being the player a lot of people think he can be.
One thing I will say in favor of Smith’s hands is that while they aren’t very good initially, he is really good at hand fighting once he’s engaged a defender. He lacks that big punch that stuns people, but he does replace hands effortlessly when they get knocked down, and will knock a defenders hands down and regain inside leverage often. Here’s an example of Smith’s hand fighting from last season.
You can see that his lower body is in great position when he makes contact with the rusher. Wide base, inside-out relationship, and decent pad level. But his hands are initially wide, and because he doesn’t jolt the defender at all, the rusher is able to begin to long arm Smith towards the quarterback.
Once Smith feels that he has bad hands, he immediately chops down the pass rusher’s long-arm technique and brings him face first to the turf. This is like pass blocking judo, where you use the defender’s own move (in this case leaning into a long arm) against him. It’s a pretty play as far as pass blocking goes, and Smith made it look ridiculously smooth. If Smith does stuff like this consistently, I’m going to really enjoy watching the Cowboys line no matter what the other four guys are doing.
I watch a lot of competitive cooking shows: Chopped, Top Chef, Master Chef, and others of that nature. One of the standard challenges in these types of shows is to break into teams of three-to-four people to create one dish. The catch is that only one person can be in the kitchen at a time, and you can’t communicate with your teammates before or during the competition. The results from these challenges are usually a mess. Sauces don't compliment the side dishes, or at least one item on the plate is horrendously overcooked. Stuff like that. The important thing is that the lack of communication makes it impossible to judge the individual chefs on what they might have been responsible for. This reminded me of watching the Cowboys interior line last year.
When I watched the Cowboys live last year, I knew the interior line was bad. What I didn’t realize was why it was so bad. Upon further review, a large part of it was because they were so bad at passing off stunts, game, and blitzes. I’m not sure if it was the fault of the center (either Ryan Cook or Phil Costa), the guards, or the scheme, but I do know that it was hard to get a read on the individual players because the unit as a whole seemed so dysfunctional.
This is from the Cleveland game in Week 11. I think center Bernadeau and guard Derrick Dockery are responsible for the nose tackle and the inside linebacker to the offense's right, but it’s hard to tell because of the way the play develops. After the nose tackle initially worked into the center, he countered towards the guard. Once Dockery felt the nose tackle work away at the snap, he immediately got his eyes to the linebacker. Once Bernadeau felt the nose work towards the guard as the play developed, he got his eyes towards the linebacker as well. You can see where this is going.
The result was the Cowboys effectively double teaming a guy that wasn’t blitzing and letting a 300-pound nose guard go essentially unblocked until it was too late. This kind of stuff happened way more than it ever should -- and this wasn’t even a stunt.
One thing I am confident about is that the center position had be addressed and that’s what the Cowboys did by taking Frederick in the first round. I’m not sure a rookie center is going to be enough to fix the issues Dallas had inside last year though. If Brian Waters is 70 percent of what he was in New England (where he was probably 85 percent of what he was in his prime) he would be a huge upgrade and worth going out to get. But if Dallas doesn’t get him, I’m not sure there will be enough X’s on the internet to dole out for the Great Shame of the Cowboys interior line.
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