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?
21 Mar 2013
by Ben Muth
In the offseason I have a little more freedom to deviate from the standard game breakdowns you see here during the regular season. There aren’t new games to cover every week, so I have a chance to cover whatever interests me at the moment. So when I was looking at free agent tackles and saw Dwight Freeney beat Jake Long with a spin move, I thought that could make for the foundation of an interesting column. I wanted to look at a few different pass-rush moves and how they beat offensive linemen.
Now, since this column is ultimately about offensive line play and I sat in hundreds of hours of offensive line meetings versus zero hours of defensive line meetings, this piece will be more about blocking these moves than winning with them. But I’ll try to offer as much insight as I can as to what the defensive player is coached to do and why.
The first move I want to look at is something called a long- or straight-arm. It’s a simple-but-effective move that defenders probably don’t use enough. The basic idea is to turn your shoulders perpendicular to the blockers' shoulders, and stab the middle of his chest with your inside arm fully extended.
J.J. Watt probably uses this move better than anyone right now, so I watched the Week 17 Texans game to get a good picture of it. As I was watching the game, waiting for Watt to use the move, his teammate Connor Barwin pulled off a textbook long-arm and drew a holding penalty. So, let’s take a look at the new Eagle in action.
You can see the rush starts pretty normally. Not a great get-off by Barwin, and Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo is in good position. Then, right at the point of contact, Barwin turns his shoulders straight upfield and stabs Castonzo between the numbers with his inside arm. From there, he wants to use that hand like a pivot so he can flip his hips around the blocker and towards the quarterback. The key as a rusher is to make sure you get your shoulders turned.
By turning his shoulders, Barwin has made himself as small a target as possible for Castonzo. Barwin isn’t a little guy, but if all you have to punch is the very edge of his shoulder pad, you’re left trying to hit a seven-inch-wide moving target.
The other thing Barwin accomplishes by turning his shoulders is taking away Castonzo’s length advantage. As a first-round tackle, I can almost guarantee that Castonzo has longer arms than Barwin. But if Barwin is reaching straight out to his side with one arm, and Castonzo is reaching straight ahead with two, Barwin is playing longer. In the second part of the picture, Castonzo can’t reach Barwin’s frame. That’s what makes this move so tough. You’re trying to pass block someone that you can’t reach.
Castonzo has to get Barwin’s hand off the middle of his chest. It’s tougher than it sounds because it’s a role reversal. As an offensive lineman, you work a ton on not getting your hands knocked down when you punch, and replacing them as quickly as possible if you do. You aren’t used to being the one who has to knock the defender’s hands down.
Once someone lands square in your chest like this, there isn’t a ton you can do. Since Castonzo still has decent width in frames 2 and 3, his best chance would be to turn and try to shotput Barwin up the field as far as possible. He has to hope that he can push Barwin by the quarterback and go gather him up there. Castonzo doesn’t do that, though.
Castonzo tries to trap-and-snatch Barwin. That means he brings his arms down in a clubbing motion on to Barwin’s arm. The goal is to collapse the rusher’s arm and force him to fall forward into the ground or into your body space, where you can smother him. Snatching can be particularly effective against bullrushes.
But here it actually aids Barwin. By snatching right as Barwin is starting to flip his hips, Castonzo actually slingshots Barwin around and closer to Andrew Luck. The snatch actually does what it’s supposed to in the sense that it pulls Barwin off-balance and makes him fall forward, but since it also brought his hips around, Barwin is between Castonzo and Luck. So when Barwin does fall on his face, it looks like it is because Castonzo is holding the hell out of him. Which he was. But it wouldn’t look that way to the referee, which is all that matters, if Castonzo was between the rusher and the quarterback.
The next game I wanted to look at keeps us in Lucas Oil Stadium but takes us back to the Week 9 game between the Colts and Dolphins. This is the game I referenced earlier, where Freeney beat Long. I was tempted to just re-use the images, but in an effort to provide only the freshest content, I decided to use a move from Freeney's longtime teammate Robert Mathis.
Freeney and Mathis have both had a lot of success for a long time with one signature move; they just happen to have different signature moves. For Freeney, it’s his spin move; for Mathis, it’s a simple dip-and-rip move. I could (and I’m going to) explain it, but it’s always better to show you what I'm talking about first.
It starts with a great get-off. I go back and forth on just how important get-off is for pass rushers. In the end, I think it’s like straight-line speed for offensive skill players. You definitely need to be above a basic threshold, but after that there are only a handful of guys that are so quick that their speed changes the game. For edge rushers I’m thinking about guys like Von Miller, and for skill guys I’m thinking about Chris Johnson and Mike Wallace. Most NFL players fall in the meaty part of the curve where you’re quick enough to keep the opponent honest, but not quick enough to terrify anybody.
Anyway, Mathis gets a good get-off and Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin is a step behind when he goes to punch. It’s a bad position to be in, but not quite disastrous yet. He still has a chance to run Mathis by Ryan Tannehill.
A lot of rushers would see the clear path Mathis has to the quarterback in the second frame and turn on the jets to try to get there. It could work, but if Martin lands a decent punch, he’ll send Mathis flying by Tannehill as nothing more than a slight tower buzz. Mathis, being a crafty veteran, knows that, so he uses a move even though he seemingly has Martin beat.
All he does is dip his shoulder right as he starts to try to turn the corner. He drops his hips and inside arm like he’s trying to rip up some grass (or turf I guess). What that does is remove any surface area for Martin to punch. Just like when Barwin turned his shoulders perpendicular on the first play we looked at, Mathis’ goal is to minimize the lineman’s punch target. When Martin goes to try to shove Mathis by, he ends up with nothing but air.
Also notice the body lean Mathis has as he comes around the corner. The goal is to bend that edge as tight as possible to the tackle without getting blocked. One way they teach defensive linemen how to get used to bending that corner is to send them around giant hoops made out of PVC pipe.
From there, Mathis just has to rip through with that inside arm and finish to the quarterback. The rip actually accomplishes two things. First, it keeps you from falling over. You can only run full speed for so long at the angle necessary for a good dip move, so the rip helps straighten you up and finish to the quarterback. Second, it can also knock the tackle’s hands off you if he does happen to land his punch.
The best way to stop this move is to get a better initial kick, so you’re not behind the whole play. Here, Martin seemed a half-step late off the ball (probably due to crowd noise in the dome) and couldn’t recover. Even if you are in good position it’s a tough move to stop, but the key is that when you start to see the defender's shoulder dip (and notice you can tell Mathis is dipping in the second frame, but he doesn’t really get low until the third) you punch down, and not out.
If you punch out, the defender's body lean is so severe that you won’t really knock him off-course, you’ll just knock him upright. Then the defender can rip through and finish to the quarterback. But, if you land a punch with downward force, he can’t keep his balance and he falls straight down.
The other way to stop this move is to just fall on the defender and smother him like a grenade. That can be plenty effective too. It’s just that if you miss, you look like a fat, unathletic, toad.
I cut off the end of the play, but I think you can see where it’s going. It ends with Tannehill in the turf while Mathis does a dance for doing what he gets paid millions of dollars do.
I’m going to run this column back next week with a swim move from Watt, a hesitation move from Miller, and Jason Pierre-Paul using the best pass-rush move in any defender's arsenal. Until then, be sure to follow me on Twitter.
30 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2013, 6:29pm by theslothook