Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

One of the big reasons I wanted to cover Tampa Bay this year was to get a good look at their two second-year starters. One thing I've discovered writing this column for the past several years is that second-year guys are generally way more interesting to watch than rookies. Pretty much all rookie offensive linemen are below-average starters. Even the "good" ones who make Pro Bowls are overrated just because every writer and announcer knows who they are (usually they're first-round picks), and they actually are just good at some stuff (usually the stuff that requires a lot of athleticism) and bad at most everything else (knowing how much help to give, passing off stunts).

I was covering the Steelers and Cowboys during the rookie seasons of Maurkice Pouncey and Travis Frederick and both were just OK, and probably a tick below that. But people talked about them like they were top-five centers on Day 1. Both guys showed awesome flashes and both have grown into good players (Frederick in particular), but those first years were not the out-of-the-box sensations that everyone remembers.

No, it's typically the second year when you start to get a better feel for what a guy is going to be. The Bucs offer a nice team to study because not only do they have two second-year guys, they have a second-year guy who everyone thought sucked as a rookie (left tackle Donovan Smith), and another who most people thought played pretty well (right guard Ali Marpet). Today's column is going to focus on those two, starting with Smith.

Physically, offensive tackles and cornerbacks are probably the most different positions on a football team. I'm just talking purely body type and athletic traits (running, lifting, jumping). But they do have one thing in common: it only takes one bad play for 80,000 people to think you suck at your job. If corner gets beat deep at the wrong time, or an offensive tackle gives up a sack on a key play, everyone in the stadium throws up their hands and curses their team for not shoring up their secondary or offensive line. You can win your matchup 58 out of 60 plays, but two sacks or two touchdowns and you're a bum.

Donovan Smith was this type of bum last Sunday against the Rams. He played pretty well against a really good player for most of the game. But he had an illegal hands to the face and a false start, and he gave up a huge sack/fumble that got returned for a 77-yard touchdown. Let's start with the best of the bad.

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Honestly, this is really good stuff except for the fact that Smith (76) got caught. He definitely punches the guy right in the face, but it was one quick punch. The odds of the ref seeing something that quick are low, and everything else about this set is really good. It's an aggressive set that closes the distance quickly. He throws a sharp punch that jolts the defender, and then he gathers him up. You just have to keep your hands down because it's hard for the offense to overcome a hands to the face penalty. But this is a good looking drive-killer. (I'm calling it a drive-killer even though the Bucs ended up picking up a first down after this penalty.)

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This is not a particularly good looking drive-killer from either angle. I think the big problem is that Smith is too passive with what he wants to do. He's vertically setting, meaning he's setting straight back with little to no width. That can be OK, but it's not even an aggressive vertical set. If you are going to vertical set a deep drop from the shotgun, you have to haul ass to get back to 5 to 7 yards and dare the defensive end to come inside and risk losing contain. You shouldn't get beat around the loop on a vertical set. The goal should be to aggressively give ground, if that's how you want to think of it. Smith started trying to run Robert Quinn by the quarterback 4 yards into his set. Trying to push Quinn that far just isn't going to work. Smith needed to get more depth before he tried to run Quinn by.

It's a tough block to make. Smith is one-on-one with Quinn (the rest of the offensive line is sliding the other way) in a passing down where the quarterback is taking a five-step drop from the gun. That means Jameis Winston is ending up like 11 yards behind the ball. It's tough to block a guy with Quinn's speed to 12 yards past the ball. That's why I wish Smith had set a little deeper and forced an inside move, but that's a lot easier to say watching tape back than it is to do when you know you have zero help inside in the heat of the moment.

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It's a shame that Smith had the three big negative plays (two penalties and sack), because without those he had a nice little game. Not dominant, but he certainly held his own with Quinn for most of the day and looked like he belonged as a starting left tackle in this league. If he can limit the back-breaking mistakes, he could be a long-term option in Tampa.

Marpet was thought of much more highly after his rookie year than Smith, but I thought he had a harder time on Sunday. Part of that had to do with who he was blocking. I love Robert Quinn, but Aaron Donald is a straight-up face-eater. He's so fast and so powerful that he's probably going to have a way to beat just about anyone he plays against.

Marpet had more trouble with Donald's power than quickness. Donald was able to bull-rush him back into the quarterback and pressure Winston a couple of times (he also batted a couple passes). And there was a play early in the first where he drove Marpet straight back into the backfield on an outside run and forced a big loss. I want to see Marpet play against someone who isn't a top-five defensive player, though, before I say he doesn't play with enough power.

One thing I do feel pretty good about saying is that Marpet looks great playing in space. He looked good blocking at the second level all game. And then he pulled a couple of times and really won me over.

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This was a big play. The Bucs have a third-and-4 from the 35 going in, and if they don't convert this, they're either trusting the rookie kicker who can't make kicks, punting, or forced to go for it. They run behind Marpet (74) and he gets in one guy's way, and absolutely buries a defensive back to pick up the first down. This isn't as much about technique as it is about just being a good athlete and a ball player.

We ran an excerpt from Howard Mudd's book a couple of weeks ago, and he told a story of how he asked Walter Jones where he learned to finish blocks. Jones said he learned it in high school when his coach used to tell him (and I'm paraphrasing) "Block them until your nuts are in their mouth." That block from Marpet is good visual representation of what that looks like.

Of course, you can't always pancake your guy in the NFL, sometimes you just have to get into him and take him where he wants to go.

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This is the first play of the game, and the Bucs block it perfectly (with the exception of the backside tight end getting called for rolling on his cut block, which is a new and stupid rule). Smith widens the defensive end to create a hole big enough for both the center and guard to pull through. Center Joe Hawley does his job and drives the defensive back playing make-believe as a linebacker (Mark Barron, 26) out of the hole. And finally, Marpet pulls around and pushes the backside linebacker (Alec Ogletree, 52) just past the hole. It just happens that Charles Sims doesn't want to hit the hole for a big gain -- he'd rather run right to where the guys are getting blocked. Still, this was a great job by Tampa's offensive line and was close to being a huge play to open the game.


10 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2016, 1:41am

2 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

It's new because they just passed it this year I believe, where you can't roll after you throw a cut block. It's stupid because it's a player safety thing that really only prevents the occasional rolled ankle, but it makes cut blocking that much harder, and it's completely changes how guys have been taught to cut their entire lives.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

I couldn't find any new rule about rolling after cut blocks, is this the new chop block rule?
According to Dr. David Chao (former Charger team physician), "diving at a player’s planted leg increases the chance of high ankle sprain/fracture, medial collateral ligament (MCL) knee injury and sometimes even anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear."

3 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

I am curious - when you see some aggressive punches and then too passive punches from the same player - is that due to lapses in concentration, fatigue, or a specific schematic reason for it?

I am also curious, ben, how consistent you think offensive linemen play week to week and year to year. I have honestly no idea since offensive line play has almost no stats that truly measure its individual or even team wide performances.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

I was really impressed by Marpet as a rookie, for largely the reasons you mention; he was a real impressive run blocker pretty much from day one. Donovan Smith just has too many plays where it seems like he's forgotten he's playing football for about a half a second after the snap and then suddenly decides to try to recover.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

These articles are great because they spark so many thoughts in me. Like - Ben loves analyzing run sets and run game performances(not too surprising). One of the understated parts of the pass game revolution has been just how staggered/moribund run offenses have been. An over time look at the ypa for running games by year has shown a steady and consistent decline - which even more pronounced when we eliminate qb runs.

This is either because A) o line play in the run game is de-emphasized/skill quality has gotten worse over time or B) defenses have gotten better at defending the run even though they play most of their snaps in nickel.

I have honestly no idea which it is.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

I believe I am correct in saying run DVOA across the league was at its lowest ever level last season. And I agree, it is an understated, and somewhat perverse phenomenon.

It leads me to believe that NFL defences are, on the whole, still probably a long way from de-emphasizing defending the run as much as they should be.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

Well - the nickel has become the base defense. The days of roy williams style run safeties feels like its over. Pass rushers have become more like von miller - sleek and speedy. Even the linebackers have become faster and smaller. All that should mean easier run fronts. And yet it has not.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

I think the problem is that even good running games still are horribly inconsistent, and those light and quick LBs can still blow up plays in the run game because their speed gives them momentum and penetration. Elite OLBs like Miller and Mack are still good edge setters generally because they have a head of steam going for them (not read-react players), and quick ILBs are good at laterally moving to fill gaps. One stuff for no gain, and even if you get 4 yards on second down, you're still in a probable passing situation.

The Denver vs. Cincy game was a good example. Cincy was having some success running (4.9 YPC average, 50 yard 1st Q run, etc.)... but they were still getting lots of short run gains and pass stops, and not scoring a ton of points. Reliably scoring 15-20ppg is a losing proposition, and I'm not sure if a passing-weak offense can regularly exceed that (so at minimum it also requires an elite DEF).

And if a team really loads up to run the ball, the DEF adjusts by going to single-high safety look for Cover-3/Man coverages, and there is a numbers problem for the Offense, even if each olineman is able to win their 1-on-1 matchup. Again, the quickness helps the unblocked defender close before the damage is excessive. That may open up the passing game some, but now we're taking about needing a passing game that can exploit that.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Tampa Twosome

"Physically, offensive tackles and cornerbacks are probably the most different positions on a football team."

That or DTs.

DL tends to be heavier, but also faster than OL.