Word of Muth: Super Bowl Preview

Word of Muth: Super Bowl Preview
Word of Muth: Super Bowl Preview
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

And then there were two. After what has been an uninspiring postseason thus far, it would be hard not to feel like we are left with the two best teams in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots both won in convincing fashion in the championship round, and they will meet this Sunday in Houston for what will hopefully be a compelling game. I rewatched both conference title games to take a look at the offensive lines and get an idea of what we'll see in the trenches this week.

Watching the games back, I was actually caught off guard on how similar I thought each line played on championship Sunday. Both struggled in getting the ground game going, but were really solid in pass protection. New England's line was probably a bit better in this regard, but they didn't face as many pressure looks as Atlanta did, and Atlanta didn't give up a sack all day. Obviously, neither line could be that much better at pass-blocking.

The first thing that jumped out from both sides is how sound they are working as an actual unit. I have seen more of Atlanta this year, so I knew what kind cohesiveness they brought to the table, but it was still impressive to watch. This is an offensive line that, along with the running backs and tight ends, rarely seems to get confused by a blitz look.

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This isn't the craziest blitz, but there is enough going on that it could it trip up plenty of protection schemes. The Falcons are running a half-slide protection scheme (probably called 3 Jet if offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is as much of a Gruden West Coast system guy as he allegedly is) with the slide going to the right. The right side of the line -- right tackle Ryan Schraeder (73), right guard Chris Chester (65), and center Alex Mack (51) -- make easy work of a simple tackle/end twist on their side (Atlanta is good at passing off defensive line games).

On the play side of the protection (protections always seemed to be based off where the back was going, not where the line was sliding), left guard Andy Levitre (67) and left tackle Jake Matthews (70) are in man-to-man protection with the two down linemen to their side. In pass protection, linemen don't have to necessarily be in a three-point stance to be counted as down -- it's really just assumed which are rushers based on the player/alignment. Here, Clay Matthews (52), lined up on the end of the line of scrimmage, is considered down.

That just leaves the linebacker (Joe Thomas, 48) for the running back (Devonta Freeman, 24). It may look like Levitre is looking to possibly block Thomas, but he's really just leaving a hand out so he can feel if they are running some kind of twist stunt that he would pass off with the back. The Packers rush straight ahead, so it's a straightforward blitz pickup. This is just a solid play and the kind of thing Atlanta did consistently all night.

As I alluded to earlier, it didn't seem like New England had as many opportunities to pick up blitzes as Atlanta did because Pittsburgh seemed dead set on riding with three- and four-man rushes. Still, Pittsburgh wouldn't bring the same four guys every time, so New England would have to be dialed in on who was responsible for who.

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Here, the Steelers dropped both edge guys and brought both inside linebackers on a cross stunt. Patriots center David Andrews (60) and the running back (James White, 28) do a nice job of sorting out the cross blitz. But the guy who really makes the play is Nate Solder (77) at left tackle. When he sees his man drop, he does a great job of coming down aggressively on the defensive tackle and prevents him from looping wide for contain. That allows Tom Brady to take a couple of steps to his left and have all day to wait for someone to get open (here it was Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone).

I don't think you are going to confuse either unit up front. If you want to get pressure on their respective MVP candidate quarterbacks, you are going to just have to line up and beat them. Luckily for the defenses, while both lines are solid, I don't think either is absolutely stacked with Pro Bowlers. There are places you can win.

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For Atlanta, I think Jake Matthews is probably the worst of their five linemen. Matthews really struggled against Seattle and also had a couple of close calls against Green Bay. Here, he's getting beat by a one-handed Nick Perry (53). Having watched Matthews for a couple weeks, it's not one thing that seems to give him problems, and it's not one bad habit on his part either. He seems to get beat different ways. Here, he loses with his hands and takes a weird false step with his outside foot as he's trying to recover. He's not awful here, or really on any plays from last week, but he gets beat enough to where he has to make you nervous if you're an Atlanta fan.

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Now, this is awful. Left guard Joe Thuney (62) is in trouble from the start when both his feet go outside his frame off the snap. That widens his base too much, so that when the defensive tackle makes an inside move, Thuney has to false step with his inside foot just to get his body in a position where it can redirect back inside. Then he's in full-blown panic/recovery mode and all out of balance.

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A lot of defensive linemen here would have been impatient here and just tried to run straight upfield as fast as possible. That would give the offensive lineman a chance to scramble enough to at least stay engaged and try to push him by the quarterback. But here, the defensive lineman is smart enough to slow down, club the scrambling Thuney by, and pick up a sack.

This was just about the only negative play New England had in the passing game. It really was a pretty flawless performance. If New England can duplicate that performance up front -- particularly by tackles Solder and Marcus Cannon -- it could be difficult for Atlanta to get Tom Brady off the field.

The last thing that I noticed about both offensive lines is they did a great job in holding up on the shot plays that each team called in the first half. If you're reading this column, you probably know what a shot play is -- it's a play that is designed for you to take a shot down the field. What announcers usually don't mention is that shot plays are usually hold-onto-your-ass plays for the offensive line, as they typically take a little while to develop.

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Now this may not look like a shot play, but I've seen this concept enough in this part of the field to know that it is. (It's a Gary Kubiak staple, and we used to run it at Stanford.) Usually when I see this play-action, where you fake the lead or outside zone with an end-around behind it, combined with the post by the wide receiver, the fullback runs a wheel route. Here, he just runs an out. I'm not sure if it's a read by the fullback because he's so open or just how Shanahan runs it, but I'm leaning read by the fullback. If the outside linebacker had not bitten so hard on the fake, I bet the fullback would have turned it up into a wheel route.

Anyway, this is a bear on the offensive line, particularly the right side. You have to be aggressive enough to sell the run, but then you are on an island for two different run-fakes and the quarterback waiting for a fullback to leak out into the route. Ryan Schraeder does a great job at right tackle, and right guard Chris Chester holds on for long enough. The result was a 31-yard gain.

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The Patriots' shot play was trickier, but it is a little easier to block just because a flea flicker always slows the rush down for a bit. But this is still a tremendous sell of the run by the whole offensive line. I want to point out left guard Joe Thuney in particular as doing a nice job. Safeties and linebackers are often taught to read uncovered linemen for a high hat (meaning, a lineman who pops up like he's pass-protecting) and ignore any play fakes to read run or pass. Thuney does a great job of staying low and helping the center with his shoulder, like he's run blocking, while keeping his eyes on his linebacker (Lawrence Timmons, 94).

Those are the types of plays that can make all the difference in a close game. You typically see teams call them from about the 35 going in to about the opposite 40. Usually you're looking for a particular coverage look, and will have them packaged with another play or two to kill to if you don't get the right look. You may call the play eight times before you get to run the thing, so the offensive line had better hold up when it is on. You will never see an offensive coordinator more pissed than when a guy gets beat for a sack and ruins his super awesome shot play that he has been waiting to call all week.

That's going to do it for this week. Here's hoping for a competitive game on Sunday, and here's really hoping that a pass-rusher isn't the Super Bowl MVP again.


11 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2017, 5:07pm

#1 by RickD // Jan 31, 2017 - 7:12pm

I wonder if Thuney is having issues with the longer NFL season. He seems to have taken a few steps backwards in recent weeks. Right now the weakness in the line is between him and Andrews at center. Maybe I'm misremembering the early season, but both have been having issues in the playoffs.

Points: 0

#2 by Anon Ymous // Jan 31, 2017 - 7:33pm

Yeah, he looked like a legitimate non-QB/RB rookie of the year candidate early on, but has been the weak link of late.

I was hoping to see a breakdown or two of NE's struggles to get movement in the run game. I recall a few plays were it was single man penetration, but was that the consistent problem? Or was it more the entire unit failing to get good push?

Points: 0

#3 by ClavisRa // Feb 01, 2017 - 3:41am

Thuney is just a bit inconsistent, as rooks are wont to be. He makes a lot of positive plays, but he's still a bit vulnerable to quick inside rushers with excellent technique. Fifty/fifty odds Atlanta gets even one busted block on him like Pitt did. I like the Pats odds of getting to Ryan a lot better than the Falcons odds of getting to Brady.

Points: 0

#4 by RobotBoy // Feb 01, 2017 - 7:59am

I'm curious as to Ryan's mobility. From these clips he looks like a classic stand-in-the-pocket passer. Brady used to belong to that type but starting last season, he began bouncing around in the pocket a lot more. It was strange to see a player that deep in his career change his approach so much.

Points: 0

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 01, 2017 - 8:48am

He's not a statue. He's not Rodgers, but he did have 23 yards rushing an a TD vs GB.

Interesting watching Matthews' bad block. Even on that one, Perry wasn't much of a threat, and Ryan had plenty of room to step up into the gaping hole in the pocket.

Points: 0

#7 by Raiderfan // Feb 01, 2017 - 10:27am

Great article, as always. Superior line play seems to be the common thread in all the really good teams this year--more pronounced than usual (Oak/NWE/Atl/Pitt/GB/Dallas). So how did Miami and NYG do so well?

Points: 0

#10 by Karl Cuba // Feb 03, 2017 - 1:33pm

If you were to list the best line coaches in the game you'd have most of them in charge of the units deep into the playoffs:

NE: Scarnecchia
PIT: Munchak
DAL: Bill Callahan
OAK: Mike Tice (maybe not on the others' level but still pretty good, handy for Super Bowl tickets too)
SEA: Tom Cable

Atlanta's Chris Morgan earned his spurs under Cable, so there's some pedigree there and Green Bay's line is usually very well coached too, I always get the impression it's a unit operating as more than the sum of its parts.

As for the Giants; Mike Solari has run some great units in KC and SF while Chris Foerster in Miami has a quality resume too.

It's all about getting good line play and good coaches really help fix that.

Points: 0

#8 by jtr // Feb 02, 2017 - 2:45pm

Always enjoy your articles, Ben. If I can offer one suggestion, it would help in some of the technique-oriented breakdowns (like the discussions of Matthews' and Thuney's footwork) if you slowed the gifs down a little bit so we could see more clearly what's going on.

Points: 0

#9 by ChrisS // Feb 03, 2017 - 12:56pm

Hate to be critical of such great articles as well, but you are right. One of the "Film Room" articles recently did a great job of zooming in, slowing down and adding graphics. But I just click on the GIF and it opens in GIFFYCat and then you can pause it.

Points: 0

#11 by Andrew Potter // Feb 04, 2017 - 5:07pm

(Film Room writer) Cian's GIFs are the best football GIFs I've ever seen. I'm astounded at some of the things he's been able to do with them. Sadly, the rest of us are stuck playing catch-up.

Points: 0

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