By Matt Waldman
I heard a great story about Lawrence Taylor this week from my friend Sigmund Bloom. Thanks to NFL Films, the Hall of Fame linebacker and "trash talk" go together like K-Tel and "greatest hits" – complete with a low-budget, late-night commercial featuring a scrolling list of titles for your listening pleasure:
"Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, stick – you mine. You mine, baby!"
"C’mon baby, you can’t pussy-foot it up in there, you gotta run it."
"Homeboy, you can’t play that stuff in here; you’re gonna have to go outside."
"Let’s go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun!"
"Son, you gotta do better than this..."
Remember, this is Lawrence Taylor/K-Tel. If you want to pay good money for trash talk, order from the Shannon Sharpe Smack Soundtrack. At the end of the day, the talk means little if a player can’t walk it, and Taylor could walk it in his sleep. Well, with the exception of the week a rookie tackle let Taylor tie himself into a mental knot.
It was early in the game. Taylor stood opposite the rookie tackle, wasting no time dishing it to the offensive lineman.
"Rookie, I’m going to beat you to the left," drawls Taylor, standing over what he had to think was fresh fish. Without missing a beat, the tackle shot back with a question.
"Which left? Your left or my left?"
Taylor, caught off-guard by the serious tone and the nature of the question, paused for a split-second –- just long enough to think about it -– as the center snapped the ball. That hesitation was all it took for the first-year tackle to dispatch of Taylor on the play. Sure, Taylor probably got the best of this rookie several times in that game, but the interaction underscores the point that offensive linemen are often some of the most intelligent players on the field.
One of the best of these quick-thinking, quick-footed behemoths in college football today is Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews. Yes, he’s from the Matthews family that includes Grandpa Clay Sr., Uncle Clay Jr., Father Bruce, and Cousin Clay III. We’re talking over 50 years of NFL experience -– 18 of them Pro Bowl seasons. It’s like a functional, football version of the Jacksons –- down to Casey Matthews as its LaToya.
Jokes aside, the fact that Casey even earned an NFL opportunity speaks to the talent of a football family whose best musical parallel is the Marsalis clan. If there’s a compelling argument for teams to mention "bloodlines" when filing a scouting report, the Matthews and Long families would be Exhibits A and B of a lengthier list of NFL bloodlines than you may imagine.
It may seem like an imposing standard for Jake Matthews to follow his father Bruce in to the NFL –- and it’s probably something we’ll never learn until his career is over –- but examining the Aggie lineman’s potential solely on the basis of physical talent, technical skill, and conceptual acumen for the game, the younger
Matthews has a strong shot of doing something his dad did 30 years ago: earning a top-10 selection in the NFL Draft.
Although Matthews hasn’t done enough as a left tackle to provide quality footage at this spot, there is one particular opponent he faced last year as a right tackle who is a good test for anyone on the left side, college or NFL. That would be Barkevious Mingo, who, like Lawrence Taylor, displays rare athleticism and relentlessness off the edge as an outside linebacker. Even as a right tackle last year, Matthews’ matchup with Mingo at LSU and the athletes at Alabama are performances that any NFL prospect at left tackle would be proud to have in his portfolio.
Quickness and Anticipation
Mingo is a raw technician but his speed, strength, and intensity makes him an edge rusher with a fine NFL future. Mingo’s speed often puts opponents at a disadvantage from the onset. This was not the case with Matthews. Matthews is No. 75 on the right side of every highlight in this feature.
Matthews’ anticipation of the snap was so quick on this play that I thought he was guilty of a false start. However, if you watch this snap numerous times you’ll see that he moves at the exact moment the ball moves. Matthews’ initial step is well ahead of any other lineman on the field. This anticipation of the snap is something he demonstrates consistently as a pass protector.
Matthews also integrates this quickness into sound technique. Watch the first four seconds of this clip a few times and you’ll see the A&M tackle anticipate the snap, execute a good kick-slide, then drop and cut the super-athletic Mingo.
The kick slide is a great set-up for the cut, because it indicates to Mingo that Matthews is protecting the edge for a traditional drop and pass. Instead Matthews uses it to bait the defender to charge forward and open his body for a cut block.
The fact that Matthews can anticipate the snap, move backwards into an upright stance this fast, then change direction just as fast from an upright position moving backwards to a forward attack at an opponent’s legs is just one of many reasons why top-end tackles are incredible athletes. This series of moves that Matthews executes seamlessly is the difference between the A&M receiver earning nine yards and Mingo pursuing the ball carrier from the backside and limited the gain to five.
Reading The Defense
An NFL tackle has to possess a baseline of incredible strength and agility, but the skill to read and adjust to the events unfolding on the field are as important as any position in football. A tackle has to understand the responsibilities of his teammates and still react to contingencies defenses present. Here’s an example of Matthews and A&M facing what appears to be one type of pressure package, only to learn after the snap that this was not so.
Before the snap, it appears that linebacker will blitz the right guard. Matthews and his guard have to account for that possibility and it means Matthews will take the defensive end. However, Matthews and his guard also must account for the possibility of the linebacker dropping and pressure from the perimeter.
This is exactly what happens. The LSU linebacker takes two steps towards the guard’s inside shoulder, which baits the right side of the line to handle this type of blitz package. Matthews releases from his three-point stance with an outside step, sees the inside move of the defensive end, and turns his hips to address the defender. At the same time, he reads the drop of the linebacker, and makes an even more adept read of the corner blitz.
Matthews hands Mingo to the right guard and demonstrates excellent lateral movement to cut off the cornerback at the edge. He’s so quick with his slide that he squares the corner with an excellent stance. His knees, hips, and back are all in position to deliver a block.
It looks a lot like he’s in the act of sitting on a chair and it’s why sometimes you’ll hear analysts and scouts describe a good illustration of these techniques as "he gets in the chair well." In this case, Matthews slides outside and gets into the chair so fast that it’s the corner who winds up taking a seat on the turf in a desperate act not avoid that brick wall with the No. 75 label.
LSU tried this exact same play earlier in the game and Matthews wasn’t fooled here, either.
Once again, Matthews demonstrates great anticipation and quickness off the line, he funnels the defensive end inside, sees the linebacker dropping, and slides to the outside to address the blitzing corner. In fact, A&M’s running back is in position to address this corner if needed but Matthews beats his teammate to the spot.
Here’s a line stunt with a delayed blitz from the linebacker that often does a good job of confusing an offensive line, but Matthews is on top of each contingency the LSU defense throws at him.
Matthews slides inside to force tighten the gap on the defensive end’s inside move and enhance his right guard’s attack on the opponent. Then he reads the outside linebacker twisting to the edge and slides outside to force the defender towards the running back on the edge while still reading the middle linebacker.
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When the linebacker comes hard up the middle, Matthews makes a hard cut inside to force the LSU defender to the outside. This gives quarterback Johnny Manziel a chance at flushing left. Although the A&M quarterback is sacked on the play, Matthews’ reads give his teammate a fighting chance.
Matthews has few flaws, but two of them have to do with his arms. The first has to do with arm length. He lacks that great wingspan that the tape measure and stopwatch crowd drool over. It means that some teams may fear that NFL opposition will have an easier time getting into Matthews’ body and moving the tackle off his spot.
There is nothing Matthews can do to allay these concerns. If a team is that hung up on his wingspan they won’t take him, but in Matthews’ case I suspect if there are any doubters they are in the extreme minority among NFL teams.
The one opportunity where Matthews can improve the use of his arms is to be more aggressive with his hands. Early in his career he has been late to fire his arms at a defender.
Against the edge rusher in this 2011 bowl game against the Northwestern Wildcats, Matthews is a beat late delivering a punch. If you stop the tape at 21 seconds I think there’s even evidence that he pulled his punch and it allowed the end to slip under the tackle and pressure Ryan Tannehill.
On this play, you can see a hard, sharp, and accurate punch on the defensive end. The impact of his hands raises the pads of the defender. This is something I see more often from Matthews as he’s gained experience in the college game.
I also see relentlessness with how Matthews uses his hands to gain position inside the defender’s arms. He’s often demonstrating chop or redirect a defender’s punch before firing his arms into the opponent. Once he does get his hands on a defender, his quickness and strength are enough to seal the fate of most opponents.
A criticism I’ve read about Matthews is that he might lack NFL quickness to handle the left tackle spot. This might be a true concern, but based on what I’ve seen I have what might be a more nuanced explanation. As you can see against Mingo, Matthews’ form, position, and ability to change direction are all fine displays of quickness.
Stop this tape an any moment between 49 and 55 seconds and you’ll see Matthews display several good techniques with alacrity: the span of 49-to-50 is an effective kick slide; he opens his hips and sits in the chair and delivers a punch against Mingo at 51-to-52; at 52-to-53 he does a strong job sliding side to side with his hands in position to deliver another punch and at 54-to-55 he forces Mingo beyond the pocket.
Perhaps Matthews isn’t superhuman quick on a stopwatch, but his anticipation and understanding of the game makes him quick on a football field. I talk about this a lot, but the mental and conceptual understanding of the game cuts fractions of a second off the times of slower stopwatch players who possess this savvy and adds those same fractions to times of faster prospects who process slower.
When Matthews falters, I believe it has more to do with him getting fooled by a move he didn’t anticipate.
On this play, Matthews stops moving his feet because he’s not anticipating a spin move to the inside. As a result he’s caught with his feet a little too wide while still dropping with the initial kick slide. The spin from Mingo was too good for him to change his hips.
Here’s a good example of Mathews turning his hips and cutting off the outside on Mingo, and also Florida’s edge rusher, after a strong kick slide.
Another thing I love about Matthews is his experience in two different offenses with very different quarterbacks. Recently Matthews has performed in an offense with a highly creative quarterback like Manziel who forces the offensive line to stay mentally and physically active far longer than the average passer and a scheme that incorporates a lot of spread and pistol looks in the run game.
However, Matthews also worked with Mike Sherman in a more traditional NFL style offense and an I-formation running game. Ryan Tannehill and Jerrod Johnson were more traditional pocket passers who were at their best from the confines of the system. Matthews has experienced a lot in terms of coaching styles, quarterback styles, and playing in both the Big 12 and SEC. For a player whose abilities indicate he’s a student of his position, this experience will have a lot of appeal to NFL teams because they will anticipate Matthews will prove a quick study.
If the long arm length or quickness do manifest as issues for Matthews, this 21-year old tackle has a good chance of adding muscle to his 305-pound frame and transitioning to guard. This is a worst-case scenario for the early stage of his career, but if the younger Matthews displays the same bloodlines for the game as his father and uncle, it might extend his value in the second half of what could be a very long career.