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20 Oct 2010

Cover-2: Revisiting the Rookies

by Doug Farrar

Left Tackle Russell Okung
Seattle Seahawks 23 at Chicago Bears 20

Having spent the last few years watching Seattle's offensive line turn into a sieve by injuries and horrible personnel decisions, it was nice to be at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center -- the Seahawks' official facility -- for the selection of the player who was tagged to lead that line back to prominence. The Seahawks' 2009 line was a joke, and nowhere were things more unintentionally humorous than at left tackle. Seattle's previous regime insisted that Walter Jones could play a full 16-game season at age 35 and following microfracture surgery, which is one of many reasons that regime isn't around anymore. Yahoo! Sports gave me a pass into the media room for the 2010 draft. Following the selection of former Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung, the new front office was happy enough to set up that rarest of experiences -- a media session with that press-averse line coaching genius, Alex Gibbs.

Gibbs, not prone to hyperbole when it came to the abilities of his players, could not help but gush a bit when Okung's name was mentioned. "We will throw him right in," Gibbs said. "He will be our starting left tackle -- day one, hour one -- and we will live with him through whatever the pain is. He's the line coach's dream all through the league. Thirty-one other line coaches are sad right now, because they know I got the one that is easiest to deal with. He wants to do it and doesn't have to be made to do it. Does that make sense real quickly?"

It made sense in the abstract, but the best-laid plans were set aside. Gibbs moved on for unknown reasons, and Okung went through a short holdout and some injury issues before rounding into shape just in time to face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field last Sunday. In his first full regular-season game as a professional football player, he would be facing Julius Peppers, who's been playing at a high level all season.

After a performance by Okung that netted Peppers one tackle and one quarterback hit, head coach Pete Carroll gave a passing grade for his new franchise protector. "He did really well. He played a very good game," Carroll said on Monday. "He got tossed around a little bit early, but then he settled in and was very consistent in pass protection. He did a nice job in the run game. So, he's really back now. He still so young -- it's still so early in his playing time -- but he came through in a big way."

Based on the tape I'd seen, and various observations I could glean from his limited involvement in practice and games, two things surprised me about Okung's performance against the Bears. First, his ability to get in space and be effective on tackle pulls outside was something new -- he had struck me as more of a straight-ahead blocker. He is also now able to drive to the second level in a way he certainly was not able to at Oklahoma State. Okung's college tape frequently showed a player who looked as if he was on roller skates at the linebacker level; he rarely looked comfortable and would often lunge at faster defenders. While I saw improvement in this area through the preseason and into the regular season, his performance against Chicago was still a bit of a revelation.

Against a guy like Peppers, pass-blocking is the point of emphasis, and I think the Seahawks' coaching staff did a nice job of alternating between two- and three-point stances to offset Peppers' furious charge at the snap. He couldn't take advantage of Okung being the slower player to get out of his stance, but Okung still had enough power to avoid getting pushed back. He has developed a decent kick step -- it's not really fluid just yet, but he's able to backpedal and maintain his upper-body power. Over and over, he frustrated Peppers, who couldn't get around, couldn't shoot inside in one-on-one situations (a common way to expose young tackles), and couldn't bull rush at all. Okung is still under development to a degree, but I'm already pretty sure that there isn't a defensive end in the NFL who could bull him back.

"He should be feeling like he's been against the best guy in the league, and he can handle himself," Carroll said. "I don't think Russell ever doubted that, but he really wouldn't know until he did it. He had enough opportunities where he was truly one-on-one, so he knows he can do that. He has a lot of growth and a bright future that's going to benefit from all these early experiences -- it's a good accomplishment for a young kid, without question."

The second-level drive blocking described earlier was evident on Seattle's first rushing touchdown. With 14:58 left in the second quarter, Okung headed upfield from the Chicago 9-yard line as Justin Forsett took the handoff and tight end John Carlson pulled to the left to block Peppers out. Okung engaged Brian Urlacher at the 6-yard line, started pushing him back, and didn't stop until Forsett was in the end zone. It isn't surprising that Okung has the raw strength to take Urlacher off his feet, but what I liked here was that he kept his base wide enough to prevent Urlacher from peeling off to one side or another.

Okung also popped a key block on Marshawn Lynch's first Seahawks touchdown. With 13:50 left in the game and the ball at the Bears' 1-yard line, Okung stood Peppers up and pushed him aside and to the ground as Lynch bounced outside and to the left for the score.

"There's nothing he can't do," Carroll told me. "He can do all the stuff that is required of a left tackle. He's got the length and stature to hold up, and he's got the attitude to come off the ball. He really did that well on another play, too -- the goal line play with Justin. He has the mobility in space to be a puller, which is one of the more difficult things for an offensive lineman -- tracking a defensive back or linebacker and getting on that with a lot of room (around him). He's a fantastic prospect, and as we said, getting through this challenge of facing one of the best guys in the league should only help him get better and believe in what's going on. He was able to do a little bit in all phases of the game, in this game in particular."

Okung still trips up on stunts where he's asked to switch his focus from one lineman to another. This first happened with 7:20 left in the first quarter, the Seahawks facing third-and-12 at their own 45. Seattle went four-wide, shotgun, and Okung lined up in a two-point stance. At the snap, tackle Matt Toeaina engaged him as Peppers swung around to Okung's right side out of a wider stance. Okung had one eye on Peppers outside, which allowed Toeiana to drive through him as guard Ben Hamilton picked up Peppers. This seemed to be a simple case of a rookie seeing, and trying, to do too much.

But overall, and against this great challenge, Okung looked every bit the first-round talent Seattle has desperately needed at left tackle since Walter Jones' inevitable decline. He proved more than adept with straight one-on-one blocking. The Arizona Cardinals, who come to Qwest Field this Sunday, will provide different challenges with their multiple fronts and more varied pre-snap looks.

Middle Linebacker Pat Angerer
Indianapolis Colts 27 at Washington Redskins 24

Before he replaced Gary Brackett at middle linebacker for the Sunday Night Football game against the Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts rookie Pat Angerer was playing in a reserve role and had put up a few tackles as he got the hang of the NFL. I wrote about him in the preseason when Angerer was picking up his first two NFL sacks, with one extreme qualifier -- David Carr was the quarterback on both of those. Jacking up the guy with perhaps the worst pocket awareness in NFL history behind a line very much under construction isn't all that impressive, though it did put Angerer on the map. I filed him away as Bill Polian's latest example of an undersized, underrated defender who might come up with important plays at the right time. Brackett's groin injury gave Angerer a shot against Donovan McNabb and a line that is coming together with two new tackles in Trent Williams and Jammal Brown.

Figure 1: Angerer's sack

In that game against San Francisco, the Colts seemed to have hit on something with Angerer shooting through on delayed blitzes out of zone blitz looks as the front four or five dictated line movement. The sack he picked up against the Redskins followed this concept (Fig. 1). Indy had five at the line with 8:59 left in the first quarter. Linebacker Philip Wheeler (50) lined up as if he were going to blitz. At the snap, Wheeler backed off to cover tight end Fred Davis, and linebacker Clint Session (55) led the charge on a dual linebacker blitz. Halfback Ryan Torain picked up Session, but when left guard Kory Lichtensteiger moved to the right to deal with Fili Moala's swim move and left tackle Trent Williams kicked outside to help Chris Cooley block Dwight Freeney from a wide angle, Angerer had his opening. He shot through the left guard position unblocked and put McNabb on his butt. It was the same guard gap Angerer went through in the preseason game.

This was a very well-designed and well-executed play. Moala took the guard out, Session removed the halfback, Angerer didn't just bump into an assigned gap, and Wheeler's coverage down the right seam was a textbook case of how the zone blitz takes away hot reads under pressure. McNabb was looking for Davis, but Wheeler had him wrapped up.

However, middle linebacker blitzes are more of an exotic notion in a defense like Indy's, so it's worth mentioning that Angerer also reads and sheds blocks well (as he did on a first-quarter stop of Torain), has good sideline-to-sideline speed, and plays intermediate coverage to the level he'd have to in order to be functional at his position in this series of defensive schemes.

After ending his first start with 11 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry, and two pass deflections, Angerer got the good word from the man he replaced. "I thought that he did a good job," Brackett said. "He got all the calls right, and that's a tough enough job in a regular-season game. Everything moves so fast out there, it can be tough to take it all in. But he handled everything well."

High praise for a team in which such things are expected. More than most teams, the Colts have proven the ability to have "replacement parts" ready when needed. Brackett is expected to start against the Texans after the Colts' upcoming bye, but it's clear that the backup plan is working -- once again.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 20 Oct 2010

25 comments, Last at 19 Mar 2012, 10:00am by lasuna


by Joe T. :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:23pm

Angerer got 11 tackles because they were targeting him in the passing game over the middle. He seemed very vulnerable there.

by RichC (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 4:42pm

That was my impression watching the game.

by Bobman :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 6:15pm

All game long I had an uneasy feeling about he pass D in the middle. The Colts may have been counting on the fact that Mcnabb's been lame at short/intermediate stuff this year and has been a monster with the long ball. Angerer made some good tackles, missed some (not as egregious as others), and had at least one very good pass defensed. All in all, he played well in the absense of the Colts 2nd most important guy on D. Nobody would have expected him to cover as well as Brackett--that's his specialty.

by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:36pm

Gibbs: "Thirty-one other line coaches are sad right now"

Thirty. The Redskins passed on Okung on purpose.

by Cam (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:50pm

The Redskins are worse than sad. The Seahawks got the better player.

by CDB (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:56pm

Time will tell. Williams has played quite well when healthy. He really handled Ware quite well in week one.

by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 4:24pm

Agreed--Williams has looked excellent so far this year. I haven't seen Okung play so I can't compare the two, but this Redskin fan isn't complaining.

by Misfit74 :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:52pm

31. Alex Gibbs means what he says. He was happy the Redskins drafted the 2nd-best offensive tackle in the draft prior to Seattle's selection of Okung.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 4:31pm

It doesn't matter who's better, the Redskins aren't sad because they took the player they wanted.

by spenczar :: Thu, 10/21/2010 - 12:07pm

But the OL coach might be sad because his team drafted a player who was harder to teach. That's what Gibbs is saying.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 3:53pm

Seattle (and Okung) probably also have the benefit of Ben Hamilton, who I've always considered one of the better LG's. He got a raw deal in Denver - health issues (including neck and head injuries, ugh) and McD's change in blocking scheme forced him out. It wasn't really a matter of lack of talent, off field behavior or contact disputes, but circumstances conspiring against him.

by BeaverBird (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 11:19pm

No dude. No. While I'm sure it's been nice to have some vet advice, Hamilton has been a weak spot not an asset. I'm sure you at least watched his game vs Denver? He's not the weakest link... But he won't be around next year- promise.

by Cam (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 4:27pm

The Redskins are more than sad because they passed on the better player.

by Hunter (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 5:24pm

Thus far, Williams has faced DeMarcus Ware, Mario Williams, Clay Matthews, and Dwight Freeney in his four starts.

He surrendered a total of 2 sacks - one to Ware, one to Williams in those games( both on inside counter moves). Matthews 1.5 sacks against the Skins came from the right side against Brown. He held Freeney sack-less and tackle-less last week, no small feat for the 4th start of his career.

Contrastly, Okung has also given up only two sacks, however, he has only played 2 games, against St. Louis and Chicago. I believe both his sacks were given up in the STL game (against James Hall and either Chris Long or George Selvie, not sure), however, he performed very well against Peppers (who coincidentally, Williams has this week).

What is clear is that both are very talented, and it would be pretty silly to try and make a case for one or the other based on such a small sample size. Anyone who says one is better than the other is simply making a case based on opinion and little facts.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 5:30pm

Both guys are also getting a LOT of help -- Williams specifically against Freeney, and certainly Okung against Peppers. In the play I drew up, it was basically Cooley blocking Freeney on the edge, and Williams helping out inside. I agree that it is far too soon to compare them, though I can't wait to do so when there is a reasonable amount of game film to go on.

by CDB (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 5:41pm

I agree. Far too soon and time will tell. Certainly silly to say that Okung is clearly better than Williams. He's not, although he could be in the future (and vice versa).

by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 10/21/2010 - 5:01am

Long has played virtually every snap at left end (over the right tackle obviously), so it would have been Selvie. But I seem to have a memory of Selvie's sack coming from him playing DT (we stick him in at DT on passing downs, with Long at LE and Hall at RE), so you may be mistaken. Or I may be.

by Kumar (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 5:43pm

Toward the end of the first half the Bears ran that same stunt again, but this time Okung engaged Toeaina and kept him away from Hasselbeck who was able to complete a pass to Carlson that was just short of a 1st down.

by JonFrum (not verified) :: Wed, 10/20/2010 - 7:46pm

"First, his ability to get in space..."

I'd be more impressed if he could somehow manage to get out of space.

by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 10/21/2010 - 4:14pm

NASA is sad they took the wrong guy.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 10/21/2010 - 3:54pm

Doug, I know it isn't the subject of the article but I was wondering if you have seen anything noteworthy from Kentwaan Balmer for the Seahawks?

by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 10/21/2010 - 7:24pm

Balmer subbed for Brandon Mebane at LDT against the Bears and looked pretty good. He fits Carroll's defensive front idea because he can play in different areas (as I'm sure you know). He's a good cog and not expected to be a star.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 10/22/2010 - 12:23pm

Well he was a reach for a 1st rounder (especially as we could have taken Calais Campbell) but he looks to be good value for a 6th. Cheers for the reply Doug.

by cheap laptop battery (not verified) :: Thu, 03/24/2011 - 4:57am

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by lasuna (not verified) :: Mon, 03/19/2012 - 10:00am