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22 Sep 2017

Word of Muth: Electric Line

by Ben Muth

The Chargers lost to the Dolphins last week to fall to 0-2 on the season. Both losses were close; in fact, Los Angeles had last-second field goal tries to tie in Week 1 and take the lead this past Sunday. But 0-2 is 0-2, and Los Angeles is in maybe the best division in football, the AFC West. The other teams (Kansas City, Oakland, and Denver) are all 2-0, and the Chargers' season may be over before October starts. But we don't want to dwell too much on the future; we want to look back at Sunday's game against the Dolphins and see how Los Angeles' rebuilt offensive line fared against Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, and company.

Overall I thought L.A.'s offensive line played pretty well. I thought the tackles both played well. Russell Okung was great and Joseph Barksdale definitely held his own against Wake. Matt Slauson at left guard and Spencer Pulley at center were both OK too. Really the only guy up front that was a bit of a weak link was Kenny Wiggins at right guard.

The biggest issue I thought Wiggins had was that he consistently gave up too much ground in the passing game. He wouldn't get beat, but he would get pushed back into the pocket and into Philip Rivers' lap. In the running game he was better, but he still had too many negative plays.

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That's an absolute whiff on a combo block. It's not like Suh (93) is a small target, or he's slanting away. Wiggins (79) just misses him and leaves Pulley (73) out to dry. Wiggins' footwork isn't great here -- he needs to drive the second step straight up the field and through the defender's midpoint -- but the real coaching point here is don't miss the 300-plus-pound man right across from you.

It didn't matter on this play because of what Wiggins did, but this is a great cut block by Okung (76) on the backside. If you read last week's column, you saw what a terrible cut block looks like. This is pretty much the exact opposite. Okung takes a good first step to get his hips open so he can start running on his second step. Then he hits the defender's play-side leg with enough force to knock out it from under him. He's not hoping to trip him, he's blocking him. That's how you cut off a backside 3-technique.

I will say that some of the time when Wiggins didn't get enough of a down lineman, it seemed like he was deliberately trying to avoid the guy -- as if it was being coached.

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This is a power look, and Wiggins is clearly trying to avoid Suh here. Typically on gap running plays, teams will double-team the 3-technique to the backside linebacker. Here the Chargers are trying to trick Suh by blocking it like it's a zone play to the opposite side. The theory is that the defensive tackle (Suh) will read this blocking action as a zone run away and close down the vacated space, thus creating a bigger hole. And that's actually what happens.

The issue is that it puts a lot of pressure on the offensive tackle to stop any penetration, and Barksdale at right tackle (77) can't quite stop Suh from getting into the backfield. So while Suh takes himself away from the play quickly, he gets enough penetration to knock the pulling guard (Slauson, 68) off his route, which means there's no one to block the play-side linebacker (Mike Hull, 45). This type of blocking scheme can be effective for heavy zone teams, but these blown-up plays are the risk you run.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought Okung played a great game, and it really made me so happy. Okung is a guy who famously bet on himself in free agency a year ago, both by representing himself and then by taking a short-term deal that seemed to be a disaster for him. But he hit free agency again this year and signed a huge money deal in San Diego. Two games in and it seems to be working out for both parties.

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This is the old Jason Peters special, where you block two guys on the same draw play. Okung takes a quick pass set, clubs the defensive end (Charles Harris, 90) up the field, and then gets to the second level and throws a nice cut block on the linebacker (Kiko Alonso, 47) to spring a huge gain. This is obviously a great play by Okung, and even more impressive is how much faith the coaching staff has in him. They called a play that cannot work unless the offensive tackle blocks two guys. In a league where some teams are petrified of leaving their tackles one-on-one, the Chargers are scheming runs that just assume their guy can block two.

We actually tried to install this play when I was playing left tackle at Stanford. I don't want to go into too much detail about it, but I will say that after watching me try to run it in practice, Jim Harbaugh never called it in a game. So, I have a lot of admiration for Okung doing it in the NFL.

As great as that last play was, the Chargers didn't pay Okung all that money to run block. He was brought in to protect Rivers' blind side, and against Miami, he was even better at that. Okung was so good on Sunday I decided to choose the next two plays at random after I watched the game, because I knew Okung did a good job in pass pro on every play. Well, I didn't pick them completely at random because I did want to choose completions, but I did just decide to GIF two random completions.

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This is great protection by everyone (I told you the unit played pretty well) but I really like the look Okung is showing here. You always hear defensive coaches say "One arm is longer than two" when talking about the straight-arm move, so you see defensive guys rush with a single straight arm or long arm all the time. You don't see offensive lineman play with one hand as much, but it can be just as effective.

Look at Okung jab that inside arm and knock the defender (Andre Branch, 50) just wide enough to make it an easy run-by. You can see the defender trying to time up a hand swipe on Okung, but by just shooting the inside arm, Okung throws off the timing and completely neutralizes the rush. Just a nice veteran pass pro rep.

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This rep isn't as pretty, but it's what good tackles have to be able to do: kick out wide to a speed rusher quickly, and then anchor down on a bull rush. It's the thing young tackles struggle with the most, transitioning from a hard slide outside to sinking the hips and sitting on a bull rusher. This is as simple as it gets from a technique standpoint. You want get a good quick set so he can't beat you around the edge, then when you see him lower his head you have to lower your hips. This is the offensive tackle equivalent of being able to locate your fastball -- it's as basic as it gets, but if you can't execute it, you can't play the position professionally. This is about as good of a job as you can reasonably expect.

This is another example of good blocking by the whole line (except maybe the center who might be getting away with a hold, but at least he finishes the block).

The other thing I want to point out about both passing plays (and again, they were chosen at random) is that Okung is on an island each time. Both protections are half-slide protections where the right side is the slide side. That makes it much easier for the right tackle, because he knows he has help to the inside and just has to protect against an outside rush. Okung and Slauson are man-to-man and can't count on anyone else no matter where their defenders rush.

And that's the hidden value of a guy like Okung. He makes your right tackle so much better because you can always slide to him and essentially cut his responsibility in half. When you can trust one of your tackles to handle his business, you can find a lot of ways to help the other one to make them look better than they probably are. That's why you pay $53 million in free agency for a guy that never touches the ball.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 22 Sep 2017

13 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2017, 8:35am by garion333


by turbohappy :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 12:33pm

Great in depth analysis, as always!!!

by techvet :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 1:16pm

Interesting comment about the one-arm blocking technique. Sounds like Okung did the same thing as Nick Perry, who came back to the Packers on a one-year "show us" deal and then signed a long-term contract (of course, he's now banged up again).

by ChrisS :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 1:30pm

Is it after Okung left Seattle that their OL turned to crap? "Pro Football Focus ranked Okung as the 38th-best offensive tackle in the league in 2016." was he worse last year or do these people (as I suspect) not have a clue?

by MarkV :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 9:23pm

I think that a lot of their results are unintuitive because they are theoretically not talent adjusted. That makes sense in a VERY abstract way, but is functionally questionable because teams game plan around the talents of the two rosters. They also don't really adjust for situation, which further makes their stats distorted.

Despite this, PFF still does a lot of valuable work

by Drunken5yearold :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 2:09pm

Finally! I've been waiting for Muth to cover the Chargers for what seems like forever. Not disappointed at all; I feel like I always learn something new about o-line play from a Muth article.

1. Glad to see Okung is playing well. I wasn't too excited about that signing (I wanted Whitworth) given his poor play in Denver last year. PFF is certainly right about that. Okung is a guy that always seems to get injured, and he had a ton of penalties last year. He looks much better this year, so maybe it is due to him just getting healthy, but given the Chargers luck I fully expect Okung to get hurt sometime soon.

2. How did Pulley look? I'm rooting for the guy because he was UFA, but I've never really gotten the impression that he has the athleticism and strength to be an impact player in the NFL. But I absolutely LOVED the coaches decision to switch Slauson and Pulley at guard and center. Slauson is a solid vet and putting him next to Okung gives the line a strong point. Pulley's main plus seems to be his mental acuity, so putting him at center just makes sense.

3. The loss of Forest Lamp really hurts this line. Wiggins is a journeyman and should not be a starter in this league. I loved that pick for the Chargers and thought that Lamp had a chance to have a really good rookie year in the interior, like Cody Whitehair did last year.

4. I'm surprised to see that Muth thought the line played well, considering the Chargers inability to run the ball this year and that PFF gave their game ball to Suh. This definitely seems like a line that is much better in pass protection than when running the ball. It will be interesting to see if Lynn can find the right offensive game plan to maximize his talent. Personally, I would abandon all hope of any smashmouth running and spread it out. Or try some 2 TE sets with Gates and Henry and try to copy some of what the Patriots were running with Gronk and Hernandez. Unfortunately, I missed the Miami game, but the Denver game plan was just stupid. Martyball 2.0 with each series feeling like run-run-pass-punt until the fourth quarter.

by Ben Muth :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 2:23pm

1) Yeah, I watched Okung a few years ago and this is the best I've ever seen him play. Hopefully he can stay healthy.
2) Pulley looked alright. If I had to rank the performances I'd go Okung, Barksdale (due to degree of difficulty blocking Wake), Slauson, Pulley, and Wiggins. Pulley was a tick below average probably but didn't look out of place or anything.
3) Wiggins was awful. The reason I picked the Charger originally was to write about Lamp, so was I super bummed when he went out.
4) I think in general I'm a more lenient grader than PFF with OL guys (except I'm usually tougher on centers). Second GIF is a good example, Barksdale doesn't do a good job there, but I'm more apt to put blame on the staff there than him cause I'm not sure that was a good plan to block Suh. And Suh did play very well on Sunday, but he did most of his work against Wiggins. When I'm considering if an OL played well as a whole, I can typically write off one guy playing bad because it's just rare in the NFL to have all 5 guys play above average in the same game. Also, the Chargers run game doesn;t get much help from the TEs. Henry and Gates don't do anyone any favors in that phase.

by jtr :: Sat, 09/23/2017 - 1:35pm

As far as number 4 goes, that's probably the biggest knock on PFF, that they don't seem to account for the difficulty of the assignment. That's an issue for FO numbers too; I'd think that's going to go down as a blown block on a run play, regardless of the fact that it was a very difficult assignment against an exceptional defective lineman. Ultimately there's always going to be limits to any analytical technique in football.

by theslothook :: Sat, 09/23/2017 - 11:50pm

There are other issues i have with pff, even though I like their work. How does one accurately grade a variety of plays that don't neatly fall on a simple gradient?

I once went back and forth on twitter with one of pff's senior writers about a coverage play involving Stephon Gilmore. He had perfect coverage, but a sweet pass from flacco landed in the receivers hands just over gilmore's outstretched arms. The play earned gilmore a -.1. I asked how that could be perceived as a negative play? He replied - because he could have tried to fight through the catch with his hand instead of tumbling down.

Ok, maybe that should be a negative play, but how negative? And how does that play fall compared to a blown assignment vs falling down vs having slightly less than perfect coverage?

The concept of grades makes some sense when you have a very defined set of criteria - blown block. sack, pressure....not necessarily how much your hands are in the air vs where your feet are.

by Raiderfan :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 4:41pm

Always great stuff.

by Tundrapaddy :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 7:43pm

Hey, remember when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014?

Yeah - that line had Max Unger and Russell Okung playing at center and left tackle.

It's almost as if there is some correlation between offensive performance and the offensive line's talent.

by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 9:45pm

And James Carpenter. And Breno Giacomini. And J.R. Sweezy. All of whom are still starting around the NFL. I can't imagine there's another team, and certainly not another championship team, that let go of an entire starting offensive line that could still have been intact so many years later, without having any of them retire or just fall out of the league.

by ammek :: Sat, 09/23/2017 - 4:52am

Barksdale is #72, I think. And he missed about a quarter of the game; the Dolphins clearly went after his replacement, with some success if I remember rightly. I wonder if the chopping and changing at RT affected Wiggins' performance too.

by garion333 :: Mon, 09/25/2017 - 8:35am

Fantastic, as ever. Glad to see Okung get paid and play well. Really thought injuries derailed him completely, but with the lack of NFL caliber OL experience coming in these vets are worth every penny.