by Ben Muth
(Ed. Note: Word of Muth is our new column where former Stanford left tackle Ben Muth will look at offensive line play, rotating his coverage between Dallas, Washington, and Arizona. If you missed the introduction that explored these teams and the goals of the column, you can read it here.)
Sunday night's Dallas-Washington opener was a defensive battle that ended up in a 13-7 Washington victory, but the Redskins' line played much better than the final score might indicate. Perhaps the biggest surprise was rookie left tackle Trent Williams and his very solid performance against DeMarcus Ware.
Williams did a lot of things very well. He was great at the second level, and in space. He seems to have a very a natural talent of locking onto defenders off the line of scrimmage, a skill that very few offensive lineman really have. The most obvious example of this was on the screen pass to Chris Cooley in the first quarter where he pulled outside, locked onto a safety and drove him straight to the sideline. For the most part, he also did a tremendous job in pass protection. He gave up a hit on an inside up-and-under move early in the game, and he gave up the sack to Ware in the second half, but the sack actually wasn't as bad of a play as it probably seemed. Donovan McNabb was in the shotgun, and then took a FULL five-step drop. His back foot hit at 11 yards deep in the backfield. That is really deep, and usually, as a quarterback, when you get that deep you either let the ball go as soon as the back foot hits, or you step up (or climb) in the pocket. On this play however, the Cowboys sent both linebackers inside and got a great push up the middle, collapsing the pocket. Because of that, McNabb couldn't step up and was a sitting duck for DeMarcus Ware. So, while Williams did get his hands knocked down and actually give up the sack, it wasn't a one-man effort from Ware.
Otherwise, Williams was very impressive in not only containing Ware, but doing so within the offensive scheme without needing any extra help, such as running back chips or protections where the tight end stayed in to double-team. He wasn't as effective run blocking against the Cowboys' down defensive linemen or Ware, but he certainly wasn't liability in that department by any means. He didn't really get beat in these situations, but he also didn't get any real movement, usually stalemating with a defender on the line of scrimmage. The false start on Washington's final drive was poor timing and a drive-killer, but luckily for Williams, another dumb penalty by a different player would overshadow it. Overall, Washington fans have to be really excited about what they saw.
Trent Williams wasn't the only offensive tackle to make an impressive debut for Washington on Sunday night. Jammal Brown, acquired from the Saints this offseason, had a very similar game in his first start at right tackle. He was very good on the second level all night, and even better in his pass set. The thing that impressed me most was how patient he was with his hands. He kept his hands in tight to his chest, out of a defender's reach, until the guy was at a perfect distance for him to snap a punch. By doing this, he protects his hands from a move like a chop or rip, and he also does a good job of creating enough space to allow himself time to react. It's much more difficult than it sounds, trust me. One thing worth noting is that Chris Cooley was kept in to block on his side a lot. I'm not sure if this was to protect Brown from Anthony Spencer, or so they could slide the protection towards DeMarcus Ware. Perhaps Kyle Shanahan was playing against Cooley in fantasy and wanted to keep him out of pass routes. For some reason, Cooley was used in pass protection more usual for a tight end, and it's definitely something to keep an eye on in future games.
Of the three interior linemen, newcomer Artis Hicks had the best game. Hicks was the offensive lineman who generated the most movement in the run game. That being said, unlike the two offensive tackles, Hicks really struggled getting off onto the Cowboy linebackers on the second level. The other guard spot was a rotation between Derrick Dockery and Kory Lichtensteiger. Both played about equal time, but I think Dockery clearly outplayed Lichtensteiger. Neither was great by any means, but Dockery was tough to notice when you weren't really focusing on him. This means that the veteran was generally doing at least a passable job. Lichtensteiger, on the other hand, jumped off the tape in a negative way a couple times, most memorably when he ended up about three yards deep in the backfield on a halfback Iso. I predict that as the season progresses we get a lot more Dockery, and a lot less Lichtensteiger.
In the middle, Casey Rabach had his hands full all night with Jay Ratliff. Ratliff looked too quick for Rabach at times in the passing game, and too strong on running plays. There were a couple of snaps where the center looked flat outgunned. However, it should be pointed out that as the game went on, Ratliff became less and less of a factor, and Rabach began to win more individual battles against him. Also, the Redskins were great in their blitz pickups all night, and I'm sure Rabach was a big part of that.
Washington's two best drives of the game were their first and last ones. We're going to focus on the first drive since it was the dawning of a new era in DC. The Redskins decided to open up the Mike Shanahan era with a straight-ahead run. NBC decided to open the Mike Shanahan era by coming back from commercial too late and missing the very beginning of the play, making it really tough for me to see what happened. It looked like Jammal Brown got beat but I couldn't tell why because of the late cut by the camera. That's exactly the kind of analysis Football Outsiders brought me on for.
The Redskins followed with a quick play-action pass to Chris Cooley that ultimately went nowhere. On third-and-long Donovan McNabb found Santana Moss for the first down. This play actually set a tone for the rest of the game. The Cowboys rushed four and got no pressure, thanks in no small part by Williams' ability to handle Ware. When you get zero pressure on an early third-and-long, it usually means you will have to bring extra people in the future, which of course leaves your secondary vulnerable. The Washington Redskins followed up their first first down with two straight zone stretches One of the two zone stretches was actually a variation that some people call Release. It was the play that made Terrell Davis famous, and happens to be my personal favorite football play. At some point during the season, when the Redskins break it for a big play, we'll go into great detail on this version of the stretch play. That's what we in the business call a tease.
However, in this game the Redskins really struggled to run the stretch play and the reason was pretty simple. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer did a phenomenal job setting the edge all night. What I mean by "setting the edge" is that when you are the last guy on the line of scrimmage, as Ware and Spencer usually are, it is your job to keep your outside arm free so you are able to keep contain. Not only that, but since birth, these guys have had it pounded in their heads that losing contain is the eighth deadly sin. I once had a coach who said, "You can either lose contain, or you can play defensive end. You can't do both." (In a 3-4 defense, especially in the Wade Phillips variant, the outside linebackers basically are the defensive ends.) Well, the zone stretch play was introduced to take advantage of that style of coaching. The offensive player, usually a tackle or tight end, attacks the defender's outside shoulder. The defender, fearing he is about to be reached, freaks out and starts working like crazy to get back outside. During this process, the defender will be so worried about getting outside that he won't notice that he has moved eight yards from his original alignment creating a huge seam.
That's the idea, anyway. But Ware and Spencer recognized what that the offense was trying to do, and made sure they never let anyone's helmet get outside of them. By doing that, they were able to hunker down in place, thus setting where the edge of the play would be. That forced the runner to cut back into the line of scrimmage too soon, right into a bunch of defenders.
After the two unsuccessful stretch plays, the Skins faced another third-and-long. This time the Cowboys brought pressure, but the Redskins did a great job of picking it up, and McNabb scrambled for the first down. Washington had on a protection most West Coast offenses call 3 Jet. In 3 Jet the running back, in this case Clinton Portis, is responsible for the linebacker to the left side. The left tackle is responsible for the defensive end directly across from him, and the rest of the offensive line is in a slide protection. Slide protection is the passing game equivalent of zone blocking, in that you are responsible for a gap rather than a man. On 3 Jet each lineman is responsible for the gap to his right. The thing that really made this play was the two offensive players who knocked their defenders out of their rush lanes. When a defense blitzes, it is important that everyone stays in the gap or lane they are assigned. If two defenders end up in the same gap, it creates a lane for the quarterback to run in, and that's what happened here. Clinton Portis came up and really hammered a blitzing Bradie James, knocking him from the left B gap (the gap between tackle and guard) into the left A gap (the gap between the guard and center). The commentators did a great job of pointing this out. What didn't get as much love from the booth was Derrick Dockery rag-dolling Jay Ratliff right at the snap from the left A gap to the right A gap. By displacing those two defenders, the Redskins created a huge alley for McNabb to run through. And because Dallas had blitzed, they were manned up on the back end, meaning no one was able to make a play on McNabb until it was too late.
Washington followed up the scramble with a bootleg on first down that didn't fool anybody and was ultimately an incomplete pass. Up next was the Trent Williams show featuring Chris Cooley. Cooley caught a tight end screen and ran for the first down. But the star of the play was Trent Williams, who pulled and blocked the safety all the way out of bounds. What makes the play so impressive is the fact that it is so hard for an offensive lineman to block defensive backs in open space like that. Usually, a defensive back will give a shoulder fake or simply hop around a big offensive tackle and leave him flailing at air. In fact, that scenario is so common that many offensive line coaches just teach their guys to cut in the open field with the idea being they have a better chance of hitting their defender -- and even if they miss, the defender will at least have to jump over them, or stop his feet to avoid them. But to be athletic enough to lock onto a safety like Williams did without holding is really remarkable.
It was here where the Redskins drive stalled. Kyle Shanahan called back-to-back running plays, a single-back Power play and another zone stretch, and neither really went anywhere. On third down, the Cowboys blitzed again and this time the Redskins weren't able to pick it up. Washington ran a scat protection (a scheme with no running backs or tight ends in blocking). It's hard to tell who messed up on a play like this, since all teams change how they want to block scat protections on a weekly basis. A lot of the time the offensive line will take the four down linemen and the Mike (middle) linebacker. It looks like that's what the Redskins wanted to do here. If that was the case, then the guards and tackles would each be responsible for the man right across from him, and the center (Rabach) would be responsible for the Mike. In this scenario, that would leave Keith Brooking free off the edge. Williams saw a guy coming free and in a case of natural reaction slid out to pick him up, leaving DeMarcus Ware unblocked, which would be a mistake. But as I said before, it's impossible to be positive about a play like this and any analysis is more theory than fact. McNabb threw it away, and the Redskins settled for a field goal.
Let's move from the first drive to the final one, and from Washington to Dallas, as I feel obligated to talk about the last play of the game. What Alex Barron did on that last play was holding. It was pretty obvious to anyone who's watched even a little bit of football. What was more obvious is that Alex Barron was struggling in that game. He had already been called for holding twice in the second half and was generally having a hard time in pass protection. Why would the coaches leave him on an island on the most critical play of the game? What makes it even more baffling is that there were a lot of ways to protect him, and America's Team had just called a timeout. The Cowboys' protection was 2 Jet (2 Jet is just like 3 Jet, except the back goes to the right and the line slides to the left). The Cowboys could have very easily had the exact same route combination but with 3 Jet, so that the line would slide to Barron and he would know that all he had to do was not get beat around the edge because of his inside help. Or, if you really want to slide left for whatever reason, during the timeout you go to Marion Barber and say, "If your man doesn't blitz, help out Alex." When Marion Barber got to the line of scrimmage he would have seen that his man was six yards off the line of scrimmage and was no threat at all to blitz. Then he could have focused his attention to helping Barron with Orakpo.
The whole situation in Dallas with Alex Barron reminds of the old fable about the fox and the snake (or the frog and the scorpion, if that's your cup of tea). The Cowboys did nothing to help the weakest link on their offensive line, and in the end Alex Barron did what Alex Barron does and the Cowboys lost the game.