Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Blowouts

Word of Muth: Blowouts
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

There's a great scene in the golf movie Tin Cup, in which Don Johnson is talking to Kevin Costner at the bar after the first round at the U.S. Open. Johnson's character (the villain) asks, "Now how in the world did a great ball striker like yourself, a legend, manage to put up an 83?" Costner replies, "Well I missed a four-foot putt on 18 for 82." For some reason, this quote has always reminded me of blow outs. During a game it never seems like you're getting blown out. You know things aren't going your way, but you always feel like you're a score and a turnover away from being right back in it.

But eventually the game ends, and you can't even really remember what happened. All you know is that the score wasn't as close as it seemed just a couple of hours ago. You remember all the other team's touchdowns, and each of your turnovers, but they don't seem connected until after the final whistle.

Finally, you try and pinpoint the key ingredient that led to the blowout. Coaches will always blame preparation in practice, the offense will blame defensive deficiency and vice versa, and the kicker will be glad the score was wide enough that he can't be blamed. But when you lose by three touchdowns, it was more than just one thing, just like Costner didn't shoot an 83 because of one putt.

It actually wasn't all doom and gloom for the Redskins. I thought their offensive line played pretty well. At least as well as an offensive line can play in such a lopsided game. (I don't need a bunch of comments calling me an o-line apologist, that would be like accusing the Pope of being Catholic.) Obviously, they weren't going on a rampage, but they did do a nice job of getting bodies on defenders. And while there wasn't a ton of movement in the running game, they did sustain blocks well enough to allow an undrafted rookie running back run for 89 yards on 16 carries.

The interior offensive linemen were more impressive than their brethren on the outside. Casey Rabach (can't wait for an Under Siege joke in the comments) played what I thought was his best game of the season. Excluding the one holding call, I thought Rabach was very good in pass protection. Whether he was one-on-one or helping out one of his guards, he got the job done. And once again, he must have been solid in his line calls -- his line picked up most blitzes that were possible to protect. The only time I saw a free rusher (free rusher means a defender not picked up because of the blocking scheme) was when the running back went the wrong way. Now, that doesn't mean that there wasn't any pressure on Donovan McNabb, just that the pressure was the result of guys getting beat, rather than blitzes not being picked up.

Artis Hicks and Kory Lichtensteiger weren't as good as Rabach, but they were far from the problem. Both looked good in the running game. The guards were the only two up front that got consistent movement when the Redskins ran between the tackle. That being said, both Hicks and Lichtensteiger were knocked back a little at times in the stretch game. As a guard, you can give up a little penetration on Zone Stretch without killing the play, and these guys walked that line for most of the game. They weren't as good in pass protection, especially when dealing with twists from the defense, but were for the most part decent enough.

Unlike the guards, the tackles did not have similar games. Stephon Heyer replaced Jammal Brown in the first quarter and had the worst game of any of Washington's offensive linemen. Heyer didn't generate a lot of movement in the running game, especially on plays like Stretch BOSS, where it was vital. Unfortunately, Heyer wasn't much better in the passing game. He struggled with the bull rush and twists and generally had an off night. I don't want to completely bury the guy, as other guys this year (Levi Brown this week -- or any other week) have played worse games, but he certainly didn't play well enough to make people forget about Brown.

On the other side, Trent Williams continues to impress me. He's obviously a great athlete, and you can see that just by watching him move. But his athleticism really pays off in pass protection. He's a good enough athlete to recover from some bad situations and stay engaged with his man. As he plays in the NFL more he should find himself in fewer of these situations, and at that point he may be scary.

Williams may be getting by mostly on athleticism in the passing game, but he has really improved his technique in the running game. The biggest thing I've noticed is simple hat placement (hat means head). He's starting to get his head in the right place, like burying it in a guy's ribcage while he's locked up with the tight end. If Williams can continue to improve like this, the Redskins may have a perennial Pro Bowler on the blind side.

But everything I just wrote is pretty irrelevant compared to the final score. Anyone who watched this game knows that it was lost in the first quarter, when the Redskins didn't get a first down and the Eagles hung 28 points on the board. In fact, the Eagles were up so big, so quick, that it's tough to tell what Washington's game plan was.

Last time these two teams matched up, the 'Skins had a lot of success running the Stretch to the tight end side (for more details, read my previous column). Sunday, they were down too much to establish the running game. If the first drive of the game is any indication, when they were down just seven, running was the Redskins' game plan.

The 'Skins opened up with a Stretch Slice play. It's a simple play in which the offensive line runs a stretch concept and the hipped tight end cuts across the back of the formation to seal off the edge defender. The front side of the play was blocked really well. Trent Williams and Fred Davis drove the defensive end and the outside linebacker out wide. Lichtensteiger hooked the three-technique and gave up little penetration. And Rabach got up to the second level and blocked the Mike linebacker. Unfortunately, Hicks was unable to cut off the backside nose tackle, and he made the play for a four-yard gain. Hicks kept the play from going for more, but four yards isn't awful on first down.

On second down, Washington ran an Inside Slice out of a shotgun formation. This play was also well blocked except for one person. Rabach was doubling with the backside guard (Lichtensteiger), but linebacker Moise Fokou blitzed and nailed Rabach knocking him into the backfield. Because Rabach got knocked into the backfield, Chris Cooley got knocked off his route to the backside defensive end, Trent Cole. Cooley got a short pass, and Cole made the stop. Still the Redskins were left with a very manageable third-and-3.

Figure 1: Inside Zone

The Redskins ran an Inside Zone from a three-receiver set. This play was well-blocked up front, especially considering it was against a Bear Front (It's called a Bear because the Bears popularized it in the 1980s). In a Bear Front, the defense has a head-up nose tackle and a three-technique to each side. This makes it tough to run inside because it's difficult to double team and difficult to get to the Mike linebacker.

But the Redskins over-handled the inside guys beautifully. Even Hicks, who got knocked back a little bit, got good horizontal movement. Keiland Williams stuck his foot in the ground and made a nice cut into the hole. Unfortunately, Dimitri Patterson filled the hole from his defensive back position and made a tackle.

A couple things stick out about this play. First, Williams can't let a defensive back bring him down on third-and-short. Ideally, Williams would make him miss, but at the very least, he should be able to drag him for a first down. Second, the Eagles brought in an extra defensive lineman, and had all but one defender within six yards of the line of scrimmage. Despite the fact that the Redskins had three wide receivers and just on running back, the Eagles weren't worried about the pass.

And that was it. The Redskins punted on fourth down. The Eagles came down and scored again. Then McNabb threw an interception off Santana Moss' hands. Before you knew it, Washington was in panic mode. Who knows what would have happened if Hicks had gotten across the nose tackles face on first down.? Or if Rabach hadn't gotten knocked back on second? And who is to say that if Williams would have broken a tackle on third down, that Washington wouldn't have gone on to score? But none of that happened. Instead, Washington went three-and-out. That drive may have been the key ingredient to the blowout. Or maybe it was the fact the defense gave up 52 points (the Eagles scored on defense too). It was probably one of the two.


9 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2010, 6:08pm

2 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

If I ever shoot an 83 in golf, it must mean I only played 9 holes, and I'd still be happy with my score.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

We must have been watching different Redskins. For a team that managed 4 touchdowns, that offensive line was horrible. One tackle or both were getting run over constantly. The pocket collapsed on nearly every drop back. There was one play that McNabb avoided a sack only because both tackles got bullrushed so badly that they got knocked into each other and McNabb was able to slide left because the ends were still tangled up with the offensive linemen lying in a heap.

4 Muth abandoned Dallas too early!

... the team that did not get smoked!

Actually I like the analysis. I guess the Redskins' plan was to give the Eagles offense the Peyton Manning treatment (i.e., maximize own possession time and thus minimize # of possessions) and it did not work right off the bat. I agree that the D. Patterson play was the "hidden big play." I guess he was involved in 4 big plays--in addition, one long completion on the bomb just over his head and 2 INTs.

Off topic but I think the way Asante Samuel is playing this season is due to being pissed off that the other CBs are having all the fun. His WRs hardly get thrown to, he does not do run support and all is left is freelance and intercept passes thrown to opposing TEs covered by linebackers.

5 Casey Rabach...

Is this some kind of joke? Casey Rabach: "best game of the season"??? That's like saying Andy Reid just ran his fastest 40-time! Rabach is awful, downright awful, and has been for 2 years. He's old, he's constantly pushed backwards, and he's too slow to adjust to blitzers. He's the biggest "?" on a very shaky O-line, and he needs to go... like yesterday.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

tough assignment this week, but thanks for the article. i have to confess that i pretty much missed the offensive line play entirely, perhaps because i was still in shock at the utterly shambolic play of the defense.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

So here's a question, Ben.

There are certain things coaches like to see out of their OL (i.e., blowing a guy up on a drive block - unless you're Andy Reid). But my impression has always been that minimizing mistakes is even more important than dominating your man. If you play your man to a stalemate, that's essentially a win. But one mistake, and a guy gets crucified. I think we all know that broadcasters will overreact and accuse a guy of having a bad day simply because he had a false start or a holding penalty, or got off balance one play when his man ran a twist, or whatever.

How many mistakes is acceptable? I wouldn't expect it to be a hard and fast number, but what constitutes an acceptable level of mistake free football?

Or do I have it backwards and coaches will tolerate mistakes if a guy can also make a spectacular block?

9 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

As an o-lineman consistency is most important. If you can just stay engaged in blocks for 4 to 5 seconds, you give your skill players at least a chance to make a play. As far as how many mistakes you can make a game, it depends on who you are and who you play for. Ideally, if you are blocking defensive linemen all day, he shouldn't make more than two or three tackles in the running game (at or near the line of scrimmage anyway, if a d-end makes a tackle seven yards down the field it's not really the o-lineman's fault), and a sack about every other game. Not getting up to linebackers is a little more acceptable, partially because if LBs are making tackles you still are generally gaining some yardage.

Of course, this does vary slightly from team to team. For instance, if you are the Bills and the playoffs seem unlikely this year, you may go with some more inconsistent players with big upside to see if they ever "get it". But the Colts just want guys who are solid enough to keep Manning relatively upright and healthy. They want a sure thing.

One reason injuries to the o-line can be particularly devestating is that teams often use their reserve o-line spots on high upside guys that are really not ready to play in the NFL. This is especially true at tackle. It's so hard to find guys with the right skill set, that when you do, you keep them around no matter if they'reactually any good right now or not. So, if you do suffer a couple of injuries you're left either picking up a veteran off the scrap heap and starting him after a week of practice, or shoving some green player out there before he's ready.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Blowouts

Maybe this is too obvious, but I thought of this when reading about the failed 3rd down on the Redskins first possession.

From wikipedia on the most famous Redskins blowout loss:
The Bears controlled the game right from the start, using the T formation as their primary offensive strategy. On their second play from scrimmage, running back Bill Osmanski ran 68 yards for a touchdown. Washington then marched to the Chicago 26-yard line on their ensuing drive, but wide receiver Charlie Malone dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone that would have tied the game...Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh was interviewed after the game, and a sportswriter asked him whether the game would have been different had Malone not dropped the tying TD pass. Baugh reportedly quipped, "Sure. The final score would have been 73-7."