Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems
Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Arizona Cardinals gave up a touchdown on the first drive of the game. Then they returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown only to have it called back for holding. The game actually got worse from there. No individual offensive lineman was as bad as the 41-7 final score would lead you to believe, but none of them were great and their breakdowns came at different times during the game. On one play four guys would execute their assignments (that sounds very CIA-ish), but Brandon Keith would inexplicably step down inside when he was supposed to block an outside rusher, Sean Weatherspoon, and give up a sack. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Let's start with the offensive tackles, who were not very good. Levi Brown and Brandon Keith struggled with speed on the edge in the passing game. This was a particular weakness of Keith, on whom defenders were able to run the hoop at will. "Running the hoop" refers to a big hoop made of PVC pipe that defensive lineman always run around during practice. It's a drill that teaches them to dip their shoulder and maintain a tight arc around an offensive lineman to the quarterback.

The defenders were successful for a couple of reasons. First, I think the noise of the Georgia Dome was an issue for the right tackle. On multiple plays Keith had what I call radio delay, when you move a half-second after the ball is snapped. It's tough to notice if you're not looking directly at someone, but if you are looking for it, it suddenly becomes glaring. By being late off the ball, he is removing one of two advantages an offensive lineman has. Those two advantages are:

1. Offensive players know exactly when the ball will be snapped.
2. Offensive players know where the ball is supposed to go and can step accordingly.

Keith's other big problem, the ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage, was a problem for Brown as well. This doesn't mean you have to keep your shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage the entire play, but you should turn gradually. You want to get two kick-slides in before you start turning your shoulders. (In o-line lingo, a kick-slide is a step backwards with your outside/back foot followed by a small slide with the inside/front foot. It's the basic footwork of all pass sets.) Once you start turning your shoulders, you want to keep turning them slightly until you reach the depth where you think the quarterback is setting up. At that point it's all right to have your shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.

The basic idea is that, after the first two steps, you want your back numbers facing the quarterback at all times. The problem with turning too quickly is that, when you do, you tend to step underneath yourself, making it all but impossible to get any width, shortening the distance to the quarterback.

The first time I re-watched the game I thought the column was going to be about the decline of Alan Faneca, mainly because he didn't look good early in the game. In fact, he looked washed up. But as the game went along, Faneca found his stride and rebounded well. Faneca's performance as a whole wasn't terrible, but there were enough mistakes early to hurt the flow of the offense. For example, he gave up a quarterback hit on a play where a receiver was open deep, causing Anderson to underthrow him. On another play, Faneca got shoved into the backfield causing a short loss on an otherwise well-blocked running play. And those two missteps were enough to stall a drive early in the game.

The two most consistent performers on the o-line were Lyle Sendlein and Deuce Lutui. Sendlein put forth a solid if unspectacular effort. He was always blocking someone and generally stayed on his feet. This may seem fairly pedestrian, but you'd be surprised how often guys get tripped up or wander in space without engaging a defender. Sendlein did a nice job of being active.

Another thing I took from this game is that Deuce Lutui is a very strong man. There were multiple occasions where Lutui simply bench-pressed guys to the turf. This seemed to happen more when he got his hands on guys at the second level. The problem was, he had a much harder time getting to these guys because he was often a little late getting off defensive linemen and getting to the linebackers on that second level.

There were two problems for the Cardinals offense that were much bigger than the offensive line: penalties and incompetence on third down. Arizona didn't convert a single third down in the game, which would have been normal in the 1990s, but not in the Whisenhunt era. The penalty issue actually had little to do with the linemen; the only penalty the big fellas committed was a five-yard penalty on Levi Brown for lining up too deep, which the Falcons declined anyway. The problems on third down had to do with everyone on the Cardinals offense -- and offensive staff. Generally speaking, the Falcons plan on third down involved bringing heavy pressure and making Derek Anderson get the ball out. Anderson was able to throw quickly (he was only sacked twice) but was usually inaccurate.

The Falcons greatest weapon was the Double A-Gap blitz. (The A gap is the gap between the center and the guard on either side. Double A-Gap pressure means that the defense is bringing two defenders through the A gaps.) It's a simple enough blitz to run that was brought into vogue by the late Jim Johnson of the Eagles. Most protection schemes generally try to get big on big, or offensive linemen on defensive linemen. That means running backs are usually responsible for linebackers. When a defense sends two linebackers into the A gaps, it forces the offense to make adjustments. How the offense adjusts depends on factors like what protection scheme they're running, whether the quarterback is under center or in shotgun, and how much confidence you have in your running backs ability to pass protect. The Cardinals had a hard time with this look and it was big part of their downfall Sunday.

When the quarterback is in shotgun, it becomes a little easier to adjust, because there is still enough time and distance for a running back to pick up an A gap linebacker. If the quarterback is under center, or there are no running backs in the protection, then the offensive line must account for the extra defender. That's actually the key to the entire blitz. The linebackers are so close to the quarterback before the snap that the running back doesn't have enough time to get to the linebackers, so the line is forced to pick up the extra defender. This is ideal for the defense because one of two things happens: You either get a mismatch with a running back blocking a down defensive lineman, or you end up with a defender coming free and unaccounted for. Both situations happened on Sunday, and defenders in Derek Anderson's lap all game.

What makes this so worrisome for Cardinals fans (me included) is that the pressure wasn't caused by mental breakdowns. Rather, the pressure resulted from a scheme that created matchups that the Cardinals didn't win. The Cardinals had to let guys go off the edge because they didn't have enough blockers. When Tim Hightower had to block Jonathan Babineaux, Derek Anderson was unable to find an open receiver in time or deliver the ball accurately enough to hurt the overly aggressive Falcons defense.

I hate to talk about the past, but delivering the ball quickly and accurately is what Kurt Warner hung his hat on. The Cardinals will continue to see this blitz until they prove they can beat it. We'll have to see what adjustments Whisenhunt and his staff can come up with to deter teams from gambling like this.

The Falcons' TED defensive line twists also caused problems for the Cardinals. A twist is when two players exchange gaps, forcing them to twist -- most play names are self-explanatory. A "TED twist" means that the defensive tackle goes first, and then the defensive end loops around. By doing this you hope to pick the offensive linemen onto each other. There are two components that go into stopping any twist: blunting the penetrator and recognizing the looper. The problem the Cardinals were having was recognizing the looper.

During the course of a game, you begin to get a feel for the man you are blocking -- how quick he is, how fast he is, what he does well and what he doesn't do well. When a defender rushes differently than he has been all game, it is important for a the offensive lineman to recognize it.

Here, the Falcons' defensive ends would rush really hard straight up field for three steps before looping inside of the defensive tackle. On non-twists, the Falcon ends would run the hoop rather than rushing straight up the field. So, when Brown and Keith noticed that their defenders were running directly up field, instead of toward Derek Anderson, they should have been alerted that something was up and turned inside to pass off the game (game is a synonym for twist; stunt would also work).

But Arizona's tackles were consistently too late in recognizing the stunts and therefore were constantly getting picked by the defensive tackles and offensive guards. So, when the defensive end would loop inside, no one was able to pick him up. The only exceptions came when the Cardinals were sliding into the game. On these occasions, the center was able to pick up the looping defensive end. Even then, it took three guys to block two.

We'll end on a positive note, by discussing a successful play for the Cardinals. In fact, maybe the Cardinals' two best offensive snaps came on the Stretch BOSS play. The play is a version of the stretch play, ran to a tight end side, where the fullback is responsible for the strong safety. BOSS stands for Back on Strong Safety -- it's a simple game folks. They ran it out of their own end zone for about 12 yards and a first down, but we're going to look at Tim Hightower's touchdown run.

The Cardinals came out in an I Formation with Stephen Spach at tight end, plus wide receiver Steve Breaston tight like a tight end and Larry Fitzgerald split out to the left. The Falcons looked like they were misaligned on the opposite. Atlanta's defensive end was lined up in a five technique (a five technique is when a defender is lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) and its outside linebacker, in this case rookie Sean Weatherspoon, was lined up inside of him. The Falcons also didn't have any defensive backs in a position to provide outside force. If the Falcons weren't misaligned, then their players certainly faced an uphill battle from a positioning standpoint.

However, as much as the Falcons did wrong, the Cardinals did right. It started at the point of attack with Brandon Keith, yes the same guy who's received the most negative attention in this column. Keith did a great job of getting to the play side defensive end's outside shoulder. In fact, he did such a good job of pinning the defender inside that Deuce Lutui was able to take over the block, allowing Brandon Keith to climb to the second level and knock down Curtis Lofton, the Falcons middle linebacker. The other key block was by Stephen Spach. Because Jamaal Anderson (really wanted to make a dirty bird joke here but couldn't come up with a good one) was lined up in a five technique, Spach was able to go immediately to the second level and throw a textbook cut block, right on Weatherspoon's outside thigh pad. Combine all that with a nice kick out block by Reagan Maui'a on the safety, and Tim Hightower is off to the races. It was a rare bright spot in a long day for the Cardinals.


33 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2010, 4:09pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

I'm really looking forward to seeing these throughout the year. I don't think the Cardinals have much chance of being very good this season, but the level of their competition all but ensures that they will be playoff relevant most of the season, and may even make the postseason. It's going to be a fascinating opportunity to track their attempts to patch things together in order to make the playoffs.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

I wish this column had existed for the Cards' postseason games last year. It would be so interesting to see what was different. The Packers barely touched Kurt Warner, and I had the impression the Saints needed to blitz to get to him.

Sounds like Russ Grimm has his hands full. Of course, if Arizona had a running back or a tight end who could block, it would help.

4 Yes it's "Word" of Muth, but column can be better

I think this column lacks visuals. It's great to have a lineman bringing his perspective, but picture (or Tanier-style diagram) or YouTube highlight would be worth quite a bit. By simply reading, one feels smart but truly learns nothing.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

To paraphrase Warren Buffett, when a position coach with a reputation for brilliance meets a unit with a reputation for substandard or over the hill talent, it is usually the unit which has it's reputation remain intact.

15 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Perhaps. On the other hand I'm very pleased with what Mike Tice has done with the Bears. He's kept things from becoming a complete disaster. I wish Muth had done the Bears as one of his teams, but there are probably 29 teams' fans who wish he had done their team.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems


As a football fan with no actual football background, it's nearly impossible to train myself to watch line play instead of following the ball. This is not because I am too easily distracted by shiny objects to be able to focus on it, it's because I don't know enough about what's going on in there to have any idea what I'm looking at. So I get frustrated and start watching the quarterback and overall formation and scheme tendencies, which is usually enough to keep things interesting, but is such an incomplete picture without taking line play into consideration. It's not like I haven't tried to pay closer attention. I just, you know, don't have Tivo and don't know thing one about line play beyond "well, that was a hold" or "wow, that guy made that other guy fall down."

I mention all of this to underscore that this is the single best column I have ever seen which has attempted to break down line play in a way that an interested layman such as myself can understand. Bravo. I look forward to enjoying football even more thanks to your insights, Mr. Muth.

12 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

"A "TED twist" means that the defensive tackle goes first, and then the defensive end loops around. By doing this you hope to pick the offensive linemen onto each other."

TED is Tackle End and then something to make it pronounceable.

11 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

"-- it's a simple game folks"

perfect phrase after a couple pages of blocking scheme analysis!

i love the column but would vote for a diagram or 2.

keep it up.

13 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

After reading 3 columns, I think this would probably sell to a "bigger name" website. HOWEVER, pleeeeease don't leave FO--ESPN insider columns may attract new readers, but THIS is why we stay. I also think that you should contact a certain M. Tanier about a diagram or two--the column gets an "A" as it is, but a visual aid would add the "+".

14 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Great article once again. I wish I could say something more insightful, but this is mainly a learning experience for me, and I didn't see this game.

16 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

This is probably my favorite column. If anything I think video would be better than diagrams just because there is so much discussion of technique and physical skills whereas diagrams are better for- he went here and did this- muth explains how so
I'd think it would be better to see it.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

How good is this column!

This reminds me of a discussion with a orchestra musician on how to tell a if a group is playing well and what an amateur should look for. This, however, is more interesting.

Agree with other posts that this is now my favorite column on the site. Rather than have one off videos and diagrams these concepts should be archived so people can reference them later.

Seriously a few years ago one of the Australian props (120 kg people) wrote his PhD thesis on the physics of the rugby scrum, so this level of analysis from Mr Muth is warranted. Also when you this about what gets thrown at the linemen during the game you get a feel for how a person can miss an assignment.

Keep up the great work.


19 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Loved the article.
@ 8th Post, it is hard to watch the interior line play because the camera follows the ball too. We are trained to watch the ball and so are the cameramen...Ideally we watch the ball and then we can go back to look at the tape of what the linemen were doing.
Personally when I watch football, I watch the game as a running back, since that is what I was..I can tell if it is a pass or run by the way the Offensive linemen take their stance, Once I realize it is a pass I look for 'bleeders' or defensive players that blitz or just plain beat one of my guys, and I knock their freakin heads off...generally they are off balance and you can demolish them if you are ready for it.
When its a run, I look for the hole to develop and watch some of the best athletes in the world recognize it and accelerate through the turnstile....
Its why I love the NFL, there are no better players, anywhere, on the planet.
You guys can keep your college fanaticism...the NFL is where men roam the earth.

20 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

ben, could you please provide a bit of analysis on the raiders oline this weekend? i ask because i am a raider fan and they play the cardinals this weekend. i am curious to see what you think of oline given the myriad of issues around it; players (including the rotation at left tackle and the play of cooper carlisle and samson satelle), scheme (cable is a zone guy but hue jackson has them running power stuff to now) and darren mcfadden and what kind of ol schemes best suit his talent.

29 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

I'm afraid I'm pretty sure Mr. Muth's only looking at the Redskins, Cowboys and Cardinals lines this season, with a view to seeing how they develop and what changes are made. As a Texans fan, I'd love to read analysis of Eric Winston et al, Rick Dennison's variants on zone blocking and so on, but we'll all have to wait for a future season. I'm not too sad: this has rapidly become one of my very favourite football columns whoever it's focusing on. Video would be awesome, but I guess there would be major copyright issues, and I don't know that diagrams would add much.

22 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

"On another play, Faneca got shoved into the backfield causing a short loss on an otherwise well-blocked running play"
:( How the mighty have fallen. Haven't had a chance to watch much since he left Pittsburgh, but this is sad indeed.

24 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

This is definitely one of the best football columns out there, please do the Bears soon.

25 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Great column, quick question.

Is the rise of the double A gap blitz related to the decline of the fullback in NFL offenses? They would be in a position to block one of the blitzers leaving the other for the center but hardly anyone uses them anymore. A fullback should also be able to stone a blitzing linebacker.

26 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

Wow this article just increased my football IQ by @ least 5 points. As a raider fan,I really enjoyed this article since we play the Cards this week. Could use some game plan diagrams though but i will be looking for Muth's breakdown in the future. Thanks.

31 Re: Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems

As a Cardinals fan, I am way excited to be able to see a our o-line broken down so clearly; I am, however, slightly terrified that this season's efforts might be a whole lot of explanation of how we screwed up. Either way, this is great reading for anyone who knows how important line play is for a football team but often can't find the right way to express it or fully comprehend it. I for one will be reading this column every week.