by Ben Muth
Well, the bar has officially been raised here at Word of Muth. New Orleans’ offensive line performance on Monday night was the best game I’ve seen any of the units I’ve covered play since I started this column. The Giants defensive line came in with a very good (and earned) reputation, but from the kickoff to the final whistle, New Orleans owned the game between the trenches.
For New Orleans everything starts with their two Pro Bowl guards, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. These two guys get a lot of press for offensive linemen, and I think it is completely warranted. The bread and butter play in the New Orleans running game is a simple inside zone, the most common running play in the NFL. Nicks and Evans are the guys that make that play go: both of them have the ability to block any three-technique in the league one-on-one, which is vital. More importantly, both are exceptional at working in combination with center Brian de la Puente.
One thing all three interior linemen have in common is the ability to blow the shoulder off of a down defensive lineman. When you’re running an inside zone, it’s key that you can reach the backside defensive tackle. That means that either the backside tackle or guard is going to have to get his helmet across a man that is lined up inside of him (Figures 1 and 2). The easiest way to do this is working in combination with the lineman lined up inside of him. What that inside lineman wants to do (the center in Figure 1, the left guard in Figure 2) is explode through the defender's inside shoulder on the way up to the second level, and get him to turn that shoulder back. That stops that defender from moving down the line of scrimmage, and also opens up a pocket for the backside lineman to get his head in front of the defender. All three of the Saints interior offensive linemen are capable of this, but Evans and Nicks excel.
|Figures 1 and 2: Saints Inside Zone|
As valuable as Nicks and Evans are in the running game, they may be even better as pass blockers. Watching the game, I was amazed how clean Drew Brees’ pocket was all night. The Saints’ interior offensive linemen rarely gave up more than two or three yards in pass protection, giving Brees plenty of room to step up and drive the ball when he needed to. They were even more impressive passing off games, such as defensive linemen twists. Both guys were great at flattening the penetrator or getting their eyes outside if their guy was the looper -- the looper is soft-rushing until he loops outside of the penetrating defensive end. The Giants defensive front is known for being able to run these games very successfully, but Evans and Nicks snuffed them out entirely.
It’s a good thing the Saints are so great in the middle, because the more I watch Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, the more I’m convinced that they’re both pretty average. Neither is awful, but neither really does much to show up on tape either. They both seem dangerously close to getting beat around the edge in pass protection, on a consistent basis, only to have Drew Brees step up into the massive pocket provided by his interior guys. I imagine there are a lot of tackles that would look much better if their interior guys provided that kind of room for the quarterback.
It’s not just pass-blocking that shows some of Bushrod and Strief’s limitations. I think the Saints want to run more zone stretch, but they don’t have faith in their tackles to handle defensive ends well enough. When they do run the stretch, the running backs have to cut back almost as soon as the get the ball, and as a result, it looks more like a soft inside zone. But, like I said, these guys aren’t bad -- just average. They both block well at the second level, and are effective on the backside of inside zones. There are certainly worse tandems out there, but it’s still something that could hurt the Saints in the playoffs, especially against 3-4 teams like the Packers and 49ers.
The final piece up front for the Saints is Brian de la Puente. De la Puente took over at center after Olin Kreutz retired earlier this season. To be honest, I still don’t have a great read on him. He works well with his guards, but I think a lot of centers would work well with them. He seems to struggle a bit against quick pass rushers like linebackers, but he doesn’t seem to get a ton of those. If I had to grade him based on this Giants game alone, he’d get an A-minus. But when I think back to the Rams game, I thought he struggled escaping to the second level in the running game -- though apparently the Rams were grabby that week. I’m going to have to see more of him to render a final verdict.
Earlier, I talked about how the Saints rely on the inside zone to get their running game going and keep the defense honest. One thing you have to account for if you run a lot of inside zone is the backside defensive end. If you don’t do something to slow him down, he’ll close down and make the play for a short gain all day. The Saints took care of this problem a couple of different ways.
The first thing they used was the slice concept (Figure 1). I wrote about the slice concept a couple of times last year, but it’s worth discussing again because it’s getting more and more popular. Basically, it’s just a regular inside zone for the offensive line and the running back, but with a kickout block on the backside of the play. Either a tight end or a fullback will cut across the flow of the play, kick out to the end man on the line of scrimmage, and open up a cutback lane for the carrier.
A lot of announcers have been confusing the slice concept with a wham concept. The difference is that the wham is a front side trap play, with a man concept up front for the offensive line. The slice is just an inside zone with one player held off for the other side of the formation at the snap. It’s also important to note that this isn’t a designed cutback play -- the running back has the same reads he always does on an inside zone play. It just makes any cutback lane much larger, should the running back decide to go that way.
Another thing the Saints did was motion a receiver in to block the end (Figure 2). That seems like a serious mismatch, and it normally would be, but the Saints do enough stuff out of the motion to keep the end on his toes. For instance, the Saints will motion that wide receiver down, crack back on the defensive end, and run a toss outside. Or they’ll motion him down and just run a pass play. Or they’ll motion him down and have him cut block the defensive end on a zone stretch. Since the defensive end has no idea what the wide receiver is going to do, he seems to slow play it a bit and let the wide receiver engage him just a little bit. By the time he realizes it’s an inside zone, the running back is already through the line of scrimmage and at the second level. One last way the Saints deal with the backside defensive end is with reverse motion. I don't have a diagram for this one -- just imagine any of the above diagrams with a guy running a reverse behind them, it’s the exact same blocking scheme.
|Figure 3: Saints Screen|
Finally, I wanted to close by diagramming the Saints third-quarter screen pass to Pierre Thomas (Figure 3). It wasn’t anything particularly creative, but it was executed perfectly. This was run with base screen rules, which means it’s a one-and-a-half count (the time you block before you release) and the interior guys were the ones releasing. The three interior guys don’t have assignments before the play -- instead, their assignments are dictated by the order in which they get into the open field.
The first guy out (in this case Evans) is the kick guy. He has to kick out on the force defender. De la Puente was out second, so he had the alley. That means he turns up inside of Evans' block and leads the way. The last guy out (Nicks) is the peel back guy. It’s his job to block any defensive linemen who read the screen. All three guys did their job masterfully. If you have NFL Rewind (which you should, it’s a great deal) go watch that play right now and use the end zone angle on the coach’s film, it’s at 6:37 in the third quarter. I’ll wait…
How beautiful was that? That’s clinic tape right there. And with that, we’re through here. Remember to follow me on Twitter, where I probably won't complain about Jeff Mathis as much anymore.