by Ben Muth
When Aaron Schatz and I were discussing which teams I would cover in this year’s column, the only team that he mentioned that I already had in mind was Seattle. Seattle’s appeal was that they had a bunch of highly-drafted players that not only had never played together before, but were playing for a well-known offensive line coach (Tom Cable). It seemed like there would be a lot of interesting stuff to write about. Plus, I was a big advocate of the controversial James Carpenter pick, and was looking forward to watching him play all year. Halfway through the season, I’m convinced that Seattle was certainly worth covering, but not in the way I had originally imagined.
Early in the season, to paraphrase the timeless Dennis Green speech (kinda sorta), Seattle’s line was who we thought they would be. There were a couple of nice individual performances by talented players (Max Unger and Russell Okung), but we mostly saw poor performances for the unit overall. It was clear that they were struggling as a unit when it came to passing-off games on pass plays and working in combination on running plays. Recently however, I have seen some real improvement up front. Especially in the running game.
I think a big reason for the recent uptick in play is Robert Gallery. Gallery missed the early part of the season with an injury and was replaced with Paul McQuistan. McQuistan struggled, and between him and the rookie right side of the line, the Seahawks were at a big disadvantage early in 2011. Watching Gallery since he’s come back, it is pretty clear why he was moved from tackle to guard in Oakland. The former top-five pick is a really good run blocker. I’m going to say that again with italics for emphasis (bold font seemed a little much, because he ain’t Randall McDaniel). Robert Gallery is a really good run blocker. It’s clear that Cable wants to run behind him, and that Marshawn Lynch wants to cut behind him on plays that aren’t called his way.
The things that Gallery does really well in the running game are simple, but probably the two most fundamental things a lineman can do on a run block. First, he always seems to have inside hands. What that means is that he shoots his hands into the defenders numbers, and makes sure that the defender has to reach around to get to Gallery’s pads and chest. It is so much easier to hold your ground (and just hold period, for that matter) when you get your hands inside. You can almost steer a defender if you get your hands inside his.
The other thing Gallery is good at is driving his feet when a defender tries to disengage. Defensive linemen are taught to explode off the ball, get leverage in their gaps, find the ball, and get off a block. It sounds like a lot, but it should all happen within the first two seconds of the play. There are two ways to effectively block defenders in the NFL. One way is to out-leverage them at the snap -- this is what the stretch game is based on. The theory is that once a defender loses his leverage on his gap, he panics and starts overcompensating to recover, opening up cutback lanes. The other way is to run your feet like hell when the defender is looking for the ball and he’s trying to disengage the block. When a defender is trying to do those things, he isn’t moving forward as much, and is less focused on the blocker. By running your feet, you can really move a defender right as the back is hitting the line of scrimmage. This is what announcers are referring to when they say that someone is "finishing his block." Finishing your block results in late-opening cutback lanes and a lot of arm tackles. Gallery excels at finishing blocks late by running his feet.
Clearly, I thought Gallery played well and was a big part of Seattle’s ground success on Sunday against Dallas. He was also pretty good in pass protection. That being said, I have to point out his getting absolutely trucked by DeMarcus Ware on a pass play in the first quarter. Ware was coming into Gallery’s B-gap on a stunt, and it looked like Gallery was a little worried about Ware’s speed and arm length (probably having flashbacks to his days of having to pass-block athletes like Ware every play). As a result, Gallery was giving ground quickly and seemed to be expecting some kind of pass rush move. Instead he got a straight helmet and ended up right on his back. The number of that truck was 94, Mr. Gallery. I hate bringing that up, but it certainly jumped off the tape. It was an inconsequential blemish on an otherwise nice game.
The guys on either side of Gallery also played well. I’ve complimented Unger a couple of times in this column, and everything I’ve said before remains true. He still excels at reaching nose guards on zone plays (both inside and outside) and he’s pretty good once he gets to the second level. My biggest critique on Unger is his pass blocking. It seems like there are times he over-commits to certain rushers and misses guy that replace their rush lane. I’ll see him chase or block a defensive tackle with a guard for too long, while a defensive end or linebacker loops inside unblocked. I’m convinced Unger has the tools to be really good, but he needs to play within himself a little more to reach his full potential.
Though both Unger and Gallery played well, I think the breakout star was Okung. Okung was matched against Ware the majority of the game and played really well. Watching the game closely it seemed like Seattle’s offensive staff has faith in him as a pass blocker. They didn’t send him a ton of help, and generally let him handle Ware one-on-one. His pass set is consistently great, and he seems to constantly be improving his hands. He’s still not a great run blocker, but he is far better than adequate on the ground at a pass block-first position. I don’t think he’s a top-flight left tackle yet (Jason Peters, Jake Long, Joe Thomas), but I do think he’s on his way to getting there.
The rookies, however, continue to struggle up front for Seattle. The backside of the running game is a massive problem for both John Moffitt and Carpenter, whether they're trying to cut guys off or chop block them. The only time they seem effective on the back end seems to be when they’re pushing defensive linemen past the hole for a cutback on inside zones. Moffitt is better on the front side of runs, especially when working in combination, and seems to be the better player overall right now. It helps that the Wisconsin product seems to be noticeably improving as the season goes along. The same cannot be said for Carpenter.
Nine weeks through the season it is clear that Seattle’s staff feels like Carpenter still needs training wheels. I could probably count on one hand the number of times Seattle left Carpenter one-on-one in pass protection. Most plays it was clear that they used a heavy chip with the tight end, a noticeable chip with the back, or just kept an extra man in on the entire play to his side. As distressing as that is, what disturbs me more is that Carpenter seems to be regressing in the running game. He got knocked back far too often for a run-first blocker on Sunday. He hasn’t been great on the backside all season, but his best skill always seemed to be generating movement at the point of attack, and he didn’t do a lot of that on Sunday. The only nice run block he made all game was a down block, which is the offensive line equivalent of a quick slant in off-coverage. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around, but right now it seems like I was wrong in my pre-draft assessment of Carpenter.
Before we wrap up this week’s column I want to point out the scheme that Seattle used to great success on Sunday. It was an inside zone play with a slice on the backside. Recently, on FO and other sites, the 49ers have gotten some publicity with the Wham play. As a result, I’ve seen color commentators mistakenly refer to the Slice play (Figure 1) as the Wham play (Figure 2). The difference is that a slice concept is basically an inside zone with a backside cutoff. The Wham concept is more of a classic trap concept with a back or tight end as the trapper instead of an offensive lineman. Slice is much more of a zone concept, while the Wham is more of a man play. Plus, 90 percent of the time, a Wham play will result in a non-offensive lineman on a defensive tackle, while the Slice play will often result in a non-offensive lineman on a defensive end.
|Figure 1: Slice||Figure 2: Wham|
That does it for this week. Remember to follow me on Twitter. This week I’ll do a Twitter breakdown of the Vikings line and another offensive line that is suggested in the comment section. First come, first serve.