by Ben Muth
The original plan for this week’s column was to write a little bit about both the New England and San Francisco offensive lines after their game on Sunday night, but there was so much going on when New England’s offense was on the field that I decided to focus on that side of the ball exclusively.
Watching the game live, one thing that stood out was Nate Solder's early struggles. At one point, Aldon Smith had pressures on three straight passes. I’ve been pumping Solder’s tires for a while in this column, so I was both surprised and a little dismayed.
My initial guess was that Solder's oblique injury was really affecting him, particularly his ability to punch effectively in pass protection. But when I watched the game a second time, I saw that Solder was still able to punch effectively at times. In fact, he played much better as the game went along. So how do we explain the early struggles?
I think it was just Solder playing too cautiously early. On the second drive of the game, when Smith had three hits on Tom Brady, the Patriots were in half-slide protection every snap, with the slide side going to the right. This meant the Solder was one-on-one with Smith for all three of the pressures (although one pressure was on a twist where Justin Smith held the hell out of Logan Mankins). In what was a sign of things to come, Solder seemed almost passive when he didn’t have any help.
What does an over-cautious set look like? Well, there are a couple of indicators. The first indicator is what I would call an "under-set." An under-set is when you don’t get much width on your set because you’re afraid of ether an inside move or a twist with the tackle. The 49ers love to run twists with Justin and Aldon Smith, so under-setting is certainly a legitimate strategy against them, but if you aren’t going to create any width for the rusher with your feet, you have to create it with your hands. That is where Solder really failed: he did not widen A. Smith’s rush with his punch.
The reason? Solder wasn’t really punching: he was clamping. Instead of throwing his hands straight ahead (like a two-handed jab), he was trying to clamp down on Aldon Smith’s shoulder pads from out wide. Not only is this weaker and unlikely to knock a rusher off his course, it’s significantly slower. An indirect route with your hands gives the defender a much better chance to knock them down. Let’s take a look at some stills from that second-quarter drive.
Solder’s set starts out fine. He’s got a good base, his hands are tight to each other, and his body is in a great position to punch. Because of the camera angle (this is an NBC replay camera, not the coaches tape) you can’t see how much width he gets from his initial alignment, but trust me: it isn’t a lot. Still, he’s in decent shape to start. Panel two is where the signs of real trouble emerge.
Notice how Solder’s arms are outside of Smith’s frame. Worse, in order to get them that wide, he had to drop them to his hips and loop them around like a sumo wrestler that’s about to bow. You can also see that Smith has already started his initial move: he's going to chop out and down in a circular motion to knock Solder’s outside hand down. It’s basically the wax on/wax off move that Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid. That’s right, there’s a decent chance Miyagi inadvertently turned Daniel-san into an effective pass rusher.
Once Smith knocks Solder’s outside hand down, the offensive tackle has to hurry to replace it. But Smith is faster, and manages to grab Solder’s forearm and pin it to his own stomach. Now all Solder can do is try to turn and run Smith behind the quarterback with his inside hand, which is actually in decent position on Smith’s ribcage.
There are a couple of problems with that plan. One is that since Solder has failed to force any width the entire play (either from his initial set or his punch), there isn’t enough room to run Smith by Brady cleanly. The other issue is that Smith still has Solder’s forearm, and he uses it pull himself through for a clear path to Brady. Fortunately for the Patriots, Brady threw it just before Smith got there, and they avoided what could have been a sack-and-fumble.
Solder did get better as the game went along, but a big part of it was just sliding the protection towards him more often. Solder really looked like a different player when he knew he had help from Mankins inside, or when the Patriots ran play-action and he could fire out at Smith. It’s not that Solder necessarily needed help from Mankins that often; he was simply much more aggressive when he knew he had it. He set wider, he punched with more conviction, and was just generally more effective. Let’s take a look at an example.
This is from the fourth quarter. Right away you can see Solder is setting wider on Smith with Mankins looking to help. The best view of this is on his initial punch, when he’s helmet-to-helmet (as opposed to having slight inside leverage) as he engages.
Speaking of the initial punch, it’s what makes the block for Solder. His hands are inside of Smith’s and his arms are fully extended, giving him plenty of distance. Smith actually knocks Solder’s outside hand down again on this play, but because Solder has generated much more space this time, he's able to replace it without getting beat. Now all Smith can do is simply try to bull rush Solder back into the quarterback, but the big man from Colorado did a nice job of anchoring and keeping the rusher away from Brady.
Because the Patriots had been sliding toward Solder so much in the second half, the 49ers began running a lot of stunts to New England’s right side assuming they would get man-to-man blocking. On the play above, a tackle/end stunt from San Francisco resulted in a sack for Ray McDonald. It’s a nice example of the game of adjustments. The Patriots change to help a struggling player, but then San Francisco responds to New England’s newfound predictability in pass protection.
As a whole, I thought New England’s line played well. Sebastian Vollmer and Mankins, in particular, more than held their own against a very good front. Vollmer did great job on Ahmad Brooks in pass protection despite very little help, and Mankins stood out in the run game, getting solid movement against everyone not named Justin Smith, who he was generally able to fight to a draw.
Ryan Wendell was also solid, particularly on the second level against some very good players. Dan Connolly struggled a bit with McDonald in pass protection, but he wasn’t awful, and I think he could have really benefited from more balanced play calling. Connolly’s slight struggles are indicative of how connected everything on the offensive line can be.
Before we finish I want to look at the defensive side of the ball for a change. Usually, when I diagram a defensive play, it’s either a crazy blitz or someone messing up their run fits. So I wanted to show an example of what good base defense looks like.
On the second play of the game, the Patriots lined up in 12 personnel with both tight ends aligned to the right. The 49ers were in nickel personnel and in a 4-2 alignment. New England called a single-back power play, one of their base runs, and San Francisco played it perfectly.
At the snap, McDonald recognizes the double team and decides to go low. This prevents him from giving ground against two men and causes a pile up in the B-gap. It also makes it tough for either Vollmer or Connolly to come off on Patrick Willis.
NaVorro Bowman sees the play coming and fills the C-gap. His goal is to fit as tight to the double team as possible. He wants to eliminate any space between himself and the pile, so he can’t get kicked out by the pulling guard.
Notice where safety Donte Whitner is early in the play: Whitner is an alley player, and it’s his job to fill any space that opens up as the play develops.
Bowman sees he isn’t quite tight enough to the double team and decides to wrong-arm the pulling guard: that means he’s going to rip with his outside arm across the face of Mankins, like he is throwing an uppercut. This puts him back inside, in his gap, and forces the play to spill outside of him.
As he’s doing that Whitner, has flown towards the line of scrimmage and filled in the space between Brooks (who’s getting doubled) and Bowman. Compare Whitner’s reaction to the Buffalo defensive backs I talked about earlier in the year when New England played the Bills. If you want to be able to stop the run, you need defensive backs who know where and how to fit into the running game.
Everyone has filled their gaps inside, and Whitner has eliminated any extra space. Stevan Ridley turns his shoulders completely to the sideline and runs laterally. That’s exactly what spill defensive schemes are designed to do. No matter what Dexter McCluster thinks, no offense can gain any yards running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
Eventually Ridley runs out of space and into the arms of two unblocked San Francisco defensive backs. The best part of this play is how ordinary it is. No single 49ers defender does anything that blows you away, but all 11 of them do their job. As a result, Ridley just doesn’t have anywhere to go.