by Ben Muth
It’s December, which means it's also the time of year where I start dropping teams that aren't contending. This year, since I'm covering the Patriots and 49ers, the only non-contending team is the Chiefs. Rather than focusing on Kansas City’s offensive line performance against the Browns (they played well before falling apart once the game was out of reach), I wanted to focus on their season as a whole.
Branden Albert is Kansas City’s left tackle and best lineman. The former first-round pick had some up and downs early in his career, but began to establish himself as an upper-echelon bookend last season. This year, I’m not sure that there are five better left tackles in the AFC, and since the NFC tackle core is shockingly thin, that may extend to the entire NFL. Duane Brown and Ryan Clady are the only two that I would put ahead of him. I would listen to arguments on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Joe Thomas, Michael Roos, and Andre Smith (who I haven’t seen much of but has supposedly played great this year).
The strongest part of Albert’s game is his ability to out-leverage defensive ends on outside zone plays. He consistently gets his helmet outside defensive ends, where it belongs, and widens them enough for Jamaal Charles to cut up inside. He is also exemplary on the backside when cutting off defensive tackles. One area he could improve on is the angles he takes at the second level: he will overshoot linebackers and allow them to cut underneath his block to make a play at times.
Albert has had some funky habits in pass protection. He plays hunched-over at times and always tends to get off-balance, but he has been incredibly effective anyway. I can’t count how many times what looked like a sure pressure early in his pass set turned into the defensive end being harmlessly run five yards behind the quarterback. In the end, there are no style points for pass blocking. To head coaches and fans, there are fat guys that impede a defender's rush long enough to throw the ball, and fat guys that fail to do so. This ain’t rhythmic gymnastics.
Albert is a free agent at the end of the year and is dealing with back problems. This was his first start in three weeks and he had to leave the game early. He’s going to demand a lot of money and Kansas City may be reluctant to dole out big cash for a guy who, even when playing well, couldn’t keep the Chiefs out of the cellar. The Chiefs drafted Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson in the second and third rounds last year and either could be a potential replacement. My guess would be that Stephenson is more likely to replace Albert.
Stephenson's footwork in pass protection fluctuates between seeming like he’s in concrete shoes to being all over the place, rarely finding a happy medium. I’m guessing he had a raw or overactive pass set coming into the league and has been working to calm it down a little. As a result, he overcompensates at times and reverts to bad habits at others. I will say he certainly looks the part from a physical standpoint.
I thought Allen, at left guard, was the weak link of the regulars up front this year. He’s young and he showed some flashes, but overall his performance wasn’t on the level of the other four. He was better as a run blocker than as a pass blocker this year, which was surprising given his collegiate pedigree. He was a pretty decent cut blocker, and good on the backside in general. He doesn’t generate a lot of movement off the snap, but is good at sustaining his blocks through the play.
Allen's biggest problem in the passing game was that he consistently ducked his helmet and led with the crown of his helmet. This meant he was especially susceptible to swim moves and got snatched (pulled down by his face) a lot. He would set up and then try to catch guys with his hands wide and his head down. I’m not sure if it’s a punch-strength problem (often, weaker-punching linemen will lead with the crown to generate pop and anchor they can’t with their hands) or a hip-flexibility thing (if you can’t dip your hips, you bend over and end up with your facemask staring at the ground), but it was a consistent issue. His potential starting job next season probably depends on what the Chiefs decide to do with Albert and Ryan Lilja this offseason.
Like Albert, Lilja is a free agent at the end of the year. The veteran kicked inside to center after Rodney Hudson’s injury in Week 3. To me, Lilja was a pleasant surprise this year. Whenever I choose a team to write about, I try to go to some fan message boards to get a sense of what the natives think. Chiefs fans, for the most part, were down on Lilja before the season. I thought he played well. He was a very good pass blocker for a center. Occasionally he gave up too much penetration, but he generally stayed engaged. Plus, I thought Lilja was really good at coming off double teams and picking up linebackers looping over the top of down linemen on blitzes. He had a knack for coming off just in time.
Lilja wasn’t Nick Mangold in his prime on the ground, but he was more than serviceable. He was effective on the second level locking onto to linebackers and held his own on the line of scrimmage. His problem is that he’s a 31-year-old free agent on a roster full of a second- and third-round interior linemen that the current GM has drafted in the past three years. I just don’t see Lilja back in Kansas City next year.
One of those recent draft picks hurrying Lilja out is right guard Jon Asamoah. 2012 was Asamoah’s third year with the Chiefs and second as a regular. He played well, but was not outstanding. Depending on how you look at it, either the best or worst thing you can say about him is that he did the least to stand out on tape. On the positive side, it means he wasn’t getting beat a ton. On the negative side, he wasn’t winning a ton either. I really don’t have much to say about him, he’s the kind of guy that can be valuable on good lines and almost worthless on poor ones. (A Matt Bonner figure for you basketball fans.) For what it’s worth, I thought the Chiefs had a good line this year.
Finally we get to Kansas City’s big free agent acquisition, right tackle Eric Winston. This is the second full year I’ve watched Winston (I covered the Texans last year) and I’m a fan of his. He is the prototypical right tackle that kicks ass in the running game and can hold his own in the passing game.
Where Albert excels in the outside zone with positioning, Winston uses more brute force. His leverage is good as well, but he can occasionally get behind reach blocks. This means that defensive ends should, in theory, be able to anchor down on him and squeeze the play, but Winston is strong enough to root them out and drive-block them wider anyway. He might be the best outside zone-blocking tackle in the NFL.
Winston isn’t as good in the passing game, but he is more than serviceable. His biggest issue is dealing with guys coming inside with hard moves or edge rushers with a really good dip move. Still, combined with Albert, the Chiefs might have had the best tackle tandem in the league. That indirectly shows you how valuable decent quarterback play is in this league.
Wrapping up the Chiefs thoughts for 2012, I wanted to look at two things the Chiefs did really well this year. The first is, naturally, outside zone. It’s the Chiefs bread-and-butter and the main reason Charles is on pace for 1500 yards while averaging 5.0 yards carry with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn handing it off to him.
On the first play of Week 14's game against Cleveland, the Chiefs lined up in an I-formation with twins to the left. They ran a simple outside zone concept with the fullback leading on the Sam linebacker and the tight end releasing to an off-screen defensive back.
The key to the play was left guard Allen’s immediate reach of the backside nose tackle. Notice above how he had cut his split down before the snap. (A split is how close you’re aligned to the guy next to you.) Before the ball was even handed off, Allen had crossed the nose’s face and created an instant hole.
On the right side, guard Asamoah is only able to get head up with the three-technique rather than getting his helmet on the defender's outside number. Not ideal, but still very solid. Winston is a little behind his block as well, but considering where the defensive end was aligned and the tight end's release, he is still in good position.
Because Allen has reached his man so quickly, the fullback has two holes to pick from: he can run on either side of Asamoah’s block.
Fullback Patrick DiMarco takes it inside when Cleveland’s three-technique and Sam linebacker both try to fill the B-gap. This is pretty unsound defense and Kansas City’s offensive line exposes it.
Allen has reached the nose (responsible for the backside A-gap) and starts to lean back into the block. The nose tackle has officially lost control of his gap. Because both the Sam and the nose tackle are fighting so hard to get back outside, no one fills the strongside A-gap. That generates a hole two gaps wide.
On top of all that, center Lilja is up on the Mike linebacker clean. The Mike is the one guy a 4-3 defense hopes can fix these types of gap problems. Here, that isn’t going to be the case. The Chiefs probably don’t have a simpler play in the playbook, but when it’s executed like this, it looks like a piece of art.
In the end, DiMarco picked up the Sam easily and Charles bursted through the huge hole. Charles had a full head of steam and a ton of space to work with on the first unblocked defender, the free safety. The safety never had a chance. Charles made him miss and went 80 yards for a touchdown. It was a great example of how big runs are the result of a combination of great blocking (Allen and DiMarco) and poor defense (Cleveland's nose tackle and Sam linebacker).
When you run the ball as well as the Chiefs have (at least when they give it to Charles), you should be able to make big plays in the play-action game. That hasn’t necessarily been the case for KC this year, but it isn’t the offensive line’s fault. Take this play in the second quarter.
Kansas City play-faked a single-back power and looked for a shot deep to Dwayne Bowe. Any time you pull a lineman (in this case the backside guard), you’re going to sell the run much more effectively. The problem is that you leave a hole in the middle of your protection, and either a single lineman must be on an island or you must keep eight guys back to block. Here, Kansas City elected to leave Albert on an island.
A couple of things to point out above. First, notice the double team by Winston and Asamoah on the right side. They’re hip-to-hip, and though they fired out into the three-technique, they’re both staring at the linebacker. This is a great example of blocking with your body and not with your eyes.
Albert and Lilja are on the line of scrimmage as well, but notice that they’re a bit higher. They have to fire out to sell the run at the start of the play, but after that they want to immediately settle into pass-protection position, which means keeping your head as far away from the defender as possible. It's even better if you can bench press the defender off of you, as this stops the defender’s initial rush and creates distance for you to operate with.
You can see that’s exactly what Albert does. This is a textbook job by him on a really difficult play. He has to fire out of his stance to sell the run, immediately drop into a pass-protection position, create distance, and then shadow the defensive end. On top of all that, just look at the sheer amount of space between him and any help. The defensive end has a ton of room to work with. Really impressive job from a should-be Pro Bowler.
Lilja does a nice job too, but he has the comfort of knowing that there is a mass of humanity to his right, so the defender only has a one-way go.
On the right side, the double team has worked to perfection as the three-technique has actually dropped to a knee to avoid being driven back. Not even Reggie White could rush the passer from one knee. The tight end has started to get beat inside, but a pulling Allen is coming across to help. The nice thing about this particular play-action pass is that the weakest pass blocker (the tight end) can get help from both the pulling guard (inside) and running back (outside).
Just look at that pocket after Quinn’s first pump-fake. Not only did they provide excellent protection, but notice what the fake did to Cleveland’s defense. Look at the middle linebacker: he is completely turned around, sprinting to get somewhere in the vicinity of his drop zone. Quinn’s first option, Bowe, was covered. He brought it back and thought about running (almost sacking himself in the process) before finding Terrance Copper for a 17-yard gain. It was a well-executed pass play in a season that hasn’t seen many of them.
That does it for me this week and for the Chiefs this year. Be sure to follow me on Twitter.