by Ben Muth
Saturday's Saints-49ers game was one of those rare games that is enjoyable both while watching it live and when rewatching it for article research. This game was incredibly physical and featured a ridiculously fast defense flying all over the field. It was everything the SEC claims to be, but with the added sprinkle of actual offensive execution. Still, despite what your pee wee coach told you, the most important thing is that the 49ers won. The defense made enough big plays to let Alex Smith pull it out late, and as a result San Francisco has a date with New York this weekend.
Everyone reading this knows that turnovers were probably the biggest reason San Francisco won. New Orleans kept giving it away in the first half (although I think it's more correct to say that the 49ers were taking it, but that's semantics) and the Niners kept taking advantage. While I agree that was probably the key factor in the game, that’s not what we’re about at Word of Muth. No, we’re about offensive lines. In particular, the Saints’ front five, which happened to play against the best front seven in football this week. So we’re going to focus on that.
I am convinced that Carl Nicks is the best interior lineman in football. He does everything well. He can pass block, pull, drive block, play in space, play disciplined, and finish defenders with a good nasty streak. Watching him closely this year has been a real pleasure. Nicks was dominant again (check out his trap block on the first drive of the game) on Saturday with one notable exception: when blocking Justin Smith.
Smith has gotten plenty of publicity this year as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and I saw nothing to prove that narrative wrong. The thing that makes Smith special is that despite playing so incredibly strong and physical, he doesn’t seem to get tired. Ever. There are players that play a similar style to Smith (Haloti Ngata, Geno Atkins, and Julius Peppers to a lesser extent), but what separates Smith is his constant and insane effort. Usually guys that bull rush and eat up double teams as much as Smith wear down over the course of drives and games. They either have to substitute out frequently or take plays off throughout the game. Smith doesn’t, and it’s inhuman. The term "high motor guy" somehow undersells Smith’s consistent effort.
This doesn’t mean Smith kicked the hell out of Nicks though. These two war daddies had an epic duel. Both players looked unstoppable when they weren’t matched up against each other, as Nicks owned linebackers on the second level and Smith drank Jermon Bushrod’s milkshake. When they played against each other, it was very give and take. Smith pushed the pocket against Nicks in pass protection more than anyone I’ve seen all year. Still, Nicks was able to keep Smith in front of him and sit down late. It was truly a joy to watch this avalanche of technique, effort, and strength. If I had to give the nod to one guy over the other though, I’d go with Smith. He and Aldon Smith gave Bushrod and Nicks trouble with twists all day long. I think Bushrod was more at fault than Nicks, but that's still enough to tilt the scale in (Justin) Smith’s favor.
Speaking of Bushrod, this wasn’t his best game. He gave up a sack to (Aldon) Smith early and settled down a bit -- but then he got beat a couple of times again late in the game. The other Smith for San Francisco was a tough match for the Pro Bowl left tackle. If I had to describe Smith’s pass rush it would be "relentlessly active." He picks an edge and just works his hands like a buzzsaw, always moving forward, never stopping. Because Bushrod isn’t a big puncher, it didn’t matter if Smith missed his intial move, since he was throwing another one almost as soon as it ended. If Bushrod was a big puncher (like Joe Thomas) and Smith missed that first hand swipe, the tackle could really rock the rusher and knock him off course. Since Bushrod never did that, Smith was able to run the loop and get some key pressures.
Bushrod wasn’t the only Saint who struggled up front. I felt Brian de la Puente played poorly. The center struggled in the running game against Isaac Sopoaga. Maybe Sopoaga is better than I’m giving him credit for, but the other Saints offensive linemen didn’t seem to have the same problems. In fact, there were a couple of plays where the big nose tackle tossed de la Puente around and made the play in the backfield. The only play New Orleans had any success running the ball with was a wham concept play that didn’t require de la Puente to block Sopoaga at all (Figure 1).
|Figure 1: Saints Wham|
New Orleans lined up in an offset-I formation with twins to the left. The 49ers were in a base 3-4 with their outside linebacker walked out to cover up the slot receiver on the offense's left. At the snap, both guards immediately move to the inside linebackers. This allows them to get there quickly and keep them from making any reads.
Meanwhile, de la Puente fires out into the nose tackle very briefly before going down the line to double team Justin Smith. They only ran this play to one side, so that Smith was always getting double -- that's probably not a coincidence. It’s a very effective double team, because it’s unusual. Smith feels a backside cutoff block from the left tackle, like it’s a typical inside zone, then all of the sudden another three-hundred pounder sticks his facemask in Smith's ribs.
By the time de la Puente leaves to double Justin Smith, the fullback (Jed Collins) is already hitting the nose tackle. This is the wham block in the wham play -- it’s basically a trap concept with the fullback as the trapper. Since the Saints were whamming a head-up nose, they chipped him with the center first, but other than that it's still a trap scheme. Collins did a nice job on this block all day, by the way. The right tackle and tight end are responsible for the defensive end and outside linebacker to their side. They aren’t really key blocks.
The Saints ran this play four or five times, and while they never broke one, they got consistent three-to-seven yard gains. Considering how the rest of the running game was going, that has to be considered a successful install for this week.
As far as the right side of the line goes, there isn’t much to say. Jahri Evans would probably grade out the highest because he played well and never had to block Justin Smith. He did give up a key sack on an interior twist, but other than that he looked good. Zach Strief also gave up a sack, on a pretty weak inside move by Ahmad Brooks, but was solid in pass protection other than that. In the running game, it was a different story for Strief, and he probably was the biggest reason other than de la Puente that the Saints never got going.
What comes next for the Saints? Nicks is an unrestricted free agent this year and is going to land a huge (and well-deserved) contract this offseason. He took a one-year deal once the lockout ended because he wanted to get into camp and get ready for the season. The Saints already backed up the truck for Evans, and I’m not sure they can afford to keep two highly-paid guards. If the Saints do lose Nicks, it would be a tough blow to a great unit.
That wraps up another week. The tentative schedule right now is to do a Q and A next week. Please post questions in the comments or send them to wordofmuth (at) gmail (dot) com. After that, I’ll probably do a Super Bowl preview of some sort, and then take a couple of weeks off.
The plan this offseason is to do a general personnel breakdown of a new team each week -- kind of like what I did in the last Titans column this year. Remember to follow me on Twitter, and submit some good questions for next week.