by Ben Muth
Since Detroit came up often in last week’s comment section, I decided to focus on them this week. I watched the Wild Card game against the Saints and my views on the Detroit offensive line are about what most Lions fans would expect. Simply put, Detroit’s line did not look very good.
I will say that I thought the Saints had a very good game plan. They had an understanding of Detroit’s protections and personnel, and they used that to give Matthew Stafford a lot of problems. The Lions seemed to run a lot of man protection schemes, and the Saints did a great job of coordinating a rush that exposed the individual weaknesses of the Lions offensive linemen.
Detroit’s problems started in the middle. Dominic Raiola got pushed around. The Saints used a head-up nose tackle for most of the game and it was clear New Orleans thought that they could knock the center straight back. In just about every passing situation, whoever would line up over Raiola simply bull rushed. No counter moves, very little slanting, mostly just bull rushes. It worked. Raiola was often 4-5 yards in the backfield before Stafford had even finished his drop. It was a really disappointing performance from a veteran. One time, Raiola was even knocked on his rear inches away from Stafford on a passing play. It’s rare that an NFL offensive lineman gets so overwhelmed by a straight bull rush. It was equally embarrassing when Raiola got knocked three yards behind the line of scrimmage on a quarterback sneak at the goal line -- another NFL rarity.
The Lions’ guards fared better, but they didn’t do much to distinguish themselves either. Of the two, I thought Stephen Peterman played better. He generated the most movement in the running game, and he was solid in pass protection. Peterman was forced to do one of the tougher things a guard is asked to do in pass protection, and I thought he handled it pretty well.
|Figure 1: Outside Intercept|
Some schemes call for a double read for the guard when he is uncovered against a three-man line. In this situation, if the defense is playing a straight 3-4, the center and tackles are responsible for the down linemen straight over them. The guards are responsible for both linebackers to their side, although if the back is on their side, it can be just one. The guard reads inside to outside, and if the outside guy comes, he has to kick out behind the tackle to intercept the rusher (Figure 1). I always hated this scheme, as there was just so much that could go wrong, but Peterman showed the ability to kick out on the double read. It’s something I always find impressive from a guard.
Rob Sims was not as good as Peterman, but he wasn’t a liability. I thought he struggled changing direction, particularly on inside moves. As a result, Will Smith beat him across his face on inside stunts a couple of times, including on a pressure that forced one of Stafford’s interceptions. He was also late off the ball on the aforementioned quarterback sneak, which was a big reason Raiola got blown up.
I think my biggest problem with both guards was how slow they were to help at times. Raiola was just along for the ride most of the game, and by the time help came, he was already deep in the backfield. I thought there were times when they could have offered much more help to the center or one of the tackles, even if it would just be a little body presence. They just weren’t as active as you would like guys to be when their assignments dropped into coverage.
Part one of the Saints plan was clear: Push the pocket by bull rushing Raiola. Part two was just as clear: Force Stafford to step up by running around Gosder Cherilus and Jeff Backus. Backus actually held up fairly well in this game. I had seen the veteran tackle early in the season, and at the time I thought he needed to move inside, or possibly to right tackle. After watching this game, I have changed my tune. He doesn't have a great pass set, but he plays with good hands and patience. He never extends his hands too soon, so the defender never gets a chance to knock them down. Instead, he keeps them close to his chest and uncoils an accurate punch right when the defender is in reach. He also remains an effective run blocker. I thought Backus probably had the best overall game up front for Detroit.
Cherilus did not fare as well. He was consistently beat around the edge at about eight yards behind the line of scrimmage. When you combine that with the fact that Raiola was often five yards behind the line, Stafford just didn’t have a lot of room. The worst thing about Cherilus' game was the fact that the wider a rusher was lined up, the worse his pass set got. If a defensive end lined up in a Wide Nine, Cherilus would take one kick step before opening his hips completely to the sideline and shuffling like an overmatched transition defender in basketball. Worse yet, when he went into this panic mode, he would carry his hands below his waist and just kind of clamp on to the defenders shoulder pads without delivering any sort of blow. He was called for one holding penalty with this technique and got away with two others. I also think the noise affected Cherilus more than other linemen, as he was late off the snap a couple of times.
Like I alluded to in the opening, the impressive thing for the Saints was how consistent they were with their rush. The scheme was clear: push Raiola, come underneath Sims, and run around the tackles. It was basic, but the stuck with it and generated consistent pressure. They didn’t have a lot of sacks, or even that many hits, but they were around Stafford all day and that was enough.
Once again, I’ll close out with a quote from a former offensive line coach. The quote is on the subject of splits in the offensive line. For the uninformed, a split is simply how far one lineman is lined up away from another. This particular year, our splits were to be eight inches -- it was a relatively small split, which probably meant our coaches did not think we were particularly athletic up front. Sometimes though, you will try to cheat your split, depending on the play, to give yourself an advantage. For instance, if you had to kick out to a Wide-9, you may widen your split to a full foot since that just puts you four inches further from the quarterback. I often would cut my split down on the backside when I knew I would have to cut off a three-technique on a zone away from me.
Anyway, we were watching film after practice and our coach paused the tape and gave me the laser pointer treatment. "How big was your split?" I saw that it couldn’t have been more than four inches, but I replied "About eight inches, Coach." Our coach peered over his glasses at me, looked at the screen, and then back at me, and said "Son, you may have your girlfriend convinced that’s about eight inches, but you ain’t fooling me."
The moral of this story? I was undisciplined on the field and undistinguished off it.