Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The last time that St. Louis’ starting offensive line was completely healthy and playing together in the same game was in Week 4 against the Washington Redskins. A Twitter follower pointed out that this was not their best performance and that I may want to check out a different game. I decided to disregard that advice and watch Sam Bradford get sacked seven times instead.

Let’s start with Rodger Saffold since he gave up either three or four sacks depending on who you want to blame for a sack allowed on a stunt. From what I understand this is the worst game Saffold has had as a pro. Keeping that in mind, I like some things that Saffold does. He has a very natural looking pass set. He does a nice job of getting depth without turning his shoulders. In the running game, I thought he blocked well at the second level and got decent movement against down linemen (though he seemed to get the benefit of a lot of doubles). On top of that, he just moves well out there. He looks the part.

That isn't the story though; you don’t give up four sacks by doing everything right. The main problem Saffold had was Brian Orakpo’s bull rush. The Rams were constantly in passing situations due to their 317 false starts in this game, and as a result Orakpo was able to line up in a wide-nine technique. Saffold had to bust his butt to kick out to him, and because Saffold was so concerned with Orakpo’s speed, he wasn’t able to re-adjust his body weight to anchor down when the bull rush came.

What shocked me though was the Rams’ lack of a game plan to help Saffold. Early in the game, the idea seemed to be "let Saffold handle Orakpo one on one." This would allow them to send help (tight ends, running backs, and half slides) to help Jason Smith. Once Orakpo made a couple plays in the first half, the Rams came out in the second half and changed nothing. Actually, they went to a lot of five-man protections in the second half and removed Smith’s help as well.

I was honestly shocked at how much Saffold was on an island. The last time I saw a left tackle by himself that often was when I did a Twitter breakdown of the Dolphins: Jake Long was isolated pretty much the whole game. I’m not sure if Josh McDaniels thinks the world of Saffold, doesn’t think Smith can block a lick, or has no respect for Orakpo, but the lack of adjustments was truly baffling. It made someone I think can play left tackle in this league look disastrous.

Speaking of disasters, that’s probably how most people would describe the Smith pick at this point. As I just pointed out, Smith received almost all the help on the edge in this game. He still gave up some pressure. The biggest issue with him seems to be that he moves his front foot in his pass set too far back when he is kicking out to wide defenders. Because of this, his base all out of whack. He has a hard time anchoring on bull rushes, and he leaves too much space for defenders to come underneath him.

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The Rams interior line played better than their tackles, but they had their struggles as well. In the running game, I actually liked both Jacob Bell and Harvey Dahl. Bell got some really nice movement a couple of times on both inside and outside zone plays. While Bell got better movement, Dahl was a more effective puller. He showed good quickness behind the line and did a nice job of sticking to guys once he made contact with them in the hole. If I had to pick just one of them, I’d probably take Dahl in the limited sample size.

The struggles, not surprisingly, came in pass protection. All three interior linemen (center Jason Brown in addition to the guards), had a hard time with the same thing. When defenders (particularly linebackers) started out wide, and made hard inside moves to counter underneath, St. Louis’ interior linemen always seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

Really, I don’t think the line is that far off from being decent. I like Dahl, and I think Saffold will bounce back from a tough year. Smith might make some nervous, but most lines have one guy like that. Plus, if they can get away from using so many five-man protection schemes, I think the unit will look much better to the casual observer.

Still, I cannot stress enough that seven sacks is a lot for an NFL team to give up under any circumstances. Before the game I was wondering how St. Louis would do it, and I got my answer with 5:35 left in the third quarter. The key is to call the play diagrammed in Figure 1 in a game in which your pass protection struggles were already apparent.

Figure 1: Circle

Looking at it on the board it doesn’t look that bad. In fact, it looks like an inventive way to run a play-action half roll and take a shot deep. The problem is that you are asking your center to do a bunch of stuff that is both really complex and completely different from what he normally does. At the snap, he takes three steps hard to his right, as if he’s running a naked boot. But rather than keep going in the typical "elephants on parade" fashion, Brown’s job is to circle back around and pick up anything off the edge.

You read that right: his job is to run in a circle and then block anyone off the edge. That sounds absurd to me. It sounds even crazier when you consider a couple of things:

1) The Redskins run a 3-4. There is a very good chance that someone will be coming off the edge
2) The Rams ran the play-fake to the right, meaning there is a very good chance that Brian Orakpo will be that edge rusher.
3) Brian Orakpo is the Redskins best pass rusher, and probably their best player overall.
4) Centers are generally not good at blocking elite edge pass rushers with speed and length.
5) Brian Orakpo has speed and length.
6) What if they bring two guys off the edge? (I assume there’s a kill, but what happens if it is well-disguised?)

Well, as you might have guessed, Brown had a hard time blocking Orakpo. I think the biggest issue was that he had to breakdown like he was making a special teams tackle after running in his circle. Brown couldn’t get his feet under him in time, and Orakpo just bull rushed the hell out of him and brought Bradford down for a sack.

That does it for this week. Next week it’s the 49ers. As of right now I’m planning on doing two games since I’ve gotten so much feedback from Niners fans. I’m leaning towards the Thanksgiving game against the Ravens and the Divisional Round win against the Saints, but I’ll take last-minute suggestions via Twitter or in the comments. Also, be sure to check out my RSP team and explanation.


40 comments, Last at 09 Jul 2012, 1:38pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

So if i read this right, it sounds like the problems - at least that day - are at largely attributed to bad play calling?

40 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I think it would be prudent to point out that protection schemes may very well be the result of the QBs calls.

In terms of what happened to the Rams, I believe it really comes down to personnel more than coaching. Sure, McDaniels could have done things differently. But the reality is that he didn't have receivers that could win one-on-one matchups. When you can't do that, you usually have to sacrifice your protections.

2 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

This makes McD sound like Mad Mike Martz. What is it with Rams OCs and their disdain for protection schemes and adjustments?

6 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Nobody who watched McDaniels in Denver could be at all surprised by this article. Away from the Patriots he's been a dismal failure. Maybe back with them and the aid of the Hoodie, Brady, and the rest of their talent, he'll look good again. But any objective assessment of McDaniels is the Pats succeeded in spite of him, not because of him.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I wonder with the Patriots he was simply low enough on the totem pole that someone would overrule his stupider ideas, but when he had a good crazy thought, they would let it though.

Having the center loop around to block the outside is a creative idea, but without the right center and defensive matchup, it's suicide.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

But he "knows the game"!! Seems like I've heard that description a lot regarding McDaniels. That phrase is a new personal favorite: Impossible to quantify? Check. Bizarre in that it seems to suggest there are NFL coaches who don't know the game? Check. And extra credit because it seems reserved for white point guards and young white coaches.

13 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Call me crazy, but i actually thought mcdaniels did well offensively in denver. Now admittedly, he handicapped himself from the start with trading away the team's qb and best receiver, but the denver offense from a passing standpoint was actually pretty good all things considered. The rams situation was a horrible debacle and i doubt he had experience adjusting his schemes to that level of personnel.

Still, i think this was mentioned above, hes a creative playcaller and i think he does enhance the quality of your passing game, provided he gets the players he needs.
Which of course belies the same pt, every genius offensive coordinator/defensive coordinator looks a hell of a lot better when they have a great qb or a great set of linebackers to guide the team rather than a motley crew of suckage.

15 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

You're crazy.

2008 (Shanahan's last year): 2nd in total offense, 3rd in passing, 12th in rushing
2009 under McDaniels: 15th overall, 13th in passing, 18th in rushing
2010 (McDaniels was fired with a month to go in the season): 13th overall, 7th in passing, 26th in rushing

As for this time with the Rams, they were 26th in total offense the year before he showed up. Nowhere to go but up, right? Not so fast: He sunk them to 31st.

16 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Apparently you're forgetting the obvious, 2008 denver had jay cutler as the qb with 2009 denver having kyle orton in his place. 2010's version was again orton but this time without brandon marshall.

and i conceded that his tenure with the rams was awful btw :p. The pt was, kyle orton was considered a fairly terrible qb( his stats in chicago were cover your eyes bad) and in mcdaniel's denver offense, they turned around and became quite good.

Now, im not naive, i recognize chicago has been the black hole for offensive players and still is, so kyle orton was probably not as bad as his stats indicated. Still, hes hardly a franchise qb and feels more like a fringe starter. The pt i was making was mcdaniels was actually somewhat successful with denver's offense from a passing game standpoint given who his qb was. Now, mcdaniels the coach and gm nearly pretty much ruined a burgeoning core in denver, but I still feel like mcdaniels as an OC is still worth taking a shot on, again the rams example notwithstanding.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

As a Denver fan I would agree that McDaniels is worth taking a shot on, preferably a blindside shot from an unblocked Von Miller. McDaniels vague handwaving towards a running game and poor performance from his offence in short yardage/red zone situations would prevent him from having any success as an OC for 90% of teams.

27 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I'm not forgetting anything. If anything, you seem to be forgetting that the QB change was 100% McDaniels' doing. If he didn't think changing QBs would allow him to keep the offense operating well, then he shouldn't have changed QBs. Same goes with sending away Marshall and Scheffler, trading Hillis for Brady Quinn, letting Rick Dennison go as o-line coach, etc.

Giving him a pass on personnel with either the Broncos or Rams doesn't hold water. The NFL is a win today sort of league. Coaches who succeed long term make their teams better irregardless of what their talent is at that moment. If his system wasn't going to work in St. Louis, he should have done something to adjust the system to the personnel they had on hand. Because failing to do so landed him in the ranks of the unemployed. His history has shown he can succeed with Tom Brady throwing to Randy Moss and a Hall of Fame coach watching over him. All other attempts have ended in failure. Calling his play calling "creative" sounds like a variant of saying a player has "potential." All either really says is the guy hasn't delivered as of yet.

31 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

that makes more sense. I'm still not sure I agree with it, but I don't necessarily disagree. The jury is still out on the Rams OL. I'm even less convinced after reading this that they don't have talent. I think the problem was - at least to some extent - that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Now if Jeff Fisher - who at most once spent a 1st round pick on an OL in TN - can't get these guys to play, I'll have to re-assess in 6 months.

36 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I was wondering how unusual that was (Honestly, it seems insane that a team went 16 years without drafting an OL in the first round.), so I did another search for every OL taken in the first round over the same time frame: http://pfref.com/tiny/2JLAS

The only other teams to go that same period without drafting a single offensive lineman in the first round were the Dallas and San Diego. Seattle had the most with six. The leaguewide average, adjusting for the varying number of teams, was 2.55.

38 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Good stuff. I got a lot of milage from this in the hype leading up to the draft telling people that even if it seemed like a good idea, the Rams were not going to select Matt Kalil.

As a side note, it's been widely observed that the Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the 1st round since 1981 when they took Jerry Robinson. I tweaked your queary and learned that Cincy has taken 9(!) since then. Baltimore/Indy is second with 6. Most teams have taken 3 - 5. Everyone has taken at least 2 except the Eagles (0), and two others. The Bills haven't taken a LB since Shane Conlan back in '87 and the Dolphins haven't taken one since Jackie Shipp all the way back in '84. Those two are almost as long as Philly's streak, but seem to me to be not nearly as widely reported.

39 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Interesting. Slight correction, though: the Eagles drafted Jerry Robinson in 1979. Neither the Bills nor the Dolphins drafted one in '80 or '81, however. The Packers, Bears, Buccaneers, Giants, Rams, and Cardinals each had one more drafted in that time.

There actually has been a streak without drafting a LB in the first round just as long as the current Eagles streak, too. The Redskins did not ever draft one until LaVar Arrington in 2000. I'm not sure when it's really fair to start that streak, but it doesn't look like there's anyone even arguable between Larry Isbell in 1952, who is listed as "B" on p-f-r and never played in the league, and Arrington, which means it was at least 48 years.

34 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I was discussing his success strictly as an offensive coordinator. That meant i judged his results purely off the talent he was using. Whether or not he was a complete narcissist, stubborn, and childish with personnel is beside the point. He was successful with tom brady before tom brady had randy moss and welker. He was also successful with matt cassel at qb, so successful in fact that the pats actually fielded the best passing offense in the nfl over the 2nd half of 2008(again by pdvoa).

His passing offenses were good with kyle orton for two straight years(again relatively successful).

If you want to criticize mcdaniels, go for it as he deserves a lot and really bungled so many things. But from a purely a playcalling/coordinator standpt, i think hes pretty good.

Finally, i want to add that the rams have been atrocious offensively forever it seems. Even under Scott linehan and pat shurmur, the rams offense was pathetic and the big reason this team kept going 2-14. Now, i ask you, which is more likely, the rams have just had too many incompetent coordinators? Or...that their talent has gotten worse every year since their ancestors of the greatest show on turf? And despite the high picks, nearly all of their offensive players have just been awful. Once you throw in bradford's injury, i think its pretty obvious that not even bill walsh could've made something from this pile of trash.

35 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

He's done nothing away from Brady strictly as an offensive coordinator. Denver went 20th and 19th in points scored in his two years. One of the gripes about Shanahan was that while they got a lot of yards passing they were in the middle of the pack in scoring--that trend continued under McDaniels and they slipped further in scoring. The Rams finished dead last in points scored under him. Doesn't get any worse than that.

If you want to give him tons of credit for Brady, Moss, BB, etc., great for you. Only problem is, the Pats didn't miss a beat when he left them.

37 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Again, this is entirely subjective but...hes done well with brady yes, but he also did well with cassell...something hayley and weiss have been unable to do. He was also successful with orton, denver's passing dvoa shows it was top 15 with a qb that is hardly top 15. Again, you're argument makes sense if your qb brady, but he has shown he can be successful with lesser qbs too.

Finally- to pin the rams offensive failures as an indictment on mcdaniels is too simplistic. The rams have been an offensive trainwreck for more than half a decade, clearly indicating its more a talent issue than who the offensive coordinator is.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

As a Redskins fan, this game was a joy to watch. Trying to block ryan kerrigan with a WR was one of the most bizarre blocking schemes I can remember from last season

4 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

1- "Elephants on parade" - I love this, it summons at least three mental images, all of which are hilarious (especially if you imagine either band instruments or uniforms) while still making a football point. Tum ti tum ti tum etc.

2- Arrrgh the Ravens game! That was carnage. Please remember to bear in mind that it was a short week when you're panning the niner linemen.

EDIT: Thinking about it, the Ravens and Saints games make some sense as they use a similar variant of the Ryan family defense and the 49ers seemed to have adapted a little by the Saints game after getting abused by the Saints (preseason), Rams (first meeting) and Ravens.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I know its early in the season but I would love to see 49ers vs. Cowboys.
Hard fought old school game where the niners destroy Romo's ribs but still manage to lose.
Also can any Offensive Linemen block Demarcus Ware?

12 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Ben...i feel like the ravens game is going to be the kind of aberration that might skew our opinions. The goal should be to analyze a game where the front was good and the 49ers played reasonably well. I recommend the eagles game, the pittsburgh game, or the cowboys game. The saints game is good too since it will also help us understand what o lines are supposed to do against all out blitz schemes.

Finally- "Still, I cannot stress enough that seven sacks is a lot for an NFL team to give up under any circumstances." If you never saw that giants eagles game in 2008- 12 sacks in a game, you would really wonder what the hell happened.

14 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I felt like Ben's comment (your final paragraph) was meant to be a short version of what I am about to say:
Well, this is the NFL, so there are no national-championship-contender-state-u-vs.-small-div. ii-that-needs-the-payday-for-their-athletic-budget games, where the DE/OLB is a mismatch athletically for the OT. Also, any NFL OC ought to be able to diagnose a potential mismatch(es) for his OL, and make some blocking adjustments during practice, or worst-case during the game. He shouldn't call plays to try to get his QB killed, either.

Why an OC wouldn't just try to dink-and-dunk things to try to minimize the damage is beyond me.
[Aside: the CHI-NOR game in week 2 was a classic example of Martz trying to get Cutler killed. I believe that the Saints picked up sacks on 3 or 4 plays IN A ROW!! because Martz was running 7-step drops, down 2 TD's, late in the 4th, when there was no hope of CHI coming back. Cutler would barely make it to the end of his drop, and then just practically kneel down in the fetal position so he wouldn't get killed. I don't think he even had 1/2 second to look downfield. It was pathetic.]

19 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

It sounds like the Rams' OL coaching must be a serious problem - questionable blocking schemes coupled with serious technical problems shared by multiple players does not speak well of the men in charge.

It strikes me that for almost McDaniels' entire career as offensive co-ordinator or head coach - and for 100% of the non-disastrous seasons - his offensive lines have been coached by either Dante Scarnecchia or Rick Dennison, two men who I think are pretty universally acknowledged as among the very best in the league at that job. I think elite OL coaches are probably the most underpaid employees in the NFL (relative to how much they help teams win) and it may be that they're even more important for the sort of offense McDaniels wants to run than most.

20 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Ditto this:

One of the great mysteries to me and pff evidence seems to back this up and maybe a pats fan can comment, but the pats always seem to field a pretty good o line. This seems highly improbable given how hard it is to keep o line continuity. So many times, teams have gone from having good o lines to weak olines and it only takes a matter of years. The giants are a great example of this; their o line was their strength in 07 and 08, got worse in 09, and started playing poorly in 10 and was just bad in 11. Pff numbers seem to back this up as well, with the pats usually ranked in the top 10(possible top 5) every year from 2008-2011. I normally think coaching is overrated(not irrelevant) with talent being the big difference, but maybe Dante Scarnecchia really is earning well over his pay.

21 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

I can't remember who said it or what exactly the quote was, but I remember coming across a great quote about coaching that went something like "a great coach can maybe add 10% to your team, but a terrible coach will subtract 50%." I think there is a lot of truth to that. The difference between Lovie Smith and Bellichick or Andy Reid doesn't seem very big to me, but the difference between Lovie and Mike Singletary is huge.

Getting back to the question at hand, the Patriots line, I think there are several factors at work. Solid at worst players at every position due to good drafting, good coaching, a good scheme (how many plays do the Patriots run that's just a 3 step drop and immediately hitting Welker for 7 yards?), and Brady calling out smart adjustments.

If you accept the hypothesis in my first paragraph that could mean more about how most line coaches in the NFL suck than anything.

As controlled of an experiment as you can get in the NFL, it will be really interesting to see how the Bears protection does switching from Martz to Tice.

23 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Patriots fan here. Dante Scarnecchia is worth every penny he gets, and then some; he's the second most important man on the New England coaching staff. Being able to reliably instill the various teachable skills into everyone who joins the offensive line is HUGE, and he's managed it--the Patriots may not field a bunch of great players, but there's no big weakness.

Good drafting helps here, too, of course, but his coaching is phenomenal.

25 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Here are the ALY ranks of every team for which Rick Dennison has been either OL coach or offensive co-ordinator:

2001 Broncos (OL): 4.09 (10th)
2002 Broncos (OL): 5.06 (1st)
2003 Broncos (OL): 4.37 (9th)
2004 Broncos (OL): 4.48 (8th)
2005 Broncos (OL): 4.56 (3rd)
2006 Broncos (OC): 4.14 (18th)
2007 Broncos (OC): 4.15 (15th)
2008 Broncos (OC): 4.78 (1st)
2009 Broncos (OL): 4.30 (6th)
2010 Texans (OC): 4.52 (4th)
2011 Texans (OC): 4.36 (4th)

That's 11 seasons in total, with two that were essentially average, nine that were top ten, five that were top five and two that led the league, with three fundamentally different groups of players, and very little elite talent (the end of Nalen's peak, plus Ryan Clady's first two years). His linemen over that period have combined for just one first team All Pro selection and three Pro Bowls (although Chris Myers went as an alternate in 2011, and Wade Smith probably should have been selected). I think it's pretty hard not to conclude that he is also very, very good at this.

26 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

My understanding is that a lot of the value of a great and well-respected o-line coach is that he can tell the coordinator, "there's no way in hell that this o-line can make the blocks you're asking them to make," and people in the room will actually listen. I'm guessing some coordinators need this more than others.

28 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Right on the head. It takes balls to tell the head coach or OC that they can't run what they want because you can't block it up front. Doesn't matter if it's due to personnel issues or if it just leaves you too vulnerable against certain pressures, the o-line coach needs to have a handle on what they can reasonably do. And then the play caller needs to listen.

22 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

just to nitpick since you watch the bears more than I, next year isn't really a controlled experiment on many fronts. Firstly, half of the bears season took place with caleb hanie at qb rather than cutler in addition to the oline injuries. Adding brandon marshall is also a significant upgrade at receiver. But i do agree with your earlier premise.

Btw, just one final pt, i think qbs raise nominal o line stats- like sacks hits and pressures, but how much they raise true o line value is a much harder question. Sure, its conceivable brady helps, but this o line was good for cassell too and besides, rodgers, manning, cutler and rivers are all living proof that no matter how good, great, or hall of fame your qb is, a poor o line is a poor o line.

24 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Rams

Actually, I'd say the brothers Manning are pretty convincing evidence that if your quarterback is good enough and gets rid of the ball quickly enough, you can have a highly effective offense even with an actively bad offensive line.