by Ben Muth
I apologize for last week’s non-existent column. I didn’t really get enough questions for a full Q and A, so I answered as many as I could in the comments section of the last article instead. Sorry for the bait and switch.
I previewed the Super Bowl lines last year, but it was much easier because I had been covering one of the teams, the Steelers, for half the year. I had a good feel for them already, which allowed me to watch a lot of the Packers defense and a decent amount of the Packers offensive line. This year, because I didn’t have much of a feel for either team, I focused only on their offensive lines.
Statistically, both units have been strong in pass protection. New York finished sixth in adjusted sack rate and New England finished eighth. New England’s unit has been much better on the ground. The Patriots finished the year second in adjusted line yards with 4.53, while the Giants were the near the bottom with 3.88. That matches with what I’ve seen in the playoffs: The Patriots have run the ball more effectively than New York has in January.
I think the biggest reason for the huge gap in running game production is the guards. Logan Mankins and Brian Waters are a really good tandem of guards -- they’re not Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, but they may be the best duo in the AFC. Mankins is probably a tick better than Waters, but both are good players.
If had to point out two reasons that Mankins is so effective, it would be his mean streak and his ability to pull. The Patriots had a ton of success against Baltimore with a single-back power play, especially when they ran it to the right. That’s because Mankins was the one pulling on those plays. He has a gift for absorbing the initial blow of the linebackers, and then restarting his feet to root the linebacker out of the hole. The mean streak is pretty obvious to anyone who has watched the Pats play over the better part of the last decade: I imagine it’s even more frustrating and exhausting for defenders when the Patriots are going without a huddle. You’re sucking wind and this 315-pounder is playing through and sometimes after the whistle.
Waters isn’t anywhere near as good on pulls, but that's doing a disservice to his actual skill set. He moves well in pass protection, and is very active as a result. Against the Ravens, Waters was uncovered a lot, which meant he was the guy that would help other blockers. He does a nice job of helping with his hands and body while looking elsewhere with his eyes. That allows him to come off on late blitzes, and to help outside if the defensive end starts beating rookie tackle Nate Solder.
I actually like Kevin Boothe and Chris Snee too, especially as pass blockers, but they just haven’t been moving anybody in the run game (note: I didn’t study the Atlanta game). The tackles could do more in run blocking too, but the guards have to take a big share of the blame for New York’s anemic running game this year.
One thing that the Giants are great at is passing off twists and games by defensive linemen. The basic twist involves one penetrator and one looper. If it’s an E.T. stunt, the "E," or end slants, down hard inside and tries to blow up the hip of the guard. The "T," or tackle, half-heartedly rushes the guard to divert his attention and loops outside to keep contain and pressure the quarterback's upfield shoulder. You can run a lot of variations with different players, but you always need at least one penetrator and one looper.
The key to stopping a twist is flattening out the penetrator. If you can do that, he can’t reach the hip of the man he wants, and that makes it roughly 427 times easier to pick up the stunt. The other thing you need to be able to do is have the awareness to discern whether the guy rushing you is actually going for the quarterback or just feathering you until it’s time for him to go get contain. It’s hard to explain in words -- it really is just something you have to feel. NFL defensive linemen rush the passer with a certain tempo, and if you can’t feel a sense of urgency from them, something is probably up. Or you're playing in the Pro Bowl.
The 49ers are one of the better defenses in the league at these kind of stunts, and the Giants did a really nice job of blunting penetrators and picking up loopers all game, though they did give up one sack on one of these twists in the second half. The Giants line has played together a lot, and have had the same offensive line coach for a while. Everyone is on the same page. One indicator of this is that J.J. Cooper only has them down for four quarterback/play call sacks all year. That means that they don’t let free rushers through very often, and the root cause of that is a bunch of guys that feel comfortable with the system and the guys they are running it with.
One thing I’ll be interested in seeing is how many twists the Giants run on defense against New England. New England slid towards right tackle Nate Solder a ton in the Baltimore game (especially early) and that means you are going to get a lot of man protection on the left side. Defenses prefer to run twists against man blocking because they are much harder to pass off when you are focused on a man and not a gap. I expect to see a lot of games on the left side of the Patriots offensive line, and if they run interior twists (involving the two defensive tackles) I expect the looper to be working towards New England’s left.
Speaking of Solder, he, along with David Diehl, are the two offensive linemen I’d be most nervous about. Which is funny, because they have such different weaknesses. Diehl had been the Giants left tackle for a couple of years pre-2011, but New York tried to move him inside and hand the job to William Beatty. However, after Beatty was lost for the year, Diehl was moved back outside and has looked decent enough. He uses his hands really well out there. He has a strong punch, and he keeps his hands inside very well. He’s also the best run blocker for his position the Giants have. The problem for Diehl is change of direction. He has a hard time mirroring defenders when they start to give him a little wiggle. Thankfully for New York, I’m not sure New England has a pass rusher that can give Diehl that look.
Solder, on the other hand, is a great athlete. He has a nice set (though he does open his hips a little too quickly) and moves well out of it. The rookie’s biggest problem is his hands: he doesn’t use them half the time, and the other half of the time, he’s a clamper. Solder has a bad habit of leading with his head, and you can also catch him leaning on rushers in pass blocking at times. This works great against bull rushers and guys that are just trying to run the hoop, but it also leads to really bad sacks (like the one Paul Kruger had) against guys that are good with their hands.
Let me explain what I mean when I call Solder a clamper: he brings his hands out wide and tries to lock onto his defender's shoulder pads. This can lead to a couple different scenarios that mean trouble for an offensive lineman. First, it’s slow -- it’s like having a hitch in your throwing motion as a quarterback. When you bring your hands wide, it’s a natural looping motion that gives the defender time to knock your hands down. The other problem is that it opens up your chest for a bull rush. The Giants’ defensive ends are athletic guys that use their hands well, so I expect the Pats to send a lot of help for Solder. If they don't, the rookie could be in for a long night. Solder is a decent prospect: a good athlete, really patient for a young guy, and he should get better.
As far as the other offensive linemen in the game go, they range from good ( Matt Light ) to average (both centers). Maybe Kareem McKenzie has a rough game or Light gives up some hits on twists, but I think both will play well. I only watched the last two games for each team, and centers are so hard to get a read on in just a couple of games I can’t really make a prediction of how either of them will play. I think the Pats offensive line is better, but the Giants defensive line is much better, so that cancels out. Really, to me this game is a tossup. But, since I hate when guys don’t make a pick, I’ll go with New England to cover.
That wraps it up for this week. The plan right now is to take two weeks off after the Super Bowl and then start doing offseason personnel breakdowns of individual NFL teams. Follow me on Twitter for updates on when columns are coming.