Word of Muth: Super Bowl Preview
by Ben Muth
It is Super Bowl week, and everyone knows that means absurd amounts of hype, hype backlash, and backlash to the hype backlash. We all find it exhausting, but we go along with it because it’s harmless and we’re two months away from talking ourselves into watching a San Jose Sabercats game. Mark Grieb is still playing arena football! So, to celebrate this last week of real football (three offensive linemen is not real football), let’s look at both offensive lines this week and how they’ll match up with the opposing front seven.
Let’s start with the Ravens offense, since I haven’t been covering them all year like I have the 49ers. The big story with Baltimore’s offensive line is the late-season shuffle that saw Bryant McKinnie come in at left tackle and Michael Oher slide over to the right tackle spot. The interior lineup from left to right is Kelechi Osemele, Matt Birk, and Marshal Yanda.
Individually, Yanda is pretty clearly their best offensive lineman. Last year, I broke down the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Patriots and came away unimpressed with the perennial Pro Bowler. A few Baltimore fans said he was playing hurt in that one, and that I should look at another game. It took a year, but I finally did. I came away seeing why he is so highly regarded this time.
If the Ravens are going to have success running the ball on Sunday, it’s probably going to have to be behind Yanda. He’s the only Ravens lineman that generates consistent movement in the running game.
Unlike Mike Iupati, Yanda doesn’t move guys with just brute strength. Yanda generates his power by how quickly he gets off the ball. He does a great job of exploding out of his stance and delivering a blow to knock defenders off-balance in the running game. At times, it almost looks like he’s offsides because of how much quicker he is than everyone else at the snap.
The best example of his quickness at the snap is when the Ravens run an outside zone towards Yanda and he has to reach a three-technique. A good example of this was the first play in the divisional round game against Denver.
The Ravens are lined up in a strong right formation. The Broncos are lined up in a 4-3 under with the Sam linebacker (Von Miller) walked up on the line of scrimmage. Yanda’s job is to reach the 4I (inside shade of the tackle) over Oher (RT).
Because the defensive end is lined up on Oher’s inside shoulder, he helps Yanda just a bit before releasing to the second level. What Oher wants to do here is keep his own shoulders square, so he can come off on a scraping linebacker, while turning the shoulder of the defensive end.
He does both brilliantly on this play. Oher basically stiff-arms his way through the down lineman, getting a noticeable turn of the defender's shoulder with just one arm. That allows Yanda to fit his helmet perfectly on the outside number of the defender. This is exactly what this combination block should look like.
With his head outside, Yanda can begin trying to drive the defender vertically now. That’s exactly what he does. In fact, he almost drives his man into the linebacker that Oher ends up blocking.
Of course, while all this great work has been happening on the front side, McKinnie has barely gotten out of his stance on the backside. McKinnie was late off the ball, and then proceeded to move like a guy whose foot had fallen asleep.
Look at that picture above, every other Ravens lineman has their head on the play side of their man. Bryant McKinnie is three yards behind his man and unlikely to catch up to him with the added weight of the X of Great Shame.
By the time Ray Rice gets to the line of scrimmage, Yanda has driven his man four yards off the ball. In fact, you’ll notice that the defensive end is now behind both linebackers who started off the ball. Getting driven four yards off the line of scrimmage has to be a demoralizing way to start a playoff game if you’re a defensive lineman.
After Yanda, the best Ravens lineman is probably the center, Birk. The veteran played well in both games I watched (at New England and Denver), but particularly showed well against the Patriots. He doesn’t generate the kind of movement that Yanda can, but he has great footwork and always has his head in the right place. He might also be Baltimore's best pass blocker. Watching him this postseason, it is hard to believe that he’s a 15-year veteran.
The other elder statesman of Ravens line has not played as well, but there are plays where McKinnie looks like his old self. He can still throw a strong punch in pass protection and is good at passing off games and stunts with Osemele, which is something that will be vital against San Francisco.
The issue with McKinnie is that there are plays where it seems like he doesn’t have a single fast-twitch muscle in his body. I mean, the guy just doesn’t move -- at all -- on certain plays. There was one play against the Patriots where Rob Ninkovich was lined up wide and ran right past McKinnie, to a spot eight yards in the middle of the backfield. McKinnie couldn’t lay a hand on him. Luckily, the interior of the line held up and allowed Joe Flacco to step up and avoid Ninkovich.
I imagine with McKinnie and Osemele being matched up with Justin and Aldon Smith on the left side that the Ravens will send as much help as possible that direction. That will put a lot of pressure on right tackle Oher, who I think is the non-Flacco key to Baltimore’s success on Sunday.
If Oher played like he did against New England, Baltimore will move the ball against San Francisco. In the AFC Championship, the former first-rounder was confident all game long. He was aggressive on play-action passes, used his hands well, generally took the action to the defense, and even pulled on a couple of successful traps. Hell, he looked like a guy who would have a book written about how light and quick his feet were.
Against Denver, however, he really struggled. He was behind most of his blocks in the running game. In the passing game, he set too softly and punched tentatively. As a result, Miller was constantly around Flacco even if Oher was between them. Oher is the Raven I’ll be watching the closest on Sunday.
I’ve seen much more of the 49ers offensive line than I have of the Ravens, since I’ve been covering them every third week since the beginning of the season. I think they are the best unit (not just offensive line, any unit) in football, and I don’t think Baltimore’s front seven matches up very well against them.
Watching the Ravens play, the only guy in their front seven that really jumped out to me is Haloti Ngata. The huge defensive lineman from Oregon played great against Denver and well against New England. He’s been banged up all year, but certainly looks healthy now and could cause problems for any offensive line, even San Francisco’s. I, for one, am really looking forward to the plays he’s lined up over left guard Iupati, seeing as they may be the two physically strongest players in the league.
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The problem for Baltimore is that I don’t see anyone else causing problems for San Francisco in one-on-one situations. Terrell Suggs doesn’t look like the same guy this year after returning from his torn Achilles. It doesn’t look like he can beat anyone off the edge anymore, so offensive tackles are just sitting on bull rushes and inside moves. Joe Staley has struggled at times in pass protection this year, but it is usually against speedy rushers who threaten him around the edge and counter inside. I don’t see Suggs being able to do this.
Even worse for the Ravens is that, even at 60 percent. Suggs is still their best pass rusher. Paul Kruger may have destroyed whatever the Colts were marching out at right tackle in the first round, but he did next to nothing against Sebastian Vollmer last week. And let me tell you: Anthony Davis is a lot closer to Vollmer than a banged-up Winston Justice.
I have seen people bring up last year’s Thanksgiving game as a reason why Baltimore might fare better than I’m predicting, but I don’t see many similarities in the trenches. San Francisco’s offensive line has gotten significantly better. They replaced the woeful Adam Snyder with the very good Alex Boone. That change alone is a dramatic upgrade. Then you take into account the massive improvement from Iupati and Davis, and it’s an entirely different unit.
The one advantage the Ravens defense has is they are well-coached and have an extra week to prepare for a unique offense. They’ll have a plan to account for the quarterback as a runner and any additional gaps San Francisco creates with shifts and pullers. Let’s take a look at how Atlanta tried to slow down Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco read-option.
The 49ers were in a strong right pistol formation. They were running a zone read with fullback Bruce Miller coming across the formation and leading on the weak inside linebacker. The Falcons were in a 3-4 over, which means their down linemen were shaded a half man towards the strength of the formation.
The outside linebacker stays wide and comes a little up field, so Kaepernick hands the ball off to Frank Gore. Atlanta’s inside linebacker recognizes the play immediately and begins to fill the gap that the insertion of Miller will create. He wants to come down and fit right off the double team, forcing Gore to bounce it outside towards the unblocked defender.
Speaking of the double team, it is a beauty. Look at how low Staley’s pad level is, and even better than that is the arch in his back. When you run block, you want to thrust your hips forward to deliver as much power as possible. Because you’re bent over when you do make contact, this action arches your back and makes it look like you have a bow up your ass. Whenever you hear someone talk about bringing your hips, this is what they mean.
Because the double team has washed the three-technique all the way to the hash (and to the ground for that matter), the inside linebacker has to fight to get inside of Miller’s block. You can see that he’s starting to turn his shoulders towards the sideline and punch with his outside arm. This is called "wrong-arming," and it’s the best way to get underneath a potential kick-out block. This is a nice job by the defender here.
Also notice Davis (circled), who used a huge club technique to swat his man to the ground. It doesn’t really affect the play much, but shows how strong the right tackle is.
Because the inside linebacker was able to get back inside, he forced Gore into the unblocked defender. This is exactly how Atlanta drew it up. But because the three-technique got his ass kicked, the distance between the inside linebacker and the outside linebacker was too wide. That means the outside linebacker had to chase Gore and dive at his legs, eventually bringing him down after a gain of nine.
That’s what makes San Francisco’s running game so tough. Even when everyone plays the right gaps, in a sound scheme you still have to stand up to something like an Iupati/Staley double team, or make a one-on-one tackle on Gore.