by Ben Muth
Last week’s Sunday night game between the Saints and Cowboys was about as one-sided of an affair as you’ll see in the NFL. The Dallas defense couldn’t stop Drew Brees or anybody he happened to hand it off to, and the Saints were on the field for what seemed like an eternity. In contrast, the Cowboys offense managed to go the entire game without converting a third down. I’m sure it was an ugly game to watch live for Cowboys fans, but I would actually encourage them to watch their offense again. Watching the tape, I think there were a few positive signs up front that may provide the smallest of silver linings.
The Dallas offensive tackles had very different games. Tyron Smith was, once again, very good. At just 22 years old, he is already ready one of the five best tackles in the entire league. I’m not sure if any tackle is put on an island as much as he is in pass protection, and Smith consistently delivers. He’s got great feet and strong hands; it really has been fun to watch him all year. This week, he made what might have been my favorite play of the entire NFL season.
It happened on one of the few plays where Dallas slid the protection toward Smith and gave him a little help. The Saints were running a tackle-end stunt where the defensive tackle was going to penetrate up field and the defensive end was supposed to loop inside. Once Smith saw the defensive end start to loop inside he came down and absolutely rocked the defensive tackle. Here’s what it looked like.
Sorry, I probably should have labeled that picture NSFW. I believe it was Potter Stewart who once said regarding pornography "I know it when I see it." Well, lock the door and draw the shades because that right there is hot, hot football pornography.
This is what happens when great technique meets incredible strength and athleticism. Smith sets, recognizes the game, steps down inside, gets absolutely perfect hand placement (right in the defenders armpit), launches the defensive tackle off his feet to the inside, and ends up creating a domino effect down the defensive line. I want a 30 for 30 about this play.
While watching offensive linemen toss defensive linemen around will always be fun, what I really like about Smith’s skill set is that he does a nice job of making adjustments as games go along. It’s rare that he’ll get beat in pass protection, but when he does, he makes sure it won’t happen with the same move or stunt again.
This is another line game by the Saints. It was pretty clear from the outset that Rob Ryan’s plan was to drop seven in coverage and try to get pressure by twisting and stunting his four down linemen. Here, they are running an end-tackle stunt that’s designed to free up the defensive end. The defensive tackle kind of half-rushes inside to occupy the guard, while the end gets to use his best inside move (in this case a spin move) to beat the offensive tackle. After the end makes his move, the defensive tackle loops outside for contain. If you are sliding into the stunt it’s pretty easy to pick up, but since the Cowboys are in a man-protection scheme here, it becomes far more difficult.
The issue is that Smith’s head is too far forward when he goes to punch in the second shot. He’s lunging at the defender and there’s absolutely no distance between their frames. When the defender spins, Smith has no room to react and he’s beaten by the third frame. He’s also given up too much penetration, so the guard can’t help him once the defensive tackle starts to loop outside.
Smith actually does a nice job of recovering here and allows Tony Romo just enough room to step to his left and avoid the rush to complete a pass. Smith put himself in a bad spot here, but he’s a great athlete and salvages a C- out of what looked like an F. Athleticism helps offensive tackles way more once they’re in trouble than it does when their technique is on point.
A few possessions later the Saints ran the exact same twist. This time Smith was ready, and did a much better job of creating and keeping distance from the rusher.
I don’t love how wide Smith’s hands are in the second frame here, but after that he’s great. Notice how Smith isn’t leaning forward at all and is really doing a nice job of sitting down on the spin move. He also is landing his inside hand on the defender’s back. That way, when he punches and extends that arm, he keeps the defender from gaining any ground inside. He basically just spins him like a top. Smith’s positioning and posture in the fourth frame are as good as you’ll see against any half-decent spin move.
Smith did give up a sack on the final play of the game, but it was on a play where he thought the Saints were going to run their 38th twist of the night and instead they straight-rushed. He cheated too much to stop the twist. It was a case where he overadjusted to what New Orleans had been doing all night. It’s never ideal to give up a sack, but it was an understandable one.
On the right side, Doug Free has played well this year after a couple of years of terrible play. He’s still not worth the extension he originally got from the club, but he’s been solid this year and may be a borderline Pro Bowler. That being said, this was probably the worst game I’ve seen him play all year.
He wasn’t terrible in the running game (though there wasn’t much chance to be) but he struggled in pass protection. He had a bit of bad luck in that a high percentage of his mistakes resulted in sacks as opposed to just pressures or hits, but it was still a bad effort in general. One play sticks out in particular as being a combination of terrible technique, general unathleticism, and a complete lack of awareness.
It was on the second-to-last play the Cowboys ran and I think it may have been the worst play I’ve seen all year. (Ending a game with back-to-back sacks was fitting for the Cowboys offense.) The Cowboys were sliding towards Free and the Saints were rushing just four. That means that Dallas had a three-on-two advantage.
That was negated by the fact that the only guy their right tackle blocked was their right guard.
This probably doesn’t look as bad as I made it out to be, but think about the mechanics of what happened here. Free set on the defensive end a little too wide, so the rusher decided to counter inside. This is exactly what you want as an offensive tackle when your teammates are sliding to you. You overset the defensive end a little bit, because the last thing you want to do is get beaten outside when you have inside help, and if the defensive end decides to go inside he’s essentially double-teaming himself. All Free had to do was slide down a little with the end and double him with the guard.
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Instead, Free dove down inside as if he was going to smother a grenade. This is the equivalent of a Cover-2 deep safety biting on an eight-yard out and up and getting beat for a touchdown. Look at Free in the third frame there. What the hell is he doing? Why would he lunge inside like that when he knows right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau is waiting for him? I don’t have the answer to those questions, but I do know who is getting the X of Great Shame this week.
On the interior of the line I thought Dallas was okay. Bernadeau probably played the best I’ve seen him, as I really didn’t notice him at all in the passing game and he made a couple of nice second-level blocks in the running game. At center, Travis Frederick looked good running the outside zone play, and held his own in the passing game, though he could’ve been a little better passing off twists. Left guard Ron Leary was probably the worst of the three as he gave up too much penetration when he was dealing with a rusher and didn’t get enough depth when he was uncovered to help his teammates.
Finally, before we go, I want to say: Free Gavin Escobar.
I haven’t seen Escobar do anything great, or even well, but James Hanna is brutal. The one time I’ve seen Hanna block anyone all year resulted in a 30-yard gain for DeMarco Murray. I can’t imagine Escobar being a worse blocker, so you might as well give him a shot. Or stop running 12 personnel, I’m fine with either.