Word of Muth: Rams' Big Win
by Ben Muth
The Rams pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year last Sunday when they beat the defending champion Seattle Seahawks thanks in large part to special teams chicanery. The trick punt return and the fake punt got most of the headlines, but a much talked about subplot was that the Rams' offensive line might have pushed around the Seattle front seven. I could see where someone would make that case, but I think that's distorting the truth. I think the Rams' line played well, and certainly held their own up front. I just don't think all the rushing yards they racked up were a direct result of an overpowering unit.
The right side of the line didn't play as well as they did the last time I wrote about the Rams. (Rodger Saffold was playing left guard at the time but he was on the right side this time). At right tackle, Joe Barksdale still played pretty well, but he wasn't nearly as good in pass pro last Sunday. Inside moves gave Barksdale trouble a couple of times and that's something to look for going forward. I can't point to any one thing Saffold did worse, he just didn't play as well against Seattle as he did in Week 3.
This was my first chance to see first-round pick and new left guard Greg Robinson as a pro. Like most young guys it was a bit of mixed bag. You can definitely see the talent that made him the second overall pick, but at this point it's more common to see the reasons why he couldn't beat out Davin Joseph in the preseason. One of the things that people raved about with Robinson coming out was his athleticism, his ability to move in open space and finish with power on the run. When it was announced Robinson would play this year at guard, people immediately started speculating on how devastating a lead blocker he could be on pulls in power and counter schemes.
Unfortunately, leading downfield on a screen and pulling on power are two very different things. Many teams teach their guards to karaoke pull (karaoke like the hip flipping warmup drill you see pregame, not karaoke like me tearing the house down with "Calling Baton Rouge"), something that tackles never do. Instead of turning and running parallel to the line of scrimmage and then trying to make a right angle in the hole, the guard's second step is actually a backwards crossover step with his outside foot to stay perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. Follow that with one more shuffle step with the play-side foot, and the guard should be in the hole. Coaches like it because it keeps the guard's hips square to the line of scrimmage. Robinson seems to have picked up the footwork well, which is a very good sign.
Picking up the footwork is great, but it's just the first step (pun intended). What Robinson needs to get better at is reading the defense as the play develops. On gap schemes (like the single-back power concept above) the puller is the lead blocker. As a lead blocker you have to read the hole just like a running back would. Usually the hole is going to be off the play-side tackle's hip and inside the tight end's block. But as you can see, sometimes the defensive end (93) crashes down inside, and the Mike (53, Robinson's man) flows over the top. Robinson has to see that there's not a hole where one should be, and that he has to bounce one gap wider. It was a mistake Robinson made two or three times (he never got it right).
In Robinson's defense, that's a really hard thing to pick up. Gap teams have to drill the crap out of these plays, and run a ton of them in team periods to get guards used to making that read on the fly. It's something you hope Robinson can pick up quickly though, because when he does the make the right read (or more accurately, when the defense does what he expects them to do before the snap) he's a bowling ball of butcher knives.
That's from St. Louis' second touchdown. This is a shovel pass where he's kicking out the defensive end instead of leading through a hole, but still, that's a dominant display. The footwork is once again solid, but driving a grown man back to the goal-line from the 5 is damn impressive.
Before we move on from Robinson I wanted to show one last play that illustrates the good and bad from the rookie. It was an outside zone play from the first half.
The first mistake Robinson makes is that he turns his shoulders into the down lineman, which kills his release to the second level. The defensive tackle is probably holding him here, but if Robinson is going to get his outside hand involved with the defender lined up that far inside on a stretch play, he deserves to get held. Luckily, Robinson is quick enough to recover and gets his hands on the linebacker anyway. Once he grabs somebody, Robinson isn't letting go. The Auburn product has awesome grip strength and he's able to run his feet quickly enough to finish the linebacker into the ground. The issue is that it's kind of a hold (or absolutely a fricking hold if you're a Seahawks fan or defensive player).
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Robinson's refusal to let go of guys when he grabs them (and their inability to get themselves free) leads to a lot of holds and almost-holds that could go either way. I love seeing offensive linemen finish blocks as much as anyone, but you have to know when to let go. Robinson got away with four or five plays that could have easily been flagged for 10 yards.
Before we go, I do want to focus on the Seahawks defense a bit. Like I said earlier, I thought the Rams' offensive line played well, but a lot of their success was Seattle (particularly their linebackers) just not playing very good football. Take the play above. What the heck is the Will linebacker (K.J. Wright, 50) doing or reading? I seriously have no idea how he sees outside run action right at him, with a fullback leading no less, and decides it's time to drop into the curl zone. Jake Long doesn't get much stretch on that defensive end. If Wright fills the hole with some urgency, that play probably goes nowhere.
Once again Robinson gets way too involved with an A-gap defender (this time a slanting 3 technique, Tony McDaniel, 99) to block the linebacker to whom he's assigned (Smith, 53). That leaves a huge hole for Smith to run through and make a play. But Smith seems hesitant due to the fact that Mason could bounce it outside, so he just kind of half shuffles down the line. This is terrible for so many reasons. First of which, the wide-open hole is actually Malcolm Smith's gap! If he bounces it outside, that's someone else's job. Just hit your dang gap.
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On top of that, Smith can't get outside fast enough to make the tackle anyway, even though he was unblocked and hedged against the fact that Mason might try to bounce it. Sure, Smith isn't the one who got hooked (this is also bad by the defensive end), but he could have taken advantage of a rookie mistake for a short or negative gain. Instead he allowed a big play.
It was just that kind of day for Seattle. They had some chances to make plays on defense, and just couldn't get it done. The last real play of the game was the final and probably best example of this (please don't turn the comments into a discussion about the bad call on the fumble). The Rams ran a play that was designed to go right at an unblocked guy with the theory that he just wouldn't be able to make a tackle short of the first. It was a gutsy call that paid off.
That's ugly. I think the champs are going to be fine, but that isn't anything close to what we've seen from them when they're at their best.