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

Word of Muth: Punch and Counterpunch

Word of Muth: Punch and Counterpunch
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Carolina Panthers got back on track with a convincing win over the Cardinals this past Sunday. They got an early defensive touchdown and then rode Jonathan Stewart and some chunk plays in the passing game to a comfortable win. The offensive line played pretty well, better than it has recently at least, and things may be looking up in Carolina. I actually want to focus on a couple of things that aren't solely about Carolina's offensive line, though.

One thing that doesn't get discussed a lot is how small most teams' goal-line run packages are from week to week. It may sound surprising, but you may only have two or three run concepts from your goal-line personnel grouping in any given game. This is for a couple of different reasons.

First, you don't want too much in there because your jumbo personnel can vary widely from week to week. Fullbacks, second and third tight ends, and extra offensive linemen are all pretty volatile roster players. Depending on what they give you on special teams, the guys you have in those spots can change weekly (particularly down-the-depth-chart tight ends), and you may be playing a guy who wasn't on your roster a week ago. You can't carry the whole playbook into the game every week, so you need just a few concepts for that personnel grouping.

Also, it may look like both teams are just lining up a ton of bodies and running into each other, but defenses have definite tendencies on how they play inside the 3. Some play odd fronts, others play even fronts. And how they teach their edge defenders and linebackers to defend on the goal line can also be very different. Certain schemes work better against certain looks (no duh, but it had to be said).

The Panthers had one play they obviously liked going into the game, and it resulted in a couple of short touchdowns standing up for Stewart.

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This is just the old guard lead play. The play-side guard (in this case Trai Turner, 70) pulls and kicks the the edge player (Tony Jefferson, 22), and the fullback (Mike Tolbert, 35) leads on the play-side linebacker (Gabe Martin, 50). The Cardinals are in an even front (meaning there is no nose tackle -- the Cardinals are using a 6-2 formation), and the hardest block probably belongs to center Ryan Kalil (67). He needs to cut off the play-side defensive tackle (Robert Nkemdiche, 90) before the defender can penetrate the void left by the pulling guard. Because there's a down block coming from the tackle, Kalil doesn't need to fully reach Nkemdiche, he just needs make sure the defensive tackle can't penetrate and blow up the play. Kalil does a great job here of exploding off the snap, getting flat down the line, and just getting in the way.

Turner has the easiest job, but it also is vital that he executes it. Getting your Pro Bowl guard on a defensive back should be a win, and it is here for the Panthers.

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Here's the same call in the next quarter. Once again, Turner does a nice job of kicking out the corner on the edge. Kalil actually overruns the block a little and causes Stewart to bounce it a little more this time.

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The backside linebacker (Kevin Minter, 51) had already seen this play once at this point, so he's much quicker to get into the play this time (the Panthers can't really account for him), but Stewart does a nice job of making a guy miss. That's the great thing about running on the goal line, you only need a yard or 2. You don't have to be perfect, just get a couple of key blocks and let the back find the end zone. If you're only going to have a few plays down on the goal line, it helps to have one that's this well schemed.

The last thing I want to discuss is actually a new defensive trend that seems to be the next big thing in the NFL. That trend is playing safeties at linebacker on all three downs, in all parts of the field. It's becoming a passing league and if you can get another capable cover guy out there, it makes a lot of sense to do so.

The Cardinals' Deone Bucannon is at the forefront of this movement. He was a first-round draft pick a couple of years ago and the Cardinals have played him at linebacker pretty much from Day 1. I agree with the Cardinals' theory on the type of player they want to be able to play in that role, but I'm not sure if the execution is always what you want it to be -- particularly against a team with a power running game like Carolina.

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That's Bucannon at linebacker (20) who is playing the role of nail in this production of Hammer vs. Nail theatre. Now, he is on the wrong side of a miscommunication from Tolbert and pulling guard Andrew Norwell (68), so he ends up getting double-teamed by a guy who weighs 300 pounds and Andrew Norwell. But even before that, Bucannon is too slow to react to play an obvious run look. The Panthers took it from second-and-goal at the 5 to third-and-goal at the 1 and scored the next play. I'm not sure the 5-yard line is the place to be playing a safety at linebacker.

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This was the first play of the second half. Bucannon is better here, but this is what he has to do when he's playing linebacker against a player the caliber of Norwell (who has looked really good when I've watched Carolina). Bucannon just sacrifices himself to try to make the hole as small as possible. He's not trying to make a play -- he can't because he's overmatched, so he's just trying to limit the damage. This is what high school kids are taught to do when they're playing future D-1 kids they have no chance against. It's not what you would expect from a guy who some people think is a borderline Pro Bowler.

And this isn't meant to bury Bucannon or call him overrated; it is meant to illustrate the real issues with playing safeties at linebacker on first-and-10 vs. run-oriented teams or down inside the 10. I think Bucannon is as good or better than most guys in this role, but he still isn't a linebacker, and teams can take advantage of that. As more teams start using players like this on defense, I expect more offenses to get their gun run packages up to what Carolina can do, and it's going to put some of these smaller guys in tough situations where they are going to look bad.


4 comments, Last at 05 Nov 2016, 1:37pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Punch and Counterpunch

That last clip is functionally just a dime with 6 in the box (or a nickel, with a safety replacing a LB), right?

In NCAA, Virginia Tech plays a 4-2-5, except the extra safety is always in the box unless it's 3rd-40 or something. So it's basically a 4-3 defense with a safety playing as one of the LBs. That defense works against the rush, despite being undersized, because they tend to put 8 in the box. It's just that two of them are DBs. They still get run over by really big teams, but it's very effective against spread option teams and can survive against jumbo looks.

Where Arizona went wrong, it seemed, was playing a small nickel look against what's basically a veer look.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Punch and Counterpunch

It's easy to say the Cardinals should have gone bigger to stop the run, but Carolina has 3 wideouts on the field and a tight end who has over 100 more receiving yards than any other tight end this season. What Arizona needs is someone with linebacker size that they can trust in coverage. Otherwise, they're always giving something away to teams like the Panthers, who can run effectively out of spread formations.