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

Word of Muth: 2019 Season Preview

Marshal Yanda
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

By the time you read this article, real football will have already been played. We've made it through another offseason and can once again enjoy the finer things in football, like a well-executed backside cutoff block.

If you're new to the column, the format is pretty simple. I pick three teams at the beginning of the season and focus on a different one each week. We mainly look at the offensive line, but sometimes that can bleed into other facets of the game. This first column is just a light preview to introduce what teams we're covering and what I'm expecting going into the season. So without further ado, here's who we'll be looking at this year.

Arizona Cardinals

The reason we're looking at the Redbirds is that they might be trying something pretty different in the NFL, which is a rare thing. After having a historically awful offense in 2018 (third-worst offensive DVOA as far as it has been tracked) and "earning" the first pick in the draft, the Cardinals did a lot of things that aren't part of the conventional NFL wisdom. They fired the head coach after one year. They hired a college coach with a scheme that was extreme even in college. They brought in two new coordinators. They gave up on their first-round quarterback from 2018 and traded him for two picks. Then they drafted a small and slight quarterback who only started for one season in college with the first overall pick. It was an interesting offseason if nothing else.

Now, all of their moves made sense in a vacuum. They fired the head coach after an embarrassing year that would have gotten just about anyone fired. The college coach with the mediocre record was a highly sought-after offensive mind, and giving him the head job was the only realistic way to get him to Arizona. Of course, a new coach who inherited the worst team in the league is going to want to replace both coordinators. Josh Rosen had the worst passing DYAR in the history of the stat. And Kyler Murray may have only played one year, but it was a great year, and he has everything you want out of a modern quarterback except for ideal size.

Just because the moves made sense, however, doesn't mean that they'll work. But whether they work or not, they do make the Cardinals interesting, particularly on offense where Kliff Kingsbury is bringing a true Air Raid and a relentless commitment to pace to the NFL. Kingsbury's teams at Texas Tech weren't huge winners, but only Kingsbury's former coach Mike Leach at Washington State threw the ball more than the Red Raiders, and only Baylor and Clemson ran more total plays than Kingsbury got off in his time in Lubbock. It's not just that Kingsbury is a college coach, it's that he's maybe the most extreme outlier of college spread coaches.

The scheme will be interesting. I watched a good bit of Texas Tech the last few years because their games are typically entertaining, but I don't have a great feel for what run schemes Kingsbury will bring with him to the NFL. In college, Kingsbury's offensive lines would take much wider splits than you typically see at the NFL level. I'm not sure if that will come with him (it's definitely something they've experimented with this offseason). Even the snap count (Kingsbury seems to prefer a clapping count as opposed to a verbal one) has been a source of confusion as they've been flagged often for quarterback false starts in the preseason.

We're just about done with Arizona's preview and we haven't mentioned a single offensive lineman, but frankly that's because it's not a super interesting unit outside of the scheme. D.J. Humphries is a recent first-round pick who has been banged up and ineffective in his first three years in the league. Left guard Justin Pugh was a big free-agent acquisition and he's a solid player when he's healthy, but has played in just 15 games over the last two years. At center, A.Q. Shipley is a 33-year-old who has bounced around the NFL a bit and is coming off a season-ending injury last year. The other guard, J.R. Sweezy, is another offseason acquisition who happens to be on his third team in three years. Rounding out the unit is yet another new face who has dealt with recent injury issues in right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who comes over from Pittsburgh.

On one hand it's an experienced unit. On the other hand the only two guys who have ever played together before this year are the left tackle and center, and they haven't played together since 2017. They're all learning a new system. And most of them are coming off injury-plagued (or ruined) seasons. At the very least, the Cardinals offensive line in Kingsbury's scheme should give me plenty to write about.

Baltimore Ravens

Just like the Cardinals, the thing I'm most interested about in Baltimore is the scheme. To turn an old coaches' saying on its head, it's not about the Jimmys and the Joes, it's about the Xs and the Os. Once Baltimore moved from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson last season, their year turned around and their offense got a lot more interesting. They also named Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator this season. Roman is typically one of the most creative minds in the sport when it comes to running schemes.

Watching Roman and Jackson team up was enough to pique my interest, but a quote from John Harbaugh was what sealed the deal for Baltimore's inclusion in this column. A reporter asked him if Lamar Jackson would break his own record for quarterback rushing attempts in a season (147), and Harbaugh said "take the over" with a mix of confidence and nonchalance that makes me think the second-year quarterback will shatter it. Running schemes get a lot more interesting when everyone in the backfield is a threat to run it.

On top of the schemes, though, I am thrilled to get to watch guard Marshal Yanda closely again. I focused on the Ravens a few years ago and Yanda was as good of a player as I've ever covered in this column, I'm hoping that age/time hasn't diminished that too much. Yanda is the only starter left over from those old Baltimore teams I covered, but all five of Baltimore's projected starters were on the team last year. At tackle, the Ravens have a pair of younger guys who were relatively big names in the college game in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown. Matt Skura is going into his third year as Baltimore's center, while Bradley Bozeman is entering his second year with Baltimore but this will be his first year starting.

New York Jets

The New York Jets were the only team I picked that didn't have anything to do with scheme. Also, it didn't have much to do with personnel. I picked the Jets because I haven't written about them before. It seemed like as good as reason as any.

But there are other intriguing things about the Jets offense to look forward to -- mainly that they just brought in a big free-agent running back in Le'Veon Bell and probably plan on featuring him a good bit. On top of that, it should be interesting to see how Sam Darnold looks in Year 2.

The personnel upfront also should provide some decent storylines. They brought Ryan Kalil out of retirement to come in and fill a gigantic hole at center. Kalil had a very good career in Carolina, but talking guys out of retirement after the Fourth of July seems like a risky way to build a unit. They also brought in free agent Kelechi Osemele, who is one of my favorite players to watch (maybe the meanest offensive lineman in the NFL), but he had a supposedly down year in Oakland in 2018. The other interior lineman is Brian Winters, who has started the last several years for the Jets and I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone talk about him.

At left tackle the Jets will be going with Kelvin Beachum, a veteran player that is on his third team. The good news is he has started everywhere he has been; the bad news is two teams felt perfectly fine moving on from him. Opposite Beachum is the Jets' most inexperienced likely starter, Brandon Shell, who is entering his fourth year and has 29 starts under his belt. So it's a veteran crew with two big names that most would say are past their peak and a few other players that have played a good amount of football but haven't set the world on fire. I don't think anyone is predicting a top-flight unit, but it could be solid.


18 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2019, 4:40pm

1 That there is a good…

That there is a good selection of team. Arizona is unique across the board, Baltimore has good players and will run a unique offense and then the baseline, boring Jets. ;)

2 Always Good Reads

No matter the team. I am hoping that you'll do a breakdown of the Pats one of these years as I'm very interested in how Scarnecchia gets so much out of players.

3 "A reporter asked him if…

"A reporter asked him if Lamar Jackson would break his own record for quarterback rushing attempts in a season (147), and Harbaugh said "take the over" with a mix of confidence and nonchalance that makes me think the second-year quarterback will shatter it. Running schemes get a lot more interesting when everyone in the backfield is a threat to run it."

No doubt. I think there's something to be said for going against the grain in the NFL, in and of itself. If you have an unusual scheme, maybe the players you want are less valued by other teams, so you can get them for cheaper than you would like. Spend the saved money on the other side of the ball, and see what happens. Also, only one team wins the super bowl anyway, so doing something different is worth a shot.

Having said all that, if all your quarterback does is run the ball and then throw poorly, well you could have just brought in the backup running back to do that. You have to actually throw the ball well for anyone to care that your QB can run. Otherwise, just bring another guy into the box and problem solved. Hearing Harbaugh say that, to my ears, means that he's given up on Lamar Jackson ever developing as a passer, which makes him a glorified running back with an unusually good arm, for a running back. I'd like to, but I just can't get all too excited to see that.

Long term, it may be that they plan to run Jackson into the ground. Use the four years of his rookie contract to get cheap QB play. Don't worry about expensive WR's when you're going heavy personnel often. Put some cheap extra offensive lineman/blocking tight ends on the field instead. Aim for "24th best offense but for 32nd money". Save the money and spend on defense. Try to back into the playoffs with a 10-6, 9-7 type record, and then see what happens. Give yourself a chance to win while looking in the draft for the real answer at QB. That's kind of Machiavellian, but also somewhat brilliant.

Or they might think that the Wildcat is truly the hip new thing and that these analytics nerds who say "please please please pass the ball ffs" just don't know what they're talking about.

5 " Don't worry about…

" Don't worry about expensive WR's when you're going heavy personnel often. Put some cheap extra offensive lineman/blocking tight ends on the field instead. Aim for "24th best offense but for 32nd money". Save the money and spend on defense. Try to back into the playoffs with a 10-6, 9-7 type record, and then see what happens. "

The Seahawks, with 4 rookie receivers, and regular starter TE/tackle George Fant agree, and also point out that you can do a lot of this with a QB that won't get ruined as a result.  It's a matter of degree, I suppose, but those teams share some traits and personnel strategies. 

9 Yeah the Seahawks ran the…

Yeah the Seahawks ran the ball more than any team last year, and finished 10-6. Sort of interesting. I wonder if a team could truly succeed on running the ball and play action completely. Could probably be a pretty cheap offense regardless.

6 Machiavellian or just crazy

The main problem with that strategy is if you finally get a QB, how will you know? We've seen what happens to QBs that have no pass blocking talent and no WRs. You get David Carr being sacked 70+ times a season. Unless your QB is built like Dan Fouts or Ben Rothlisberger, chances are he won't make it through his rookie contract and you're looking for another QB. 

10 Well if you can't evaluate…

Well if you can't evaluate talent, you're screwed anyway. I've become more and more skeptical that you can't get within a reasonable ballpark without NFL games. You have the tape from college after all. The list of Hall of Fame QB's includes quite a few No 1 overall draft picks for a reason. This strategy would also spare you from wasting the occasional first rounder or other high pick on a QB that you think has very slim chances of succeeding, since you're getting by as a run first team anyway.

On top of all that, when it comes to talent evaluation, you do see him in practice everyday. I would be truly shocked if Mitch Trubisky looked like a world beater in practice. I would also be shocked if Drew Brees didn't look amazing in practice. If your practices don't correlate well to games, then maybe you have deeper organizational problems than simply lacking a quarterback.

If you think you've hit on the guy, then start building around him while you slowly morph into a pass first team. Hell, you could even redshirt him for a year. 

4 Choose the Bills instead of…

Choose the Bills instead of the Jets! Lots of intriguing players, exciting rookie, big FA signing. Really want to understand how they all gel together, as basically Buffalo only returns 1 player from their 2018 line (Dawkins). I think they'd be a much more interesting watch over the Jets

8 Cardinals are a good choice

as are they all actually. I was hoping to see the Seahawks under the magnifying glass, since they were the only team to run more than pass last year - but the Ravens may actually run more this year (with a full season of Jackson).

12 The thing that I'm most…

The thing that I'm most interested in with the Jets is: how much does the run blocking change to account for Le'Veon Bell's famously patient running style?

16 As a Jets fan

I've wanted Ben to devote a season to them for a while.  When D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Mangold were there, it would have been interesting.  Unfortunately, this season isn't going to be that great or terrible; Ben will mostly be writing about how Bell and Darnold saved the offensive line's butt a bunch of times.  Next year would have been more interesting, simply because their GM is a former lineman, and would have devoted more resources than MacCagnan had to the O-line.  The Patriots would have been more interesting this year, simply because I'm wondering how Scarnecchia will pull it off, like he normally does; the left tackle is a 2nd year guy coming off an injury, and the center is now out for the year.  To be fair, Muth has covered them in the playoffs.  Still, thanks Ben for thinking of the Jets fans.