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

Word of Muth: Super Rams

Word of Muth: Super Rams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Los Angeles Rams beat the New Orleans Saints in a come-from-behind overtime thriller last Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. Despite the big numbers going in, neither offense was able to score a lot of touchdowns, and it really came down to red zone efficiency to decide the game. The Rams offense wasn't great, but they were good enough in the red zone to force overtime. The defense then did a nice job forcing a turnover, which led to a really great kick to send L.A. to the Super Bowl.

The Rams offensive line played OK as a whole. There was some good and some bad. Where I thought the Rams offensive line struggled was in the run game. In particular, I felt they struggled with blitzing second-level players in their Outside Zone game.

There's a good chance the crowd noise had something to do with these problems. When the crowd is really rocking, it's harder to do everything. It's harder to communicate what linebackers you're working to as they start to shift. It's harder to read the alignments of safeties and corners because you're looking at the guard for the indicator for the silent snap. The result of these hardships was some negative plays.

via Gfycat

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Here's the second play of the game. The Saints are running a Cross blitz in the A-gaps (we always called this blitz Bozo Cross). The Saints ran it a few times and had some real success with it. It's tough on Outside Zone because what usually happens is that the first blitzer coming into the back-side A-gap takes up both the center and back-side guard, and the other linebacker goes unblocked.

This time, right guard Austin Blythe (66) was late seeing the blitz and didn't pick it up, so it was the initial blitzer (Demario Davis, 56) that went unblocked. Center John Sullivan (65) has the right idea; if he comes back and tries to block the first linebacker, he's just going to get piled up with him, and then the second linebacker will come free. If only there was a play I could show you to illustrate what that might look like.

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This isn't exactly like that, but this is the same blitz and Sullivan tries to come back and help the guard to poor results. It's tough to start Outside Zone footwork, come back across your body and chip the first linebacker (Davis), then redirect and block the second linebacker (A.J. Klein, 53). That's just too tall of a task for Sullivan, who loses his feet and loses the second linebacker.

Like I said, it's a tough stunt to block, but if you get it just right you can split the two blitzers and hit it right down the middle for big yards. Again, the crowd noise makes it tough to deal with stunts like this because it's harder for Sullivan to communicate when the linebacker starts to cheat towards that back-side A-gap that they need to be on alert for this stunt. So, you either have to trust and hope your guard picks it up (see: GIF 1), or you try to do too much after the snap and screw yourself (see: GIF 2). It's a real pickle.

via Gfycat

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It wasn't just Bozo Cross that gave the Rams trouble. They also had some issues with defensive backs coming off the edges. This play is a direct result of the crowd noise. You can see the tight end (Tyler Higbee, 89) staring at the ball, so he doesn't see the defensive back creeping into a full blitz position. Then when he looks after the ball is snapped, he's surprised and it's too late.

The shame of this play is they have it blocked up really well other than that. But this is a good example of how crowd noise kills your offense. It doesn't have to be eight false start penalties; it makes everything you do harder to execute.

While the run game struggled to get going, I did think Los Angeles was excellent in pass protection. They kept Jared Goff clean and upright pretty much the whole game, and most of the hits he did take were the result of bootlegs or tight ends and backs being the ones to mess up. It was a very solid pass-blocking performance.

via Gfycat

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This may not look like great because Goff leaves the pocket, but this is damn fine pass protection. The Saints bring interior pressure and the Rams pick it up. Blythe at right guard probably comes off his man a little too quickly before Rob Havenstein (79) can fully stop the looping defensive tackle. But Havenstein does a good job of staying engaged and washing the defensive tackle, a contain player on this rush, down inside to allow Goff all the space in the world to get outside and have plenty of time to throw.

Pass protection doesn't have to be perfect to be really good. Expecting your quarterback to drop back seven steps and stand there for five seconds without moving is unrealistic. But if you can stay engaged with every rusher, and knock one of them out of their rush lane (or if they voluntarily leave their own rush lane) it allows the quarterback to easily move around and make a big play down the field.

via Gfycat

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Los Angeles handles this pressure on a key third down right before the end of the first half. Left guard Rodger Saffold (76) and Sullivan at center take care of the cross stunt beautifully. They're both in control and balanced. They simply let the Saints defenders choose what gaps they want to rush before they engage. They aren't chasing the blitz, they're letting it come to them.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth (77) and Todd Gurley (30) also do a nice job of sorting out the DB blitz. Whitworth keeps kicking out past the defensive back because that's not his guy; he's one-on-one with the defensive end. He doesn't mess with the blitzer and throw Gurley off; he leaves him alone and trusts his back is going to do his job. And that's exactly what Gurley does -- he comes across the formation and makes the pickup. That's really good protection on this stunt, and it led to a big third-down conversion to continue what ended up being a touchdown drive.

That was a textbook blitz pickup by Gurley on that play above. But the reason it was third-and-10 is that Gurley wasn't as good on first down two plays earlier.

via Gfycat

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I don't know how this wasn't a hold on Gurley, but he still gave up a hit on Goff even with a grab. Like I said before, Goff really wasn't hit much, and when he was it usually had nothing to do with the offensive line.

via Gfycat

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Here is the only sack the Rams gave up, and it's on Higbee at tight end. Havenstein tries to get outside late and help, but that's not his real job. His role is to secure the B-gap and then come outside when he can. On this play, by the time he is sure that the B-gap is safe, the tight end is already beat.

One last note on crowd noise: look at Higbee before the snap. He has his hand on the tackle's hip so he doesn't have to look at the ball. He can just feel the tackle move, and that's his cue to go. Crowd noise sucks to deal with as a tight end, and there a lot of ways to try to mitigate it, but they all suck. I thought about trying to find another word to describe it, but sometimes things just suck. There's a reason that everyone uses snap counts whenever possible.


7 comments, Last at 30 Jan 2019, 2:38pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Super Rams

Always good articles, but what I would like to see is how the NWE OLINE has managed to keep Brady u sacked against two sets of great pass rushers.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Super Rams

Second this. I think this is a key matchup. I guess you can argue it's true for any team, but in the playoffs, as the O-line goes, so goes the Pats offense. In '17, '16, and '14, they generally held up and the Pats scored enough points to win ('17 loss was on the defense). In '15, '13, '11, and '07, the pass rush got to them. Brady can mitigate the rush to some extent, but if the Rams pass rush can throw enough sand in the gears of the Pats timing-based offense (like Atlanta did in the first 2.5 quarters) this will be a problem for the Pats.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Super Rams

I hate to say it, but there is a good chance in game injuries will have a big effect. Neale getting hurt in 07 and the Seahawk injuries against the
Pats were especially influential on the outcome.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Super Rams

The tradition is to run two Word of Muth columns before the Super Bowl, so yes, there will be one on the Patriots next week.

Edit: Or not. Unfortunately, day job responsibilities mean there won't be a Patriots column. Sorry about that, folks.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Super Rams

On that last play, it looks like Higbee is left on an island against Cameron Jordan, one of the best DEs in the NFL. In that scenario, I think keeping him blocked for about 2.5 seconds like Higbee did is the most you can ask for from a Tight End.