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NFP:The sad state of offensive line play, Dan Pompei

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Interesting broader look at today's offensive lines in general. I wish we saw more of this type of analysis so we could see less of the "Our oline sucks and every other team has five pro-bowlers!" type mentality. More accurate perspective is a wonderful thing.

http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/NFP-Sunday-Blitz-3466.html

NFP Sunday Blitz
The sad state of offensive line play, NFL players turned politicians and all the latest scuttlebutt.
Dan Pompei

As I went through my tour of training camps, it struck me how one theme was constant wherever I went: offensive line play is a concern. Every team had some sort of issue up front on offense. I don’t believe there is a coaching staff in the league that is completely comfortable with its offensive line.

There is no question line play has deteriorated in recent years. Neither individual linemen nor offensive line units are what they used to be. So I started to ask people what they thought the reasons were. Here are some of the theories I heard.

Where have you gone Tony Boselli?
*As athletes, offensive linemen have not kept pace with pass rushers.

“Offensive line play probably is not as good as it used to be because, more than ever, all the best athletes play defense,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese told me. “You see it at the combine. The height, weight, speed difference between the lines is pretty dramatic.”

The Giants have a pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul who can do 23 consecutive backflips. I can name some guards who look like they would struggle to do a single forward somersault. The Bears have an interior pass rusher in Henry Melton who was athletic enough to play running back at Texas, and an outside pass rusher in Julius Peppers who was athletic enough to play forward on the North Carolina basketball team.

Meanwhile, the offensive linemen are the least talented players on the field, and among the lowest paid on average. The best offensive linemen in the league today (Joe Thomas, Jake Long) don’t compare athletically with the best offensive linemen in the league a dozen years ago (Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Willie Roaf). The Pro Bowl alternate tackles last year in the NFC were Tyson Clabo and Donald Penn.

The dominating left tackle does not exist anymore. “Where are those guys?” Reese said. “You don’t see them. People talk about how you have to have a great offensive tackle. If you have one, great. But who has one? David Diehl is a terrific one, and I’ll take him any day but he’s not at the Tony Boselli level.”

And it doesn’t look like it will be getting better anytime soon. Among the offensive linemen who played in the 2011 Pro Bowl but won’t be playing this year are Kris Dielman, Brian Waters, Matt Light, Jason Peters and Chad Clifton.

Said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, “Everybody says we don’t have a good right tackle. I say show me who does?”

*There is nowhere near the continuity on offensive lines that there used to be.

Free agency—and the fact that teams have devalued linemen, especially guards--makes almost every team do an annual offensive line shuffle.

This year, only two teams—the Falcons and Lions--are expected to open the season with the same five starters in the same five spots that they played with last year. And in Detroit many believe it’s just a matter of time before first round pick Riley Reiff replaces incumbent Gosder Cherilus at right tackle.

What’s more, nine teams have new offensive line coaches. They are the Bears, Bucs, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Falcons, Jets and Rams.

Diehl knows about a lack of continuity on a line. When the Giants moved him to right tackle this year, it was the fifth time in his career he moved. He has played every position on the line except center.

“People forget playing together for a long period of time is what makes you the best as possible,” Diehl said. “Now with someone getting hurt, or free agency, you don’t see a group together very long. When we had our best years here, it was when the five of us played together during that one long stretch. That’s what you have to have to have an effective offensive line. You have to have a lot of game experience together because there is so much continuity, fitting next to each other, being on the same page, being able to communicate when you can’t hear because of the noise.”

*The new collective bargaining agreement that limits offseason and training camp practice time may hurt the play of offensive lines more than any other group.

“It’s harder for offensive linemen to play well together with fewer reps,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “They need live pass situations. It hurts their pad level, their feel for leverage, their development and their ability to work together.”

*Many of the offensive linemen who are coming into the league have not played in pro style offenses and have a lot to learn.

Offensive line play has been a victim of the spread revolution. “They come to the NFL without knowing how to run block,” one NFC head coach said. “The way they are running offenses in college, some position has to suffer, and it is the offensive line.”

In fact, one of the reasons so many teams are turning to the spread is to hide line limitations of offensive linemen. Get rid of the ball quickly, and you don’t have to worry about blockers who can’t handle superior pass rushers.

*NFL coaches haven’t all caught up with the fact that they can’t neutralize pass rushes the way they used to. Some of them still expect their left tackles to take on great pass rushes as if this were 1998, and they don’t give them enough help.

There are more opportunities for sacks, holdings and false starts than ever before. NFL teams threw 17,410 times last year—more than ever.

“You can’t run a certain offense if you don’t have the players,” Shanahan said. “Some coaches want to run their offense no matter what. Sometimes you have to figure out how to win 17-14.”

...
The rest is at the link above.
 

Boone

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That's a great article - and for the most part, rings true (although I'm not sure I buy into the lack of athleticism argument as much as the other stuff). I can understand the point that the best college football players gravitate towards defense, not the OL, but given the evolution of training techniques and sports science in general, I think today's offensive lineman are light years more 'athletic' than their predescessors.

Some fascinating points in the article though, particularly around how the changes in the college game have impacted NFL preparation levels and focus on the OL. I would love for the Redskins to buck that trend, and become the team (again) known for committing more to building their OL than any other team. I've jokingly said it before - I'd be fine with committing an entire draft slate to nothing but OL :)
 

servumtuum

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Andy Benoit did an interesting three-part series on the changes in NFL football-things like increased use of spread offenses, the rise of athletic TEs, the use of running plays out of passing formations...etc-and one point he brought up which seems to parallel Shanahan's ZBS philosophy is using mobility rather than bulk as a criterion for selecting offenive linemen:

Everyone keeps talking about the declining value of the running back. But the position is not losing importance – it’s just changing. What is losing importance is the almighty left tackle. After Michael Lewis’s bestselling book “The Blind Side” came out in 2006, and again after the book was made into a Hollywood blockbuster, it became chic for people to trumpet the importance of the left tackle. After all, the quarterback is the most important player on the field and the left tackle protects the quarterback’s blind side, right? Therefore, the left tackle must be the second most important player on the field.

Whether this notion was ever true is one discussion. (It’d be interesting to see how many games that starting quarterbacks have missed in recent years because of a nasty hit or even just pass-rushing pressure from their blind side; in all likelihood, it’s probably no more than they’ve missed from taking hits while scrambling or being blitzed cleanly up the middle.) What’s not a discussion is that this notion is true now. With so much of the passing game now predicated on quick strikes, multiple spread patterns and the shotgun, a star left tackle is not vital. Look at the last four Super Bowl-winning left tackles. You have the Giants’ Dave Diehl, a natural guard who plays outside because of personnel necessity; you have Chad Clifton of the Packers, a good-but-not-great aging veteran; then there’s Jermon Bushrod, an athletic enough player but, at the time of the Saints’ Super Bowl, arguably the poorest, shakiest pass-blocking technician in the league; before him was the mammoth but wildly inconsistent Max Starks of the Steelers.

What’s more, look at the teams that have had the top left tackles over the past five years: Cleveland Browns (Joe Thomas), Miami Dolphins (Jake Long), Denver Broncos (Ryan Clady), Tennessee Titans (Michael Roos) and Philadelphia Eagles/Buffalo Bills (Jason Peters). Any powerhouses on that list? The reality is that left tackles are nice, but they don’t correlate with winning and losing.

If left tackles are less important these days, then so are right tackles. Right tackles’ value has probably declined even more considering that the proliferation of spread offenses has taken away from the traditional running game.

While edge blockers are on the down trend, interior blockers are on the up. With quarterbacks having so many presnap responsibilities, it doesn’t hurt if your center can help with some of the protection calls. Having quality guards is important because many teams have taken their blitzes from the outside to the inside. That’s the fastest route to the quarterback and also creates visual congestion, which can disrupt the timing of the quick-passing game. It’s more important than ever for a guard to be consistent and smart.

Just because great quarterbacks can mask a limited offensive line, and just because fullbacks and traditional running plays are trending down, doesn’t mean offensive linemen are headed for irrelevance. In fact, they may soon be more significant than ever because, as we’ll examine next, rushing attacks are going to take on a whole new, space-oriented dimension. With more run plays destined to occur out of passing formations, offensive linemen will have to be more mobile than ever. That’s convenient because, in the meantime, the sophistication and speed of defensive blitzes has increased the athletic demands on pass blockers.
This ties into the next section about how RBs are being used:

Running backs and tight ends

Despite what you hear, the running back position is not going anywhere. In the near future, fewer running backs will look like Jerome Bettis or Adrian Peterson, and more will look like Jahvid Best or C.J. Spiller. The running-back-by-committee trend is probably here to stay, not because running backs can’t take a physical beating the way they used to but because running backs are gradually transforming into quasi-wide receivers. Instead of running between the tackles or behind blockers, running backs are doing all sorts of different things all over the field. Evolution usually leads to more diversity. Because of this, expect the value of running backs, not tight ends, to surge the most over the next 10 years.

Tight ends are experiencing a meteoric rise right now – and understandably so. The Saints’ offense, ranked first in scoring last season, ran through the third-year wonder Jimmy Graham. The Patriots’ offense, ranked second in scoring, ran through Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The league’s No. 3 scoring offense, Green Bay, boasted the super athlete Jermichael Finley; the No. 5 offense, Detroit, had the former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew; the No. 6 offense was San Diego, with the possibly Canton-bound Antonio Gates; the No. 7 ranked Panthers offense ran a two-tight-end system featuring the former first-rounders Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

But look closer at some of the minute but important evidence involving these top offenses and you’ll realize that a lot more is going on than tight ends who dominate. When the Saints played the Giants on Monday night last November, the Giants willingly accepted the mismatch of having nickel linebacker Jacquian Williams cover Jimmy Graham. They did this so that that safety Antrel Rolle could match up with running back Darren Sproles. This wasn’t by accident – this was the game plan New York came up with after diligent preparation. The plan didn’t happen to work, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Giants deemed Sproles a greater threat than Graham.

If you take a step back, it’s easy to see why. A tight end has less field to work with than the running back. He lines up on one side of the formation, which often limits the scope of ground he can cover. What’s more, depending on the receiver distribution, often a defense can logically surmise before the snap whether a tight end’s route is going to take him left or right. On top of a limited field, a tight end is at the mercy of another player; he can only touch the ball if a quarterback gets it to him.

A running back is also at the mercy of the quarterback, but the delivery of the ball is much simpler. Obviously, a handoff is easy to complete. And because a running back aligns in the backfield, most passes that he catches are shorter and easier; there’s more space between a running back and defender before the snap. So it’s easier to get the ball to a running back. This point was proven when the Patriots revealed their new surprise tactic last postseason: lining up tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield. The Patriots didn’t do that to be cute or make a runner out of Hernandez (though he did prove effective on traditional carries). They did it because they wanted to find new easy ways to get their most versatile playmaker the ball.

This is where the evolution rises up: in the creative ways teams get the ball to the running back (or whichever playmaker aligns in the backfield – expect 99 percent of them to still be running backs since guys like Hernandez don’t exactly grow on trees). Players like Best and Spiller and Maurice Jones-Drew, among others, are good-enough athletes and pass-catchers to split out wide or in the slot. That’s critical because not only are they a weapon there, but they also provide formation versatility. In other words, when a defensive coordinator sees a running back and three wide receivers in the huddle, he calls a defense that he thinks will work against a three-receiver set. But if the running back splits out wide, now his three-receiver defense is facing a four-receiver offense. For the offense, this is called “creating a mismatch.”

Just because teams are spreading the field and throwing more doesn’t mean running plays will go away. Rather, it just means teams will call running plays from more passing formations. We’re seeing this already. In 2011, teams ran the ball a record 5,164 times out of three-plus receiver sets (that averages to 10 times per game for each team). The previous record, set in ’08, had been 4,767 runs.

Running backs are taking more handoffs from shotgun formations, they’re running more draws and a lot of their would-be handoffs are being delivered in the form of a screen or swing pass. If offenses keep spreading out (and they should because of good quarterbacking and the fact that the wider you spread, the easier it is to recognize complex disguise and attacks from a defense), running out of passing formations is a trend that will only grow until it becomes the norm. It makes all the sense in the world to run out of spread sets. After all, by their very nature, they force the defense to widen. This creates wider running lanes. In the end, the running backs are still running the ball, only now, instead of needing power to ram through a tight inside hole, they need more initial quickness and agility to stop-and-start and change directions.
Here are links to all three installments-I recommend these because I think they give good insights when it comes to what we will be seeing more of in NFL football-and from Shanahan and the Redskins if they're smart.

http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/23/n-f-l-evolution-good-isnt-good-enough-for-quarterbacks/


http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/n-f-l-evolution-the-eminence-of-the-left-tackle-and-other-myths/


http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/n-f-l-evolution-how-defenses-will-respond/
 

Elephant

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So my first thought as I read this is...is this why we see the refs allow so many holding calls? If Kerrigan and Rak get clothes lined all season long again with very few calls for them, I will blow my top!
 

Lanky Livingston

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That's a great article - and for the most part, rings true (although I'm not sure I buy into the lack of athleticism argument as much as the other stuff). I can understand the point that the best college football players gravitate towards defense, not the OL, but given the evolution of training techniques and sports science in general, I think today's offensive lineman are light years more 'athletic' than their predescessors.

Some fascinating points in the article though, particularly around how the changes in the college game have impacted NFL preparation levels and focus on the OL. I would love for the Redskins to buck that trend, and become the team (again) known for committing more to building their OL than any other team. I've jokingly said it before - I'd be fine with committing an entire draft slate to nothing but OL :)
I wonder if all the new concussion findings coming out will "level" the playing field a bit? I'd have to imagine OL is probably the least-likely position to get concussions; maybe this will convince more athletic guys who would have normally gone for a DL position to switch to the other side?
 

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Trent Williams certainly bucks that trend. He is very athletic for a 6'5 and 319 man. Hopefully, his skills development and focus in 2012 will prove he was a good pick at #4 overall.

There are good RTs in this league but it appears as with LT you have to pay for them :)

Michael Oher in Baltimore is a very good RT (he played out of position at LT after Jared Gaither blew up on the team).

But he was a #1 draft choice as well.

Perhaps what it is, it's much more difficult for Shanahan to find a pro bowl offensive lineman in Round 5 or 6 of the draft than it used to be.

More of those #1s and #2s and $$ in free agency perhaps need to be directed to these positions.

What's the strongest unit on the Redskins team?

My vote is linebacker. Look at the investments:

Orakpo (#1 in 2009)
Kerrigan (#1 in 2011)
Fletcher (major free agent signing)
Riley (#4 in 2010)

The Redskins even backed up the starters here with using a current #4 this past draft on Keenan Robinson.
 

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