Conventional wisdom holds that offensive tackles are the most valuable players after the quarterback, especially in a pass-happy NFL. Why, then, are so many teams getting by with so-so players at the position?

By
Andy Benoit
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Five offensive tackles were taken in the first 20 picks of this year’s NFL draft. So far, none are living up to expectations. Eric Fisher, taken first overall, has been a mistake magnate in Kansas City. He’s shown flawed technique too many times, both in run blocking and pass protection. Second overall pick Luke Joeckel fractured his ankle in Jacksonville’s fifth game. Fourth overall pick Lane Johnson has great athleticism but isn’t using it, and he’s also blown too many assignments in Philadelphia. The eleventh pick, D.J. Fluker, has shown disconcertingly slow feet in San Diego’s passing game. Justin Pugh, No. 19,  is still trying to find his confidence in pass protection after getting dominated by bull-rushers in his first few starts. The Giants’ right tackle has also had mental mistakes in the running game, though he’s lately shown some improvement there.

No career-defining judgments can be made about any player who is merely halfway through his rookie season. But even if these five guys were performing well, they probably still wouldn’t be fulfilling their draft statuses. Reason being, most offenses in today’s NFL don’t need great left and right tackles in order to thrive. All they really need are average tackles. Or, in some case, tackles who simply aren’t atrocious.

One might think the league’s increased emphasis on passing would amplify the significance for pass-blocking. However, more passing has actually led to offenses constructing plays that minimizes their reliance on tackles. That’s a safer, easier and smarter option than relying more and more on the athleticism of a 300-pound behemoth. We’ll take a look at every team currently above .500 to see how they’re using tackles—and how inconsequential the position has become.

NFC

Green Bay Packers (5-2)

Left tackle David Bakhtiari is a fourth-round rookie who often plays like it. Right tackle Don Barclay is an undrafted second-year pro who would come off the bench for most teams. Both tackles have wrecked a lot of good Packer play designs, but Aaron Rodgers has frequently compensated with his quick release and escapability. In theory those aren’t the guys you build an offense around, but head coach Mike McCarthy has used many condensed formations to give his tackles chip-block help.

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Detroit Lions (5-3)

Going into the season many people doubted Riley Reiff’s ability to protect Matthew Stafford’s blind side. Even more would have doubted Corey Hilliard’s ability to survive at right tackle if they’d known who Hilliard was.  As it turns out, Reiff and Hilliard are playing much better than expected. They’ve been helped by two changes to the Lions’ system. First, an increase in underneath routes has enabled Stafford to get the ball out quicker. (And when he’s not operating on one-or three-step timing, his outstanding pocket awareness has mitigated pressure.) Second, the addition of Reggie Bush has given the Lions a movable decoy to use on misdirection concepts. This naturally slows defenders by giving them more to process.

Chicago Bears (4-3)

Free agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod was certainly an upgrade over cinderblock-footed left tackle J’Marcus Webb, and fifth-round rookie Jordan Mills has been a pleasant surprise at right tackle. That said, neither is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. It hasn’t mattered, though. Just like the Lions, the Bears under new coach Marc Trestman have a system that emphasizes quicker releases in the passing game. Jay Cutler has discovered newfound discipline to make the system work.

Seattle Seahawks (7-1)

Injuries to Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini have left Seattle without its starting two tackles for the past five weeks. Yet the Seahawks are 4-1 with backups Pat McQuistan and Michael Bowie filling in. Forgetting the seven-sack debacle against St. Louis on Monday, this offense has stayed above water. Coordinator Darrell Bevell predicates his scheme on play-action, which naturally slows the pass rush. What’s more, Seattle’s play-action concepts involve a fair number of moving pockets in order to get Russell Wilson on the go. When you move the pocket, you inherently nullify the backside pass protection. Most of the time you can nullify all of the protection by using a naked bootleg or a similar misdirection concept.

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San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

The 49ers are somewhat of an exception to the rule, as Joe Staley is one of the few left tackles who is capable of consistently stalemating elite edge-rushers one-on-one. Right tackle Anthony Davis is less refined than Staley but no longer the liability he was his first few years. But even though the Niners are capable of relying on their offensive tackles in a traditional sense, they often don’t. This is a run-oriented offense with a young, sandlot style quarterback. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman use a lot of condensed formations, play-action and half-field reads in the passing game. All of this eases the burden on Colin Kaepernick and the offensive tackles as well.

New Orleans Saints (6-1)

Charles Brown has been very up and down in his first season as a starting left tackle. He must learn to move his feet more consistently, otherwise he’ll remain vulnerable to stunts and other redirect moves. At right tackle, Zach Strief is and always will be athletically challenged. This barely matters to the Saints, though. Much like the Packers, they have a quarterback who can make quick decisions thanks to his pre-snap reads. He can also buy time with subtle movements in the pocket. And like the Packers under McCarthy, the Saints under Sean Payton have always done a good job incorporating chip blocks into their system when necessary.

Carolina Panthers (4-3)

Jordan Gross has long been a Top 10 left tackle. Not anymore. The Panthers have regularly looked to help him with chip blocks this season. The only reason Gross hasn’t been aided on every down is because right tackle Byron Bell also needs help. It’s difficult to give chip blocks to both tackles, because doing so would essentially eliminate two eligible receivers from the equation.

AFC

New England Patriots (6-2)

New England’s torrid pace from snap to snap helps keep defensive linemen winded and on their heels, making life easier for Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (or, rather, Marcus Cannon, who became the new right tackle after Vollmer’s season-ending leg surgery this week). A lot of New England’s passing concepts center around three-step timing, and Tom Brady has always been very good at getting the ball out on time. Yet there are times when the Patriots rely on their tackles to win matchup battles while Brady takes a deeper drop. This season, however, that has not gone the Patriots’ way. Brady has been sacked 23 times already, sixth most in the NFL and just four fewer than his 2012 total.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-2)

The Bengals are the one true exception to the rule. Flex weapons TE Tyler Eifert, TE Jermaine Gresham and RB Giovani Bernard are used too prominently for this to be considered a traditional, deep-drop passing offense. But when the Bengals want to play that way, they can. Tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith are enormous yet nimble bookends.

Indianapolis Colts (5-2)

The Colts are another exception to the rule, sort of. They have a classic, deep-drop passing attack, and they often rely on ascending third-year left tackle Anthony Castonzo to play on an island against top pass-rushers. On the other side, however, the Colts have a respected but slow veteran right tackle, Gosder Cherilus, who needs assistance. A common tactic that Indy (and the rest of the NFL) uses is slide protection.

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Granted, the play above illustrates the significance of a capable left tackle as much as it illustrates how to hide a so-so right tackle. But one of the main reasons Indianapolis is comfortable with Castonzo on an island is that they have a smart, athletic quarterback with extraordinary pocket awareness and uncommon raw tools. The Colts know Andrew Luck can usually improvise when Castonzo does get beat.

San Diego Chargers (4-3)

Even though their personnel has been reshuffled, the Chargers’ offensive line wasn’t actually upgraded much from last season. That’s not a major problem in head coach Mike McCoy’s new system. When you spread out, you define most of the passing lanes for your quarterback prior to the snap, which helps him get the ball out quicker. So far, Philip Rivers has capitalized on this masterfully.

Denver Broncos (7-1)

Yes, the absence of star left tackle Ryan Clady and first-string right tackle Orlando Franklin were major factors in Denver’s one loss. But Clady was absent in five of Denver’s wins, too. Few noticed much drop-off on the left side because Peyton Manning knows where to go with the ball (before and after the snap). Manning’s outstanding pocket footwork also allows him to move around and create more favorable angles for his pass protectors.

Kansas City Chiefs (8-0)

Fisher has been bad at right tackle, which has hindered this already mediocre offense. Fortunately, Branden Albert has been solid on the left side. Even with Fisher’s struggles, the Chiefs have stayed afloat because Andy Reid’s offense features so many screen concepts, which require almost nothing in they way of pass protection. Additionally, Alex Smith is not thought of as a mobile quarterback, but perhaps he should be. Smith has 258 yards rushing this season, which is more than every AFC quarterback except for Terrelle Pryor. Most of those yards have come from him eluding would-be sackers. That’s not how an offense is drawn up, but for now, it’s working, so the Chiefs will take it. They don’t really a choice.

For any team, there’s a price to pay for masking poor offensive tackle play. Every football tactic—including rolled pockets, chip blocks, protection slides, spread sets and quick passes—has downsides that can be exploited. The less help an offensive tackle needs, the better. That will always be true. But never has this truth meant as little as it does today.

Go to the next page for Andy Benoit’s preview of Thursday night’s Dolphins-Bengals showdown …

John Grieshop/Getty Images
Wideout Marvin Jones (John Grieshop/Getty Images)

Bengals offense vs. Dolphins defense

Andy Dalton & Co. probably won’t hang five easy touchdowns on this defense. The Dolphins, unlike the Jets, have decent enough pass-rushers to deny Dalton the time for deep routes to unfold. The Dolphins secondary is also coming off one of its best performances of the season. Cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Dmitri Patterson and Jimmy Wilson were fantastic in off-man assignment pickups last week, taking away the Patriots’ quick-striking underneath passing game.

Of course, the Bengals are more vertical in their route designs than the Patriots, especially now that wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are showing rapid improvement. And just because the Dolphins have better pass-rushers than the Jets doesn’t mean the Bengals will completely eschew the deep ball. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden may believe that his big, fundamentally sound front five can handle this pass rush. Especially given that the most dangerous rusher, Cameron Wake, is still working his way back from a knee injury. Wake has lately been a shell of his usual self.

For the past several weeks, Miami’s front seven has been stingy against the run for three quarters, only to wear down late in the fourth. (This was a problem down the stretch last season, as well.) Given that it’s a short week, don’t be surprised if the Bengals stubbornly commit to the ground game early on in hopes of reaping rewards later.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Dolphins wideout Brian Hartline (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Dolphins offense vs. Bengals defense

The loss of slot man Brandon Gibson really hurts Miami. This is an offense that prefers to spread out and, aside from Brian Hartline, is now devoid of any viable inside receiving threats. When things usually get this tough, a team would typically lean on the wide receiver it just signed for $30 million guaranteed. However, Mike Wallace has been nothing close to a true No. 1 this year. He doesn’t make contested catches, his route tree is limited and his rapport with Ryan Tannehill is undeveloped. Last week, based on matchup assignments, Hartline seemed to be the guy whom New England considered Miami’s top receiver.

Tannehill may not have time to even throw incompletions to Wallace, given his offensive line’s protection woes. Aside from a costly blown assignment on a slot blitz, Bryant McKinnie was actually solid in his Dolphins debut at left tackle last week. And Jonathan Martin looked a little better playing on the other side. But neither was competing against veteran dynamos like Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. And if New England’s blitzes were hard for McKinnie and some of his teammates to figure out, then Cincy’s, with limited prep time, will be impossible.

On the inside, look for the Bengals to do whatever they can to get Geno Atkins one-on-one against right guard John Jerry. Run or pass, that matchup will be a one-sided bloodbath favoring the man in stripes.

12 comments
Kcirtap!
Kcirtap!

What people don't understand is these guys (OTs) need several years to grow into their bodies. The position requires mass and strength that most 21 year olds just don't have yet. Most won't peak until late 20s to early 30s. So to call a 24 year old OT a bust is just laughable. Football is a numbers game, a guy that can consistently win 1 on 1 matchups is going to be valuable.

Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

The main thrust of the article seems to be that elite OTs, particularly LT, are not as important as they once were. This is a slightly different from saying pass protection by the o-line is no longer as important as it once was (which is something I'd disagree with). 

A part of me does feel like elite OTs are not as valuable as they once were. Here's another reason I'd consider: the  rules to protect QBs. My impression is that for every 3 hard hits defenses exact on QBs, one of them will draw a big penalty. (I'm just making that number up.) I realize that getting to the QB is a high priority for defenses, but I wonder if the rules hinder the effectiveness of pass rushers to some degree. 

On another note, Russell Wilson's quarterbacking--and the Seahawk defense--have mitigated the problems with Seattle's OTs and their pass protection in general--but I don't think they will go deep into the playoffs if they continue to have these problems. Indeed, I believe their Super Bowl hopes depend heavily on getting Okung and Giacomoni back healthy and effective--partly because the current line is putting Wilson's health at risk--and if they lose him, they have no chance. 


Sam Heflin
Sam Heflin

I haven't seen every Chargers game this year but the two I have watched, against Indy & Philly, I saw more bunch formations and 7 man protections than I have ever seen a team run on a regular basis.  There was a lot of ingenious things happening, especially running off tackle on the light side of an unbalanced 7 man front.  The one thing I haven't seen from them is a great deal of "spreading it out, they almost always have 2 tight ends. 

musicmansf42
musicmansf42

Yeah, DJ Fluker's feet are so slow that he's only allowed 2.5 sacks, one full sack of those coming from a mistimed snap where no one on the OL was ready. He stoned JJ Watt. He stoned Mathis. He stoned Babin while playing LEFT tackle, out of position. You couldn't tell me enough that he isn't one of the best picks in the draft to this point.

Bucky182
Bucky182

Disagree with this article on so many levels. Solid offensive lines are very important regardless of how elusive a team's quarterback is. David Bakhtiari and Don Baryclay (Packers) may not be the team's chosen starting tackles but having been forced into the lineup due to injuries they have done a quality job. Mistakes are bound to happen with fourth round rookies and undrafted free agents but look at their total body of work. I'm no so sure their blocking (or lack thereof) has blown up that many plays. Look at the Vikings game, for example. Bakhtiari shut down Jared Allen completely. No sacks. No tackles. Not even a blip on the box score for Allen. 

If Cleveland actually had a quarterback Joe Thomas would show you just how much an elite left tackle is truly worth. Put that guy on a team with a proven pocket passer and you won't see many, if any, sacks from the blind side. At least not coming off Thomas's blocks.

CMFJ
CMFJ

"But Clady was absent in five of Denver’s wins, too. Few noticed much drop-off on the left side because Peyton Manning knows where to go with the ball (before and after the snap)."

Well, as someone that has watched all the Broncos game, I have certainly noticed a drop-off.  As noted, Manning can mitigate the effects, but when you are forced to call plays to cover up a player, it is limiting.  This has also seemed to reveal the limitations in TE Julius Thomas blocking ability, since he has often been called on to help on that side.  Thus far, it only really mattered against the Colts.  That is, it has only really mattered against the only likely AFC playoff team they have played.  When the Broncos get to the playoffs and are forced to limit their offense against such defenses, the value of Clady will be more obvious.  

gary41
gary41

What we have seen are much improved defenses, especially pass rushers, making the need for very good offensive lineman all the more important and that has been occurring lately in the draft.  If you don't believe this, ask some of the top QB's, who have dropped out of the top 10.  Some have been able to make adjustments, often with less than desirable choices and some have not.    

eleibow22
eleibow22

Completely disagree with this.  Look what the Rams did to Seattle Monday night.  Yeah you can win games but if you want to go deep into the playoffs you need a good line, tackles included.

BY
BY

Eric Fisher, taken first overall, has been a mistake magnate ...... From Webster's:

MAGNATE:  a person of rank, power, influence, or distinction often in a specified area

lmorran
lmorran

I am a frequent reader of The MMQB and a big fan. However, I believe this article is perhaps the worst I've read on the site. I see very little evidence to support the author's conclusion regarding the value of offensive tackles in today's game. Many of the examples given are prefaced with the qualifier of "exception" to the conclusion. Further, it should be noted that teams using play action as means of reducing pressure on the QB do in fact rely on those tackles to set up play action (a successful running game is critical to effective play action). I understand that the traditional role of left tackle is less of a run blocker, but nonetheless it is still huge part of their game. As for teams winning without solid tackles, I would like to see a breakdown of the teams they are beating. It might be that with a good QB and average tackles you can beat mediocre teams. But, no one pays big money to the best left tackles to beat mediocre teams. If this truly is the "Dive Deep" section, then I'd like to see it go a bit deeper.

mtoews
mtoews

@lmorran I dont know about most teams.. but the Saints put all their O line money into guards not tackles for a reason.  Brees needs lanes as he is shorter so the guards unclog his middle so he can see downfield.  With his great awareness he simply steps into the hole his guards have made and the edge rushes which always seem to beat the Tackles end up behind him while he throws it "hopefully" for a completion.  I think given the Saints overall record with Brees and Peyton this formula works and I believe you can say that the Saints are able to win on any given Sunday regardless of the opponent.

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