Rethinking the Blind Side

October 30, 2013 by Andy Benoit

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.