Monday, August 26, 2013

2013 Preseason notes: Road-Grading the Offensive Lineman

The 2012 Indianapolis Colts offensive line was a mixed bag, caught in the transition from the small, intelligent, and mobile blockers favored by former offensive line coach Howard Mudd, to the larger power-type blocker preferred by Head Coach Chuck Pagano. A factor speeding the transition was that the players left over from the 2011 team and prior were not particularly talented, young, or healthy. The Offensive Line issues previously covered up by Peyton Manning became fully exposed.

Ryan Grigson used an extra-long scoop to fully explore the bottle of the barrel, bringing in stop-gap players such as Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele. The 2012 Colts offensive line was indeed a larger, more powerful group. In the end, it really just meant that they stunk it up in a different manner than the 2011 offensive line.

Lets review the visual evidence:

              Ow!                        Group Hug!                 Watch it!              This chair is rock-hard            No riders!               Really?  

Wow. And that was before the game even started.

So, are things better now? What has changed?

  • A.Q. Shipley

New Players Acquired:
  • Gosder Cherilus, Right Tackle, Free Agent from Detroit
  • Donald Thomas, Guard, Free Agent from New England
  • Hugh Thornton, Guard, Rookie, drafted 3rd round
Instead of speaking generally about the above names, I'll just go into my grading for each player on the offensive line. Bear in mind that a "A" grade represents a player in the top tier at his position, and who is a good fit for the Colt's scheme.

Starters (current):

Left Tackle: Anthony Castonzo, Grade C+
Castonzo was the last 1st round pick from the horribly failed Chris Polian era (2004-2011), and like most Chris Polian picks, this was a pick for need. Unfortunately, Castonzo was more of the kind of LT that we looked for back then, not so much what we are looking for now.

Basically, Castonzo is a average LT in the league today, but is undersized for what Pagano wants on offense. He is a better than average drive blocker, but can be overwhelmed when matched up with a huge defensive end. He is a better than average pass blocker, relying more on quick feet and technique, than size and power. Again, he can be overwhelmed in pass protection by a larger defender.

Is the C+ grade harsh? No. While he is better than average at both run and pass blocking, he simply does not fit our scheme. He is signed through next year, and I can guarantee you he will not be re-signed. It's even possible that he will be cut this upcoming off-season. You heard it here first people.

Anthony Castonzo Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B
Size / strength:            C
Overall talent level:     C+
Scheme fit:                 D

Left Guard: Donald Thomas, Grade C+
We signed Donald Thomas away from the New England Patriots, where he was a bench player pressed into a fair amount of action. While he acquitted himself well, the Pats had no intention of letting him compete for a starting job in 2013. It's probably silly, but I always have a little bit of paranoia in grabbing a player that the Patriots allow to get away. Like any team they try to retain their best players, but when they give huge contract extensions to trigger-happy gang-bangers, what is Donald Thomas - a serial killer perhaps? Don't say you haven't wondered the same thing. One thing is that they seem to like larger guards, as do we. He is slightly undersized for what we want to do going forward, so I'd be surprised if he is a long-term solution for us.
Dammit Donald, you let someone get within 15 yards
of me. Now I have to go and change my armour.

So, how does Stabby McStabstab grade out on the field so far? Pretty good I'd say. I haven't seen him make a single truly excellent play, but I have seen him make the expected play most times. I've also watched him make some pretty serious mental errors though, and I'm trying to attribute them to the new environment instead of something worse. And there's also been a couple of times when his hustle level did not seem to match those around him. Maybe he's just confused by playing with a QB that doesn't wet 'em when he gets pressure around his feet.

I do expect him to improve, so I'll keep an eye on him.

Donald Thomas Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C+
Size / strength:            B-
Overall talent level:     B-
Scheme fit:                 C+

Center: Samson Satele, Grade C+
Setele was one of Ryan Grigson's free agent pick-ups from 2012, and was expected to provide a steady, yet unspectacular presence at center. This he did; until he got hurt. He was in good company though, as the line was riddled with injuries and players were shifting positions faster than your local politician.

Satele is a smart player, which is how he makes up for his physical shortcomings. A bit undersized and underpowered for what the Colts ideally want, Samson is still a key part of the team. That said, with a large cap number for 2014, I expect him to be cut after the season. This is the same situation as Castonzo and Thomas; they are not the ideal physical type that Grigson is looking for. Satele and Thomas were signed because they were the closest fit that met the price we could pay. It's going to be a pretty deep draft for offensive linemen next year, so expect a few changes.

Samson Satele Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B+
Size / strength:            C
Overall talent level:     C+
Scheme fit:                 C-

Right Guard, Mike McGlynn, Grade D
I want to start this off by saying I don't know Mr. McGlynn personally, and I am very aware that he could totally kick my ass. But from what I saw from him last year, and from what I've seen so far this year; my grade on him might be a little high.

McGlynn getting overpowered by
elderly gentleman. 
Unlike the first three players I reviewed, McGlynn fits the size parameters that Pagano is looking for. At 6'4", 325 lbs, he looks the part. The only problem is that his size and his strength simply do not match up. Just this year, I have seen him get completely run over while both pass blocking and run blocking. He has good mobility for his size, but he lacks explosive strength, and plays like a much smaller player.

He does play with good technique, but when he has a large and powerful player across from him, he (and those who depend on him) are in for a long day. He is a better physical fit at center.

I do not expect him to be the starter in the 2013 season opener. Who will replace him? Let's not get ahead of ourselves, more on that later in the article.

Mike McGlynn Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B+
Size / strength:            D-
Overall talent level:     C-
Scheme fit:                 D

Right Tackle, Gosder Cherilus, Grade C+
Cherilus was clearly high on Grigson's list as he wasted no time in signing the former Detroit tackle on the first day of free agency. There was some grumbling about the large contract in league circles, but if he's your guy, you do what it takes - so, that did not bother me. What did bother me a little was that Detroit did not seem to feel it was very important to retain him. Of course Detroit has some pretty bad command and control issues, so maybe I shouldn't put too much stock into what they do or don't want.

I was not familiar with Cherilus from his time in Detroit. I don't really watch Detroit games, and since he does not play for a New York team or the Cowboys, there's no reason for anyone to have ever heard of him. Based on what I've seen from him so far this preseason, he looks like Ryan Diem in his prime: basically a pretty good right tackle. And he fits what Grigson is looking for in the size/strength ratio.

Of course that should rate a better grade than C+, right? Except for a few blown assignments in pass protection, he would have rated a B; but those blown assignments were pretty scary. So far this year, I have seen him beat inside and outside by rushers. And when he gets beat, he gets beat clean - for a big shot on the QB. This is bad.

Now because I am not too familiar with his early albums, I really don't know if this is a case of a veteran not caring about pre-season too much, or maybe he's dealing with some minor injuries. Either way, he needs to be more consistent in his pass blocking.

His run blocking has ranged from good to great. He does not seem to have the raw brute strength of a pure road grater, but he's strong enough and persistent. He has very good balance and he moves his feet well. Unless he has an inconvenient injury, we should expect him to be our starting right tackle through next season, but with a large cap number in 2015, he will probably be cut after next season. Like I said earlier, the 2014 draft class looks to be deep in offensive linemen. Cherilus's replacement will be drafted next season.

Gosder Cherilus Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C+
Size / strength:            B+
Overall talent level:     B
Scheme fit:                 B+

Basically it looks like I have the Colts offensive line averaged out to a C+ grade. Is this average for the league? Probably.

What about the reserves? Well, I'm not going to go into depth on each of them. Jeff Linkenbach is a adequate spot replacement for either tackle position, and a stop-gap at either guard slot. I expect him to make the team this year. I imagine that rookie Khaled Holmes will make it. Joe Reitz is not a scheme fit (too small and weak), but he might make this year's squad based on him knowing where to line-up.

But the guy I really want to talk about is the guy who will soon be the starting right guard for your Indianapolis Colts: 2013 3rd round pick, Hugh Thornton:

Right Guard, Hugh Thornton, Grade B+
I can't even say how impressed I am with this guy. At 6'3" and 330 lbs, he is an ideal fit for the body type that Grigson wants in our offensive line. And unlike some of our other players, he plays stronger than his size would suggest. In just two of his series against the Browns starters, I watched him violently pancake two different very large players on run plays. Also in one of these two series, I watched him take a blitzing LB (who had timed the snap perfectly) and pick him up and rag doll him. Slammed him to the freaking ground. I have not seen a player at guard in the NFL with this sort of strength since Larry Allen of the Cowboys.

In extended playing time with the starters, he only had two plays where it could be said that he should have performed better. One was a blitzer who timed the snap perfectly and caused a hurried pass from Luck, and the other was a DL on a slanted rush who surprise him to the inside. His man didn't make the tackle, but the play was disrupted.

That's it. Other than that, it was ass-kicking power and head on a swivel awareness. He was ridiculous. I imagine that McGlynn has been allowed to occupy the right guard position out of veteran respect, but unless there is something behind the scenes that I can't see, Thornton is a massive upgrade over anyone we could possibly put into the right guard position. He's that good.

You want to know why we all the sudden started moving the ball on the ground in the third series against the Browns? Whoever we had playing RG got hurt and Thornton came in for him. It was that much of a difference.

Hugh Thornton Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C
Size / strength:            A+
Overall talent level:     A
Scheme fit:                 A+

So, expect to see Thornton starting, sooner than later.

Where does this leave us? Can we compete for the Super Bowl with this offensive line? Yes we can. Line play has become somewhat depreciated by recent rule changes favoring the passing game. In the last few years, we have seen a team with the worst offensive line in the league win the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh), and last year Green Bay's horrific line did not stop Aaron Rodgers from looking like superman.

And we have our own superman, in the person of Andrew Luck. With this year's new emphasis on the short passing game, I can't imagine that Luck will see anything close to the level of pressure he got in Arian's downfield passing offense. That and with better talent and experience at WR, I think we are looking at a very nice year on offense.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

2013 Preseason notes: Lets talk about this whole "Gap" situation . . .

The 2012 Colts defense was a work in progress. Newly hired defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was charged with building a stout 3-4 defense, with players drafted and trained in the speed-kills Dungy 4-3 defense. The results were mostly encouraging.

The 2012 Colts stayed mostly vanilla in their schemes, which makes sense given that the players had a lot of technique-based things to learn, and forcing a complex scheme on them at the same time could have been disastrous. I'm looking at you 2012 Philadelphia Eagles.

There is also the fact (and I've not seen this mentioned elsewhere) that the style of defense that the Colts played prior to 2012 did not require players who were intelligent enough to execute complex coverages and subtle line play. I'm not saying they couldn't have handled it . . . well, ok - there were some who couldn't handle it. But those guys are gone now, and hopefully things are simpler in Buffalo.
Jerry Hughes to Tim Tebow: "How many fingers am
I holding up? Let me know when I get to three."

Tony Dungy always said, "If you can count to three, you can play in my defense." 

Well, in a mature 3-4 defense, you need to be able to count backwards from ten and do some light division.

So, what can the 2013 Exhibition Pre-season tell us about what we'll see in the regular season? The answer is: a lot.

First things first, it's clear from watching the Giants and Browns games that Greg Manusky spent a lot of time watching film of the 2012 Houston Texans. Who knows, maybe he did some light housework and ran some errands for Wade Phillips. Why do I say this? Because in the course of a mere two seasons, the Colts have gone from playing one of the simplest defensive schemes in the last 40 years of the NFL - to one of the most complex.
"I'm four-gapping this biatch!"

Last season the Colts defensive line exclusively played two-gap technique, even in clear passing
situations. Basically instead of trying to get around a blocker any way they could as in the Dungy defense, two-gap technique has a large defensive player trying to control both sides of a blocker - preventing that blocker from controlling him, while also trying to just be in the way. In this sort of scheme, the defensive linemen get very few sacks and tackles - and hence little glory or attention. Their job is to control the offensive line, and keep the linebackers "clean" so they can roam sideline to sideline and make plays.

The Texans J.J. Watt racked up 20.5
sacks, despite playing without a helmet.
"Wait," you say, your hand waving plaintively in the air, "What about Watt?" You adopt the smug self-satisfied smile of a person who gets all of his football opinions from the behind-the-scenes producers at ESPN. "What about Watt?" I say, readying myself for some parrot barf.

"Well, he plays in a 3-4, I saw it on ESPN! And he had like 40 sacks!"
"Actually it was more like 20 1/2."
"A half a sack?" you snort, "Now you're just making bleep up."
"The half sack was for tackling Tim Tebow, he only counts as a half a QB."

Well, ok, here's the when, why, and the how on Watt:

The Texans do play a 3-4 alignment, but that is about the end of the similarities between what the Texans do under Wade Phillips, and what other 3-4 teams in the league do. The Texans do a lot of funky stuff, and one of those things is that they constantly shift between having their defensive linemen player two-gap and one-gap. This causes a lot of turmoil with the opposing offense's linemen - not knowing if the 320 lbs beast across from you is going to try to stand his ground and grab you, or explode into a gap on either side of you.
After discovering that all NFL Quarterbacks like Matzah Ball Soup,
and Offensive Linemen are all Crepe Eaters; the game of football
becomes easy for young Bjorn Von Werner-Kempler.
This is what I have seen from the 2013 Colts. They are switching between two-gap and one gap every couple of plays. In many cases, only one or two of the three lineman have played one-gap. This is something I've only seen from a Wade Phillips defense.

Against the Giants, the Colts played one-gap on most 1st and 10's in normal situations. On 2nd down passing situations, they randomly played a mix of the two. Midway through the first quarter after the Giants got into our red zone after that pass interference call, on 1st and goal, the Colts went one gap and blew up a pass play. On 2nd down they played two-gap. On 3rd and 1, they went one-gap and blew up a run. 4th down - GTFOTF!
I learned my tolerance from the Master: "Playoffs?!? Playoffs?!? Allow me
to answer that question with a murder-spree at your next family reunion."

"Well, I didn't hear any of this on ESPN," you say, trying to reconcile this into your media-created reality bubble, "In fact, according to ESPN, the only players on the Colts roster are Andrew Luck and Darrius Heyward Bey, and they never said they were playing any sort of gap."

This sort of attitude is why if I ever somehow became an NFL Head Coach, my era would be known for being the most hilarious, as well as the shortest. Suffering fools gladly is the #1 quality required to be a coach nowadays. And it is a talent not very many people have.

Anywho, oh yeah, we were talking about football.

Now I know that switching gap technique on the defensive line does not seem too terribly complicated. Well, it's not. But what is complicated is that each lineman needs to know what the others are doing, so they can compensate. If your left defensive end is going to charge on on that 3rd and 1 play, the other linemen need to be aware of that so that a massive hole is not left where the linemen vacated.

Plus the linebackers play a different technique in that situation. If one or more of the defensive linemen are charging into their one gap, there's going to be more blockers to deal with for you. Trust me, there's a lot to keep track of.

I'll be writing more about the Colts defensive scheme; but I'll tell you right now - we goin' BEAST mode this year. Yah boiz.