Who’s going to have to step up after another Cowboys injury? Is Kirk Cousins for real this time? Is the Seahawks’ defense really that much better with Kam Chancellor? Andy Dalton for MVP? What would Rex be talking about if his Jets were 3–1? Those questions are discussed, along with a Brady–Rodgers debate among NFL executives and 10 thoughts about Week 5 in this week’s Blanket Coverage. But first, we need to pick up where we left off talking about the state of NFL offensive lines.
To get a sense for where offensive line play stands according to those that coach it, I made my annual pilgrimage to the C.O.O.L Clinic (C.O.O.L. stands for coaches of offensive linemen) in May and sat down with three generations of line coaches: Alex Gibbs, the semi-retired legendary godfather of the zone blocking scheme; Paul Boudreau, the Rams’ offensive line coach who is in his 29th NFL season; and Joe Gilbert, who is in his third season directing the Colts and spent several years at the college level.
This is the second installment of a two-part roundtable. If you missed the first half in last week’s column, you can catch up here.
Alex, you said there are more great left tackles than there have ever been. Can you expound on that?
Alex Gibbs: There are more that are more than adequate. Exceptional? There have never been a massive amount of them simply because there’s a big mismatch between the best defensive pass rushers in football and the best offensive tackles. There's just too many of those guys that are coming on. There's such a disparity in skills that you have to just about be perfect. A lot of times you might be surprised to find out that Joe Thomas might be the fourth- or fifth-best guy if the coaches talked about them.
Gibbs: Yeah. He hasn't exactly been on a team where he's had to do it, where it's been playoff time. Some of those guys have really played well. I think there's more. Now that we've been throwing so much more, and out of show [shotgun] pass, the pass rushers have a little bit of an advantage. I think how we get them, how we keep them and keep them well is just so crucial. I think [left tackles] are the second most valuable player on offense.
Who do you think is the best left tackle in the game?
Gibbs: I don't know if I study them like that anymore. The only ones that you study after you finish the draft are the ones that become free agents. But they don't let the good ones get free. You don't get to study the good ones that other people have. Joe Thomas is good, don't get me wrong. But he hasn’t exactly been in the big, nasty and hard games like the kids from New England [Nate Solder] and Green Bay [David Bakhtiari], San Francisco [Joe Staley] ... there are more of them out there than you think.
What is the toughest position to play on the offensive line?
Joe Gilbert: I would say center and left tackle. From the mental standpoint, we put a lot on that [center] to put everybody going in the right direction. The center has a lot on his plate. And we all have a tendency to put the onus on the guy on the left that's really going to block the backside of the quarterback one-on-one. You have a tendency to give the right tackle a little bit more help then you do.
Paul Boudreau: I agree. The center is your quarterback. It's funny, I kind of hold my breath when they say, “We're talking about a center in the first round.” In my 29 years, there's a handful of guys that have been that first-round choice as a center. You’ve got guys in the league, Todd McClure played 14 years in Atlanta, was a seventh-round choice, Scott Wells was a seventh-round draft choice with Super Bowl, Pro Bowl. Tommy Nalen in Denver. Dan Koppen in New England. All fourth-, fifth-round draft choices. I cringe when they say this guy is a first-rounder because you can find some damn good football players at center. I told Jeff Fisher, I'll take five left tackles and teach one how to snap because there's a lot of teams that don't have one left tackle. I have three. If I was going to build a team, other than quarterback, I'm going to get left tackles and corners. You can't hide those guys.
Gibbs: Mentally, center, without question. But physically, the left tackle.
Is it more difficult to play guard or tackle?
Gibbs: Mentally, the inside is twice as hard. Maybe three times, because you're dealing with people on both sides of you. So the communication skills on the inside, center and guard, are just so hard. I had different standards for IQ levels and Wonderlic tests on the inside than I did on the outside. What I'm looking for on the outside is a superstar athlete that can match up with the great rushers. And then the right tackle is different than the left. It's not that hard to play, you can play without speed because you don't see a lot of great speed rushers over there. On the inside you really have to be smart, but you can play with some unskilled guys that are tough guys that never get hurt.
Boudreau: I think tackle because of the athlete you're blocking, the speed, the power. The interesting thing for me is I took Greg Robinson and moved him inside and I told him, when you move inside to guard, it happens so much faster. If you move back out to tackle, it becomes a little bit easier because you learn how to use your hands. These guys in college don't use their hands at tackle. You put them inside, they better learn to use their hands. When you move them back out, they're used to it. I think when you cross train, they learn how to move and think fast because you have to think fast, and you have to use your hands.
Gilbert: I agree. I think the game is faster inside although it takes a different guy to be able to handle those edge rushers. You have to handle a Robert Mathis at 240 pounds, and then a Robert Quinn at 270 pounds. But on the inside, you have all those blitzes and line movements. It's faster. Your reaction and decision making has got to be on the spot inside.
What's the hardest block that an offensive lineman has to make?
Gibbs: When they have to reach on a guy on his outside that’s faster and quicker and more explosive than they are. They have to aim perfect, their steps have to be perfect, their balance has to be perfect. If they’re a little bit off, now the advantage is really going to the defense. When you’re singled up without a helper and the ball’s coming to you, you don't know how hard to go, how wide to go, how tight to go and what some of the reactions those guys are going to make. The wider the splits, the harder it is. The tighter it is, the easier it is to block, but there’s no big yardage there.
Gilbert: I always say for a center, the back block on a three technique if you’re a gap scheme. That's a b----.
Boudreau: That’s one of the hardest things for a center. For a tackle or really for a guard, because you're such an inside-oriented guy, if they start moving that guy down into that Warren Sapp alignment, the inside eye of the tackle, usually those guys are right on you ...
Gilbert: The 4i [alignment]...
Boudreau: ... when you have to have a guard move his feet, whether it be run or pass, it's a b----. I think tackles, depending on the guy, if you're by yourself to the open side [of the formation] and you have to run block a guy who's more of a pass rusher ... on first down and that guy gives you a pass-rush move and you don't have zone help, coming from your guy, that's a b----.
Gilbert: That’s like an open-side outside zone. That's a b---- for that tackle because you have no help and the center has the guard coming with him.
Boudreau: One offensive coordinator said we're going to go play-action to the weak side and, “We're going to have that fullback or halfback go through the B-gap.’ Bulls---. He's avoiding traffic; he ain't helping. They give you all this coach speak ...
Gilbert: “He's going to follow the three technique...”
Boudreau: We're going to hit him on the way through and then the tackle looks back and says, “Where the hell did he go?”
Gilbert: [Laughing] We were talking earlier about how they tell you you'll have chip-out help and then you're in the film room going, “Where the hell was the chip-out on that play, Joe?”
Is there anything that defenses are doing now that is especially troublesome for you guys?
Gibbs: We've always been able over the last 10, 15 years to be able to read coverages and have an idea what the defensive front's doing as a result. If the coverage is concealed really well, then you're guessing, and when you're guessing you get softer. I have spent so many years trying to get [offenses] to look in the secondary and get an idea of what the defense is probably going to try to do. If I can't see it, I really lose advantage. It is changing because those secondary coaches are really smart. Of course the quarterbacks try to get them [to declare] with cadences. Then you have an advantage. But if you can't get it that way, or the clock is running down, it’s hard.
I know how much offensive linemen love to run block. Does it drive you crazy how much this is going to a passing league?
Boudreau: It depends on what you’re doing. If you go to empty [formation] all day and you have no run game, then it becomes one-dimensional and it becomes harder for us. But if you look at the playoffs the past couple of years, you look at the teams getting to the Super Bowls, they're traditional offenses, traditional quarterbacks, so I think you need both.
Gilbert: Obviously we're more of a passing team but I think at the end of the day, the one thing Chuck [Pagano] does preach is stop the run and run the ball. If you looked at us when we first got there, we have run the ball and Andrew has taken over as the season has gone along a little bit. I do agree with Paul 100% that when you get into November, December and the playoffs, you have to have both dimensions to be able to continue through. In our last four games, the only games I had the same starting O-line, we finally had continuity, we ran the ball against Denver. We hit a buzzsaw in New England, but we did have some continuity.
Boudreau: One thing about running, if you want to do it, you either have to have a tight end that can really block or a fullback because you just can't do it in a one-back system.
Gibbs: It's the entertainment business and the public is hooked. The colleges are turning out so many talented, gifted athletes, it's not going to go the other way. If you can run and pass, you have a big advantage, that's obvious. But you're doing it now without a fullback and usually a [blocking] tight end, like Paul said. They'd rather have three receivers and a tight end that can flex and move. Running is a lot more difficult, so you lose your balance. When you do, they've got the advantage.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 4 injuries?
1. RB Lance Dunbar, Cowboys (ACL, injured reserve): The big loss here is that from the way the coaches used him late in game, Dunbar was clearly the team’s most valuable pass-catcher and protector, along with his kick returning skills. Expect Darren McFadden to get more of the backfield role, especially in the passing game, because he’s the best protector. Undrafted free agent Lucky Whitehead could get a look at kick returner with a week’s worth of practice.
2. TE Jordan Reed, Washington (concussion and knee sprain, week to week): Already without Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen (injured reserve), Washington is down to Derek Carrier, who was acquired by a trade from San Francisco in training camp. He’s a good athlete who isn’t averse to blocking. Could surprise some people.
3. TE Eric Ebron, Lions (knee, two to three weeks): Could be a case of good timing for the Lions, as starter Brandon Pettigrew could return from his own injury this week. Tim Wright is the other option. He can’t block (neither can Ebron), but he is a good athlete.
4. DT Tyrunn Walker, Lions (broken leg, injured reserve): Elevated himself to a starting role, so his absence will hurt, but not as much as Haloti Ngata’s (calf) if he can’t get healthy. Second-year player Caraun Reid will likely get the start. The Lions just re-signed veteran Andre Fluellen for the ninth time for depth, which is important because the Lions like to run deep line rotations.
5. C Will Montgomery, Bears (broken leg, injured reserve): Against the Raiders, Chicago moved left guard Matt Slauson to center and inserted Patrick Omameh. Third-round pick Hroniss Grasu has taken snaps this week. He’s a little light, but he’s shown promise.
WET BLANKET REPORT
1. Kirk Cousins beats the scuffling Eagles on a great throw and better catch (and then hugs everyone wearing Washington garb in a three-mile radius of FedEx Field with time left on the clock) and we’re supposed to be Krazy For Kirk, Part IV? His accuracy is better (68.5%), but he’s thrown four touchdowns against four interceptions (22 to 23 for his career), his yards per attempt are almost two yards below last season, and his passer rating is 84.5 (86.4 last year). What in the name of Colt Brennan has gotten into people? Let’s slow the roll to Canton just a little bit.
2. Kam Chancellor is the NFL’s top strong safety, and his return has made a big difference (hello, Calvin Johnson). But to look at the points allowed before and after Chancellor’s return (48 to 3) is a bit misleading. The first two games were on the road, including the season–opener (when everyone’s rusty) and a showdown with Aaron Rodgers. The last two games were at home, where the Seahawks are nearly unbeatable, against two teams that are a combined 1–7, including one that was quarterbacked by Jimmy Clausen. Playing at Cincinnati is a legit test. Three of the four previous meetings with Week 6 opponent Carolina featured less than 30 combined points, but the Panthers should also be a better measure. Then we’ll have a true sense of Chancellor’s impact.
3. Cowboys end Greg Hardy, in my opinion and given his alleged past actions, is not worthy of an NFL uniform. And his comments about Tom Brady’s wife and sister aren’t something I would say. But I just don’t get the outrage. If Brady has a problem with someone saying he hopes his supermodel wife and sister are at the game, then that’s his prerogative and he can deal with it however he sees fit. If you think Brady’s family should be none of Hardy’s business, you’re the pot calling the kettle black. It’s not your business either, it’s Brady’s.
1. If you put a blindfold on and looked at his numbers and game performances, you could make a convincing argument that Bengals QB Andy Dalton is the NFL MVP at the quarter pole. He’s been that good and, yes, clutch. We don’t know whether or not Bad Andy will pop up, in the next two weeks against the Seahawks and Rex Ryan or in any of the remaining four primetime games. But give Dalton his props. He’s played stellar this season. The area of most improvement? He’s starting to win more consistently before the snap in recognizing where pressure is coming from and the coverages. Maybe he’s really starting to get it.
2. Love the way Jets coach Todd Bowles runs his team. They’re 3–1 and this was his public reaction: “We understand we've only played one quarter of the season and all we did is get off to a good start. We haven't accomplished anything. We know we have a lot of work to do. Our mindset is such.” Perfection. Just barely edged out Bruce Arians’s telling his team at 3–0, “You ain’t s---!” (Any wonder Bowles worked for Arians?) Can you imagine what Rex Ryan’s reaction would have been? He would have started talking about how the Jets were going to defend their Super Bowl title. This must be killing New York’s tabloid editors.
3. Too bad not much of the nation got to see it, but the best game I’ve seen so far this season was Rams 24, Cardinals 22. Not only was there top-notch quarterback play from Nick Foles and Carson Palmer and actual running games (6.3 yards per carry average for the Rams, 5.4 for the Cardinals) and standout performances all around (Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin, Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Johnson); there was real defense being played. Every first down was contested. It was like an old-school, hard-nosed football game. Don’t see many in today’s NFL. Have to savor them when you do.
ACCORDING TO THE EXPERTS
Each week, we’ll poll in-the-know people on a certain topic. This week’s question: One game, tonight. Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Who are you picking?
“Brady. Even though Rodgers is the best, I’m going with the guy with four rings who just won.” — AFC general manager.
“A year ago, I would have probably picked Rodgers. But after what he did in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against Seattle? Brady.” — NFC personnel director.
“Rodgers. Brady’s damn good, but Rodgers is in just another league right now. Between his release, arm and feet, he’s unstoppable. And who’s he throwing to besides (Randall) Cobb?” — NFC general manager.
HUMANITARIAN OF THE WEEK
The charitable efforts of former Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn have been well documented over the years, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive. On Sept. 30, Dunn handed over the keys to a new house for the 145th time to a single parent through his Home for the Holidays charity in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The program was started in 1997 in the memory of Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, a police officer who was a single parent caring for six children when she was murdered in a robbery. The house came fully furnished and stocked with food, and Dunn paid the $5,000 down payment.
10 THOUGHTS HEADING INTO WEEK 5
1. The Ravens are more beat-up than ever with veteran receiver Steve Smith Sr. out and fellow wideout Michael Campanaro on injured reserve. But at least it looks like they’re going to get left tackle Eugene Monroe (concussion) back after missing three straight games. Monroe’s absence has been huge. Fill-in James Hurst didn’t come close to doing the job.
2. It’s been impressive to watch the improvement shown by two of the top tackles taken in the 2014 draft, Jake Matthews (Falcons, pick No. 6) and Taylor Lewan (Titans, pick No. 11). Both didn’t exactly set the league on fire as rookies, and their struggles left some concern as to whether they’d ever be franchise left tackles. They might not be that yet, but both have been much more sound in their technique so far this season.
3. Knowing the pride they take in their jobs, it will be worth the price of admission to watch the Packers’ interior line (guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and center Corey Linsley) take on Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defensive line on Sunday. But the key matchup could be Rams left end Chris Long against Packers right tackle Don Barclay, who has really struggled.
4. If the Eagles’ offense can’t get on track against the Saints in Philadelphia, it’s going to be a really long season for Chip Kelly.
5. The Jaguars have to figure out why quarterback Blake Bortles starts games hot (64.5 completion percentage, 99.7 rating, four touchdowns, one interception in the first half) and then struggles to finish (47.3 percent, 61.9 rating, two touchdowns, two interceptions).
8. I’d love to say the Cowboys could really find some traction if they got back to their 2014 form by trying to push an average Patriots run defense around. And then I remembered Brandon Weeden is the quarterback, and there’s no Dez Bryant. Bill Belichick will stack the box against the run and shoot linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins into the gaps. Good luck, Cowboys.
9. One of the biggest mismatches of the season could be Raiders OLB Khalil Mack against Broncos LT Ryan Harris, who is the backup to the backup. With Ryan Clady out for the season, Ty Sambrailo started but is still nursing the shoulder injury he sat out with last week. So far this season, Sambrailo and Harris have combined to surrender three sacks, eight quarterback hits and eight hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
10. After giving up 28 points to the Patriots in the season opener, the Steelers’ defense has given up an average of 15.7 points per game in the previous three games. We’ll know whether they’ve truly improved on Monday night at San Diego. With a plethora of weapons and a varied, multiple attack, Philip Rivers and the Chargers are the type of team that could tear up the Steelers.