Offensive linemen are like paint jobs. Bad ones are easy to spot, and good ones tend to just blend in. Knowledgeable NFL fans know that Browns left tackle Joe Thomas has long been one of the game’s premier linemen. But how many can actually explain why? We’ve learned to regurgitate platitudes about Thomas’s outstanding fundamentals, or his high football IQ. But deconstructing these attributes is another story.
Thomas himself can break it down, of course. He loves to, in fact. Not in a boastful way; his humility is too thick, his sense of humor too self-deprecating. But from a pure analytical standpoint, his passion for football is palpable. And he’s as eloquent as anyone in the league.
Upon entering the Browns running backs meeting room, where Thomas and I are about to watch film of his team’s 2014 Week 6 win over Pittsburgh, Thomas jokes about how it must have been a 51-49 vote at The MMQB for him to be chosen as the featured elite offensive lineman in our film study series.
He and I first met in August 2014 during The MMQB training camp tour, and he had exhibited this kind of congeniality then, as well. When told by Browns PR staffers that we’d driven overnight to make it to training camp, and that we’d be flying out later that day, he altered his plans to stay late and visit. I came away feeling thoroughly enlightened and wishing we’d had more time.
Now we do. Plus we have the benefit of coaches’ film in front of us. Still, when our session ends, I again leave wanting more. If you’re the least bit curious about offensive line play, a conversation with Thomas is like a personal Ted Talk. Ask a question and he goes into presentation mode.
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There are essentially three ways for an offensive tackle to pass-block: a quick set, where he immediately steps into the pass rusher; an angle set, where he widens out to a 45-degree drop; and a vertical set, where he drops almost straight back. As far as how a blocker chooses which set to use…
“It all depends on the protection, the quarterback’s drop,” Thomas says. “You’re really probably not going to quick set ’em unless it’s a quick throw, which is generally a three-step drop. If you’re going to take an ‘angle set’, usually you need to have a guard or the guard and the center sliding with you. (Otherwise) you expose yourself to twists and stunts.”
On the play we’re watching, Thomas goes with a vertical set against outside linebacker Arthur Moats, dropping nearly straight back.
“In this protection, when you get that double-A gap look, there’s a high probability for stunts and twists and things like that. So a lot of times here, you’re going to set vertically instead of on an angle or a quick set.”
The next play we watch is a cut-back run in which Thomas drives defensive end Cameron Heyward into the ground.
“On this, Heyward is responsible for the B gap, so once he sees me trying to cut him off he’s going to shuffle down the line scrimmage hard to maintain his B gap. When the running back starts cutting back, it allows me the ability to use Heyward’s momentum against him and use my outside arm to throw him further and further down the line of scrimmage, pancake him into the ground.”
On first glance, it looks like Thomas manhandled the 288-pound Heyward. But it was mostly just strong technique. I ask him how often he lines up and simply overpowers a D-lineman.
“Practically never,” he says. “I’m not a huge offensive lineman. If you’ve got a guy that’s, say, 360 pounds—you think back to the Larry Allen’s, Jonathan Ogden’s—guys that are just massively bigger than everyone, you might be able to just overpower somebody. But 99.9% of the time it’s leverage, angles, hand placement and hips that’s going to give you the ability to win a one-on-one block, no matter how big and strong you are.
“You only get to use a percentage of your strength based on your leverage. If you’re using poor leverage, you may only be able to use 50% of your strength, but the guy who’s got the better leverage on you can use all of his strength. And so for the most part, unless there’s a vast difference, the leverage and the hand placement and the footwork is what’s going to win in a one-on-one block.
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Next: an outside zone run to the right, away from Thomas’s side. Heyward is lined up in the B gap, shaded in the direction that the zone is designed to stretch. Which means Thomas has to move laterally after the snap and somehow get around Heyward. This is known as a “reach-and-seal” concept, and it’s the nexus of zone running. If the reach-and-seal is too challenging, you might see an offensive linemen dive to the ground and cut-block the opponent. The question is, in the heat of battle, how does a blocker decide whether to stay upright or cut?
“If it’s an outside zone play, you have the green light to cut-block,” says Thomas. “An inside zone play, generally they don’t like you to cut because the ball is going to wind back (to your side). You don’t want to be laying there because you’re laying in the hole, then you’re then making the tackle.”
On this play, Thomas stays upright.
In general, “you have to do something to get your body between (the defender) and the person with the ball. So right here, look at Heyward’s inside foot to my inside foot. He’s probably almost two feet inside of where I am. We have the advantage of the snap count, which gives us a split-second advantage to try to make up some of that ground. But Cam’s an excellent defensive end, he knows his job, he needs to hold this B gap. As soon as he sees the formation, the shift, and he sees me start moving that direction, he’s going to start moving that direction to try to maintain his clean line to the ball carrier.
“My job is to try to run in front of him and get my backside shoulder underneath his chin or into his pads, so that I can actually make that block.
“But say you just have a [defensive lineman] that’s lining up here and just sprinting straight up the field [and into the backfield]. You really have no chance because by the time you get your first foot in the ground, he’s already beyond you. You have no chance to make up that lost ground before he makes the tackle. In that case, you’re going to want to cut-block immediately at the line of scrimmage.”
Basically, what Thomas is saying is that a cut-block occurs when an offensive lineman is in an extremely unfavorable position.
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Next play. Lined up outside of Thomas is gladiatorial veteran James Harrison, whom Thomas has faced 14 times.
“Some of the most devastating hits I’ve ever seen on a football field have involved James Harrison. The hit he had on Mohamed Massaquoi in one game that was, I think, on the cover of Sports Illustrated—it was just a devastating hit that our receiver didn’t even see coming. Another one, Josh Cribbs was running some type of reverse. He tried to reverse the field and James was coming full speed and blitzed him, knocked him into the next century. Another hit he had on Colt McCoy when Colt was our quarterback; that was devastating. Those are probably three of the biggest hits that I’ve ever seen. And a lot of them are the reasons we have the rules that we do today—because of how dangerous [it was]. I mean, he hurt all three of those guys.”
On this play, Harrison brings his bull rush.
“Harrison now may be old, but he’s still really powerful and really strong. I don’t know if he’s as fast as he was 10 years ago, but he’s definitely just as strong—maybe stronger, more explosive. He’s still got a lot left in the tank.
“In this case you can see me setting up a little bit on an angle. [Instead of in a vertical set.]
“He’s a much shorter player than what you’re used to playing against, so naturally, he’s got leverage on you. What happens here, as I start to block him, I’m trying to sink my hips, and re-sink my hips back to maintain a sharp angle. Because if that angle in my hip gets straight [instead of staying around 90 degrees], that’s when you’re going to get peeled over backwards and the back of your head is going to hit the quarterback’s feet.
“In this particular case, I used a technique that we just call ‘hopping’—for obvious reasons. [It’s not captured in the screenshot, but Thomas planted his feet by quickly hopping back.] Once he’s into you, you’re almost doing a hop backwards to try to blunt his bull rush as he’s pushing on you.”
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Next we see a double-A-gap presnap look, with inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams lined up over each shoulder of center Alex Mack. The ball is snapped.
“In this instance, you can see here we’re actually sliding to the left. So in this protection, versus this defense, I know that I’ve got Alex Mack and Joel Bitonio coming in my direction, and if Timmons hits the A-gap, Alex will take him. If that happens, I know the 3-techinique—Brett Keisel—will be responsible for the B-gap, so Joel will take him. And the outside linebacker [Moats] will be rushing upfield, so I create some space and some width from where the quarterback is with my set. This’ll give me a little bit more room for error when I do come into contact with this guy.
“If Timmons drops, which he does, Keisel can then take the A or the B-gap. If he takes the A-gap, Alex will be there and Joel will be sitting right here in the B gap. And if this guy [Thomas puts the laser pointer on Moats] gets horny and wants to take the B gap and try to take some easy money on the inside, I know Joel will be waiting right there to take his head off.”
This was another angle set, which is standard for a tackle who has a protection sliding to his side.
“The more space you have there, the better it is for the quarterback, because he’s got room to move around there to avoid a rush. And also, after the point of contact, if the rusher does beat me, he still has to go another four yards before he makes a sack. Versus if you drop straight back, he only has to go two more yards.”
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Next: another double-A-gap look, only this time with five additional defenders on the line of scrimmage, presenting a total of seven possible pass rushers. This is an excellent look to set up a zone-blitz, where five or six of these rushers would come and one or two would drop into coverage. (The tricky part for an offense: deciphering which one or two.)
“The Steelers are the kings of the zone blitz, so this is right in their wheelhouse; this is something they’ve been doing for a long time,” Thomas says.
Indeed, they drop two and rush five, with four of the rushers coming from the offense’s left.
“Timmons is dropping into coverage. Ben Tate runs into the A-gap to check Timmons (Tate’s initial responsibility), make sure he’s not coming. And when he’s not coming, that gives Tate the ability to wrap back into A-gap to block the fourth rusher on the other side.
“The rules on this protection for us last year were: if we’re sliding to the left, the tackle has the first widest guy, the guard is going to take the second widest guy and the running back is going to wrap in between the guard and the center. He’s going to a place in this protection.
“So if for some reason Keisel would have gone inside and Moats would have gone up the field, you would have seen a pass-off between the running back and the left guard. The running back would have taken Keisel, the left guard would have taken Moats.”
This is unusual. Typically, defenses blitz in hopes of drawing a mismatch against a running back in pass protection. It seems this sort of protection principle can potentially offer the exact mismatch the defense is hoping for: running back (Tate) against D-lineman (Keisel).
“Yes, this is kind of rare,” Thomas acknowledges. “It’s one of the things in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Kubiak does it, too. You don’t see a lot of offensive linemen [handing off] defensive linemen to running backs. For a lot of guys, one of the cardinal rules is that you never trade out [like this].
“Shanahan’s thinking here is that it simplifies the protection because the back always knows where he’s going. If they’re bringing one more than we can block and the running back’s free, he’s always blocking the man in the A gap. And it makes it easy for our guard. Joel can count to 1 and 2. Even though he went to Nevada, he can still figure out who the second guy is. And so he easily blocks that guy.
Hey, wait, what does a Wisconsin guy have against a Nevada guy?
“Nothing,” Thomas says in almost mock defiance. “It’s just far superior academics at Wisconsin and I have to reinforce that to Joel in practice and meetings every day.”
Alright then. Back to the play.
“What I was going to say was, thirdly, a defensive tackle, these big fat guys inside, for the most part they’re not getting sacks anyway. And so all of a sudden when a guard lets them go, there’s a split second where they don’t know what to do before they start rushing again. And before they know it, the running back’s blocking them. Even though you wouldn’t want to line a D-lineman and running back up across from each other to block, when you get help initially from the guard, and then the defensive tackle gets picked up by the running back, it’s not as bad as a lot of people would think versus if you’re just putting that matchup on paper.”
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Our time is up. Cleveland’s running backs need their meeting room. Thomas and I have dissected a grand total of six plays—a fraction of the amount I’ve gotten through with other players in this series. And yet the transcription from this interview will be multiple pages longer than the next longest. That’s a lot of light shed on the nuances of offensive line play. And, a lot of light shed on why Thomas has been to the Pro Bowl all eight years of his career.