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Week 9 Pass Protection Review: part two - letting their guard down

In part two of the Week 9 pass protection review, we look at the failings of one specific position which have been letting the offensive line down as a whole this season: guard.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In part one, we talked about how the communication and chemistry was beginning to improve, but still had room to grow. We also saw, however, Davin Joseph getting beaten on a swim move. Well, the loss of Carl Nicks hurt more than many realise, and while everyone got beaten at least once, the guards seemed to have the biggest problems on the day. So, part two is dedicated to looking at how the guards fared in pass-pro.

Shoulder the blame



The Bucs are on the Seahawks' 17-yard line, and it's 1st & 10. The play is a straight forward drop-back pass, and the matchup we're focusing on is circled - Joseph on Clinton McDonald.



As you can tell, this is just seconds after the snap, and Joseph's already made a crucial mistake, one that a rookie would be called out for, let alone a two-time Pro Bowler:


This isn't like the first example in part one, where there's a tight end to free up Demar Dotson to help Joseph; Dotson's got Chris Clemons to worry about. Yes, you shouldn't give up your inside gap in pass-pro if you're in a big-on-big scheme, but Joseph makes no attempt to get his whole body in front of McDonald.

Compare his feet in relation to the guy he's blocking with everyone else on the OL; Joseph has barely moved his feet, instead just twisting his upper body. Joseph's got no way to exert leverage on McDonald's outside half of his body - even laying his helmet across McDonald's face would give some sort of resistance against penetration of the outside gap.

Instead, Joseph turns his upper body, giving McDonald aaaaall of the outside:



Joseph has moved his body into a better position, but his hand placement - one of the most basic fundamentals of playing offensive line - does nothing to take advantage of this, because he's still only attacking McDonald's downfield (i.e. away from the camera) shoulder. (Note, though, that Jamon Meredith has his arm on the shoulder of Brandon Mebane, a little trick we discussed in part one)



And now, Joseph has been turned around 180 degrees... and is still only attacking the same shoulder! What's more, the above picture perfectly illustrates just why this is a cardinal sin for an offensive lineman, and simply not good enough for a player of Joseph's reputation: there is nothing between McDonald and Glennon.



Two circles here: one, Joseph still attacking that same damned shoulder in the hopes of slowing down McDonald. The second, Tiquan Underwood, who is pretty wide open as you can see, especially if Glennon aims the ball to his outside. Unfortunately, Glennon, seeing McDonald coming free at him, is spooked out of the pocket; you can see from his feet that he's turning to run. That last part is on Glennon; he should be stepping up into the space between Donald Penn and Meredith, where he could have made the throw to Underwood (plus giving Joseph a possible opportunity at redemption by giving him a better angle to block McDonald). Still, this never becomes an issue if Joseph doesn't ignore basic line fundamentals.



And this is the end result: while there's still space to throw to Underwood, Glennon stumbles slightly, meaning he's never going to have the distance from McDonald to set his feet. The pass is thrown away, setting up 2nd & 10. The team run for two yards, and Glennon, again scrambling from the pocket, is unable to make anything happen on third down. The Bucs send on the field-goal unit, and those are the last points the team scores all game. That's the difference that bad hand placement can have on the outcome of a game.

Yes, dealing with a pass-rushing DT with no help is by far the hardest thing any guard is asked to do in the game of football: you have to wait and absorb contact rather than dishing it out; you have to react to an opposing player's actions instead of dictating what you want to do on the play; and you don't even have that lovely wide space to play with that a tackle gets to work in.

But that in no way excuses Joseph. He is being paid $6 million a year, was a first-round pick, is an eight-year veteran and has been to two Pro Bowls. More than that, he's a team captain, who is meant to be an example to his team mates. To see such a lapse in basic football fundamentals such as where you put your hands on your opponent is just unacceptable - and it's not as if this was a one-time lapse; anyone who's been watching Bucs games knows that Joseph has played this poorly all year, and with none of his future salary guaranteed, it's hard to imagine him back with the Bucs next year without a drastic restructuring of his contract.

Block or get off the pot

Now another play to illustrate a problem that both guards showed last Sunday - timidity. The following play was a third-down conversion the extended the team's second touchdown drive, which succeeded despite of Joseph.



There's lots of yellow doodles on that picture, so to give you a quick dramatis personae:

We have K.J. Wright lined up over Tim Wright. He's going to rush Penn's outside gap. Next to him is Chris Clemons lined up out wide; he's going to shoot the B-gap. Our old friend Michael Bennet is at 3-tech on Meredith; he'll loop round to the opposite A-gap. Bobby Wagner will shoot the A-gap between Meredith and Zuttah, while on the other side of the line, Cliff Avril is going to rush Dotson's outside gap. Bruce Irvin, meanwhile, is circled; that's because he's not going to rush the passer, but rather seems to be responsible in man coverage for Brian Leonard, who won't release into a route but rather stay in to protect.

It all goes down something like this:



Everyone has clearly assigned themselves to a defender, with Joseph being responsible for Irvin, leaving Leonard to pick up Bennett. Oh, and I mentioned in this piece that I would be confident stating that 75% of NFL plays feature offensive holding. Well, Dotson in that circle there? Yeah, that's holding, but as it's not 'egregious' (Dotson releases the hold after a few seconds) it will almost never get flagged; but you never can tell when it will or won't be, which is why Crabtree probably though he was safe on crucial holding call that, in my mind, swung the game.



Now again, in his defense, you could argue that Glennon didn't make Joseph's job easier. What Glennon should have done is step up in the pocket behind Joseph, the yellow line I've drawn. But Joseph should know better. Look at Irvin's helmet; as a rule for offensive linemen, watching the defender's helmet will tell you where the action is going. You might argue that it's a big ask of a guard, and if this were Jamon Meredith, that'd be one thing. But, again: team captain; eighth year vet; two-time Pro Bowler; recipient of a seven-year, $52.5 million contract. If you can't have high expectations of such a player, who the hell can you have high expectations of?

The fact is, there is no reason for Joseph to be doing what he's doing; it's just poor football logic, and, combined with his terrible reading of the play as a lead blocker on pulls, and other habits which I'll illustrate in another piece, makes me seriously question how well Joseph understands football. I know it sounds harsh, but there's no other real explanation for what he's doing here. Joseph had no need to step to Irvin; he even gives a weak attempt at a punch to keep distance, though it comes off more as a lethargic push. Why?

There are two things Joseph should be doing here. If you're going to step to him, then by all means, step to him. You're behind the line of scrimmage, it's perfectly legal to engage Irvin and try put him on his backside. Or, keep a distance, but keep checking Irvin, as if he does go for Glennon, the distance will give you better angles to block him. Instead, Joseph steps right up close to Irvin for no reason. As a result, when Irvin goes wide to try and catch a scrambling Glennon...



... he is in no position to be able to block the linebacker, as has been circled. Now, instead of being able to set his feet for a decent pass to Underwood, in the second circle...



... he instead has to make the throw with Irvin in his face, resulting in the ball coming out without much power. Luckily, Underwood adjusts and is able to make a diving catch, grabbing the ball two yards past the first-down marker. A split second later, though, and Irvin would have had a sack, and the Bucs would have punted instead of marching down the field for a touchdown.

Again, the frustrating thing is that Joseph had two courses of action here - stay back and give yourself as much time as possible to adjust to the defender's actions, OR just go straight up and knock the guy's block off. Joseph's indecisiveness seem to suggest either a lack of confidence (which, given his knee, could be the case), or a lack of mental discipline. Either way, it's simply not good enough.

Don't think you've escaped the microscope either, Jamon.

Mind the gap



As with part one, here's a play that benefits from Bobby Wagner being just a few steps too slow in man coverage on Leonard. As you can tell from the defensive formation, it's a clear passing down.



The two interior rushers are being double teamed - but Bennett, who's being blocked by Joseph and Dotson, is about to loop, as I've drawn in above.



Bennett begins to loop, though as his body is obscured from the camera by the OL, you can tell by the angle of his feet, which I've circled. Irvin, who was being double teamed by Meredith and Zuttah, moves across to the opposite A-gap. Zuttah follows him, cycling him away from the QB. Meredith, without left to block, looks round to see if Penn needs help with Clemons. Penn doesn't.



Despite that, Meredith decides to go help him anyway. You will notice, however, that Meredith has his back turned from Bennett, who is staring directly at Glennon. Fortunately, Bobby Wagner is unable to keep step-for-step with Leonard, and Mike Glennon is able to hit the running back in the flat, who then takes the ball 17 yards after the catch for a 19-yard gain. The next play is the Bucs' first touchdown of the game. Yet, if Wagner was just a little better in man coverage, this play would have ended in a sack, forcing a punt.

Meredith is far from the only player guilty of this, though. Sometimes, it's justified, as below:



Zuttah, left with no-one to block, watches to see if he needs to help Joseph block Jordan Hill. With Joseph not being great this year, it's unsurprising that Zuttah feels he needs to help out when Hill starts a spin move.



If you look at Joseph's position in the yellow circle, you'll see that he's actually in pretty poor position to do anything if Hill had been able to complete his spin uninterrupted; if Zuttah hadn't come in to help, it's likely Hill would have had a free run at the quarterback. There is of course a downside to this - there is a gap left wide open, and it just so happens that Clemons is looping round to attack that gap, as shown by the pink line. Glennon gets the ball off soon after this picture, but if this was one of Mike Sullivan's typical deep-route-heavy plays, I'm not convinced Clemons doesn't get there.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much Zuttah could have done here; Joseph needed the help, and Hill was the more dangerous man, being closer to the QB. I can't really fault Zuttah here, but it does show how weak guard play will open up gaps for the defense.

Finally, we look at a play that failed thanks to both guards, and incorporates two of the elements we've already explored.

End of the road



Above you see the Bucs' final offensive play of the game. It's 3rd & 7, and the Seahawks are sending six: Chris Clemons to the weakside C-gap, K.J. Wright (on a delayed blitz, hence the circle) to weakside B-gap, Bennett to weakside A, Irvin looping to strongside A, Wagner strongside B, and Avril weakside C.



And, for reference, here's pass-pro responsibilities at the snap. You'll note that Meredith and Zuttah are, at this point, jointly responsible for Irvin and Bennett, while Joseph is checking Wright.



Now, this is an example of why I question how much Joseph 'understands' football. Yes, Wright will eventually blitz on the other side of the line - but Joseph doesn't know that! He knows that there's no backside help - he had Bobby Wagner standing over him at the snap, so he will have known Wagner being picked up by Leonard. Joseph goes to pick up Irvin; What's to stop Wright blitzing in behind Joseph? This is, again, third down in overtime. If the Bucs don't score a TD on this drive, they could lose the game. What is Joseph possibly thinking? I've even drawn in that Zuttah is looking directly at Irvin; you can tell by Zuttah's body that he's ready to leave the doubleteam on Bennett if needed. If Joseph doesn't pick up Irvin here, Zuttah would have - which is the ideal in this scenario, because, again, JOSEPH DOESN'T KNOW THAT IRVIN ISN'T BLITZING HIS OUTSIDE GAP.

To pick up on a non-guard, though, you'll notice Avril just bullying Dotson on the right of the screen. Dotson actually got bullied several times this game, and it might have been his weakest one of the season.



And there's Dotson, on the ground. Now, back to Joseph:

We already saw one element I've picked up in this piece - the ignoring of gap responsibilities. Joseph was, ostensibly, lucky that Wright didn't blitz (though it could have been a read blitz for Wright, and he fancied his chances attacking Meredith instead). In either case, Joseph has decided to pick up Irvin, which is fine, as you can see both Meredith and Zuttah are locked in on Wright while blocking Bennett - exactly what you want on a doubleteam, so that either lineman knows to pick up the backer without the other being unaware that they need to shift leverage on the DL to account for the lack of help.

Joseph, however, is now committing a second issue that we've discussed. Yes, that's right; on the final play of the game, he's still not learnt, and is focusing all his attention on the inside shoulder, giving his whole outside to Irvin.



In what should be a surprise to no-one, you can see in the right blue circle that Irvin has taken the outside that Joseph was offering him with his poor hand placement, and is pretty much past the guard already. Meanwhile, Brian Leonard does a Joseph special, dropping his head allowing for him to be easily swum, as we saw Joseph doing in part one of the Week 9 review. It gets worse, as we'll see in the next picture.

On a more positive note, though, Meredith peeled off the double team to successfully pick up Wright, while Zuttah handles Bennett. Unfortunately, Avril, tripping up over Dotson, falls into Glennon's leg, which sends the rookie scampering out of the pocket.



In a perfect metaphor for the Bucs season, Leonard's poor execution (in this case lowering his head) means that a potentially successful blitz pick up ends him being swum, and falling into the legs of Joseph, tripping him over.

In the other yellow circle, though, we'll see the the third issue discussed today: timidity and hesitation. See, Meredith is currently five yards behind the line of scrimmage; he's a 312lb guard going against a 246lb linebacker. Why is he not just putting his hands on Wright and driving him towards the sideline? He knows he's been left with single-man responsibility for Wright, why not just drive him out the way? Especially as Wright is already beginning to get deeper than Meredith, putting him in bad position to wash him up field past the QB. Instead, he waits.



Glennon scrambles, and Meredith is slow reacting - you can see above he's still getting out of the more passive pass set. It's a shame, because that's a lot of open field in front of Glennon; Meredith drives out Wright, and Glennon should be able to pick up the seven yards needed to extend the drive with his legs. Unfortunately, Meredith never gets to Wright, and Glennon turns back in to be sacked by Wright, Irvin, Wagner, and Avril as he picks himself up off the floor. Possession over. Michael Koenen punts it away, the Seahawks march up the field and Steven Hauschka's field goal gives the Bucs the win.

Come back, Carl Nicks. We need you.

In part three, I go on to show you some good pass-protection plays, just to show there were in fact some on Sunday.