Last week, I documented in detail not just how, but why we saw such poor offensive line play against the Jets in the season opener. At first glance, it appeared that the line stepped its game up considerably against the Saints - but it's important to establish both whether there was an actual improvement, and if there was, why the line played better in Week 2 compared to Week 1. As with last week, the answers to both can be found by turning to the game film.
One of the key themes of last week was sloppy footwork technique, in particular how bad footwork in pass protection led to players not balancing their weight properly - making it easy for pass rushers to get past them using various rip and swim techniques to attack the side they had shifted their weight away from. This week, there seemed to be a great deal of improvement in footwork (though there were still several incidents - and I'm afraid Carimi was probably the most frequent offender - of linemen being beaten due to bad footwork and the resultant lack of balance), but other issues of technique really showed up on game tape, particularly in run blocking.
First, however, we'll look at how the Bucs OL did in pass protection, particularly in light of ProFootballFocus's claim that the Bucs have had the best pass-blocking in the NFL so far this season - a claim I find dubious.
One of the issues with PFF's claim is that they seem to equate a lack of pressure with good (or at least effective) play from the offensive line; while the two might seem to have a direct relationship, there is no reason that has to be true. The first play we'll look at highlights why PFF's statistics can only offer a part of the picture, and why you should always look at the wider context when referencing statistics.
When 'efficient' blocking isn't good blocking
Note: all photos in this article can be enlarged by clicking on them
The play here is a play-action pass, with Freeman faking a hand-off to the right, scanning across the field and then throwing to (and badly missing - this being one of the five bad plays Freeman had on Sunday) Vincent Jackson out to his left. I've highlighted two players in the above photo, Luke Stocker and Davin Joseph. Joseph's assignment should be straight forward - Curtis Lofton, who's coming downhill towards Martin. Joseph should peel off the double-team, leaving Zuttah to deal with the nose tackle, and pick up Lofton. On the left of the screen, we have a significant mismatch as Luke Stocker is left to block Cameron Jordan. If you enlarge the above photo, you'll see that Stocker's yet to put his hands on Jordan - note too how Stocker's left elbow appears to be straight out to the side, which as a generality is poor technique; meanwhile, Jordan's already got his hands to Stocker's shoulders. Jordan just gives Stocker a straight up punch, which is enough to cause Stocker to stumble backwards a step, as you can see here:
Judging by the hash marks, Stocker has been knocked backwards about a yard - though in Stocker's defence, this is a huge mismatch in the Saint's favour, and the tight end does at least try to get his left hand on Jordan. Nonetheless, Jordan's come at Stocker at such an angle that he's going to have a beeline straight to Freeman as soon as he passes Stocker. Jordan here has his right hand on Stocker's chest - setting him up for a swim move. On the other side of the pocket, Freeman's just started pulling the ball back in - Lofton is still staring at Martin. What Joseph wants to do here, as indicated by the yellow line, is attack Lofton's outside shoulder. This will prevent Lofton using his speed (because of course linebackers are faster than linemen) to get around the edge on Joseph, and instead force him back inside where Joseph should be able to use his superior strength to stonewall Lofton.
Instead of attacking that outside shoulder, Joseph has instead attacked his inside shoulder; this is made worse by his helmet placement - you want to get your helmet across the linebacker. By getting his helmet behind the linebacker, it's going to be pretty much impossible for Joseph to get to Lofton's outside shoulder - giving Lofton the edge outside of him. If this was an actual run, rather than a play-action, you can see here how attacking the inside shoulder would also have made it much harder to prevent Lofton from stuffing the run had Martin actually taken the hand-off. You can also see that Jordan is bringing his left arm over the top for the swim move - once he does so, he's beaten Stocker. There is a hands technique linemen (which extends to tight ends left in for pass protection) can use to counter the swim, which Stocker doesn't apply here, but we'll see it from Penn later on.
Swim move completed, Jordan now has nothing between him and the quarterback. This play would not have counted as a QB pressure, as Freeman gets the ball off before Jordan gets close to him, but I would suspect that seeing Cameron Jordan heading straight for him contributed to the inaccurate throw (not that this absolves Freeman - a fifth-year vet should focus on the pass and just take the hit and not get thrown when he sees something like this). Even if it didn't affect the throw (and the throw is all the worse if it didn't affect Josh), you could imagine that if and/or when Glennon is handed the starting job, a rookie is even more likely to be thrown by seeing something like this. Forget Jordan coming free for a moment - look back at Lofton. By attacking the inside rather than outside shoulder, Lofton has the edge on Joseph and speed to come in for a sack, or at least a pressure. The reason he doesn't is highlighted in the blue circle - yup, that's a facemask right there. Luckily the official misses it and the team is saved fifteen yards, but it's a bad sign that Joseph had to resort to risking a huge penalty here in order to prevent Lofton from beating him. Anyway, this pass almost certainly have been marked down by PFF as a positive one for "pass blocking efficiency" (although Jordan does get a QB knockdown on the play, but the ball was already thrown before Jordan got too close). Yet, when you look at the game tape, does this look like efficient pass blocking to you? If coverage is a little tighter, or Freeman decides to hold on to the ball another half-second, this play is a sack. When two of your blockers are beaten on a play - even if ostensibly it hasn't generated pressure - I think it's a real stretch to call the pass blocking efficient.
Another example of so-called 'efficient' pass blocking comes on the team's lone offensive touchdown of the day. Though Freeman is not particularly hurried into the play, he does hitch backwards right up until he throws to avoid a free blitzer. Now, I don't know how PFF grade pass blocking efficiency, but as Freeman has plenty of time to wait for Ogletree to come free underneath the other receivers, I would personally not consider Freeman pressured on this play, though please feel free to correct me in the comments.
Now, prior to the snap, Freeman identifies Lofton as the Mike, and Lofton does indeed come on a blitz. It appears to me, though, that the linemen are locked in on their initial assignments, and fail to adapt and adjust to how the play unfolds. Initially, it looks like Joseph is the lineman initially responsible for Lofton, as he doubles initially on the DE with Dotson, but quickly peels off to look for Lofton:
I've circled Lofton - you can see him directly behind the nose tackle in this picture; however, he's not Joseph's A-gap, but rather that on the other side of Zuttah, inside Carimi. Now, as Joseph has his hands already on the DE, he either needs to immediately block the nose tackle, to allow Zuttah to slide into the A-gap to pick up Lofton, or give a line-call (though not all offensive lines use in-play calls to communicate) and stay to true to his gap. A lot depends on the blocking scheme in play here - you get various man, zone and hybrid pass protection schemes, so there's real way of knowing who is responsible for what in this situation without a copy of the Bucs' playbook. With Joseph already having his hands on the DE, though, and no blitzer coming through his A-gap, I would have thought that he would have stayed on the DE (but as I said above, the Bucs could easily have a blocking scheme where Joseph should switch to take the nose tackle and Zuttah pick up the linebacker - there's simply no way of telling).
While there's no way of telling who is responsible for the nose tackle and who for the linebacker without knowing the scheme, there's some issues of technique here that go beyond scheme. The first is Joseph - if, as I suspect, he should be taking over the nose tackle according to the scheme, he takes a poor angle to do so. If anything, it looks initially like he's going to try and get around the back of the nose tackle to get to Lofton, before thinking better of it - there's some clear hesitation in going to the linebacker on tape.
What Joseph should be doing here if he's going for the nose tackle (as he subsequently does do) is be aiming to immediately get a hand on the nose tackle's near-side jersey number. This ought to put Joseph in good position to side step into the block, allowing Zuttah to slide off. That's not what happens here - Joseph instead seems to step past the NT, which takes him out of position to ever effectively take over the block from Zuttah. Worse, in my opinion, is that by peeling off the initial double team with Dotson VERY quickly - watching his head, it looks like he just blindly peels off without checking to see whether Lofton is even blitzing his A-gap - he takes himself out of position to to help on the DE either. Had he stayed on the DE, Dotson could have peeled off and picked up Roman Harper (circled in blue), who is unblocked on the play. To me, Joseph either needs to stay on the DE, or immediately look to get on the NT; his hesitation prevents him from doing either.
More heinous, though, is Carimi, circled in red. Carimi drops his head as he goes to block the defensive tackle - which naturally means he can't even see the play in order to know if he needs to adjust, let alone actually adapting on the fly. Had he kept his head up, especially as Penn comes over to help once the DE his side, Junior Gallette, drops with Martin, he would (or at least ought) to have seen Lofton coming and picked him up. Instead, Carimi not only drops his head, but actually follows the DT around inside him, turning his back to the defense while appearing to hug the DT around the waist, as you can see here:
This mirrored a trend from last week - even on plays where Freeman got the ball off, there were still defenders coming free on almost every single pass attempt; I don't think I counted more than two or plays where every blocker managed to stop their guy at the same time. Sure, every lineman will get beat a few times a game, but even going strictly by the law of averages, you'd think (or at least hope) that you'd have more than two or three plays where the pass protectors managed to actually win each of their match ups. While there were still too many plays for my liking where blockers came free, though, there was a significant increase in the number of plays where Freeman enjoyed good protection throughout the entirety of the play - we'll get to two of those at the end of the pass protection review in order to finish on a high note.
Before that, though, we'll look at two plays where the defensive line got to Freeman - so check out part two of the pass protection review, for a breakdown of that strip-sack, a QB hurry that led to a third down incompletion - and some of the finest pass-blocking technique you're likely to see this year, too.