In a league that’s lacking significantly in quality offensive linemen, San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley stands out. He has a combination of flexibility, length, and quickness that most don’t have at the position. This triumvirate is a big reason why he’s been so successful since being selected No. 28 overall by the 49ers in the 2007 draft. But in Week 1 of 2012, Staley played one of the worst games of his career. He gave up multiple sacks, pressures, and played with sloppy technique against the Packers’ outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
Now 18 weeks have passed and Staley meets Matthews again, and he knows what he did wrong the first time around (h/t Eric Branch):
“After watching the game, there were a lot of technique issues,” Staley said. “When you’re going against a player of that caliber, you have to be on your technique on every single play, every single snap.”
Those technique issues led to 2.5 sacks and many pressures given up, which can be boiled down to three mistakes: over-extension, slow hands, and poor hand placement. There’s also the talent that Matthews possesses. He has the ability to dip his shoulder and turn the corner with relative ease, it seems, and he possesses a couple of the quickest steps off the line of scrimmage. He’s also quite good with his hands,quickly engaging and disengaging from blockers, and he has a couple of moves in his arsenal. In short, it was the absolute worst day for Joe Staley to be sloppy with his fundamentals.
Early into the first quarter, there were signs that it was going to be a long day for the Central Michigan alum.
Only three plays into the game, Matthews registered his first sack. It was a dynamite bulrush against Staley. The latter was not quick enough to execute a kickslide to the outside to slow down the aggressive outside rush of the Packers linebacker.
When he saw that he was not out far enough, Staley tried to make up for it by reaching to the outside with his left arm and leg, and then bringing over his right arm and leg. All of his weight flew to the outside while Matthews shifted direction inside and sunk his hips to apply the bulrush. Staley didn’t have a firm base to anchor down and was walked back into then-quarterback Alex Smith. Staley fell to the ground while Matthews grabbed a hold of Smith’s leg and spun him to the ground for the sack.
After three more plays passed, Staley was having issues during the game’s second 49ers drive. He didn’t allow a sack, but he was beaten badly.
Matthews was at his usual five-technique alignment, standing just outside Staley’s left shoulder, and would once again be taking a path straight up the field when the ball snapped. When it was snapped, Staley was the first off the line, and he was quick to get into his stance. His left foot went up and kicked into the ground while his right foot followed with a slide through the blades of the grass. As good as it looked, he came up short once again. He didn’t slide out far enough to the outside, and he fell behind Matthews. The only solution, in Staley’s mind, was to extend his left leg again and try to make up ground. That was a bad idea.
When Staley kicked out his left leg, he overextended his right and stood straight up like a Jack in the box (of if you prefer, a Charlie in the box). If a strong wind blew, though, it just might have knocked him over because he had no base underneath him due to his feet being too wide. Seeing that Staley was unbalanced, Matthews committed an inside spin after Staley bent over at his waist and dropped his head. Fortunately, Alex Smith checked the ball down before Matthews could get to him.
Later in the game, Staley did a decent job of keeping Matthews wide of the pocket until Smith got rid of the ball but the Packers pass-rusher showcased what makes him so difficult to block. Beyond the quick hands and change of direction skills, is his ability to bend around the edge of the formation. It can be a handful for blockers who have issues with pad level and their kickslide or are slow with their hands.
After lining up at the five technique again, he took an outside path toward the quarterback by relying on his speed rush. While executing the rush, he gave little surface area for Staley to put his hands on him. He lifted his inside (left) shoulder when approaching Staley, who had his hands down after already being too slow to bring them up, and then lowered it to work around the left tackle. By doing this, he was able to turn the edge while Staley had little room to place his hands to redirect him. Eventually, Staley was able to give a slight push to Matthews, who was unable to reach the passer.
Following the electric inside spin and speed rush’s, Matthews went back to the bulrush and gave Staley further fits. At the snap, Matthews exploded forward, dropped his head, and punched his hands into the breast pads of Staley, jolting him back. The shock to Staley’s chest was a consequence from the lack of quickness in getting his hands up. It was too late now, however, as Staley’s hands were hopelessly wrapped around the shoulders of Matthews. It did no good for the blocker, who, in addition, had poor footwork on the play, and was walked back into the quarterback.
Heading into this weekend’s divisional matchup against Matthews, Staley will look to avenge his poor performance in the season opener.
He will have his hands full again, as Matthews is on fire after a two-sack game against the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card matchup. If he’s to avoid another bad game, he’s going to have to be sound with his technique and quick with his hands. As Staley said, “When you’re going against a player of that caliber, you have to be on your technique on every single play, every single snap.”