NFL teams are facing a crisis. They’re lacking quality offensive tackles to protect their franchise quarterbacks. The Baltimore Ravens were one of the teams that struggled with that, but they found a solution when they reshuffled their offensive line, notably moving left tackle Michael Oher to the right and bringing in Bryant McKinnie to start in Oher’s old position. In the three playoff games they’ve played thus far, Oher and McKinnie have only allowed a total of four sacks, giving Joe Flacco a firmly-protected pocket while he leads the offense to the Super Bowl.
What’s interesting about McKinnie and Oher is that they aren’t necessarily the most technically sound. Both don’t always play with a wide base or proper hand technique, but they get the job done. They don’t allow many sacks or pressures on their quarterback because of their strength and length.
When evaluators grade offensive tackles coming out of college, they frequently note how great their mobility is (“he’s light on his feet”) and the knee bend (“he’s flexible”) a blocker has. These two traits are important, but not more important than length and the ability to anchor. I figured this out last summer when I sat down and watched a series of games featuring some of the best offensive lines in the country. Each team’s starting offensive lineman (with the exception of Houston Texans’ LT Duane Brown) could be nitpicked for lacking a specific trait that most deem necessary to play at the edge of the trenches. Yet they played it and played quite well.
The reason they were able to play well was because they had the ability to arrest a bull rush, which is a pass-rusher’s quickest way to the quarterback. If a tackle can’t hold his own against the bull rush, he has no chance in the NFL because pass-rushers will keep going to it until it’s stopped (see: the 2012 Arizona Cardinals).
But the Ravens’ offensive tackles don’t have that issue. Instead, they’re able to keep pass-rushers at bay by using their length, and when contested, they hold their stance firm while anchoring against the bull rush.
An example of the latter came against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. The play-call was a five-step drop to be executed by Joe Flacco, which meant that he needed time to work through multiple reads in the pocket. Oher faced defensive end Elvis Dumervil, while McKinnie dealt with defensive tackle Derek Wolfe.
In Oher’s matchup, he was facing a rusher that had some speed to get outside. So he naturally kickslid out to his far right to deal with the speed. One issue that came of this was that the pass-rusher cut inside after initial outside steps, forcing Oher to change direction. While changing direction, he dropped his hands to his hips, a major problem in pass blocking because a lineman is asking for a bull rush when he does that.
On the left side of the line, McKinnie did the same. While sliding out, he kept his hands low — a problem considering he was facing a power rusher.
When the Broncos’ pass-rushers closed the gap, they gained leverage against the blockers at the point of contact by getting their hands on the blockers’ breast pads. They were able to knock the blockers back because they hadn’t established a strong base (feet should be on the ground and shoulder width apart). This is typically an issue for blockers because when they’re losing a battle, they’re likely to be walked back into their quarterback. But not Oher and McKinnie.
These tackles are too strong to let the pocket collapse, so what they did was a combination of widening their base (Oher) and taking short, choppy steps (McKinnie) to hold their ground. They eventually anchored against the pass-rushers and established a clean pocket for Flacco to operate in.
The ability of the two offensive tackles to anchor and use their length during the playoffs has been significant because they’re not always playing with proper technique or fundamentals.
In general, offensive linemen don’t always play with proper fundamentals, as it’s simply really hard to do so. But those with the aforementioned traits are able to overcome because at the end, they are the ones who succeed when a lineman scrambles to block his quarterback.
Moreover, looking at the Super Bowl matchups, it’ll be interesting to see how the two tackles deal with the 49ers’ stud outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith and Brooks both have quickness, power and length, and that could pose problems for the Ravens. B
But the Broncos’ rushers also had those traits, and they were neutralized by the Ravens in the playoffs despite being No. 1 in sacks during the regular season. And then there’s the matchup in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, a defense that only had one less sack (37) than the 49ers in the regular season, and they were also kept away from the quarterback for the most part.
Safe to say, the 49ers pass-rushers are going to have their hands full.