A couple of years ago, the St. Louis Rams’ Jake Long was the best left tackle in football. He was a former No. 1 overall draft choice and he played like it, disabling rushers every week with unreal power, length, and fundamental consistency. In short, he was the ideal left tackle.
Today, he’s no longer viewed as the best. Injuries at the vitals of the position — namely his biceps, knees, shoulder and back – have taken their toll on his body and robbed him of his once dominant skillset. He no longer moves as quickly as he once did, noticeably slowing down in his kickslide from when he first came into the league, and that’s made him vulnerable to speed rushers.
Coming out of Michigan in 2008, the handling of speed rushers was the main question mark for Long. Although quick off the ball, he wasn’t quick opening his stiff hips up and changing direction — he’d have to rotate his entire body outside because of his hips — once he slid out. That raised questions about his ability to play left tackle at the next level, but they would later be squashed when he’d dominate speed rushers every week in the early stages of his career.
His injuries have made his dealings with speed rushers more difficult in the most recent years, however. As noted, he doesn’t move as quickly as he once did and that’s forced him to take more risk at times. He’s sliding further out than before in hopes of slowing down some of the league’s best hybrid weakside defensive/outside linebackers (“bandits”) and that’s leaving him exposed to an inside rush, such as a quick spin move like the one Chris Clemons of the Seattle Seahawks administered in Week 12 of last season.
It was 1st-and-10 midway through the first quarter and the Dolphins were coming off a drive that saw rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill throw an interception. They were at their own 20-yard line and Tannehill was in empty shotgun set, with no backs to help the offensive line protect him against a scary Seahawks front four.
One of the four was Clemons, who was lined up on the weakside (the right of the image below) and matched up one-on-one with Long. This was a difficult setting for Long because Clemons is one of the best pass rushers, and he’s known for his ability to get the quarterback in several fashions. Not to mention, he wasn’t going to be having any help, so being disciplined and fundamentally sound was paramount.
At the snap, Long kicked his left leg out after he pushed off his right, executing a traditional kickslide. The key was to not push off too hard, otherwise he’d extend himself too far outside. In hopes of compensating for his inferior quickness, he slid further out to cut Clemons off, which exposed the B-gap inside of him.
Because Long was far outside, Clemons was able to set up an easy path to the quarterback inside. All he had to do was come straight down and engage with his hands like he was going to set up an outside rush before planting his left leg and spinning off of it inside. Long was unable to slow him down because he lost the hand-fight at the point of contact and his base was too wide as a result of overextending.
Long was not quick enough to win the hand-fighting and he was bent at his waist, a major ‘no-no’ for pass blockers. It also didn’t help that he had too wide of a base because of his over-extension, which ultimately did him in as he was knocked aside by Clemons’ inside-spin.
What’s troubling about all of this is that Long’s discipline against rushers is not as great as it once was. He’s trying to do too much at times to compensate for his issues and it’s obviously costing him. That’s not to say he’s become a poor offensive tackle — not at all. Rather, he’s still one of the league’s best, he’s just no longer the best like he once was.
Now with the Rams, Long will have his work cutout for him in the NFC West. There are multiple pass rushers who can get after the quarterback in the division, including the aforementioned Clemons, who Long will be seeing twice a season. He’ll have to be on his A-game in the division, relying on great technique and discipline like he once did. Otherwise he won’t be viewed as one of the league’s best at all, and he’ll instead be a victim of injuries and pass rushers.