Russell Okung has his hands full this weekend. He’ll not only be facing one Smith, but two. That, of course, is a reference to Justin and Aldon Smith of the 49ers. Whenever a left tackle faces the 49ers, they have to face both because of the way the two pass-rushers line up. Justin is usually outside the left shoulder of the tackle or head up, while Aldon aligns well outside the shoulder like a typical pass-rusher. At the snap, one could go inside while the other outside, and vice versa. It’s not easy to figure out who is going where, as Okung knows from his Week 14 matchup, which he struggled in.
Okung gave up three hurries, a sack, and was charged with one penalty in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. He struggled both physically and technically, allowing pressure on his quarterback because of poor strength and sloppy technique. His problems came as a surprise because he’s one of the league’s most talented left tackles, but he’s struggled with health in his young career. This season, he suffered a torn ligament in his big toe against the 49ers in Week 2 and missed eight weeks. After he came back, he didn’t look the same.
“That offensive line has been bad in pass protection for much of the year, and when he went out, it got even worse. But when he came back, I didn’t think he was the same player,” offensive line expert Lance Zierlein told me in a phone interview. “And that was the problem. I don’t know physically if maybe he’s just not right yet; that could very well be the case where he’s still not quite right. But he didn’t look like he really had the strength he used to have. He didn’t look like he was able to just ward people off and hold them off — he just didn’t look as good in pass protection when he came back. I just kind of figured…I’m not sure it’s not going to get a whole lot better this year. It might be one of those things where he needs an offseason of not only rest, but rehab. I kind of wonder if he was able to rehab strength wise as much as he needed to.”
The fourth year left tackle had his fair share of struggles against the 49ers during the last meeting. He struggled in run blocking, as he failed to move either of the Smith’s off the ball when asked to zone block, in addition to missing a couple of back-side cut blocks that he usually has the athleticism to execute. Despite those struggles, Zierlein wasn’t too concerned about it.
“He wasn’t as good as he had looked before, but I think that’s something that actually can turn around, unless there’s some lower leg extremity pain bothering him, which could be just a timing mechanism that will take some time, so I’m not quite as worried about him. I think Marshawn Lynch makes that offensive line look a lot better than they are anyway, so to me, I think as long as Lynch is running the way he’s running, Okung will be fine from a run blocking standpoint. I would be more worried about pass protection.”
In pass protection, Okung struggled with his technique. His base was too narrow, his hands were too wide, he over-set, and he got rocked by Aldon Smith on a few occasions. In the first quarter, Okung crouched to a two-point stance at his usual left tackle position while Smith was a stand-up rusher at the nine technique outside of the tight end next to Okung.
Okung kick-slid with a quick first step and slid outside, awaiting Smith’s rush. At the 40-yard line, Smith gave a shoulder shake and stuck his right foot out like he was going to rush outside, forcing Okung to take a long stride with his left foot and over-set. His legs eventually came together and his base became too narrow, exposing him to a bull-rush, which Smith took advantage of by sinking his long arms into Okung’s chest and powering through by bending his knees. Powerless, Okung was walked back into the pocket before falling to the ground while Smith chased after quarterback Russell Wilson, who was eventually strip-sacked by linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Okung’s over-set is concerning because it’s something that could happen again, especially since he’s struggled with it (as well as hand placement) since he’s come back from injury. Over-setting makes it difficult to play with a narrow base, and once the left tackle can’t anchor down every play, he will find it hard to fend off pass-rushers.
“The most noticeable thing to me is that you mention the anchor and his outside arm,” Zierlein said at the mention of Okung’s lack of anchor. “He doesn’t seem to have the strength in his shoulder to keep guys from turning the corner on him. That didn’t look like it was there. The anchor didn’t. His general functional strength looked like it wasn’t what where should be, which immediately alerted me to the fact that physically he probably wasn’t quite right.”
At the top of the second quarter, Okung ran into another problem on third down. He was in a two-point stance again when Smith lined up in a three-point stance at the five technique.
Okung was more patient with his kick-slide this time around, firing out and waiting for Smith to come. When Smith came off the line, he gave another shoulder fake as he closed in on Okung, who bent his knees and shot his arms out. The only problem? His hands were too far apart, giving Smith the chance to grab them at the forearms and throw them up into the air before rushing after the quarterback. Eventually, Okung anchored down and gave his quarterback a second in the pocket to throw a downfield strike.
Going into this weekend’s NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, Okung will have to be better than he was in Week 14 when he surrendered a trio of pressures and gave up one sack. He certainly has the talent to matchup athletically and physically with either of the Smiths, but he’ll need to have better technique, which he hasn’t always played with it. If he doesn’t again, he could have issues against Aldon Smith, in particular.
“I think he’ll be fine against Justin. Aldon Smith right now looks like he’s elevating his game a little bit, looks like he’s playing the best football of the season for him, so I think Aldon Smith could end up being a problem for Okung because when you don’t have the functional core strength and you’re not able to anchor, then you tend to do some panicky things from an offensive line standpoint and it opens you up to counter moves. It opens you up to getting off-balance because you start to maybe over-set because you’re worried about someone turning the corner, you’re so worried about bracing up for a bull-rush that you’re not able to get to the outside edge-rusher,” Zierlein said.
“I think for Okung, right now, Aldon Smith could end up being a big problem. I don’t think Justin Smith is going to be as much of a concern, but Aldon could end up a really bad matchup.”