Being an offensive lineman is a lot like being a politician. It’s a thankless job, where if you’re able to slash a budget without any layoffs or prevent a sack or two, no one will notice. But if someone sees a nickel more on their tax receipt or a quarterback suddenly takes a blindside hit, you’re suddenly the worst person on the planet and need to be replaced by someone more competent immediately.
Every fan thinks that their offensive line is the worst in football. I’m here to say that whoever has the worst line, the Saints don’t. A lot of Saints fans understand how lucky we are to field the guys that we do, but there are others that think of our offensive line as less than physical freaks of nature, and more in the category of turnstiles or, even worse, nothing at all OR, even worse than nothing, Levi Brown, the "Jason David" of left tackles, if you will.
For reference, the Saints starting offensive line heading into 2014 is as follows:
LT: Terron Armstead | LG: Ben Grubbs | C: Jonathan Goodwin (Speculated) | RG: Jahri Evans | RT: Zach Strief
The Saints retain all of their key pieces from 2013, and add the exciting potential of Terron Armstead to replace Charles Brown. Armstead showed tremendous improvement from game to game, despite a small sample size. Armstead is small in stature, but tremendously strong and obscenely quick. After watching Brown for 14+ games last season, a lot of Saints fans are excited to see what he can do. The Saints also added Jonathan Goodwin this offseason, stemming speculation that backup RG Tim Lelito would step in as the starting Center. Goodwin may lack the athleticism that Brian De la Puente brought to the Center position, but he has the wherewithal and knowhow of the position to bring a fluidity in the technique based blocking that the Saints used in 2013 and presumably will continue to use in 2014 that De la Puente, to be frank, lacked.
Armstead is the lineman that arguably most Saints fans are the most excited to see in 2014. With the emergence of the Zone Blocking Scheme and the plethora of offensive weapons that the Saints have, Armstead will have to be the guy that makes a lot of things come to fruition in the New Orleans offense.
If fans know one player on their offensive line, it’s probably the left tackle. We have Sandra Bullock to thank for that, which is hilarious. Armstead is a welcome face to Saints fans, if only because we no longer have to watch Charles Brown get sidestepped by an even decent defensive lineman at the snap. The only time that Brown was able to prevent a pressure was when guys got around him so quickly that they got lost in the backfield (I’m being hard on the guy, but last season was pretty tough to watch).
Armstead’s first stint as a starter came against Greg Hardy and the Carolina Panthers. Predictably, it was horrible. With an important caveat. It was horrible in the passing game. Hardy is a superstar pass rusher and an above average run defender. Against Carolina, Mark Ingram carried 13 times for 83 yards, well above his season average at 6.4 yards per carry. The reason that run blocking isn’t as highly valued in the offensive line game is, presumably, because the accountability index isn’t the same. In pass rushing, the lineman has a man, and that’s it. If his man gets in the backfield, barring the event of a stunt or something along those lines, it’s on the person blocking him. This, of course, is unfair, since assignments are on the quarterback at the line, but it’s pretty easy to tell if a left tackle gets man-handled on a passing play.
On a running play, it’s not one vs. one. The technique is entirely different. The line works as a unit to give the running back a seam to break through. Physically dominating your man isn’t enough: you need to also clear him out and let the back use his vision to get into the next level and showcase his athleticism. No push, no seam, no athleticism, and suddenly you’re looking at Trent Richardson’s (young, I know) career incarnate, encapsulated in a single play.
The ZBS is the big buzz acronym for Saints fans going into 2014, and Armstead is why. It relies on technically sound, quick athletes to make plays and create room for backs to do what they need to do. Armstead is fast, he’s strong, and he’s smart. He has the makings of a tremendous left tackle in this scheme, much like Ingram has the makings of a terrific running back in it. It all comes down to skillsets and matchups within those skillsets, and these favor Armstead.
This is the first play that Armstead had run to his side as a regular season starter. It’s a singleback formation in which Darren Sproles is the sole halfback. Armstead is circled at the top of the screen.
Here’s what you get at the snap. It’s an outside zone to Sproles. De la Puente, circled in black, runs a reach block to Thomas Davis, #58. Grubbs pulls to the outside, in an attempt to clear out the next level guys for Sproles. Armstead immediately closes his stance (notice that his weight is staggered on his INSIDE LEG, and he is in the act of dropping that right foot) in an attempt to force the defensive lineman inside of where the play is designed to go.
This play, despite being a two yard gain, is a huge win for Armstead on his first career off tackle attempt. He is completely inside of the defensive lineman, he is forcing him away from Brees and Sproles, and he has him completely off balance, nearly entirely out of the play. This showcases the strength and speed of Armstead: he’s won this battle before Brees even hands the ball off to Sproles. Despite the final result being only a two yard gain, Armstead handles his assignment perfectly. What this also illustrates is why offensive lineman are so hard to judge in the running game. Even if they do everything right, all it takes is one mistake elsewhere to mitigate the success of a play.
On the flip side of this success, we see the first sack that Armstead gives up. He is, again, circled in red. Hardy is in green. The defensive end is in black and Pierre Thomas is in blue. The Panthers shuffle their defensive line on this play, bringing Hardy inside as a tackle. He stunts outside while the defensive end stunts inside. Thomas is left in to block as well.
At the snap, Armstead does an excellent job. He doesn’t overpursue the end, he plants and reads the lineman, who jumps into a 2-point and prepares to break inside.
This is the epiphany for Armstead. The lineman breaks inside, and Armstead attempts to follow him, only to get caught up in the tussle between Grubbs and Hardy. This is where it all breaks down.
Hardy now senses an opportunity. He re-engages with Armstead, already traveling inside, and plants his inside foot before cutting outside. Using Armstead’s momentum, Hardy is easily able to get outside of Armstead’s outside shoulder. Grubbs, mistaking Armstead’s intervention as picking up the stunt, abandons Hardy and attempts to pick up the inside man that De la Puente is already engaged with.
Think of this play as an unfortunate study of the butterfly effect, and Armstead is the unwitting butterfly. The end stunting inside ends up 1v1 on Thomas, Hardy is now unabated towards Brees, and the man that Grubbs attempted to pick up from De la Puente is easily able to shed position from the two, split the inside outside block and make his way towards the quarterback. The ultimate result is three Panthers attacking a poor quarterback that watched his protection break down due to a simple stunt that led to the offensive scheme going horribly awry. It’s a rookie mistake on Armstead’s part, and hopefully one that he’ll learn to correct.
He found some answers the very next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It cannot be overlooked that despite the fact that neither team ended up playing for anything since the San Francisco 49ers would beat the Arizona Cardinals to guarantee the Saints a spot, neither team knew this at the time, and I’m certain that Tampa would have loved to be the team that eliminated the Saints from playoff contention.
Tampa Bay did their homework coming into this one. They run another staggered defensive front, forgoing the 1 tech defensive lineman and instead utilizing 3 & 5 techs. What this does is forces Grubbs and Armstead to communicate their assignments, while lining up in both of Armstead’s gaps, forcing him to make a decision at the snap.
Look familiar? Tampa Bay runs a basic twist that forces the 5 tech in through the 1 gap. Grubbs targets his man but immediately disengages. Look at Armstead, however. He takes his first step with his RIGHT FOOT towards the original 3 tech, thus committing to him on the play after seeing the 5 tech close his hips to twist inside.
This is the most beautiful still that you can ever see in a football game. The twist is picked up, Armstead is engaged with the inside to outside man, Grubbs engages the outside to inside man, and the 4 man pass rush of Tampa Bay is neutralized despite the attempted stunt. It’s an excellent effort from the Saints line, and Brees ends up completing a pass for 24 yards for Colston on the play.
From Week 16 to Week 17, the Saints went from giving up 6 sacks (3 of which were given up to Hardy by Armstead) to 1. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s all about the negatives when it comes to offensive linemen.
Tampa Bay lines up showing pressure. They have 5 men showing rush, and two question marks at the line of scrimmage. The Saints line up with a lot of men inside the hash-marks, but not a lot of legitimate protection.
There’s a theme on these plays. Armstead again locks in on the twisting LaVonte David. He needs to understand that Jimmy Graham is running a route on this play, and therefore if anyone gets outside of his outside shoulder the play will break down.
This play is less on Armstead than it is the Saints offensive line as a unit. We see one man running unabated towards Brees, another with inside position on his man and still another sealing off the strong running side for Brees. The real problem is simply that not everyone is accounted for on the play.
Brees is able to evade the first pass rusher to reach him, but can’t shake Adrian Clayborn coming around the outside. This is an example of Armstead being simply physically outmatched by a defender, as Clayborn engaged him, swam around him, got outside position, and was able to make the play and complete the sack.
Armstead’s improvement from start 1-2 of his career was truly incredible. He went from being manhandled by Hardy, admittedly one of the best in the game at his position, to being able to contain the likes of Clayborn, who was no slouch on a defensive line that was criminally underrated last year. Armstead’s improvement, while clearly affecting him physically, was entirely on the cerebral side. He made reads quicker, he committed better, and, perhaps most importantly, he didn’t have to think as much about what he was doing.
Saints fans have every right to be excited about this kid. He’s perfect for the scheme that’s being implemented next season: he’s athletic, and above all else he wants to learn his position. Armstead is a student, and he has great company to teach him. Guys like Evans, Grubbs, and now Goodwin may not play the left tackle position, but some techniques are universal on the offensive line. The more of their knowledge that they can impart onto an eager Armstead, the more likely we’ll be to see him become a force on the Saints already strong offensive line. When they work as a unit, Brees’s pockets will expand the holes for running backs will spring open, especially in a motion as cohesive as Zone Blocking.