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: Benjamin Grubbs | C: Jonathan Goodwin (Speculated) | RG: Jahri Evans | RT: Zachary 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.
Benjamin Grubbs was signed by the Saints prior to the 2012 season in order to replace Carl Nicks, who had departed for Tampa Bay in the previous offseason. He was lifted off a Ravens line that boasted a very strong line. Since donning the black & gold, Grubbs has not missed a single game, and accompanied fellow interior lineman Jahri Evans to the Pro Bowl in the 2013 season.
Last year, however, Grubbs required a bit of time to gain traction on the New Orleans line. This was the theme throughout the 2013 season, as the Saints line, though finishing out the season very strong, struggled early on. Whether it was due to scheme fit or them needing time to mesh as a unit, the Saints offensive line struggled to create lanes for their running backs early in the year. Towards the back half, however, they really started to spring their backs.
Grubbs was no exception on an individual level. While doing well on individual gap control and assignments, he oftentimes struggled in 1v1 blocking. Linemen were able to shed his blocks and create problems for Saints running backs before they were able to hit holes in the line.
Take this play Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons. Grubbs is matched up man to man with Jonathan Babineaux. The play is a one cut read from Darren Sproles out of the Pistol, in which he makes his way towards the 3 gap before cutting back into the 1 (labelled for reference).
At the snap, Grubbs is going to feign a pull, by design taking the defensive lineman he’s matched up with with him. Brian De la Puente is running a reach on this play, in which he looks towards the second level and takes out the linebackers that would blow up the would-be gaps on the play. Grubbs has created the hole inside, but at the cost of position. Notice how his stance is open on the play; his right foot is leading his left, his hips are wide open, and Babineaux has his hands outside of Grubbs’s shoulder, using him as leverage to get inside. Sproles has just gotten the ball, and sees the large hole between the LG and the C (also, how about that blocking from Jimmy?).
Just as Sproles breaks down to make his cutback, Babineaux reads him and sheds the block. The inability to hold Babineaux may have actually cost the Saints a huge gain on this play. Across the board, the blocking is terrific (except for DLP’s attempted crack block on the reach, which nonetheless does take the linebacker out of the play). Babineaux simply used Grubbs’s horizontal block against him. However, once Sproles breaks down, he’s dead in the water, isolated against Babineaux, and is stopped for -1 yard at the line of scrimmage.
Since Mark Ingram is in the game, it’s obvious that the Saints are going between the tackles. It’s a pull run where the line shifts to the left at the snap in order to spring Ingram through the 1 gap. Grubbs is, again matched up 1v1 with Babineaux on the play.
I promise, this play looks messier than it is. It’s an illustration of why running backs love to have a lead blocker so much. At the snap, Jahri Evans and DLP pull inside, double teaming the tackle in the i2 gap (i stands for inside). Notice Grubbs, however. He has his body squared, this time using leverage to push Babineaux upfield rather than across. Jedidiah Collins is now responsible for the linebacker in the gap, thus allowing offensive linemen to focus on their respective assignments.
All assignments aside, Grubbs does an excellent job on this play. Everyone is holding their blocks, and Grubbs doesn’t allow inside or outside position for Babineaux. Having a lead blocker is tremendous for an offensive lineman. It allows him to focus on his man rather than a gap, and the rest of the Saints offensive line benefits from this.
The Sunday Night Week 10 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys showed the emergence of the Zone Blocking Scheme in New Orleans. It’s why Saints fans are excited (again) for Ingram next season, but that’s beside the point. This play works like a misdirection. The entire line pulls to the right and Ingram runs a stretch to the right. However, once he receives the ball, he breaks down and runs to the other (weak) side of the formation.
The Dallas defense ebbs & flows with the stretch on this play. Notice how Grubbs is moving towards an area, not a man on this play, indicated by the fact that he’s looking towards a spot rather than at a man. The Dallas defense, seeing the overt stretch, flows right, and Grubbs closes his stance at the onset of the play to push the defense away from the weakside of the run.
At the cutback, this is the ultimate result of the ZBS. Grubbs helps out Evans on a weakside pursuer, and the weakside linebacker is caught overpursuing in the wrong direction. Ingram makes a cut, and he has space all the way upfield. Even the fact that Charles Brown isn’t blocking anyone on this play is masked by the fact that the defense is caught going in entirely the wrong direction. Ingram thrives in the open field, this is why he was able to gouge the Dallas defense the way that he did.
I feel that it’s necessary to note that this came in the second half of the Dallas game, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s absolutely perfect execution by the Saints offensive line.
At the snap, De la Puente skids inside to take out the 1-gapper. Grubbs chips the 1-gapper, but he has his sights on the next level, aka the linebackers. Ingram is looking at the left hole has well.
Grubbs disengages from the tackle and sets his sights on the linebacker. Meanwhile, Ingram begins the counter towards the opposite side of the formation. Collins fills the 0 gap that De la Puente vacated to take on the tackle.
At the time of Ingram’s final cutback, Grubbs neutralizes Ingram’s would-be pursuer at the point of attack, allowing Ingram to hit his hole unabated. After this, Ingram gets into space, and gets a 31 yard gain on the play against the depleted Dallas defense.
In the passing game, Grubbs is above average to well above average. According to Pro Football Focus, Grubbs allowed zero sacks, one hit, and two hurries in his entire 2013 campaign within the first 2 seconds of a play. He also had blocked on 70 more passing attempts than the next highest guard in the league, Louis Vasquez of the Denver Broncos, at 588. Admittedly, these inflated numbers are more normal for guards than tackles, since the role of defensive tackles is to muck up the inside running game and collapse the pocket more than attack the passer, but for how many attempts he blocked on last year Grubbs had an amazing statline within 2 seconds. His Pass Blocking Efficiency rating (PBE; as calculated by PFF by observing time held onto the ball, pressure allowed, final result and outside accountability [read: weaker supporting cast]) was at an amazing 99.62, good for T-5th in the league among guards (all future references in terms of rankings relate to guards only).
At 2.5 seconds, Grubbs found himself still blocking on 369 plays. On those plays, he gave up two sacks, three hits and eight hurries. This put his PBE at 97.22, again 5th in the league. Despite seeing a slight drop off, the fact that defensive tackles tend to play a finesse game on passing plays inside would inflate their stats as a play drags on, particularly over the speed rushing defensive end that is becoming more & more popularized in today’s NFL.
At 3 seconds, Grubbs still finds himself in the Top 5. It occurred 187 times. Within this 187, Grubbs gave up three sacks, five hits and 17 hurries. His PBE is calculated at 89.57 in these situations, again, 5th. He’s nothing if not consistent. All of this while bearing in mind that he faced the Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Panthers & Bucs x2, lends credence to the fact that Grubbs actually had a pretty amazing 2013 campaign in the passing game.
But are all of those numbers only numbers? By now, we know that numbers do, in fact, lie. Fairly often. While PFF is a spectacular site to go to for an overview, it’s still based on the same thing that any study is based on: subjective interpretation. There are so many variables that go into any given NFL play, to take PFF's word as law without careful examination of their grades is to fall into any number of statistical fallacies. Grubbs, however, does pass the eye test.
This is an example of how the Panthers moved Greg Hardy around the formation in 2013 to cause confusion on the offensive line. The Saints are in a singleback shotgun against Carolina’s nickel package. Hardy is lined up directly over Grubbs at the tackle position.
Hardy attempts an inside-out move on this play. Grubbs, knowing Hardy’s affinity for working the outside shoulder, dropsteps at the snap in an attempt to keep the play in front of him. As seen in the still, Hardy is working get to the outside of Grubbs and into the second level of the backfield, where Pierre Thomas is occupied by the weak side of the formation. Once Hardy gets a yard upfield, Grubbs engages him, thus keeping the quick-footed lineman in front of him.
Grubbs allows himself to be worked backwards, but he does so while keeping Hardy engaged. What this does is creates a clear pocket for Brees as he surveys the field. Allowing yourself to be knocked backwards, but still keeping control of your feet, is the biggest part of pass protection. Inverse to running game, which is all downhill blocking, pass blocking is reliant on controlling the flow, rather than trying drive the defender out of a lane.
As Brees is stepping up in the pocket, Hardy tries to pirouette out of Grubbs’s grasp. He is able to disengage himself, but he’s already been pushed too far back out of the play. Notice the space in front of Brees by the time Hardy gets away. Brees scrambles up the middle for a 9 yard gain on the play. Brees held onto the ball for 3.72 seconds on this play before he committed to the run. It’s a tremendous job across the board from the Saints offensive line, but the guy blocking arguably the best pass rusher on the team has to be given a great deal of the credit. Despite the fact that Brees doesn't pass on this passing play, it still accurately illustrates the finesse style of blocking that he has.
This was par for the course in pass pro for Grubbs. He is a patient, solid blocker that will allow a lineman to gain momentum on him rather than try for the pancake. It’s an efficiency tactic. His biggest flaws came when he tried to slide and help Brown, who struggled with weakside pressure throughout the season. Grubbs performed well, struggling more in man-to-man run blocking than any other aspect in 2013, but the conversion to ZBS allows him to focus on his strong suit: crash blocking in which he works with his unit. He isn’t a downhill blocker, but rather a steadfast one that is reliant on footwork over strength (in line with Armstead, this will be a theme throughout the offensive line). The Saints hope that Grubbs can continue his strong game in 2014, and continue to benefit their line, not just on an individual level, but as a unit as well.