FanPost

Arif Hasan’s mid-season review (Offensive Line)

First, sorry this took so long to end up posting, despite my comments about how I would have this up "soon." I've had a bit to deal with in my personal life that has demanded my attention, and I might not be able to do write-ups for the defense or the special teams. Admittedly, both of those would take less time as it is easier to group positions.

Finishing the offense up as we pass the BYE week  seems appropriate. Here I’m focusing on the foundation of any good offense, the offensive line. Generally considered the invisible trench fighters, their skill has received much more notice recently, thanks in no small part due to Bill Walsh’s adaptations to Lawrence Taylor and books like the Blind Side, by Michael Lewis.

Several people have commented that a great quarterback looks mediocre with a bad offensive line and that a mediocre quarterback will look pretty good behind a great offensive line. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that, but the fact that many of us believe this underscores the importance of the offensive line. The key here is that because the line is a unit, it is often as strong as its weakest link. Truer in the pass game than the run game, unit play on the line is generally as important as individual play.

Large investments in the offensive line, however, have mixed results. If one equates value with salary paid, higher median salary tends to be much more important than the average and total salaries. This speaks to the "weakest link" adage believed by so many (in this case, in my opinion, rightly so).

So, before I evaluate the individual linemen, I’ll take a look at how our line performs holistically. This is the longest one yet, at 9000 words (It's not quite OVER 9000...)

Offensive Line – The backbone in the front. The offensive line generally has two responsibilities – pass protection and road grading (run blocking). Pass protection is a little bit more important because of the way the game has evolved, and if I were to choose, I’d rather have a good pass-protecting line then a good run-grading line (sorry AP) so I’ll value that a little higher in my analysis.

We usually think of pass protection as "avoiding sacks," which makes some sense – football is a results oriented game and we tend to notice successes or failures at the end of the play, which is when the results are recorded. We don’t tend to have a lot of stats on pressures or successful blocks and that is generally because we haven’t clamored for them.

So if we evaluated our offensive lines by sacks, what do we get? There are some surprises. Philadelphia is well known for its poor offensive line play and rank second, with only 5 sacks. Houston has pretty poor line play as well and ranks 4th. There are obviously some good offensive lines here as well, including Tennessee and Buffalo so it’s a stat that seams weakly significant. There are also some offensive lines that I would consider average, and perhaps a little worse than that at these top of sacks allowed, including Cleveland. My perceptions may be wrong – stats have naturally surprised us in the past and this shouldn’t necessarily be different. I adjusted the sack rates for number of dropbacks and multipled by 450 (the average team had 461 dropbacks this season) so I could control for early BYE teams and offenses that have longer drives or stay on the field for much longer at a time due to strong defenses. I didn’t expect the results to change too much, and they didn’t. Houston jumps to third (532 dropbacks, 4.35 adjusted sacks) and Philadelphia stays #2 (4.73 adjusted sacks). St. Louis is at the bottom of both lists, with 19 total sacks, 18.47 adjusted sacks. This I think is probably a pretty good indication that this may not be the best metric for evaluating offensive lines – I don’t think the St. Louis offensive line is that abysmally bad.

Well, some quarterbacks can extend plays by scrambling and throwaways, so we probably know that there are more (and more significantly robust) numbers we can work with. Some quarterbacks also hold on to the ball too long. If I add in throwaways, and evaluate offensive lines by quarterbacks instead of teams, something else pops up – differences in sack percentage, throwaways, and scrambles by quarterbacks on the same team (unless they play for Oakland). The most obvious of these is the difference between Tebow and Orton. 17.6% of Tebow’s plays turn into sacks or throwaways, and 9.6% of Orton’s plays did the same. 10% of Luke McCown’s dropbacks end in sacks or throwaways. 13% of Gabbert’s dropbacks ended in such a busted manner. Finally, another good indication that quarterbacks have quite a bit of control over these matters is the fact that AJ Feeley had 4.87% of his dropbacks turn into sacks or throwaways, while that is true for 12.7% of Sam Bradford’s dropbacks. There is a 4.1% difference for McNabb and Ponder as well.

This lines up well other research in this statistic as well. This analysis decided to look at all games from 2000-2003 to see how sack percentage changed with quarterbacks from the same lines, and this one looks at how sack percentage (among other stats) changed with quarterbacks who switched teams. They both conclude that quarterbacks have a big part in sack percentage. In many ways quarterbacks do have a lot of control. We know that Peyton Manning, for example (who on some drives averages 1.7 seconds between snap and throw. Considering his throwing motion also takes a blazing quick 0.3 seconds, that’s extremely… impressive). Roethlisberger, on the other hand, sometimes takes over 4 seconds before throwing. We saw in Sunday Night’s game that he has successful plays well after the 7 second mark. It’s hard to blame or credit the line for the lack of sacks in the first case and a high number of sacks in the second case. I would further not want to penalize the offensive line for outside or corner blitzes – the line very well may have done their job and the blocking backs or quarterbacks did not identify the blitzers in time.

So, how do we evaluate pass protection? Well, while sacks and to some extent, throwaways are in a big way controlled by the quarterback or receivers, sacks that occur in under 2.5 seconds and QB hurries (as well as hits) tend to be directly attributable to the offensive line.

Teams can be ranked in order of quick sacks, as well. Using data available from the first 4 games, I can see that this list comports a little bit better with my perception of offensive lines across the league. Ranked at the bottom are San Francisco (6.61% of pass attempts end in a quick sack), Indianapolis (5.36%), Miami (5.26%), Seattle (4.03%), and Atlanta (3.95%). The last one is sort of a surprise, and I’m also confident that there are still some offensive lines that are bad that aren’t being represented well (Washington and Arizona, for example). The top 5 are Baltimore, Cleveland, Carolina, New England, and Tampa Bay. Again, this fits a little bit better with my perceptions, but not much. The problem here, of course, has to do with two things – small sample size and tracking events that occur rarely, almost randomly, according to the data. In this data, Minnesota ranks 17th, in the middle of the pack.

Parsing this data out does tell us a few significant things, though – of St. Louis’ 15 sacks through the first four games, 10 of them were sacks that took longer than 3 seconds – which is almost entirely on the quarterback. Some of it has to do with coverage (The New York Jets, for example, sacked the opposing quarterback 14 times – remember, this data is only for the first four weeks – 11 of which occurred after 3 seconds – probably attributable to their fantastic pass coverage) and some of it has to do with exotic blitzes, leading to scrambles (4 weeks in, Baltimore had 11 of their 12 sacks come from long sacks, probably attributable to quick penetration by defenders from all over the field who make quarterbacks scramble before the sack. Over 8 weeks, 11 of their 27 total sacks came from LBs and DBs). But in either case, it behooves the quarterback to throw it away when the play breaks down longer than 3 seconds, meaning he is responsible for the sack, if potentially not responsible for the incompletion. 58% of all sacks are short sacks.

So given the problems of low-frequency events and small sample sizes, how do we evaluate offensive line performance in the context of pass protection? Well, data are available for each individual offensive lineman, and I can add those together. This ensures that each sack counted is because a lineman was beat or missed an assignment and not because a tight end or a running back missed coverage or a quarterback missed a blitz. Further, I can add data such as hits allowed and hurries allowed to get a total pressure rating. In total, our offensive line is responsible for 15 sacks. They have also allowed 7 hits and 60 QB hurries. The wonderful thing about the hurries stat is that it means that we can penalize lineman for blocking breakdowns even if the quarterback completes a pass or simply throws the ball away.

I quickly checked the sack total for Vikings QBs and found that the total in sacks (22) was less than the number attributed to the offensive line. This, I think, adds credibility to this method because it does not penalize the offensive line for sacks caused by play-calling breakdowns or problems with tight ends or running backs.

Out of 512 snaps, we’ve lined up for pass plays 269 times. We’ve allowed 83 pressures. That is, 30.48% of our pass plays end up being pressured by opposing linemen (and even more by blitzers). On average in the NFL, offense linemen have given up pressures on 26.3% of pass plays. Teams are generally within 5% of this average, with only 3 teams giving up pressures on 32% of plays or more and 3 teams with a pressure percentage under 21%. Given that teams drop back for a pass about 35 times a game, this could be significant. Christian Ponder, to use a bit of an extreme example, has a completion percentage of 19% under pressure and gets sacked 21.4% of the time he is under pressure (ranked 18th of 39 quarterbacks with over 50 dropbacks). The difference of 5% is about 2 more pressures a game. That means a third of a throwaway, and two-thirds of an incompletion (a pass that he would have otherwise made, that is) and 40% of a sack a game. That is, the difference from average (5%) results in play failure 1.4 more times than expected over the course of a game.

The difference between the top offensive line in pass protection (Tennessee, 13.4%) and the bottom offensive line (Miami, 34.2%) is enormous (20.3%) – 6.5 more pressured plays of 35. For Ponder, that would mean 1.4 more sacks, 2 passes he would have otherwise made, and generally play failure 3.4 more times a game, dropping the success of pass attempts by a shocking 10%. The average QB successfully completes a pass 55% of the time (traditional completion percentages disregard sacks and scrambles from busted plays) he drops back for a pass. Aaron Rodgers does it 62.4% of the time and Kerry Collins did it 28.5% of the time. Given that the difference between the top QB in the league in successful completions per pass snap and the bottom QB is 34%, the possibility of losing 10% of your successful plays due to line play is fairly enormous.

The top 5 offensive lines have a combined record of 26-14, and the bottom 5 teams have a combined record of 15-25. There are no losing record teams in the top 5 and the only top 5 team with a winning record is San Francisco, with a record of 7-1. The 49ers, as of week 4, took 8 short sacks and only 2 longs sacks. Alex Smith apparently knows how to play under pressure (his completion percentage under pressure is 58.5%, which is actually 17th in the league, so he’s not magic). They also have a pretty good defense.

Knowing that we have consistency problems and, in particular, problems on first and second down (although this may be statistical noise), it is critical that our offensive line continue to engage in strong pass protection, or we’ll be seeing quite a few aborted drives. As it ranks 25th in the league (the difference between 25th and 17th is about 1 busted play a game, or a play failure rate of 2.8%), the Vikings offensive line is not reliably fulfilling this responsibility.

Given that run blocking tends to fall more on individual shoulders – sometimes relying on the performance of one or two lineman than the entire unit, it’s more difficult to assign holistic responsibility for running performance on the entire line. While trap blocks and some other relatively tricky blocking schemes do rely more on solid unit play, there are a number of plays that rely on one lineman – the most basic Power O plays, for example, rely almost entirely on the opposite guard pulling correctly, as the down blockers get or give help.

Still, it’s good to see how our offensive line performs in the running game holistically. Given that we have an All-Pro running back in Adrian Peterson, it is a bit difficult to determine how responsible the offensive line is. In my Running Back review, I mentioned that Football Outsiders had a go at trying to figure it out. Let me just paste that bit here:

"They give the line more than full credit for runs for a loss (120%), full credit for runs 0-4 yards, half credit for 5-10 yards, and no credit for 11 yards on. It’s an interesting concept, but then they muck it up by throwing more in there – "These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry."

That may increase its accuracy in comparing lines to each other, but it’s hard for me to take the stat and play with it enough to determine the actual amount of running that an explosive back like AP does, and what he perhaps should be credited for.

I didn’t really like that, so instead I took their power run success percentages (which are probably correctly generally attributed to the line) and also their stuffed success percentages. The power run success percentages are just how often a team successfully converts on 3rd and short and 4th on short on the run (defined as 2 yards or fewer). Stuff success is just how often a run gets aborted for no gain or a loss. What I found interesting was that while the Vikings were generally successful at 3rd and short situations, and 4th and short situations (ranked 3rd in the NFL), we also get stuffed a lot – exactly as much as an average NFL team. The difference is sort of shocking; the average difference in the percentages was 42%, and standard deviation from that average was 9%. That is, 68% of all teams in the data set will differ in their power and stuff percentages by 33-51 points. 95% of teams, generally, will differ in their percentages 24-60 points. We are the 5 percent (#OccupyTheRunGame). Or we would be, if it was completely normally distributed. Only two teams in the NFL have a greater discrepancy of excellent and poor line play. It’s shockingly inconsistent."

I would like to remove all unsuccessful runs to the sideline from the metric, but that still may be dependent on line play – stretch plays, for example, have the lineman block towards the direction of the run, while the center (or guard) pulls out to block downfield on the playside linebackers, while the tight end blocks down to take the playside tackle’s responsibility (almost always a defensive end or outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme) while the playside tackle ALSO pulls, in order to block someone who is typically a defensive back. Even runs to the outside can be dependent on strong line play. In some cases, the opposite side (weakside) tackle will let the opposite side end free and pull up to block the weakside side linebacker, who could pose a bigger problem on the play.

So, in the end, I don’t do anything to adjust for where runs go or come from. Using their metric of Adjusted Line Yards, the Vikings rank 8th in the league. We have the 3rd highest power success rate in the league and rank 17th in the league in preventing stuffs (runs of no gain or loss). I pointed out that this means a wildly inconsistent run game, and this is particularly true for the first few downs – when we know we need to get more yards, our line hasn’t been particularly stellar, but it has been able to ensure we get 2 yards when we need to. It isn’t really an accident, though, that the top running back committees in the NFL can keep pulling in good rushing numbers – they get stuffed the least (New England, New Orleans). Houston can get good production from both Arian Foster and Ben Tate – they have the 3rd best percentage when it comes to avoiding stuffs.

I think part of this inconsistency has to do with the fact that run plays are much more of an individualistic effort than a team effort – if the weakside tackle collapses on his assignment, it’s not much of a problem for the running back running an off-tackle route. Naturally, routes up the middle require more consistency from everyone, but generally speaking there is less unit blame and more individual blame. Given that our line is definitely above average but certainly not in the top 5 when it comes to run blocking, I’m not too concerned.

So knowing that our offensive line can be evaluated as a unit in pass protection and more generally in the run game, I can give a grade to the offensive line - with the caveat that pass protection is more important than run success.

Grade: C-.

Now it is possible to fully evaluate each player on the offensive line, which is what I intended to do in the first place. Let’s go left to right.

T: Charlie Johnson – Super Bowl Champion. So yea, Charlie Johnson was on a Super Bowl winning team! Coming out of Oklahoma State (converted from a tight end), he was drafted by the Colts in 2006 in the 6th round and started on game as a right tackle. He also filled in at the same spot in the Super Bowl that year. After the left tackle for the Colts retired in 2006, he had an opportunity to compete for a starting spot. He lost the competition, but he ended up starting in 10 games as either an LT or RT. He was moved to guard the next season and started every game, most of them as a guard. After starting the next year for the Colts as a left tackle (playing 1096 of 1130 snaps or so), his contract expired and didn’t re-sign with the Colts. His performance last year wasn’t altogether stellar, but only allowed 6 sacks. By contrast, Matt Light allowed 7 in 2010, and Jake Long allowed 6.

That seems pretty impressive, but as Chris pointed out, with Peyton Manning’s release time, that ain’t as impressive as protecting the Miami QB of the week. After we released McKinnie for weighing as much as a Welsh Pony, we needed to fill in our Left Tackle spot (actually, he was technically signed before we cut McKinnie, but it’s hard to imagine this wasn’t planned).

He was never really marked to be all-star material to begin with, but you get who you get.

He has been inconsistent but usually negative. He has allowed 5 sacks, 3 hits and 18 hurries out of his 267 passing snaps. An average pass-blocker, (say the New York Giants’ left tackle, Jason Beatty or Tampa Bay’s left tackle, Donald Penn) at this point would have allowed something like 3 sacks and 2 hits over 270 passing snaps.

Johnson hasn’t had a good pass blocking game yet and 3 average ones. His best game of the year was against Arizona (a theme amongst many of our players, it seems). In 25 passing snaps, he allowed no pressures (hurries, sacks, or hits) but was also helped occasionally by a blocking back or tight end (sometimes Kyle Rudolph), so some of his mistakes didn’t show up in the stats. But, overall, it was a passable game. Good examples of his busted blocking not amounting to much include the 3rd drive of the season; he gives an absolutely mediocre effort and Peterson picks it up to prevent the sack. The very next play he gives up the goat on an absolutely basic rip by blitzing safety Eric Weddle. Notice he picks up the right person, but even someone who generally doesn’t rush can out-technique Charlie Johnson on some plays. Yes, there are a number of plays where Johnson shows off his great physical strength by pancaking a rusher, but there’s a reason he didn’t start for a number of seasons with the Colts; his technique will break down on some plays – not very often, but certainly several times a game.

His game against San Diego was a little more typical – 1 sack, 2 QB hurries and he shares some responsibility for a QB hit. When he plays this poorly this often, he becomes a liability. He has allowed the 10th most total pressures of tackles in the league this year, 5th most amongst left tackles. Out of a total of 68 tackles who have played at least 170 snaps, he is one of the bottom 10.

Well, he’s our starting left tackle, right? Surely he has to be good at something. Generally, the other responsibility for an offensive lineman is run blocking. I can say he’s not terrible at it. He’s not great at it either. It is a bit masked, because the Vikings run schemes (like most teams) give TE or FB help when runs aren’t off the center, particularly on the weak side – runs off of the left tackle average 5.5 yards a carry (our team average is 5.2). Unfortunately, Johnson is responsible for blocking breakdowns. Several times (I can remember vividly in the Chicago game, for example) Johnson completed too early on his run blocks, assuming the play was over after his initial (usually successful) burst.

In his game against Kansas City, Adrian Peterson simply outmaneuvered some of Johnson’s worse blocks – a run off the left tackle for 14 yards, for example, could have easily been busted 2 yards from scrimmage given Johnson’s block. Again, on the next play rushing to the left, Johnson lets go of a block too early, which means Peterson’s 20 or so yard gain becomes a 7 yard gain. Picking on the Kansas City game isn’t quite fair – it is his worst run blocking game, after all – but his best run blocking games are just a little bit better than average. He did alright in Carolina, Detroit, and Green Bay, but needed more work in Arizona and Tampa Bay.

He didn’t start the season off well, either – he gives a mediocre block (fortunately Corey Liuget is absurdly slow turning the corner) on the very first run play against San Diego that fortunately doesn’t amount to much of a breakdown because Peterson leans left off of Kleinsasser. He doesn’t always deal with bull rushes well and doesn’t seal his kick-out blocks completely or correctly. His second line blocks are actually very good and many of his simpler run blocks – pushing the lineman back 6 yards, or stretching right or left – are consistently successful. But adding complexity to the run blocking scheme increases the likelihood that Charlie Johnson’s blocking play breaks down. It’s not that he can’t handle complex blocking schemes – he can – but he hasn’t displayed a level of consistency on more complex blocking assignments that one would expect from a starting left tackle. Overall, he’s a very average run blocker that will sometimes have very few mistakes in a game and will, at other times, have a game full of mistakes. With a back like Adrian Peterson (and a blocker like Kleinsasser), we can get away with linemen that are "good enough" on run blocking for most of the game. Charlie Johnson is good enough for most of the time in most of the games, but sometimes he really isn’t good at all.

Against Detroit and Kansas City he is also guilty of killing successful plays (I don’t really believe TOO much in drive-killing penalties, but if I did he caused those, too) through penalties. When defensive ends gain momentum and match him hip-to-hip on their way to the quarterback, he senses that he’s beat (he’s right, that’s nearly impossible to recover from) and begins to hold. Sometimes he’ll be called. He has the occasional false start as well. All in all, he’s had 4 penalties in the last 8 games. That puts him in the top 25% of tackles in penalties per snap.

Grade: D. Abysmal pass protection, some penalty problems and OK run blocking sounds like a failure with not a lot of upside. He couldn’t do much better than a C with average run blocking and his awful pass protection and inconsistent but sad issues with the golden flag make it harder to rate him any higher.

G: Steve Hutchinson – The Seattle Screwball. The Minnesota Vikings signed Steve Hutchinson in one of the best contract spats in NFL history – offering him $7 million dollars a year, with a poison pill that would have destroyed the salary cap of the Seahawks (a guarantee of his salary if he was not the highest paid lineman on the team), who maintained the right to match any offer for Hutchinson should any come because of his transition tag. The Seahawks responded to this by sniping Nate Burleson from us by offering to guarantee his contract ($7 million dollars a year) if he played more than 5 games in one season in the state of Minnesota. Since then we’ve had a near perennial All-Pro and Pro Bowl guard, who has earned this honor every year between 2003 and 2009. Seattle got Nate Burleson. He tore a ligament in his opening game and missed his first season in Seattle. Hutchinson has started every game for the Minnesota Vikings.

In fact, this year, he has not missed a single snap. Yes, he has been blocking in all 512 of Minnesota’s offensive snaps this year, the only one on the team to do that. He has a unique responsibility on offensive lines that requires a bit more quickness, as well. He pulls more than his opposite guard (who is usually Herrerra but was Berger in the last game) in order to complete a screen block.

I keep mentioning pulls but don’t really explain them. A lineman pulls when he is dropping back from the line and running ahead of the play to block someone who is not on the line. The Power O play is probably the best example, where the weakside guard pulls from his hat assignment, letting the center block the opposing defensive tackle and runs ahead of the fullback (or H-back) to block the playside linebacker (or defensive back as the case may be). The tight end lined up at that end of the play lets the linebacker go and doubles up with the playside tackle on the defensive end. Each lineman blocks "down" on the play (that is, blocks towards the middle of the field) while the weakside guard who pulled blocks the DB out (an inside-out block, called a kick-out), creating a seam for the running back to go through. There are a few more mechanics to the play; for example, one of the two blockers doubled up on the defensive end will release from the block to block the weakside linebacker (called the Will) while the fullback busts through the hole first to block a strongside (in this case, also playside) linebacker. Here’s a good drawup of the Power O (called "Power" because it overloads the blockers on the play side):

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It’s a bit confusing, but the O Lineman lined up to the left of the x (the center) has pulled back to block the strongside linebacker (called the Sam), not the middle linebacker (the Mike). That is being blocked by the H-back or fullback (labeled "H").  You may have noticed that a cornerback is not blocked playside. Well, tough. Sometimes a team will call a wildcat and move the QB out to block the cornerback all the way to the side opposite the play and have the running back directly take the snap while the other receiver has lined up against that corner. Miami ran a variation where one running back faked a reverse while the running back receiving the direct snap ran through the seam. The RB faking the reverse blocked the free corner. Of course sometimes the other running back was not on a fake reverse and the blocking ended up being the same.

Willie Parker’s famous record run against the Seahawks was a Power O. Watch LG number 66 (Alan Faneca) take out the Sam Linebacker and the key block on the Mike linebacker (from what looks to be LT Marvel Smith):

At any rate, Hutchinson has been doing this for years. We don’t tend to run the Power O often, but we do run screen passes quite a bit, and he has done well in that capacity. He is probably better than league average on screen blocking, but he’s not as good as Lichtensteiger and Levitre (possibly the best guard in the league right now). Really, Kleinsasser is the one who’s been blowing it up on screen passes on and outside runs. But it’s good that Hutch doesn’t hurt us with blown assignments. He’s solidly consistent in this area.

In general, his more generic run blocking assignments are successfully completed as well. He doesn’t make an extraordinary amount of mistakes and runs off of his blocks and his direction tend to average as much as most of our runs average (that is he neither helps nor hurts the run game significantly). His best run blocking game was against the Green Bay Packers and his worst was against Kansas City. These are far enough apart to be significant, too. In the Kansas City game, he let a few blown up run blocks get the better of him (including a fairly elemental swim move) and those blown blocks cut some of our runs from 4-6 yards to 2. One was a run for a loss that can be blamed on him. In the Green Bay game, however, he dominated the line – often making the second level blocks that he otherwise doesn’t usually get to (guards don’t often make the second level blocks – those are usually left up to tackles, tight ends, and fullbacks) and doubling up well against BJ Raji. Granted our running against 3 man fronts is better in general, but even given that, it was a good performance.

When runners go through his gaps, they average 4.6 yards a carry, compared to our average of 4.8 in general.

As a pass blocker, Hutchinson rates among the best in the league, probably in the top 10. he has allowed no sacks, 1 hit, and 5 QB hurries. His blocking usually does not require additional help from running backs or tight ends, either. There are 22 guards who have given up no sacks (14 who have over 400 snaps). Of those, 14 have allowed 1 QB pressure or less (9 with over 400 snaps). Only 20 have allowed 6 total pressures of any kind and only 8 of those have 400 or more snaps. The average guard has, through an adjusted 450 snaps, allowed 1.5 sacks, 2 hits, and 7.5 QB hurries.

His penalties are not debilitating – he has had 3 on the line total, and I’m pretty confident at least two of those are false starts. He doesn’t engage in the more costly penalties – holding or unsportsmanlike conduct, but he could certainly do better here. If his 3 penalties were holding calls, I would be a little more upset because it tends to set us back more.

Grade: B. Despite his consistent showing at the Pro-Bowl and all the All-Pro teams, I can’t help but feel he is declining. He is up there when it comes to pass protection, but he is no Carl Nicks or Marshal Yanda. His run blocking could be better, but again isn’t bad. It’s really just average. And the smaller stuff – screen passes and penalties – he doesn’t stand out in any direction either.

C: John Sullivan  - A Poor Man’s Matt Birk. Actually, Sullivan and Birk don’t have similar blocking profiles at all, but he replaced Birk when he left after Childress drove him out he sought greener pastures in free agency. Drafted in the 6th round of the 2005 draft, he was deemed to have "too short arms" to be a big success in the league but was lauded for his intelligence and control of the line. Since then, he has been the starter for the Vikings.

Sully has played 411 of our 512 offensive snaps, having been replaced Joe Berger against Chicago and Green Bay due to concussion concerns. As a pass blocker he has been extremely inconsistent. Against Kansas City and Detroit, he was lights out. He did well against Carolina, too. He was abysmal against Chicago, and allowed the likes of Henry Melton and Anthony Adams to get the better of him, which is frankly a bit embarrassing. The bigger problem was Stephen Paea and Nick Roach, one of whom registered a sack off of Sullivan’s protection, and the other who registered a hit. In addition to that, he allowed an additional QB hurry. Knowing he only had 37 snaps makes this even more worrisome – that is not good, consistent play. On the other hand, he’s been stellar in other games – against Carolina’s admittedly soft defensive line, he played 67 snaps without a single QB pressure. Same with Kansas City, Detroit, and Arizona.

Sullivan has given up 3 sacks, 1 hit, and 1 QB hurry in 203 pass blocking snaps. The average center has given up (adjusted for 200 snaps) 0.6 sacks, 0.83 hits and 5.3 pressures.

He clearly needs to do better in pass protection before he can be a considered a top-flight center in the NFL.

He is pretty fantastic at his other jobs, though. He is perhaps one of the best run blocking centers in the NFL. Clearly ahead of him are Chris Meyers (by miles) of the Houston Texans and Nick Mangold of the Jets. A good argument can be made for Jonathan Goodwin (San Francisco) and Kyle Cook (Cincinnati), as well. He had great games against Tampa Bay and Carolina. Carolina might have the worst run defense up the middle (starter Terrell McClain might be in the running for worst run stopping DT in the league, but its Ronald Fields who had a terrible day against us) in the NFL, so his performance against Tampa Bay is of greater note. Interestingly, Tampa Bay seems to rotate all of its DTs pretty evenly and did so against us. They have a great run stopper in Gerald McCoy, but the others are lacking (Brian Price in particular). One could probably get away with the argument that his good run blocking has less to do with himself and more his opposition and I could be inclined to believe this.

Against tougher opposition (Detroit), he’s been pretty solidly good as well. Yes, Suh is actually a pretty bad run stopper, but Williams and Fairley are good at stopping the run. Hill could use some work, but he’s not significantly below average at stopping the run. He’s done some pretty good work in encouraging solid runs up the middle and his work is consistent – I don’t think he’s had a single bad game of run blocking.

An interesting wrinkle is that we’ll use him on screen blocks and he excels at this as well. There are so few snaps that a center takes screen blocking (vs the other snaps) that it is hard to say anything definitively about the "best" screen blocking linemen in the NFL, but Sullivan is certainly a top 10 – he’s quick enough on the pull and identifies key blocks pretty quickly. He’ll move down the field at a good pace for the blocks without missing the flow of the run or defenders coming from a different direction. Ryan Kalil (Carolina) is probably the most consistently good center for this trait (and he’s on the right team for it), but other than that, no one stands out. A lot of Buffalo’s screens seem to be successful, so I would credit Eric Wood for that. Same with Philadelphia’s screens (Jason Kelce). They are both advantaged by strong screen targets (Fred Jackson in Buffalo, LeSean McCoy and occasionally Jason Avant or Jeremy Maclin – I lose track of which – in Philadelphia). AP and Harvin certainly make it easier for a center to set up these screen blocks but I wouldn’t take that away from Sullivan. It’s become a sizable portion of our offense and that may increase in importance later. Still, this is small compared to other traits.

I don’t recall feeling chuffed about penalties from this fellow either. So good on him. Of course, avoiding penalties should be an expectation, so no reward for this.

As a center, he’s also responsible for communicating to the rest of the line to ensure that everyone is on the same page. In this capacity, I’ve only seen one game where I was disappointed. Against Kansas City, our line struggled to make adjustments to Tamba Hali and bit players like Wallace Gillard, who managed to pressure the quarterback twice in 14 snaps. There’s also no reason a player like Allen Bailey, who is bad and also played 13 snaps, to do as well as he did against us. Yes, Sully performed well opposite Kelly Gregg, but his job involves a bit more than that. As a veteran, I would think he needs to make more adjustments than this. Other times, however, it seems as if his role in making sure the line play functioned smoothly did well and that lineplay breakdowns had more to do with individual performances than team performances when they did happen.

Grade: C+ I suppose I have a policy that it should be difficult to overcome some pretty terrible difficulties in the pass blocking game here, but I can give him some props for some solid run play – even if it has been inflated by poor run defenses. Really, what hurts him most is not his overall or average performance, it’s his enormous inconsistency. If you averaged out his performance and doled it out in each game, he would probably be a solid B- or B. He gets some points for having been so effective at screen plays so far and also because he has generally corralled the line correctly, knowing he had one bad performance in this role. I’ve seen more miscommunication from veteran lines before.

C/G: Joe Berger – The Traveling Salesman. In his six years in the NFL, Joe Berger has been with 4 teams (actually, he’s been with 5 different squads, as he spent two separate stints in Miami). He only recently was a starter, and started for most of the Miami games in his second stint of two years. Not only has he switched teams quite a bit, he’s been all over the line as well, I believe having started a game at every position on the line (if not, then the only position he did not start a game was left tackle). Picked up to replace substitute Jon Cooper (a great decision, in my opinion), he has started one game at center for our beloved Vikings and one game as a guard. He subbed in for Sully in the Chicago game and played in half of our offensive snaps. He has also made appearances at center in two other games.

His performance has actually been pretty good. I say actually, because you don’t tend to get a lot out of people who have been on so many teams. Against Green Bay and BJ Raji, he did a pretty good job of pass blocking, allowing zero hurries, sacks, or hits. For run blocking, he did pretty well, and occasionally was able to lay a second-level block but he did have help from Hutch or Fusco as the case may be. He didn’t make any mistakes and opened up lanes that needed to be opened up – runs off of him averaged 9.9 yards per carry. I would say that’s not quite fair, as AP had a 54 yard run here but seeing as he had gains of 54, 29, and 25, it would be hard to limit out all of the major runs (AP did shed 4 tackles on runs through the center as well). Really though, there was probably only one run blocking failure all day from Berger, which is fantastic.

Still, we don’t have a lot to judge on. His performance against Carolina was nothing to crow about, and this may end up being more closer to his true ability. He allowed two QB hurries in 30 snaps against Chicago and one QB hurry against Carolina in 66 snaps. His run blocking was alright, despite having one game against a weak interior. Last year, with Miami, his pass blocking was consistently average and his run blocking varied widely, so I’ll wait until  he has a hundred more snaps or so before fully evaluating him.

His play did not vary too much as a guard (replacing Herrera, who has a knee injury) in his game as a guard against Carolina – like I said it was not very notable in one direction or another. He certainly seemed competent in this role and I did not notice anything significant.

As a center, his role in managing the line went smoothly. I didn’t actually see too many situations that he had to pick up on or communicate on. He did well with his blocking partners for running lanes and that’s great. If I recall correctly, he detected a zone blitz before Ponder did and adjusted the line play accordingly. If I’m right, that’s fantastic. If not, he’s made at least one positive adjustment and displayed leadership at some point. I know this is true.

150 snaps, I think, is enough to be encouraged by 3 total pressures (and no hits), one with pretty good defensive tackles.

Temporary Grade: B+. This is subject to a wide degree of change, obviously. His absolutely dominant run blocking performance and largely mistake free pass blocking performance has been wonderful. He hasn’t been asked to block on screens, and has had one penalty this year (holding against Green Bay) hopefully this won’t continue.

G: Anthony Herrera – The Lost Toboggan. Hailing from Trinidad and Tobago, Anthony is a Tennessee Vol. Projected as a late 4th rounder as an offensive guard, Herrera found himself undrafted and signed with the Vikings. He started his first game in 2005, against Cleveland in Week 12. He had played significant snaps before then, but didn’t really get his chance to compete until RT Mike Rosenthal suffered a broken foot, which paved the way for then guard Marcus Johnson to move to tackle. Herrera took that spot and started for the rest of the season. After that, he didn’t get another start until 2007 and has been a starting player for the Vikings since then.

As a pass blocker, Herrera could use some work. He only had one bad game as a pass blocker and that was against Ndamukong Suh. Mind you, that was a rancid performance, even knowing Suh is better than your average bear at pass rushing. It could potentially be one of the worst performances of the year for any starting guard. He gave up 1 sack, 1 hit and 7 (SEVEN) QB hurries. Some guards (Brian Waters) don’t give up 9 pressures in a season, much less in a game. And so, while I can’t NOT grade him on that, I will talk about other games he’s had because that is probably a better indicator of future success. Seriously, if Ndamukong Suh had that game every week, he’d be comparatively better than Revis and Allen and a shoe-in for DPOY and maybe the first defensive MVP since LT (and before that… ahem... Alan Page).

Aside from that game, he has allowed 1 hit and 5 QB hurries in 364 snaps (or more appropriately 172 pass blocking snaps). On average, a guard will give up 7.5 total QB pressures, including 0.9 sacks, 1.4 hits, and 5.2 hurries in the same number of pass blocking snaps. So he’s right around there; a little better than average at pass blocking. But yea, the Detroit game? Overpowered. Click here. You can see Suh angle Herrera at 5:30 so that he has a chance on the inside and Herrera sort of just takes it. Suh records a sack that is only a little bit McNabb’s fault. Given that his job is to stop all DRTs and not just some, this means he’s not a great pass blocker. However, I will say that he’s had one bad day and is consistently pretty alright otherwise.

His run blocking isn’t great, either. He did well for us in Tampa Bay, covering his assignments appropriately and then getting to the linebackers on occasion. Of course, this is the same Tampa Bay team that I think is a bit soft on runs up the inside, so his performance there should be good anyway. Otherwise he’s been pretty bad at run blocking. The Detroit game, again, was his worst (even though Suh is not that great of a run stopper), and he never seemed to get off on the right foot or get away into the second level. His run blocks were busted often and he was pushed around the field a little too often for my taste. In many cases, it was his assignment that blew a running play up. It’s not that he quit early, but that he got beaten quickly. Even on Peterson’s 43 yard run off of Herrera’s gap, Herrera underperforms – only Peterson’s speed saves the play, and the fact that Suh can simply not resist a go at the quarterback even when the fact that the play is a run is blindingly obvious (One could also make the argument that Charlie Johnson helped a lot on the play, which is a surprise). It’s the first play in the highlight. Herrera is number 64. (God, I hate this highlights announcer).  While he is supposed to let go of Suh (this may have even been an option play by Donovan), his inability to hold the linebacker off for half a second is fairly telling. This has been a problem in more games than it hasn’t been.

So he’s pretty bad at run blocking, and an alright pass blocker. He doesn’t commit penalties and he’s been asked to screen block once or twice and has done it successfully.

Grade: C.

T: Phil Loadholt – He Who Weighs Us Down. Chosen in front of Sebastian Vollmer and William Beatty, Loadholt was the 54th pick in the 2009 draft from the Minnesota Vikings. This second rounder has flashed potential from his first year on the team. His well publicized problems with penalties have earned him his fair share of detractors, and it’s clear that improvement in discipline is necessary if he wants to continue producing. As a rookie, he was a much better pass blocker than run blocker and in his sophomore year in the NFL, was terrible at both.

The enormously sized Loadholt has improved in preventing dead ball penalties, however. He is currently in the middle of his longest stretch without a penalty (an abysmally low 4 games), but still has had 4 penalties on the year, including at least one false start and one holding call. Not enough to call him consistent by any means and certainly not something I will continue to rely on. An improvement in this area is not a whole hell of a lot, considering he had 11 penalties his rookie year, and 14 last year (that’s the most of any offensive lineman that year). So he’s on track for 8. Great. That’s a bad thing to look forward to.

He has also improved as a run blocker. He is probably performing as the best run blocking tackle in the league, running away. Only the EaglesJason Peters comes close, but as he missed games 5, 6, and 7, he gets a bit of a performance penalty. If I honestly had to choose one as a pure run blocker I might choose Peters, but Loadholt has done better this year. Seriously, he hasn’t had one bad run blocking game all year, and had an amazing game against Arizona as a run blocker. His strong run blocking bowls over opposing ends and he’ll seal up a run as long as it needs to be sealed. He can also track the running game effectively, sometimes blowing it up in the second line and occasionally the secondary. His run blocking technique is by no means perfect, but his instincts and his strengths are spot on. His worst game was against Kansas City, where rushes off of his blocks were higher than anywhere else on the line – 4 yards a carry. That’s not bad. It is pretty average. When controlling for breakaway runs and missed tackles, runs off his blocking average higher than anywhere else on the line, a whopping 4 yards a carry (exceedingly high if you shed large runs and missed tackles from the total). He seems to know when to shed a block and exactly where his blocking assignment is, creating effective creases for Adrian Peterson.

He is terrible at pass blocking. Let’s go to Detroit again. At 2:30… well. It’s Loadholt. He is one of the worst in the league at pass blocking. At right tackle, he has allowed a QB pressure of some sort (sack, hit or hurry) in one of every 10 of his pass blocking snaps. There are about 3 or 4 right tackles in the league where this is true, and Omiyale isn’t starting any more. It’s pretty bad.

If you want to see his season in about 30 seconds, click here. At 1:32, he lets a defensive end get the better of him, even as he gets help from Herrera. Then, the next play, he blocks with a good amount of violence to help create Adrian Peterson’s running lane.

Yea, I don’t get it either.

Grade: C-. Yes, he’s a great run blocker. Kind of unmatched. He is also extremely awful at pass blocking. Because of the importance of pass blocking, I debated giving him a D+. He’s on the bubble, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Patrick Brown and Brandon Fusco have had 50 snaps between the two of them, so I’m not really going to spend time evaluating them.

Seriously, our offense has the best blocking FB/TE in the league, best RB in the league, and best run blocking tackle in the league. How did we fuck this up? 

This FanPost was created by a registered user of The Daily Norseman, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the site. However, since this is a <em>community</em>, that view is no less important.

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