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How offensive linemen are fighting back in a pass rusher’s world

There’s no question who is winning the war between offense and defense these days in the National Football League. Offenses are pulling harder in the constant game of tug-of-war than ever before.

ProFootball Talk put these numbers together: Through four weeks of the season, the NFL has seen 3,030 points scored, which breaks the previous record of 2,986 points set in 2012.

The 344 touchdowns scored are the most through four weeks in NFL history, breaking the old mark of 332 set in 2015. Of those, 288 came on passes, crushing the old mark of 205 set in 2013.

But while the war is one sided in favor of the great offensive minds of the NFL — and there was no better display than the Minnesota Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday night — the battle for the trenches is being dominated by defensive linemen.

Peter King included this statistic from Pro Football Focus in his Week 3 column for NBC Sports:

OL Proficiency:

2009: 95.00%
2010: 94.55%
2011: 94.67%
2012: 94.76%
2013: 93.90%
2014: 93.46%
2015: 92.65%
2016: 93.00%
2017: 92.40%
2018: 92.79% (through Week 2)

Here’s what it means: Offensive linemen are allowing quarterbacks to be pressured at a higher rate than at any other time since PFF has existed. Yet the NFL average passer rating is 94.5, higher than Joe Montana’s career mark.

There are some explanations for this paradox. One being that many of the recent offensive trends in football are designed to mitigate the effect of pressure. For example, the Rams run play-action on 36 percent of their passing plays, according to Football Outsiders. Go back to 2015 and the highest in the league was 27 percent. There are nine teams higher than that so far in 2018.

Teams are getting the ball out quickly. Oakland’s Derek Carr has the fastest time from snap to throw at just 2.47 seconds. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has noticed a difference even since coming into the league.

“It’s different now, it’s harder to get sacks, guys are scheming so you won’t be able to get sacks. Quarterbacks are aware of that too. In the schemes it’s two-seconds-it’s-gone,” Richardson said.

The name of the game now for defensive linemen, Richardson said, is pressures. It’s all about making quarterbacks uneasy, especially since you can’t hammer them to the ground after their release anymore.

“Just get him off his spot, you know? Be effective,” Richardson said. “Put a lot of pressure in his face and around his legs. For me, I get held a lot, so definitely be around his legs a lot.”

The savvy Richardson has it right. Sack numbers haven’t changed by much. In 2009, there were 1,101 sacks, compared to 1,195 last year. Only a slight difference. But there are many more pressures.

In ’09, only 17 players registered more than 50 QB pressures, per PFF data. Last year there were 38 players with 50-plus pressures. Put a different way, only 51 players registered a QB hurry, QB hit or sack on more than five percent of their rushes 10 years ago, last year there were 75 players to fit that criteria. There are 33 players currently above seven percent compared to 19 in ’09.

Players are more freakish than ever. Pass rush schemes are more intricate than ever. Pass rushers are getting paid more than ever. And pass rushers know that opposing teams are trying to throw the ball more. These days, run stuffing is barely part of the conversation when a top edge rusher comes out in the draft. Former Viking Geoff Schwartz told King he believed the reduction in practice time also hurts O-linemen because it is a “repetition position.”

Last year, Brandon Thorn, who contributes to USA Football and is a frequent guest on the Purple Podcast, studied interior offensive and defensive lineman for a massive Bleacher Report project called NFL1000. He consistently found more talent on the defensive side.

“I watched 104 total [defensive linemen] last year and I thought there were about 45 quality starting defensive tackles in the NFL,” Thorn said. “Then you break it down into tiers, there’s probably 20 guys you can consider either very good or elite, maybe 25. When you’re talking about that many elite guys at one position, it’s unmatched in the NFL. You look at offensive tackle, there’s no way there’s 20. There’s three or four [elite players] per offensive line position. You look on the interior, less than 10, I would say and you have double that on the interior of the defensive line. And you’re talking three positions versus just one. Scales are tipped heavily on the defensive line’s side.”

Again think of Vikings-Rams as an example. While offense ran amok, defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh mauled Minnesota’s guards. Donald picked up 13 pressures by himself.

The dominance by D-linemen isn’t lost on the league’s offensive linemen.

But one thing they understand as well as anyone in the NFL is that the formula to survive against the beasts lined up across from them is to know more, be better prepared, focus more on game planning and technique, help each other and stay mentally strong.

“You just have to do whatever you can to get it done because some guys have the strength, some guys have the speed or the technique to be able to get it done a different way, so you just do whatever you can,” Vikings guard Mike Remmers said.

The tape

Jeremiah Sirles (75) was a versatile offensive lineman for the Vikings (photo via USA Today)

When Jeremiah Sirles entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers, offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who is currently with the Baltimore Ravens, gave him some good advice: The more you can do, the longer you can stay.

“I really took that to heart,” Sirles said.

By his second season with the Chargers, the former Nebraska Cornhusker was playing all five positions during training camp and preseason. The Vikings ultimately traded for him based on versatility.

“I took it as a challenge to learn how to play guard after only playing tackle in college and mentally being like, ‘I’m going to be the most mentally sharp guy that I can be so when my number does get called and when an opportunity arises I can take advantage of it,'” Sirles said.

He learned to prepare at guard and tackle each week by mixing in with the scout team to take reps at each position, getting reps against the likes of Danielle Hunter on one play and Linval Joseph on the next. When he wasn’t in with the first team offense, Sirles stood behind and focused on what his assignment would have been at each spot.

That was the physical part. The mental part was 90 percent of the work.

“How I mentally prepared was a constant grind of watching the film and watching different guys from around the league and how they play certain guys, maybe trying to copy techniques that I saw was really effective for them or maybe seeing things that they tried that didn’t work so well so maybe I’d want to avoid that and then formulating my own gameplan going into the game at each position,” Sirles said.

He came up with a tally system for film grinding. Sirles looks at as many third downs as possible (because pass rushers bring their best moves out at the biggest times) and mark down each move.

“I would go through and I would write down, like, spin move, bull rush, arm-over, inside counter, and then every time I would see that move again, I would put a tally next to it,” Sirles said. “So by the end of me watching, I would say OK he bull rushed 15 times, he spin moves four times, he arm-over’d 11 times and then you break it down into, ‘this is what I need to watch for, when it’s crunch time, this is what he gets to, this is his No. 1, this is how he wants to attack me.'”

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“It’s a game where you’re constantly growing. If you just do the same thing over and over, you better be really good.” – Vikings guard Mike Remmers 

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Included in the process of watching the game is self scouting. Sirles looks for patterns of how he’s being attacked. Is he being spun on? Is he getting long-armed? Bull rushed? He’s aware that that week’s opponent is sitting in front of an iPad somewhere tallying his moves, too.

“It’s the chess game of that one-on-one matchup that you look at and you study for and you try and find ways to get the edge on the other person,” he said.

Then comes the biggest challenge: Applying it all on Sunday.

If you have ever wondered why an undrafted lineman like Sirles has a job and some first-round picks with insane NFL Combine numbers and dominant college tape never make it, the answer might be mental processing.

Sirles explains that the best of the best these days are the ones who can take the information they learned Monday-Saturday and use it to their advantage on game day.

“The game of football is so fast, I think it’s something 1.8 seconds and the quarterback is going to throw the ball, so you have to be able to identify the rush, what rush am I getting, while still taking your set, moving backwards while he’s running forward, and using all your techniques and everything and it happens immensely fast,” Sirles said.

Barone said some of the things going through a lineman’s mind even when things appear as simple as a one-on-one matchup.

“What’s the guy like to do based on down and distance, what’s he like to do based on linebacker or safety location?” he said. “Often times that will dictate how he rushes, based upon formation. Does he do something different when the back is to his side or not to his side? Or if the tight end is to his side or not. There’s a lot of variables that go into it. It’s not so much, ‘I’m blocking No. 52 on this play,’ it’s: ‘I’m blocking 52 but there’s a lot of things that come into play for this whole thing.'”

Take Elflein for example. The chart below (via Mockdraftable) is the percentile he scored in each NFL Combine event. He was not even close to average in any area aside from size, yet his play speed is exceptional.

Pat Elflein’s NFL Combine results compared to other offensive linemen

“It’s the ability to take what you learned in the classroom and see what you study on the film and can you then apply it at real-time speed,” Sirles said. “That’s what separates the great offensive linemen, from good offensive linemen from average offensive linemen to young offensive linemen is that ability to take what you see and apply it.”

See it, apply it, analyze it and then change it. All in a few days.

“It’s a game where you’re constantly growing,” Remmers said. “If you just do the same thing over and over, you better be really good.”

The Community  

Last July, a bunch of professionally giant men got together in Frisco, Texas, to talk about the most difficult position in sports.

Organized by trainer Duke Manyweather, a number of the NFL’s best offensive linemen along with up-and-comers and some retired players gathered to watch film and talk shop.  They called it “OL Masterminds.”

Thorn was invited to provide the film cut-ups.

“We started every day in a class room, we had open discussion,” Thorn said of the experience. “Duke would pose a question and all of the sudden it would spread like wildfire. This guy would say something and it would just carry on. The purpose of us being in the classroom was to watch film of the top defensive linemen in the NFL both interior and on the edge, specifically in pass blocking.

“A lot of those guys were on the film and they would say like what happened here, it was an awesome conversation starter. It allowed a lot of the young guys in the room to hear Mitchell Schwartz, Terron Armstead, Ron Leary etc. talk about, ‘this is what I’m thinking in this situation, this is how I would handle it.'”

Following a solid high school career as a guard, Thorn joined the military where he spent 10 years before leaving to chase his dream of working in football. He has spent the past few years learning the ins and outs from Manyweather and has become a staple of #OLineTwitter. In his quest for O-line knowledge, Thorn even visited former NFL’er Lecharles Bentley’s offensive line clinic in Arizona, where Vikings center Pat Elflein works out.

Along the way, he gained an appreciation for the big uglies and now takes pride in highlighting the best of the best on Twitter.

“These are guys who don’t promote themselves,” Thorn said. “There’s so many plays — literally thousands every season — that people will never see and these are guys doing incredible things so I love bringing that to the mainstream. ”

From spending time around linemen and learning their craft, one thing in particular has stuck out that rarely exists in sports: A sense of community.

“In a lot of ways it reminds me of military,” Thorn said. “The camaraderie is very strong. You can sense that in the room. Everybody wants to help each other because they feel like they’re in a fraternity of playing the same position, that’s what I saw. Everybody was very willing to talk about specific situations, specific players, different ways to handle those situations with players, one of the things was the level of detail that these guys can not only recall but then explain to each other. It was incredible. Within inches of where to place your hand, the timing of when your hand should be there, understanding of angles and leverage. Some very nuanced conversation.”

Remmers said that he stays in contact with former teammates and they routinely compare notes about upcoming opponents.

“I call guys that I’ve played with in the past and maybe would ask them ‘what are your thoughts on this guy’ or just advice,” he said. “It’s something even in the season. I’m watching Green Bay film. Well, they just played Chicago, so I’m watching the Chicago offensive line and looking at what they attempted to do or did well or didn’t do well and I try to learn from them.”

Successful linemen understand that being good at this impossible position requires a dedication to the science of the sport. Just being big and strong won’t do a whole lot for you against Khalil Mack.

Vikings offensive line coach Clancy Barone uses veteran tackle Riley Reiff to best describe the required approach.

“He’s a guy that’s very diligent, he takes everything very personally, which all great players really do,” Barone said. “He wants to be perfect in everything he does in walk-through, everything he does in practice, everything he does in the game. He wants to be perfect in everything he does in meetings, he wants to take the best notes, ask the best questions or give the best answers. All great players have that same characteristic at every position. They all want to be perfect, he takes it that one extra step to insure he can get closer to it.”

Personalities, however, can differ from position to position on the offensive line. Former Vikings lineman Jeremiah Sirles, now with the Buffalo Bills, described how young center Pat Elflein was able to quickly relate to his teammates and take a leadership role as a rookie.

“He’s very business-like, that’s what you want to see from your center, but he’s also a great guy that you could have dinner and have a beer with and just have a great conversation,” Sirles told the Purple Podcast. “He’s very personable and being the center position, you have to be able to relate to different guys. You have to be able to find ways that you can communicate with different guys because I guarantee you Pat Elflein’s background  and Rashod Hill’s and Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, they all come from different places.

“Being able to communicate and being able to relate to guys on the offensive line from different backgrounds and making sure you’re all on the same page and understand the same thing is tough and that’s on the center. Pat did a really good job, especially as a young guy, being able to do that last year.”

It turns out that another O-line paradox is that the best weapon a lineman can have is being a great guy.

The science, the beat

Pat Elflein (65) has quickly become one of the best young offensive linemen in the game

Barone knows the job is immensely intricate for his pupils.

“There’s a lot of different elements that go into this science project that go into teaching pass protection,” he said.

The science project in a nutshell is Barone taking the same by-any-means approach as his linemen to help them spot the tiniest details of an opposing pass rusher that will give them an edge.

“You can base a lot of things off of a player’s stance,” Barone said. “Is he a guy that likes to get up in a two-point stance? Is he a guy that likes to get down and put all his weight forward out of a three-point stance? Does he angle in? Is he pointing straight up the field? Often times it’s which foot he has back. Some guys have a big-time stutter and cross your face. A lot of that has to be based on where his feet are so you know how many steps it takes for him to get to that stutter move. Is it off his second step? Is it off his third step? You can [study] those things during the week.”

When rookie Brian O’Neill stepped on the field for the first time against the Green Bay Packers, he noticed a remarkable difference in his level of preparation for that week’s opponent from what he’d ever seen in college.

“The stuff that we work on at practice carries over a lot, more so than I ever saw in college,” O’Neill said following the game. “The gameplan is so specific, the coaching is so in depth. The looks we got in practice this week were exactly what we expected coming in. For me that was refreshing to have prepared for something and then being out there and the first play happening and being like, ‘alright, this is what I prepared for.”

Barone has to go through the same process of looking at endless hours of game tape, contextualizing it and assessing which changes need to be made and which elements must be corrected.

“When you see a problem, why was it a problem? What caused the problem?” Barone said. “If a guy just lost the one-on-one matchup, that’s one thing, but there’s usually 10 elements around him.”

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“Thank god there wasn’t a lot of social media back in the day with Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan because every time they gave up a home run, they would have been roasted, right?” – Vikings OL coach Clancy Barone

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And sometimes he has to be a little outside the box, depending on the opponent. Barone was formerly the O-line coach with the Denver Broncos. They used a unique method to prepare for the Indianapolis Colts’ two legendary pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

“We used to take defensive backs and safeties and have them be scout team defensive ends and have them line up offsides,” Barone said. “Because of the speed of those guys on turf compared to those guys on grass was so much different. So to help the tackles get an idea for the speed of the game, we had safeties line up a foot offsides to give those guys a sampling for how that would actually play out on gameday. It certainly helped. I can’t say it worked because nobody ever blocked Freeney and Mathis, but little things like that. We’re always trying to find a way to simulate what you’re going to see once it’s live football.”

Now every team has a Freeney and Mathis, it seems. That means there will be lots of L’s taken no matter who’s playing on the offensive line.

That means Barone isn’t just in charge of implementing the gameplan and helping his students study the right things on tape, he also has to play amateur sports psychologist at times, especially with younger offensive linemen. One of the hardest things to adapt to is how often you get your butt whooped in the NFL compared to college.

“Coming in that’s one of the first five things Pat Elflein ever told me,” O’Neill said. “He said, ‘you probably didn’t get beat in college, especially in practice. My biggest thing here was, I’m going to get beat, but in camp that’s the place for it. Take it, learn from it and get better from it. You’re still going to get beat again tomorrow and the next day, but being able to take that, realize that he’s not just beating you, he’s beating other guys too.’”

Barone starts by telling fresh-faced offensive linemen to ignore stats. Pressures? PFF grades? Sacks? Throw it all out.

“That’s the first thing you tell younger players: Don’t worry about the stat page, worry about what goes on inside those walls,” Barone said.

But that’s not so easy with social media and NFL highlights everywhere. If you get beat, it’s in front of 60,000 people and then however many more see it on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram etc. and however many more catch it on SportsCenter or NFL Network.

Barone’s message: A player who hasn’t gotten beat is a player who hasn’t played.

“Thank god there wasn’t a lot of social media back in the day with Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan because every time they gave up a home run, they would have been roasted, right?” Barone said. “Even Hall of Fame pitchers are going to give up a home run once in awhile. The only player that hasn’t been beat is a player that hasn’t played. If you’ve ever taken a snap in this league, you’ve been beaten in this league. It’s like any DB who’s been beat or a quarterback who did something wrong, you have to have short-term memory. If you don’t you’re going to get eaten alive.”

Sirles remembers learning that lesson from former Chargers lineman King Dunlap, who told him, “The name of the game is you get yours more than someone gets you.”

“I took that to heart,” Sirles said. “There would be times in college where you’d be like, I’m playing against a redshirt freshman this week I’m just going to crush this kid. Now every single player is the best player on their college team if not the best player in their conference that you’re going up against every week. I can remember going against Melvin Ingram as a rookie and struggling with the speed and struggling with the power and it’s like, man, he’s such a complete player….there’s going to be guys that just give you problems and you have to learn how to adapt and play them again. That’s the thing with the NFL, you’re going to see these guys over and over again.”

The fun

A lot of this doesn’t sound like a great time. It sounds like climbing a slippery mountain while getting smacked in the mouth over and over.

But successful linemen don’t see it that way. They see a thousand puzzles to solve. They see studying their game like a mechanic studies an engine.

A couple of examples: Remmers has been working on his pass set for years, looking at how the best players handle certain situations.

“I watch Joe Thomas, I watched a lot of good tackles and I just try to take little bits and pieces of things I see from other players that I like,” Remmers said. “Maybe it’s a specific set or his stance or there’s a quick get-off or something like that. I just kind of take bits and pieces and mold it to my own and what works best for me.”

Sirles gets excited as hell to talk about the true meaning of “putting down the anchor.”

“Everyone thinks putting down the anchor means you hit him and squat with your legs,” he said enthusiastically. “Actually a lot of putting down the anchor starts with your punch. It starts with how you hit him with your hands. If you can disrupt a pass rusher with your hands, then it takes a lot of his power away. If you can hit him and knock his shoulders because you have a good strike with your hands it allows you to sit down and get back underneath yourself instead of just catching him in the chest, then you’re using only your legs to try to stop a guy like Khalil Mack, Von Miller or Everson Griffen that is using their whole strength.”

“Joe Thomas was the best at it,” Sirles added.

These guys talk about Thomas like guitar players talk about Hendrix.

For them, the challenge of trying to play like Jimi is fulfilling, even if the D-line guys are mostly winning these days.

“You’re constantly growing, constantly adjusting, it’s a fun spot,” Remmers said.





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