Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2009 Redskins Review: The Offensive Line

The performance of Redskins offensive tackles in 2009 was not only disappointing but simply unacceptable. Things were at their worst when Stephon Heyers had the left tackle job and Mike Williams was starting on the right.

Heyer simply lacks the physical strength to play at the NFL level. In my mind the defining play of Heyer’s season was in Week 7, when Eagles defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley was able to turn Heyer into a weapon and hurl him across the formation to wreck the right side of our line, leading directly to a deflected pass and an interception taken in for a touchdown. No amount of seasoning or technique can correct for a simple lack of physical ability. Heyer was consistently shoved off the corner on running plays, and lacked both the strength and nimbleness to protect against edge rushers.

He performed a bit better on the right (he was still awful but everything’s relative), probably because he was no longer up against the opponent’s best pass rusher. The fact that he has experience on both the left and right sides means he will probably have a chance to compete for a spot on the 2010 roster as the backup swing-man, although we should all hope that someone is brought in to compete with him for the role.

Shockingly, Mike Williams was even more outclassed by his competition than Heyer. His total lack of agility makes it stunning that he was ever even considered for the tackle position. His only prayer against edge rushers was to cheat dramatically to the outside (he usually gave up the edge anyway) which made him almost comically susceptible to inside moves. A defensive end needed only to take one step to the outside, causing Williams to lunge desperately in that direction, and a beautiful inside lane was opened for him. Occasionally the pass rusher would take the trouble to do a spin move, but for the most part that was unnecessary as Williams lacked any ability at all to change direction.

And all that bulk didn’t give him a lot of power either. He lost leverage often, and there were a number of times that as the right tackle he was driven across the backfield and wound up blocking the running back from making it to the line of scrimmage around the left end. Really, for someone less emotionally invested in the team than I am I imagine the performance put on by Heyer and Williams must have been downright hilarious.

When Williams was signed during the offseason at league minimum salary (while at 450 pounds) I did not initially have a problem with it. There was no guaranteed money, and no long term contract, so there seemed to be little downside if he couldn’t cut it. But I was stunned when he made the team after clearly demonstrating in training camp and preseason that he had absolutely no business stepping onto a football field. There’s no way Jim Zorn and Joe Bugel could have fooled themselves into thinking this guy could play – he wasn’t even close. So one can only assume that Vinny Cerrato dictated he would be on the roster to avoid mockery for signing him in the first place. That’s a pretty lousy way to make football decisions, and if it’s true I am even more glad than I would be anyway that Vinny’s gone.

Any small chance Williams may have had of returning next year probably vanished with Cerrato’s firing. And the fact that the zone-blocking system expected to be implemented under Mike and Kyle Shanahan emphasizes mobility over raw strength means he is even more gone that before. That's not that he ever displayed much “raw strength” either – but lets face it, he was about as mobile as a partially decomposed houseplant. For the record, none of this is Mike Williams’ fault – I have a lot of respect for the dedication it took for him to lose all that weight and work himself back into the NFL. But he clearly should have failed at that task, and there’s no excuse for the front office, or whoever made the decision, thinking he could contribute to the team.

When Levi Jones was signed mid-season he provided a glimmer of (false) hope. He played pretty impressive in the win against Denver, as he pretty much kept Elvis Dumervil under control for most of the game. And while he wasn’t dominant in the run game, he at least gave as good as he got out there and in tandem with Derrick Dockery opened up a lot of holes that had not shown themselves for weeks. And yet one was eventually forced to conclude that Dumervil had simply had an off day – for the remainder of the season Jones showed himself to be a well below average tackle. The fact that he was able to hold the job for the rest of the season, and that he was a noticeable upgrade over Stephon Heyer, says more about Heyer than it does about Levi. His most important contribution was forcing Heyer to the right side, and thereby getting Mike Williams off the field (at least as a tackle). Since he is apparently incapable of playing right tackle, and is clearly not cut out to be a starter, it appears unlikely he will have any role on the team in 2010.

At left guard Derrick Dockery was the one and only consistently competent Redskins lineman. At first I found him underwhelming (I missed Pete Kendall) but late in the year he showed he could play quite effectively. He got beat often enough and is far from a superstar, but with this team I’m just happy to see a lineman who looks like he deserves to be getting paid to play football. He sometimes missed adjustments to complex blitzes, and was outclassed when faced with an agile pass rusher, but that’s par for the course with a guard. He was always effective enough, though no superstar, and provided a little bit of push in the run game. And when he could get off the line he was very good at drive blocking linebackers out of the play. He just signed a long-term contract and is actually fairly good at his job, so its almost certain he will be the Redskins starting left guard for the next few years.

Right guard became a notorious revolving door. Even before Randy Thomas got knocked out with injury he was clearly wearing down to age and accumulated wear. He no longer seemed to have the athletic ability to pull effectively or get outside for screens, and his physical strength, while better than most of his co-workers, was far from dominating. It seems unlikely, though far from impossible, that a new coaching staff would keep him around.

Chad Rinehart was the most effective fill-in the Redskins found. In his first stint early in the season he looked totally outclassed, but when he got the job again later in the season he held his own. He was left flat-footed by pass rushers relatively rarely, and showed the strength to stand up to linemen and the athleticism to work at the second level and clear linebackers out of running lanes. He certainly hasn’t cemented himself as a long-term starter, but if he were to have the starting RG spot next season I would not panic at all.

The previously mentioned Mike Williams also got a lot of time at guard, especially after Rinehart got hurt, and that time was redeemed only by being slightly less horrifying than his performace at tackle. He simply couldn’t move. I can remember hardly and instances of Williams pulling on a run play, probably because he did not have the athleticism to do so. That has to be a terrible handicap on offensive gameplanning and playcalling. He also couldn’t keep defenders engaged. Often times a defender would initially bounce off him simply due to his bulk, but Williams was incapable of sticking with the guy after this. The defender would recover from the initial rebuff, then simply sidestep Williams (have I mentioned he’s not exactly agile) and get into the backfield.

Edwin Williams and Wilbert Montgomery also logged time at right guard, and were both just awful enough to fit in with their peers. Montgomery in particular was totally outmatched, and spend most running plays being carried into the backfield. They also both contributed more than their share of penalties and mental errors. The only reason I’m not writing these guys off completely is that I had the same verdict on Rinehart early in the year and he showed he could improve with a little seasoning, so it will be up to the new coaches to determine if these two are worth developing.

That leaves center. In the beginning of the year I absolutely excoriated Casey Rabach in the game reviews. He has always been known to struggle physically against bigger defensive tackles, but that’s not uncommon for centers. But at the start of 2009 he was just a disaster – often ending up 5 yards in the backfield and interfering with handoffs. He held his own a bit better later in the season, perhaps due to relatively improved play around him. And when he can fight his way through the line, he is still very good at squaring up linebackers and taking them out of the play. The problem is getting him to the second level to begin with. He is a free agent. But I think it is likely he will be brought back given a confluence of factors: His age will prevent him from commanding a very long contract, there are no other viable options on the roster, and a zone-blocking scheme plays to his strength by maximizing the ability to slide off blocks and get to the second level.

So let’s look briefly at the offseason:

There’s a good chance that the three interior starters are already on the roster. On the off chance Randy Thomas recovers and can play effectively, I’m quite comfortable Rinehart as the primary backup to both guard spots. If Rinehart is the starter, then we need to go out and find some mid-level veteran who could step in and at least get the basics done. Dockery is secure and re-signing Rabach is probably easier than finding a viable replacement.

Most every Redskin fan I know wants that fourth pick in the first round to be spent on an offensive tackle, and I have a hard time disagreeing. There are two tackles – Russell Okung and Trent Williams – who seem to be universally considered top ten picks (I admit I know little about college football so I’m trusting in the wisdom of crowds here).

I would also point out that Jared Gaither, the Ravens starting left tackle, is a restricted free agent (and is restricted regardless of the state of the salary cap). He’s young, effective, and possible obtainable. If he is given a first round tender I would be strongly in favor taking a run at him. We already know he can play so there is no risk of wasting a high pick on a guy who just doesn’t adjust to the NFL. And the fact that the Ravens already have Michael Oher on hand means that if we make a high enough offer the Ravens just might choose not to math it and bank the draft pick.

And on the off chance that there is a last second negotiating breakthrough, Marcus McNeill of the Chargers will be an unrestricted free agent who we could add, and then if the Redskins want to spend that top pick on Jimmy Clausen then they can go right ahead (the recurring theme of future posts will be: pray for a salary cap).

The problem is at right tackle. If we don’t find a significant upgrade over Stephon Heyer then the line will continue to be a serious problem. The most viable scenario would be to spend the first two picks on tackles and hope to find a guy at the top of the second round. That leaves various other needs unfilled, of course. Once again there will be more options on the market if a salary cap is maintained, thus allowing fifth and sixth year players to be unrestricted.


  1. It's not a great draft year for o-line, but there are also some decent tackles (L and R) available lower down in the draft. I could see the Redskins trading down from #4 to get a lower 1st pick and an additional 2nd or 3rd round pick. Not sure if there would be any takers out there, but maybe. And then draft several o-linemen. We're not going to win the Superbowl next year anyway, so if Heyer is starting at RT but just holding down the fort while a young guy is groomed... I'm okay with that.

    But I'd also be pleased to see us grab an Okung. The free agent pool of o-linemen just sucks this year, plain and simple. Time for us to make a few long-term franchise-type player commitments on o-line.

    It would be a nice tribute to Bugel to bring back some semblance of the Hogs!!! They're what made the team great way back when...

  2. An accurate, if brutal, evaluation as far as I can tell. What you've got here seems to fit in pretty well with the game reviews and what I saw watching the games live this season.

    One new development which may change your predication on Casey Rabach: today the 'Skins signed the Broncos' 4th-round draft pick, a 295-lb guard/center by the name of Lichtensteiger.
    He was released by the Broncos in September 2009 because he was not a fit for Josh McDaniels' line schemes, but he's a handpicked Shanahan guy renowned in college for his hard-nosed palying style, and has much more of a future in the league at 24 than Rabach does at 30something.

    I could easily see Rabach being signed for another year or two while they groom the young guy to be our next center. There's a very comrehensive article on the guy from Terl at the Official Redskins Blog...any thoughts?

  3. Thanks for the tip on the Terl article - I've been having internet connection problems at home but will check it out when I have the chance.

    My impression is that Lichtensteiger (awesome name for a lineman, by the way) is mostly a depth signing since he can back up all three interior line positions and has barely gotten any live action, but you're right he wouldn't have been brought in so quickly if Shanahan didn't like him - so he could well be a plan B in case Rabach walks.