Unit Analysis: The Redskins OL Performed Better than you Thought in 2010

One of the most maligned units on the Redskins offense was the group up front.  This isn’t anything new for Washington fans.  Our last glimpse of a competent unit in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball came during the team’s dominant 4-1 start in the 2008 season.  Then the offensive line declined into oblivion.  This lasted 11 consecutive games in 2008, the better part of 16 games in 2009 (there were some acceptable performances at home after Sherm Lewis joined the staff), and into the 2010 season.  That’s a very long time to have a poor offensive line.  We’re talking near 2 full seasons and change.

When Mike Shanahan took the Washington Redskins’ coaching job, he put his mouth in a lot of places speaking of organization-wide evalutation and improvement…but the offensive line was one of the few places where Shanahan put his organizations’ money as well.  The team did not beat around the bush in selecting Oklahoma OT Trent Williams to be the franchise cornerstone at left tackle.  They also signed Kory Lichtensteiger and Artis Hicks, traded for Jammal Brown from the Saints.  This unit was to be different from all the others.

With below average sack rates this season, it did not seem like the Redskins had accomplished this goal.  However, between a multi-year analysis of the Redskins offensive skills and schemes, and a cursory look at advanced statistics, we can conclude a couple of things:

  1. The Redskins offensive line (and tight ends and running backs) protected passers Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman better than the same units had protected Jason Campbell and Todd Collins in 2008 or 2009.
  2. The improvement has some statistical significance, and was not a complete fluke.

A Walk Through Recent OL History
The biggest improvement was that this Redskins line rarely blew it’s assignments, something that could not be said of other Redskins lines.  The 2008 line had a tendency of confusing itself in the second half of the year, when Clinton Portis was not playing in third down packages.  The biggest problem with that unit was when Campbell thought he had a zone blitz or a free rusher picked up, and the Redskins line would fail to sort the protection correctly.  This lead to some of the worst possible situations a passing offense can have: no receivers adjusting their routes and a quarterback who is trusting his line to handle a rush, and then the line letting one or two defenders through untouched.  The bane of the 2008 Redskins were 4 and 5 man rushes: Campbell killed 6 man blitzes that season, but defenses could use line stunts to confuse the Redskins OL, so they needed not to come so aggressively after Campbell to get free rushers.

The problem in 2009 was far different.  The Redskins began to throw passes quicker with Campbell under duress, letting a player like Antwaan Randle El sight adjust the blitz and give Campbell an outlet to throw.  This Redskins team seemed to prefer 5 man protections and quick throws (or dump-offs) prior to a hit on the quarterback.  When Chris Samuels got hurt, teams adjusted to this by rushing just three guys at the Redskins and playing zone coverage behind it.  This offensive protection unit was so bad that it could not, for most of the season, pick up 3 rushers with 5 blockers.  Everyone was to blame.  Jim Zorn’s protection schemes were ineffective, Joe Bugel’s personnel choices on the offensive line were baffling, and Vinny Cerrato stacked the unit with a bunch of talent that should never have made an NFL roster.  Campbell made the problem worse by moving around frantically in an already shaky pocket, though I have never felt the need to criticize Jason Campbell for taking a no-win situation and making it worse (if that makes me a Campbell apologist, then guilty as charged).  Todd Collins participated as a walking turnover in three games that season.  The Redskins later were able to create their own passing offense by turning their own blown protections against the opponent, creating open receivers as a result of over-aggressive rushes, so it wasn’t all bad.  As soon as the Redskins figured out how to produce offense without protecting the passer, they fired the entire offensive coaching staff and a large part of the front office.

At different points in the last three years, the Redskins have been unable to read a moving defensive front and unable to successfully protect against a three man rush.  One could argue it is improvement, then, if the 2010 offensive line made those problems go away.  They accomplished this feat, and then some.

Offensive Line Performance in 2010

This year’s offensive line had a couple things going for it.  First of all, when Donovan McNabb entered as Redskins quarterback this season, he did so with an imbedded knowledge of complex protection schemes that the Shanahan’s would be utilizing from all of his years in Philadelphia.  McNabb, as well, is far less sensative to A gap pressure as is the average quarterback (but far more sensitive to pressure off the edges), so the Redskins spent their resources to give him bookend tackles, then trusted McNabb to make it all work with some willing lightweights in front of him. Lining up with Clinton Portis in the backfield is also an invaluable resource for protection purposes.

It mattered that the Redskins came in with a plan to protect their quarterback.  McNabb’s veteran-ness covered the OL weaknesses for just about a month, and then without any substancial results to lean on, McNabb’s fundamentals began to break down.  He became more difficult to protect, because the Shanahans didn’t seemingly put any timing mechanisms in their offensive calls to help the offense work in rhythm.  This was frustrating to watch because in the middle of the season the Redskins OL once again found itself in a struggle to protect it’s passer, who was really no closer to mastering the offense than when he started in it.

I will write this sentence probably many times in the future, but the Redskins at the bye week were a fairly accomplished 4-4 team (who beat both NFC Championship participants, as well as the division champion Eagles) who could watch their season break in any direction.  When I speak of this point in most cases, it will be about how the Redskins failed to meet expectations (2-6 finish), particularly in terms of defense and special teams.  The offensive line and the quarterback they were protecting for, however, did far better in the second half of the year than the first.  They could have broken down as in the past, but the performance was there.  Trent Williams had some stinker games, but became a run blocking force after the bye week.  Kory Lichtensteiger and Casey Rabach remained inconsistent, but Jammal Brown got better, the Redskins OL (Brown) got healthier, and Will Montgomery was a positive change at RG towards adequacy.  The unit only had one really poor game after the bye week, when they hosted the Vikings.

The running game, which could and probably should have made positive strides over this time did not, but I do not believe the offensive line to be at fault here.  I think that’s part running back personnel, and part an unwillingness to use each running back on the roster to the best of their abilities.  For example, I don’t think I had any issue with the blocking schemes and faith the coaching staff had when Ryan Torain was healthy.  But Torain was not the Redskins best (or second best) back last season, and the Redskins response to him being hurt was essentially to water down the diversity of the rushing attack.  The offensive line could have opened up gashing rushing lanes for other backs, I thought, but it was not a focus.

Stunts could often confuse the Redskins OL and get a cheap hit on the quarterback, but stunts also take time to develop, and I think that the offensive line performed at least adequately against them.  I did not see a lot of free runners who fooled the protection this year, rather, some longer developing plays that got to McNabb just before — if not after — he was read to release the ball.  Mostly, guys were just susceptible to getting beat this year.  Sometimes Trent Williams played like a rookie, and Kory Lichtensteiger, Casey Rabach, and Artis Hicks were the biggest culprits of just getting beat.  It’s not a good offensive line when four of five starters (and Jammal Brown didn’t exactly set the world on fire either with his protection) have a problem with losing one on one situations, and it suggests that a further talent influx may be in order.  But it’s also a young unit on the left side, and a strong one on the right side.  The only place they need to get stronger AND younger: right. up. the. middle.

Meaningful Stats

Brian Burke’s system had the Redskins dead last in offensive line efficiency, though I’m convinced his methodology might not be measuring exactly what he things it is.  He has quite a premise though: offensive line value should be determined by the inverse value of the opponents’ front seven.  That’s all well and good, but WPA statistics don’t measure negative plays against a defense (only positive ones collected), and the Redskins threw more than any other team in 2010, giving defensive front sevens more opportunities for big plays (good or bad) than any other opponent.  If we only measure the positive value plays made, the Redskisn couldn’t compete with any other team in OL WPA because they threw too much.  So saying that Redskins opponents collected 1.53 wins of value in their front seven is both meaningful and rather flawed.  That’s a lot of value collected by opposing defenses, but the Redskins could have made a different result by simply calling lower varience offensive plays (i.e. runs).

The offensive line statistics at Football Outsiders show improvement.  22nd in adjusted line yards.  22nd in adjusted sack rate.  In 2009, those rankings were 26th and 27th respectively.  In 2008, the Redskins ranked 1st and 5th though the first half of the year, and then tanked rather quickly, finishing in the middle of the pack.

22nd may not be a great finish or a moral victory, but it’s a large improvement.  At least in pass protection.  There’s some evidence (lower ALY) that the run blocking was weaker this year under Kyle Shanahan than a year ago under Sherman Smith.  My numbers do not reflect this difference, showing only that gashing runs happened with more frequently, because Redskins OL were more proficient at getting up on the linebackers with Redskins runners breaking tackles.  Even without significantly improved run blocking, pass protection was clearly improved, both by study of film and numbers.

The Redskins need to look to improve their 2010 season in the trenches with their 2011 performance, but with young players across the line, and only one major hole to fill on the interior, the immediate future of this offensive line is bright, a large improvement after such a dim recent history, as outlined above.

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