Examining Pressure: Are Left Tackles Overvalued?

In the second part of his in-depth look at pass-rushing pressure, Steve Palazzolo dives into the left tackle-right tackle relative value debate.

| 4 years ago
von miller

Examining Pressure: Are Left Tackles Overvalued?


The blind side. It’s a movie. It’s the left tackle’s responsibility to protect. But is it overvalued?

To begin, I’d like to admit that I came into this project slightly biased as I believe the swing toward the passing game in the NFL necessitates a team has two good offensive tackles, not just one.  The old adage that you put your best pass protector at left tackle (the blind side) and your mauling run blocker at right tackle (teams used to run to the right more often) is outdated.

I’m also of the belief that scouting jargon such as, “he’s a right tackle only” no longer holds water as NFL offenses are less predictable with regard to run direction, while NFL defenses are more unpredictable with their dispersing of pass rushing talent. In other words, the left and right tackles both need to run block and pass block with equal acumen.

Perhaps NFL teams have been reading our research as the NFL Draft saw a surprising emphasis on right tackle candidates.

On a macro level, it’s easy to dismiss the need for an elite left tackle given the recent Super Bowl winners. Since we started grading in 2008, here are the Super Bowl winning teams along with their starting left tackle, overall grade, and rank at the position:

SeasonTeamLeft TackleGradeRank
2008Pittsburgh SteelersMax Starks+14.222nd
2009New Orleans SaintsJermon Bushrod-8.069th
2010Green Bay PackersChad Clifton+2.133rd
2011New York GiantsDavid Diehl-17.669th
2012Baltimore RavensBryant McKinnie+3.98th in playoffs

It should be noted that the last two Super Bowl winners faced different cases as Diehl took over for the last six games of the regular season and carried his poor play into the playoffs, while the Ravens re-shuffled their offensive line just before the playoffs and McKinnie played well during their four-game run.

In the grand scheme, recent Super Bowl winning trends are a small sample, but as we dive into the numbers, we get a better picture of the true value of the left and right tackles.

 

Is the Blind Side Really Blind?

Conventional theory tells us that the left tackle is more important because a right-handed quarterback is unable to see the left tackle’s battle with the right defensive end while the right tackle and left defensive end should be in clear vision. Another common assumption, which is also questionable, states that righties always throw better to their right, therefore more passes must travel that way. This may be the case at youth levels, but it’s not the case in the NFL:

 %AttemptsaDOTYds/AttComp %Acc %YAC/Rec
Right24.8%11.17.159.2%65.0%4.5
Middle52.4%7.77.868.0%75.7%5.6
Left22.9%10.86.958.6%64.7%4.8
Total100.0%9.37.463.7%70.5%5.2

Since we now know that quarterbacks evenly distribute their passes to both sides of the field, the “blind side” must now come into question. Obviously if a quarterback is throwing to his left, he will not be looking to the right side, so we can assume that he must now turn his body toward the throw which now puts the left tackle clearly in his vision while the right tackle now becomes his “blind side.”

In this snapshot, Brady is reading the field to his left, thus making the right tackle responsible for his blind side on this particular play. He is unable to see Von Miller and the result is a sack and a fumble.

Brady is once again blindsided after the right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, surrenders pressure to Cameron Wake.

Drew Brees gets blindsided by DLE Charles Johnson on this play.

Von Miller gets the sack and forced fumble on Phillip Rivers as the route combination dictates that Rivers read the left side of the field.

According to our numbers at PFF, the rushers coming off the left end have continued to improve.

 

Chicken or the Egg

Are the best pass rushers really moving to the left side or are the right tackles simply getting exposed?

It’s not as if this trend is brand new, especially after big name defensive ends such as Reggie White and Michael Strahan did most of the work on the left side during their respective careers. In recent years, however, pass rushers are finding more success when rushing from the defense’s left, against the right tackle. Looking at the Top 25 edge rushers using Pass Rushing grades, this has been the left/right split:

YearFrom Left EndFrom Right End%Left End
2008101540.0%
2009101540.0%
2010121348.0%
201191636.0%
201216964.0%

2012 saw a big jump in production from left side pass rushers and not coincidentally, we saw 16 of the Top 21 pass protectors residing at left tackle. This brings us to our original question: are the best pass rushers really moving to the left side or are the right tackles simply getting exposed? The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Protect the Blindside

Prevailing wisdom is that the defense’s best pass rusher is placed on the defensive right (opposite the left tackle) in order to attack the quarterback’s blind side. Call it the “Lawrence Taylor Effect” if you’d like. It was so eloquently explained in the movie, The Blindside, as he was one of the first pass rushers to keep offensive coordinators up at night looking for new ways to provide help to the left tackle.

Perhaps the easiest way to protect from blindside edge rushers is with a top-notch pass blocking left tackle and teams started to invest heavily, both financially and through the draft, in finding a left tackle capable of holding up “on an island” against the league’s best pass rushers.

Here’s a look at how NFL teams are investing in their tackles:

 Avg Salary
Left Tackles$4,706,407
Right Tackles$2,445,490

On average, left tackles make nearly twice as much as their right tackle brethren. The NFL has determined that the left tackle’s job is more important and they’re being paid as such.

Not only are they getting paid, but teams have done a good job of identifying the best pass protectors and putting them in the desired left tackle spot. This is the left/right split for the Top 25 tackles according to pass blocking grade:

YearLTRTTotal% LT
200814112556.0%
200913122552.0%
201013122552.0%
201115102560.0%
2012*1692564.0%

*2012: 16 of the Top 21 played on the left.

To further the point, we compared pass rushers who rush from both sides of the line to see where they had the majority of their success.

 Pass Rush SnapsSkHtHuTotal PressurePRP
From Left End15,9243063441,1321,7828.9
From Right End18,5163313771,1211,8297.9
Total35,0346447372,2843,6658.3

Rushers with at least 100 attempts from each side of the line experienced a 1.0 difference in Pass Rushing Productivity with it being more difficult when they matched up against left tackles.

The NFL’s strategy of putting the best pass protector at left tackle has forced defensive coordinators to…

Move Your Best Pass Rushers

With heavy investment in left tackles, defenses may have started to identify their best pass rushers and used them to attack the perceived weakness of the offensive line: the right tackle. As the table above shows, 2012 saw a major increase in left side pass rush success as 16 of the top 25 edge rushers in the league did the majority of their work on the left. Perhaps it was just a one-year anomaly, but even if the numbers returned to status quo, the pass rush threats who reside on the left side do not compare favorably, for the offense, to the talent and investment in the right tackle position around the league.

 

Is the Blindside More Valuable to Protect? 

Continue to Page 2

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Anders

    Great article, but I do not like your conclusion to the Chicken or the Egg part, you got 5 years of data and the first 4 shows a no and the last shows a yes and you get to the conclusion that the overall answer is yes? Its just as likely that 2012 is a fluke year and that 2013 will show the same splits as the 4 other years.

  • http://twitter.com/StevePalazzolo Steve Palazzolo

    Since we only have 5 years of data, that’s all that can be shown. It’s more about the trend changing from conventional wisdom of pre-2008 seasons.

  • Andrew

    Great work, but one more thing:

    I hear the high salary of LTs often being justified by keeping your high priced QB healthy (and not actually by keeping pressure away from him to not effect his ingame performance). So how about QB injuries in the pocket? Are they more often inficted from the left side?

  • Xavier

    Would you mind putting a run percentage to each side up or maybe writing an article on if right tackles today are still better run blockers? I’d find that quite interesting i always though David Stewart was a better run blocker than Michael Roos. After checking premium stats I found that other than ’08 Roos has been better that kind of got me thinking I would love to see an article like this only about run blocking!

  • LightsOut85

    I may have read too quickly but, what does ADoT stand for?

    Great article though. This is also a problem in when teams move a successful RT to LT, like Tyron Smith (played RT in college & had success his rookie season doing so), just because they’re athletic only to find their play-level drop off (because it’s not a given they can transfer their technique of dropping back). Michael Oher was another one who was better at RT, though he at least was a college LT. Or then we have someone like STL moving Saffold to RT because they brought in a “better” LT (& assuming a LT would make a great RT)…we’ll see how that plays out if he’s not traded.

    • tom

      Adot = Average Depth of Target, as in how far down the field are the passes thrown

      • LightsOut85

        thanks!

  • John

    Agree that having 2 good tackles is a huge positive, but…

    If NFL left tackles are more talented than right tackles (and based on $ and draft position, it appears they are), then why are just as many pressures/sacks coming from the left side?

    Logically, the better tackles should be more productive. But, as you do a great job of showing, this is not the case.

    It seems that NFL teams compensate for the difficulty of protecting the blind side by putting their best lineman at the spot. But what if they didn’t?

    Its just a guess, but I think if every NFL team flipped its tackles next year, there would be a lot more sacks given up from the left side than the right side.

    But great work as always Steve.

  • JJ

    Defensive co-ordinators will stay up night and day to find and exploit mismatches, you need good linemen at all 5 positions nowadays, you could even argue that the centre has become the most important player now.

  • Alec Glen

    The glaring omission here to me is the utilisation of the TE, teams traditionally ran to the right more because that’s where they put the TE. Many fronts counteract this by moving the LDE across the TE meaning that when passing the RT has the advantage of the LDE being further away, potentially given a bump by the TE on his release or an extra blocker if the TE’s part of the protection. For the 3-4 fronts that don’t move the End over for them it’s the LOLB who’s the edge rusher who’s still pushed into a wider alignment etc.

    What’s also trending in the NFL at the moment is that teams are both using the TE more creatively taking him away from his buddy the RT and utilising a lot more 3, 4 5 receiver sets leaving the RT alone again for Clay Matthews etc to feast on.

    I’m not trying to say these are the reasons why any of these trends are occurring, they’re just compounding factors in addition to those mentioned. It’d be fascinating to see the numbers.

    • LightsOut85

      I too would like to see how in-line TE blocking was taken into account with this study.

      • seenable

        Yes. How often is the Y aligned to the right, as opposed to the left, in today’s NFL, for instance?

  • 12thMan_Rising

    Absolutely great stuff Steve. I’ve been looking forward for you to finish this for bit, and it was worth the wait.

    Suggestions for additional study on the subject: injury rate, fumble rate, TE usage, running success. The first 2 likely have small sample size issues that can’t be resolved until we have a few more years of data, but the other 2 can likely be examined with the data at hand now.

    • Neal Coolong

      Fumble rate would be very interesting. I can’t say it “seems” like QB fumbles come from one edge or the other, and I’m not even sure it would really tell anything substantial, but it might. I almost think a QB would fumble when he’s looking left more often from offensive right side edge rushers because the ball would be held at a closer angle to the pass rusher.

      It’s a great study though. Kudos! I’d like to see what the numbers are coming up the middle. It seems like teams are crashing the guards and center more than they have in the past (Suggs in 2011 and Matthews has done well for himself by hiding behind the linemen, getting low and shooting a gap).

      • 12thMan_Rising

        There does seem to be more inside pressure today, especially from 3-4 outside linebackers. Most of Aldon Smith’s sacks have come from inside stunts inside where Justin Smith was holding the guard preventing Aldon from getting blocked. Its a strategy that has clearly worked

  • Adrian

    But every team in the league puts its best pass protector at LT. Not
    every team puts its best pass rusher over the LT. Pass rushers have more
    success against the RT because they are up against poorer OTs. It is
    arguable that if the LT and RT were equally skilled then more pressure
    would come from the blind side.

    • JJ

      Tackles can’t exploit mismatches by flipping sides like pass rushers, they’re on the left to protect the QB’s blind spot regardless of which side is giving up pressure.

      • Adrian

        Exactly. The stats describe the situation as it is, with the best OTs at LT. We don’t know what the stats would show if all LTs were as good as all RTs.

  • T

    I believe you miss a major factor in considering this: injury. The quarterback can see better on his right side, so, even though he may take as many hits, he at least has the ability to protect himself. From the blindside though, it’s easy to get hit unawares when throwing to the right. Thus, two things to look at were how many quarterback injuries came from the blind side and how many fumbles came from the blind side as compared to the other.

  • Hannah Hayes

    There are obviously some holes and omissions from this which could only be totally fulfilled in a much much larger article including more examples and stats(for one example, the impact of a QB seeing the pressure coming towards him out of the corner of his eye from the LDE and a psychoanalysis documenting such encounters), but this has to be the best and most complete article to date on such matters.

    With that said, one of you guys should really delve into this on all fronts. I’m sure there is some money to be made. Maybe not J.K. Rowling money, but enough to justify the time it would take to complete such an endeavor. Considering the amount of money Cleveland supposedly paid to scout John Manziel, I’m a team/s would front some if not all of the money to get started.

    Do it. Do it.