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.
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tackle (the blind side) and your mauling run blocker at right tackle (teams used to run to the right more often) is outdated.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.
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:
Season Team Left Tackle Grade Rank
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Max Starks +14.2 22nd
2009 New Orleans Saints Jermon Bushrod -8.0 69th
2010 Green Bay Packers Chad Clifton +2.1 33rd
2011 New York Giants David Diehl -17.6 69th
2012 Baltimore Ravens Bryant McKinnie +3.9 8th 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:
%Attempts aDOT Yds/Att Comp % Acc % YAC/Rec
Right 24.8% 11.1 7.1 59.2% 65.0% 4.5
Middle 52.4% 7.7 7.8 68.0% 75.7% 5.6
Left 22.9% 10.8 6.9 58.6% 64.7% 4.8
Total 100.0% 9.3 7.4 63.7% 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:
Year From Left End From Right End %Left End
2008 10 15 40.0%
2009 10 15 40.0%
2010 12 13 48.0%
2011 9 16 36.0%
2012 16 9 64.0%
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:
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:
Year LT RT Total % LT
2008 14 11 25 56.0%
2009 13 12 25 52.0%
2010 13 12 25 52.0%
2011 15 10 25 60.0%
2012* 16 9 25 64.0%
*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 Snaps Sk Ht Hu Total Pressure PRP
From Left End 15,924 306 344 1,132 1,782 8.9
From Right End 18,516 331 377 1,121 1,829 7.9
Total 35,034 644 737 2,284 3,665 8.3
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…