Analysis Notebook: Week 12
In today’s era of instant superstar players it’s often a letdown when a team’s first-round draft pick doesn’t dominate right out of the gate. Sometimes though, teams pick players with the long-term in mind, and a player that struggles initially might end up a stud in years to come.
The Texans drafted Duane Brown with the 26th overall selection in 2008 in what was described as a reach by many at the time. Though Brown struggled early in his career, coughing up 11 sacks as a rookie, his PFF grade and ranking has improved every season since, and over the past 29 games he has surrendered just a single sack. The Texans were banking on his talent and potential, and right now they are being proved right with every game.
Brown is the league’s best left tackle in 2012, putting together a season so good it saw him in sixth position in our Offensive Player of the Year rankings compiled by the PFF analysts. Senior Analyst Ben Stockwell, the man that analyses more games than anybody at PFF, actually ranked Brown in his top spot.
Against the Lions on Thanksgiving he put together another display of dominance and I reached out to him to ask him about that game, his development and some of the technical aspects of his play.
“I was very ‘raw’ as a first-round draft pick. I only played three seasons at tackle in college, one on the left side,” Brown said. “I didn’t understand exactly how important technique was until I started to play my rookie year. I have worked extremely hard, and still do, to try to perfect my craft. Also, film study plays a huge role in the success of a left tackle, or any position in this league. That was something else I had to learn my first couple of years.”
That development has led to games like he had against Detroit, where his powerful run blocking and near perfect day in pass protection (allowing just one hurry on 51 snaps), led to a monster +8.7 grade, his best of the year, and the best grade we have given to any offensive tackle in any game in 2012.
Mastering the Zone Scheme – Houston @ Detroit| 2nd Q, 14:04
On 1st-and-10 the Texans pick up 7 yards thanks to Brown’s recognition of the defense, picking up the free rushing linebacker.
This play is a great example of why playing in a zone scheme often takes a little time for players to master. It is different to traditional power, man-blocking schemes where you identify your defender, lock on, and take him for a ride, because your assignment can change on the fly and you need to be able to recognize that and adjust.
Many zone plays begin with double teams up front. Linemen in this scheme are often smaller but more agile than in other schemes so double teams help to get the defenders moving at the point of attack and establish leverage. From that point, one of the blockers is able to work his way through to the second level and pick up linebackers, or to cut on the backside and open up a lane for the runner to move back into. On this play, Brown begins on a double team with the tight end to his left on Lions’ defensive end Lawrence Jackson, a pretty good run defender for Detroit.
The run is coming that way, but linebacker DeAndre Levy reads it well and is coming at speed to knife through the line and likely kill the run in the backfield. Brown recognizes the threat and comes off the double team, stoning Levy in his tracks and springing the running back around the edge where he is able to pick up 7 yards before being taken down by a safety.
“The zone scheme has a lot to do with awareness, also chemistry amongst linemen and TE’s,” Brown said. “On that play I was working with the TE to seal the edge. Based on film study I knew their LB’s liked to blitz if given the lane, so once I saw him take the lane I had to take him. It was also a good job by the TE recognizing I wasn’t helping him anymore and locking the DE up on his own so we could get the edge.”
On this play the difference between lost yardage and a gain of seven on first down is Brown reading the situation and reacting to it in a heartbeat, the fact that he is also able to completely halt Levy’s progress despite the linebacker having a running start and a head of steam says a lot about his power and anchor.
Power and Staying With the Block – Houston @ Detroit | 2nd Q, 11.02
On 1st-and-goal from the 6-yard line Brown is able to open up the lane to the end zone for Foster by taking out three defenders with one block.
If you want another example of the strength and power Brown possesses, you don’t need to look further than the touchdown run on the same drive. The Texans had marched down the field and had 1st-and-goal at the six yard line. Again the Texans are going to run to the left side and allow the line to open up the hole, this time for Foster.
Brown makes contact initially with the defensive end to that side, Kyle Vanden Bosch, but is almost knocked off the block by the collision coming from his inside as LG Wade Smith goes to ground in his block with Ndamukong Suh, sending Brown momentarily off balance and threatening to blow up the entire play. He recovers extremely quickly though, and re-establishes the block dominantly, driving KVB off the line of scrimmage and actually collecting another pair of defenders in the process.
By the time Foster is crossing the goal line Brown has pancaked three defenders, driving his man off the line so far he cuts off the pursuit of both a linebacker and a safety, and takes them all to the ground.
“Sustaining blocks is a key point our O-Line coach (John Benton) really emphasizes,” Brown said. “Getting on your guy isn’t enough, you have to drive and create space so they aren’t able to fall off and make tackles. It gets crazy out there with so many people flying around, but once you are locked up on someone you tend to block everything else out and that becomes your main focus,” Brown explained. “So on that play, once I found my target and got my hands on him, I just kept my feet driving until I was able to finish the block. I had to no idea I was able to take out a couple other defenders until I saw the replay the next day. I’m glad it worked out that way!”
We’re talking about a guy who not only had the strength to take out three defenders, but also had so much focus that he didn’t even notice 450lbs of player running into his block and coming off the worse for it.
Athleticism and Tough Blocks – Houston @ Detroit | OT, 7:57
On 1st-and-10 in overtime Brown is able to execute a tough reach block to seal off the backside defensive tackle and open up a big running lane.
The other aspect of playing in a zone scheme is that sometimes linemen need to make a block on a player lined up unusually far away from them. Most man-blocking linemen would have no chance of executing these blocks, but the ability of players in a zone blocking scheme to do so is what springs running backs for big gains. Brown again finished this play having pancaked his defender, but that is far from the most impressive part of the block.
His assignment on the play is to seal off the backside defensive tackle, Sammy Lee Hill, a powerful run defender in his own right, on a play going to the right. Hill is lined up shaded on the outside shoulder of the LG, some considerable distance from Brown.
“The zone scheme takes some getting used to,” Brown said. “It really fits me well because my biggest asset is my athleticism. So having to travel those large distances to get to the wide DE/ OLB’s is tough at times, but I enjoy it because I get to use my quickness to help open up lanes for our RBs”
This is where we get to see the complete package in his skills, because he fires out of his stance and is able to make initial contact almost heads up, having eaten up the gap between the two players. He still doesn’t quite have leverage to be able to seal him to the outside so he drives his outside shoulder underneath the big DT to get correct position before swinging his entire body down and back up to the outside, putting himself directly between the defender and the intended point of attack. That is athleticism and flexibility that few tackles in the NFL possess, but he couples that with some quite astounding strength from that point onwards, stopping Hill in his tracks and driving him down field, eventually right to the turf.
With Wade Smith working through to the second level to take out the middle linebacker and the front side of the play being ably walled off, Arian Foster has a huge hole to cut into and is almost at the first-down marker before he is even challenged by the first defender, a safety.
Naturally, on this play the TV announcer, Phil Simms, chose to focus on the hustle by Smith getting to the second level, and while the guard did well, Simms missed one of the best blocks of the game right next to him that opened up the lane in the first place.
In this game we got to see the full spectrum of elite play from Brown. Left tackles in today’s league need to be pass protectors first and foremost, and Brown believes that Houston’s zone scheme actually aids him by demanding elite skills in the running game that automatically translate to pass protection.
“I think my athleticism for the zone scheme helps me out a lot in pass protection,” Brown said. “My footwork, body control, and agility puts me in good position to make my blocks. But good hands and a strong base are much needed when going against elite rushers. Being athletic is great but if you’re not able to sit down on a bullrush it can bring some problems about. I’ve been working hard to focus on the latter to progress the way I’d like to.”
That is what is so impressive about the 2012 version of Duane Brown. Several players in the league today are athletically-gifted left tackles, capable of shadowing great pass-rushers and limiting the pressure they surrender, but few are able to partner that with the strength and power Brown has developed and uses in the run game as well as his pass protection. He has allowed just 15 total pressures this season as a pass protector, but his run blocking grade sits almost identically alongside his excellent pass-protection grade for the season, making Brown the league’s best all-around left tackle right now.