Analysis Notebook: Week 13
Let’s face it, things in Philadelphia haven’t exactly gone as planned this season. The year is in tatters, people are being thrown under the bus left, right and center, and only one member of the starting five offensive linemen is still playing after injuries decimated the unit. That player is LG Evan Mathis, who is somehow playing at an All-Pro level despite the mess all around him for most of the year.
The lone survivor of a line that looked very good on paper, Mathis is currently sitting atop the PFF guard rankings with a score that almost doubles the next closest player, Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda. He hasn’t given up a sack all season and has been excellent as a pass protector, but perhaps his best play comes in the run game.
What stands out to me when I put on the tape is how sound his technique is. Plenty of NFL guards are imposing physical specimens, but Mathis rarely seems to be in the wrong position, and usually gets himself between his defender and the ball, rather than simply relying on strength to control his man, even when his role is likely to be secondary at best on the play.
I reached out to Mathis for this week’s Notebook to see if he would take us through some of his plays against the Cowboys and enlighten us a little on the subject of interior line play, something often lost when discussing football.
Working Against Power – Philadelphia @ Dallas | 1st Q, 12:28
On a run off the right guard Mathis is able to cut off the backside defensive tackle and help open up the hole for a five yard gain on 1st and 10.
Though the run is designed to go to the right, cutting off the pursuit angle of linemen is critical to opening the hole and giving the running back some room to work. On this play Mathis had to get in front of a big defensive tackle and halt his progress to open up the running lane.
“I’m faced with the task of blocking a defender who is closer to the running back’s point of attack than I am. I can gain a step by timing the snap count and I can gain another by taking a lateral drop step to the right. Coaches like Howard Mudd refer to this as “losing ground to gain position.” It’s a popular first step in many zone blocking plays. I expect this first step to be done fast enough to have my head on the play side of the defender, between him and the ball.” Mathis explained.
“My second step has the defender in the crosshairs. This is a powerful step intended to stop the defender’s upfield movement and force it strictly laterally. Ideally, forceful contact is delivered with the shoulder and/or forearm. If I gain enough initial position, like on this play, I can outmuscle the defender and force myself between him and the ball. If I don’t gain enough position for that, I work hard to keep my head between the ball and the defender’s head while also applying upfield pressure.”
As you can see from the image, Mathis got himself into perfect position, and then had the power to drive his man off the line of scrimmage and eventually right to the ground and out of the play. “It’s fun when the block is dominating enough to take a guy to the ground. It’s not as fun when the defender trips and falls while you’re blocking him. This first play above, I don’t take credit for him going to the ground because he tripped on my left tackle’s long, giraffe legs.” Though he may not get full credit for the pancake on the play, everything else about this block is exactly as it is drawn up, ensuring that a player who had a real chance of shutting down that run was neutralized.
The Reach Block – Philadelphia @ Dallas | 1st Q, 5:44
On 1st and Goal from the 10 Mathis opens up a big hole to the left of the formation by executing a reach block on his defender to spring Bryce Brown for a touchdown.
The reach block is one of those plays that is so routine it is rarely commented on, but is actually a far harder thing to execute than it looks. In essence, you are trying to block a player that is starting off the play closer to the point of attack than you are, and consequently has an inherent leverage advantage on the play.
Initially the announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were praising the left tackle for simply keeping DeMarcus Ware out of the play, but when he saw the replays Collinsworth correctly pointed out that it was the block from Mathis that broke open the running lane.
Linemen on these plays all too frequently settle for making the lateral movement, getting initial contact on the defender, and then simply escorting him laterally and leaving the running back to pick his way between the blocks, but after that first contact Mathis works for position and eventually seals his man inside. “I get such good front side position in my first few steps that the defender tries to fall backside to make the play. By this point, Brown is hitting the hole like a boss, finding a lane between the DT and the OLB straight to the end zone.”
If Mathis had been content to simply get good initial position and maintain his block the lateral movement would have taken the pair right into the path of Brown and forced the runner to make a cutback, back towards pursuing defenders, but his work to halt that momentum allows a straight run to pay dirt.
The Little Things – Philadelphia @ Dallas | 2nd Q, 9:17
On 2nd and 13, Brown breaks a run to the right side for 39 yards while Mathis takes a linebacker completely out of the play on the backside by getting to the second level.
This play typifies what separates Mathis from most guards in the league. The run goes all the way around right end, well away from the left guard, and likely any influence he is going to have on the play is going to be relatively minimal. He still executes his assignment as if it was the key block at the point of attack, and that has an effect on games and runs. “If someone was to look at stats that were labeled as “runs to the right” then a lot of the time the RG and RT would get the credit and/or the blame for those plays.” said Mathis. “When in all reality, these Zone plays are many times stopped by the defenders that the other side of the line failed to block. Regardless of the frequency of backside defenders making tackles, one is enough for me to view every block with equal importance. There’s no need to ever take a play off.”
In this instance his job is to get to the second level and cut off the potential pursuit of the backside inside linebacker, Ernie Sims. That job is made easier by the fact that both ILBs come up to crowd the line of scrimmage and threaten to attack, effectively playing right into the offense’s hands, but it’s what happens after contact that is impressive.
If you watch interior linemen working their way to the second level most of the time they are looking to simply identify their target and get in the way. They often throw a cut block on plays like this simply to try and stop the pursuit. Rarely do you see a player try to engage, lock on and take the defender out of the play, but that’s exactly what Mathis does.
The key to blocks on linebackers is speed as Mathis explains. “I don’t have to deliver as much force to a LB as I do a DL, like the Q1 plays, so my initial focus is speed. I run fast to get position on the defender then lock my hands on to force him to the side of me opposite the football.” Instead of simply trying to get in his way or throw a cut block, Mathis is actively trying to lock on to his assignment and turn him away from the football, effectively walling off any potential pursuit he may have and ensuring that the run doesn’t just make it to the second level, but makes it well down field.
Against some linebackers this is unlikely to ever be an issue, but Sims is one of the fastest linebackers in football for all his faults. Without taking him out there would be a very real possibility that he could get in on the play with his pursuit speed. Against another guard he may have been able to evade the block and been merely slowed down. In this instance Mathis turns him fully away from the play allowing the running back to get fifteen yards down field before Sims can even get off the block.
Though the Eagles season might be a write off, fans can console themselves that at least they have one of the league’s best performing players in the shape of Mathis. The tape doesn’t lie, and in this case the tape shows the Eagles invested wise money to keep their left guard around, even if the other four members of that line have succumbed to injury.