In the past two offseasons, Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders have given out nearly $115M in contract salary dollars acquiring the best talent available in an effort to create a monster of an offensive line, one that will mash on defenders in the runnng game and that will stonewall pass rushers.
- KO signed 5 years $58.5 M, $25.4M guaranteed
- Hudson signed 5 year $44.50 M, $20M guaranteed
- Penn signed 2 year, $11.9M, $5.5M guaranteed
These are in addition to Austin Howard (5yr, $30M in 2014), Menelik Watson (2nd round pick in 2014), and emerging star 3rd-year guard Gabe Jackson.
In preseason week two against the Green Bay Packers, when the first team rushed for a total of 36 yards on 10 carries (3.6 avg), over the course of the first half. These yards were hard fought with rarely any big holes created, many times against 2nd team defenders.
So what happened?
There were several things that clearly impact the Raiders' running game.
- Scheme Prep
- FB and RB Coordination
- Cut blocking
- Aggressive and fast defense
- Walford's and Rivera's blocking were very poor
But perhaps the key aspect of the run game was in the offensive line's execution of the combination block.
This is a closer look at perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the offensive line.
It's a somewhat derogatory term indicating that a team has impressive looking names penciled on paper, but has yet to actually prove anything.
It is also known as the "Dream Team"-effect.
As fans, we mostly get infatuated with the big names players and assume that their integration into the team is seamless and immediate. In the logical part of our heads, we know that it takes time and effort for a team to come together, but most of the time, our irrational, emotional brain is urgently demanding results right away.
The Offensive Line is an interesting beast, perhaps the unit most dependent upon dynamic coordination among its members.
The Raiders offensive line going into the 2016 pre-season has three new pieces. In other words, there are only two linemen who are in the same position as last year : Rodney Hudson at Center and Donald Penn at Left Tackle. The other three, Kelechi Osemele, Gabe Jackson, and Menelik Watson are all new or in new positions. (Watson did have 2+ preseason games at RT last year before injuring his achilles tendon).
We often think of football in terms of 1-on-1 matchups. WR v CB, LT v DE/OLB, DT v OG. But really, it's always much more than that.
On the offensive line, there are certainly many times a blocker has to reach and block a defender by himself with no help. Many times there is some kind of help available and the success of the blocking will be determined by how well these linemen coordinate with each other.
In the modern NFL, there are rarely any so-called "True Double Teams" anymore; it is generally a combination block that has two blockers doubling a defender and then one of the blockers disengages to pick off a second level defender.
A Combination block is fantastic because it affects the initial defender just like a double team while not sacrificing a blocker against the defense.
The downside is that Combo blocks require much better coordination and timing than a simple double team and this requires time. Time and Reps.
A Short Primer on Combination Blocks
Bad Combo blocks--really bad ones--can be worse than no block at all. The bump by the second blocker can sometimes do more to disrupt the balance and body placement of the initial blocker and on some occassions can end up "picking" off the blocker and freeing up the defender.
Here's an example of a terrible combination block.
Trigger warning this is from the Raiders' 2012 season which was marred by new offensive line blocking scheme and was troubled all season long.
On this play, we have Stefen Wisniewski at Center and Cooper Carlisle at Left Guard and the Atlanta Falcons' defensive tackle is #95 Jonathan Babineaux, listed at the time as 6'2", 281 lbs.
Here, Cooper Carlisle wants to help Wis by giving a two-hand punch to Babineaux, breaking his balance and allowing Wis to get superior position. Instead, the position and angle of that hit effectively supercharges Babineaux "torque" and powers Wis to the inside.
Babineaux is then able to finish by swimming over the top and get into the backfield.
A different angle on Cooper's punch or a differently prepared base by Wis and the two could have put Babineaux into a controlled position and given McFadden a nice running lane.
Now here's an example of GB's second-team OL executing their combination blocks against the Raiders' in this past game :
The Center #67 is Don Barclay and Left Guard #65 is Lane Taylor and here they take on Justin Ellis.
First, Barclay engages Jelly on the outside shoulder and then Taylor combos by attacking Jelly's inside shoulder. As the block progresses, see how Taylor slides from inside to outside to get the desired leverage position while Barclay also slides aside while maintaining a physical presence on Jelly.
Once Taylor is fully engaged, Barclay (keeping his head up to track Malcolm Smith) then releases and takes on the 2nd level block.
The Packers block 2 Raiders' defenders by using 2 linemen, but they are able to get a double team on Justin Ellis to keep him away from the target running gap.
Watch this closely and pay attention to how the two Packers orbit Ellis and how Barclay disengages without affecting Taylor. Sometimes the sudden/unexpected release of support can be as disorienting as a sudden impact.
The Packers' offensive line was showing this fantastic chemistry in their blocking all night.
Now here's a look at two plays that show how the Raiders' offensive line were using the help from each other.
Play 1 -Gabe Jackson v Mike Daniels
- Gabe Jackson is listed at 6'3" 335 lbs
- Mike Daniels is listed at 6' 310 lbs
Now look at this play from the 1st quarter. 2nd-and-6 and the handoff goes to Latavius Murray. He gains 2 yards:
The immediate reaction here is that Gabe Jackson gets beaten pretty handily by the shorter and lighter Mike Daniels. Daniels gets to the outside and into Murray's intended running lane.
Here's a closer look with some still images :
Notice that Jackson and Daniels engage facemask to facemask and that Menelik Watson is releasing to the second level. Jackson wants to get outside leverage on Daniels, meaning that he wants to get his body to the outside while forcing Daniels to the inside, aka "Reaching" Daniels.
Daniels started off in a 3-technique alignment (on Jackson's outside shoulder), meaning that Daniels starts off with outside leverage and Gabe wants to overcome that initial advantage.
This is a tough block for a single blocker to make against an unwilling defender.
Here, as Watson is going to attack his 2nd level assignment, Gabe is engaged with Daniels. Look at Daniels' positioning (leverage) and Gabe's feet.
Daniels has outside leverage and Gabe's feet/hips are turned to face outside. There's no way for Gabe to do anything here except push Daniels out into the running lane.
And once Murray turns upfield into that target lane, he sees color waiting for him.
What could have helped Gabe quite a bit is if he received some help from Menelik Watson. A single bump or punch for Watson may be enough to help Gabe get into position. In this case, Gabe may have been expecting it and so when it does not come he is in poor position.
A little thing like bumping a guy with the left hand on the release could be the difference between a 2 yard gain and a 4-to-5 yard gain.
Play 2 - Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn v Mike Daniels
- Kelechi Osemele is listed at 6'5", 333 lbs
- Donald Penn is listed at 6'5", 305 lbs
- Mike Daniels is listed at 6', 310 lbs
The Raiders' OL did execute some nice combination blocks on the night and here is a nice example with newest Raider Kelechi Osemele :
Osemele comes off the ball and gives a nasty hit to Daniels; he hits with power and also turns Daniels' shoulders. As Osemele slides off to take on the 2nd level linebacker, Donald Penn hits and slides into blocking position. With Daniels' balance broken and his body turned, he goes to the ground fairly easily.
This is very nicely done at creases the defense. With more time together, the handoff between these two should improve and become even better.
Unfortunately, a defender from the other side ruins the play.
So let's look closer at the Rodney Hudson and Letroy Guion matchup.
Notice that Guion lines up in the 1-technique shade, so that he is starting off with outside leverage. This means that Rodney Hudson starts the play with advantageous positioning, but that Guion eventually overcomes it and wins the battle.
This is similar to--but less obvious than--the play from 2012 where Cooper Carlisle effectively assisted the defender on the play.
Rodney has inside position and on this play, he wants to maintain that inside position.
Now watch Gabe Jackson as he releases and pay close attention to his hands :
Gabe gives Guion a little two-hand chuck right around waist level. Instead of breaking Guion's balance or putting him in poor position, Gabe actually helps push Guion into the target running lane. The bump puts Guion back inside and also (perhaps more importantly) creates space between them.
Gabe is better off if he doesn't touch Guion at all.
Remember "You make a fist by bringing all five fingers together."
Offensive line cohesion is a process and it's crucial that everyone executes well. 2 or 3 linemen executing well can be totally undone by another 1 or 2 missing their assignments. Then the entire unit (and offense in general) looks bad. When everyone is rolling together and moving defenders at will without evening having to pause to think this run game is going to start looking good.
The Raiders have the talent, they have an excellent line coach, and they have the motivation to be a great unit. But building a great offensive line takes time. The pieces are here and now the real work begins.
The only thing that helps this is repetition. LIVE reps. Practice reps are important, but it's the live action that really sets the bond. And that's a key reason that the first team offensive line was in the game so late in the game.
Pay close attention and watch for these combination blocks particularly at the point of attack. When you see a blocker look like he fails at his block or that the defender wins the matchup, backup the play and look to see if there should have been some help on the play.
On successful plays, see if you can see when and where adjacent line-mates are helping each other. Look for little bumps and punches right on the release or pay attention to how linemen hand off the double team. It's not as exciting as just seeing a massive pancake block, but it's these little points that make a really great unit.
To leave on a high note, I'll leave this one and let you enjoy the view.