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Raiders film room: Alex Leatherwood’s pass protection & guard potential

Rookie’s areas of improvement and prospects at new position

Baltimore Ravens v Las Vegas Raiders
Alex Leatherwood
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

There’s no sugarcoating it, Las Vegas Raiders’ rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood has been a liability in pass protection this season.

Per Pro Football Focus, his pass-blocking efficiency rating (93.3) is the seventh-worst among offensive tackles that have at least 40 snaps in pass protection, and he’s graded out as the second-worst player at the position in that area. Recently, the coaching staff acknowledged this as Leatherwood is starting to take reps at guard during practice.

The move to the inside isn’t foreign territory for the rookie since he started 14 games as a sophomore in college at right guard. As a pass-blocker that year, he earned an efficiency rating of 97.6, allowed 21 total pressures and two sacks, both of which came in during the first two starts of his college career. Obviously, those numbers are a lot better than the ones referenced above.

So that begs the questions: where/why is Leatherwood struggling as a pass blocker at tackle, what areas will he still need to improve on when playing inside, and does he show traits on film that will translate to guard?

Areas for improvement

I’m the type of person that always likes to start with the bad news so I can end on a high note. We’ll begin by looking at a few clips where Leatherwood has struggled and this will be a mixed bag of where he needs to improve as a tackle, and what he’ll need to clean up if he does start playing more guard.

Probably the biggest and most consistent problem the Alabama product has is stopping his feet when he punches. In the clip above, he does everything perfectly right until he starts to throw his punch.

When he shoots his hands, Leatherwood’s feet slow down and that allows the pass rusher to get into his chest and on an edge. The rusher then has control of him and, since his feet stopped, he’s lost the edge, has a soft outside shoulder and it’s nearly a sack.

This isn’t the greatest rep from Kolton Miller on the left side, but watch Miller’s feet and compare them to Leatherwood’s. The left tackle’s feet stay the same speed the entire time and he stays in front of the rusher until he loses balance at the end of the rep.

This next clip is another example of the rookie stopping his feet.

Again, he does everything right up until the point of contact, where he throws his punch a little early which causes him to lean and those feet look like they’re stuck in cement. That makes it easy for No. 91 to get around the edge and force the ball out.

The other aspect of this play I want to point out is Leatherwood’s base. Pause the video about three seconds in and take a look at his knee bend. Typically, you want an offensive linemen’s quads and calves to make as close to a 90-degree angle as possible - exactly 90 will never happen - similar to squatting in the weight room.

However, Leatherwood’s knees are nearly locked out and that will cause him issues on the inside when he goes up against bigger and stronger bull rushers, especially if his feet stop and his hand placement doesn’t improve.

On a semi-related note, another area that Leatherwood is going to have to work on when playing inside is to avoid catching defensive linemen. The play above is a good example of it and is why he gives up the edge.

Partially, this has to do with his wide and low hand placement, an issue he had in college, and he isn’t aggressive with his punch so the rusher’s momentum isn’t slowed down. Then, the tackle just opens up the gate and gives the defender a path to the quarterback, something he won’t be able to get away with at guard.

Here’s another example of Leatherwood catching. He’s able to get away with it because he’s going against a 250-pound edge rusher that just runs straight into his chest, but that’s not going to work against defensive tackles with good technique.

Again, his hands are low and a little late, which is concerning since we saw him also struggle with punching early. Obviously, that means the rookie’s timing is off, and he looks a little cautious when shooting his hands which could be a sign of a lack of confidence or uncertainty with his technique.

As you might have guessed, I strategically placed these clips to show similar issues but get progressively worse, and here is the culmination of what I’ve been talking about.

No. 15, Jalen Phillips, tips the scale at 266-pounds and has some great technique on this bull rush, getting his hands right to Leatherwood’s chest which results in the latter getting put on his back. I like to call that a turtle because the offensive lineman is left helpless on the ground with his arms and legs in the air, much like if you turned a turtle over on its shell.

I’ll end the negativity with a rep that is more specific to Leatherwood’s issues playing tackle and will be a nice lead into why I think he’ll be much improved at guard.

What’s frustrating about this play is Leatherwood doesn’t do what he’s best at and that’s using a 45-degree pass set. Against a wide defensive end like this, vertical setting - working backward off the snap instead of more laterally - does the tackle no good because it just creates more space. Also, the offensive lineman has to beat the rusher to the spot vertically, which the rookie does not do here.

Then, we see that tentative and early punch from him again, probably because he’s panicking since he’s losing the rep, and that allows the rusher to just swipe his arm away and Carr gets hit. Had Leatherwood used a 45-degree set, he could have reduced the space between him and the rusher and would have avoided losing the foot race he’d be right on top of the end after the snap.

The positive and potential

I hinted at this above, but Leatherwood is a lot better when using more aggressive pass sets like a jump or 45-degree set, and the clip above is a perfect example. Here, he pops out of his stance and is on the defensive linemen immediately and it looked like he might have even been the first guy off the ball.

Compare his lower half to the second clip above. In this one, he has a lot more knee bend and a nice wide base so that his power is underneath him to stop a potential bull rush. Also, he shows quickness and agility to mirror the defensive tackle in a phone booth, and Leatherwood’s hands are inside this time so he’s able to control the rusher.

Quick or jump sets are a lot more common for guards to use because they don’t have to worry about losing the edge as much. It allows the offensive lineman to get on the pass rusher right away and reduces the amount of space the rusher has to work with. When an offensive lineman isn’t as comfortable working in space, this is a great solution to that problem.

Again, we’re going to see another example of a more aggressive pass set and much cleaner technique from Leatherwood.

The get-off and aggressiveness remain the same from the previous play, and he does a great job of splitting the defensive tackle’s crotch with his inside foot, and he gets inside hand right to the chest to takeaway an inside move. That forces the defender to work to the outside which is what the offensive tackle wants the defender to do because that’s where his help is, much like where it would be if he’s playing guard.

It’s good to see that Leatherwood is much more aggressive and lands his punch more accurately when using jump sets. Since again, that’s what he’ll do more of on the inside.

This next clip is a play-action pass so Leatherwood is going to get some help from the play design, but it is another example of what he can do when asked to be more aggressive as a pass blocker.

He attacks No. 99, Jerry Tillery, and immediately shoots his hands to get them on Tillery’s chest. That allows the offensive lineman to steer and control the pass rusher, and the pass rush move is over before it really even gets started. Another example of better hand placement by the rookie when blocking in a confined area rather than in space.

We’ll wrap this up with a great rep from Leatherwood where he actually using a vertical set much more effectively than we’ve previously seen.

The rookie is very good at stopping inside stick or counter moves. Part of that comes from his intelligence that the coaching staff raved about during training camp, as he’s able to anticipate and see the rusher start to work to the inside before it happens.

He gets off the ball quickly and maintains good spacing with an outside shoulder to inside shoulder relationship with the pass rusher, so he can still protect the outside and recover to the inside. Once Philips starts to work inside, Leatherwood uses his hands and strength to thwart the move.

While there are plenty of reps that suggest otherwise, this one is promising for his prospects as a tackle, and he rarely gets beat by inside moves which is very encouraging and will be beneficial at guard as well. Controlling pass rushers is huge on the inside and reps like this one suggest that Leatherwood is up for the task.