Old Mother Hubbard: The Offensive Tackles

>> 4.25.2011

Note: This is part of an ongoing series; check out the rest of the entries if you dig!

After my review of the centers took a whack at a perennial fan piñata, Dominic Raiola, I’ve been both anticipating and dreading doing this one. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised:

The top-PFF-graded NFL left tackle is Andrew Whitworth, who is not that defensive end from the Cardinals from back in the day. A 2006 second-round pick, the 6’-7,” 335-pounder turned in the NFL’s second-best pass block grade, ninth-best run block grade, and best screen block grade. He did take seven penalties, but  even that wasn’t enough to drag him off the top of the heap. At the bottom is Levi Brown, the man he replaced in Cincinnati [Ed. note: that was Levi Jones; thanks to Anonymous Commenter]. Levi turned in an appalling -34.1 pass block grade, while allowing the Cardinals’ sad menagerie of quarterbacks to get flattened.

Of course, the man of the hour is Jeff Backus, and unsurprisingly he’s the Lions’ best offensive tackle. His overall +1.4 grade puts him 21st out of 78 offensive tackles; 13th out of left tackles. His pass block grade slots him 27th, 14th amongst qualifying left tackles. His run block grade is 33rd, 16th amongst left tackles. His four penalties called (one declined/offset) gave him the 8th-best penalty grade in the NFL (5th-best amongst left tackles. You’ll notice that his blue line is solidly above the thick black AVERAGE; that’s correct. Jeff Backus performed like an above-average tackle in 2010.

Backus was 13th amongst left tackles in snaps-per-sack-or-qb-hit-allowed, with 87.2 (NFL avg. 83). He was  21st amongst left tackles in snaps-per-pressure-allowed, with 34.3 (NFL avg. 41). That’s the only dimension of Jeff Backus’ game where he wasn’t above both the mean and median for either all offensive tackles, or left tackles only: he has a below-average-but-not-awful pressures-allowed rate. Whew.

Digging into the individual-game grades a little bit, Backus (predictably) was graded either weakly or strongly positive in all but five games. His five negative grades, were: -1.0, -1.5, -1.5, -2.1, -2.6, and a nasty -5.4 against Buffalo, of all teams. From Week 4 (@GBP) through Week 10 (@BUF), Backus turned in a positive pass block grade of +1.0 or better for all but one game. (+0.1, v. WAS). That’s right, even in only truly bad game, Backus was strongly positive in pass protection. He (along with the rest of the line) was awful at run blocking that data, though (-5.1), and he was assessed two penalties. Other than that, though, Backus was mostly positive or neutral across the board.

Bottom Line: Jeff Backus, for the second-straight year, has turned in a solidly-above-average performance at left tackle. His ten-year consecutive games streak is an amazing accomplishment, and he’s playing the best football of his life. The Lions will be fine with him for 2011—but how much tread is left on those tires?

As the offense’s answer to Cliff “It Would Be So Sweet if This Guy Stepped Up” Avril, Gosder Cherilus answered the bell, if not with the same aplomb his defensive counterpart did. Cherilus was PFF’s 27th-best-graded offensive tackle in 2010, 13th-best if you’re counting only right tackles. HIs +0.5 pass block grade slotted him 26th-best (12th-best amongst RTs)—very slightly better than Backus! Gosder’s -2.7 run-block grade was only 42nd-best out of 78 OTs, though, and 18th-best of right-siders. PFF only has him credited with five penalties (one declined/offset), though, so his penalty rating was right about average—great news for those of us with random bald spots from pulling our hair out.

Statistically, Gosder has a nice feather for his cap: he averaged 120.9 snaps per QB sack or hit allowed! This is the 13th-best mark overall, and 9th-best amongst right tackles. Like Backus, though, he allows a lot of pressures; one every 31.3 snaps, on the average. That’s 48th-best amongst all tackles, 20th-best amongst primary RTs.

Gosder's individual-game grades are fascinating. For the first three games, he turned in horrific grades of -4.6, -3.0, and -4.9. After that, he was a stud. He turned eight straight games without a negative pass block, run block, or overall grade. He was strongly positive overall for six of those eight games. In the ninth game, against Chicago, Gosder had a tough time run blocking (-1.1), which brought down his overall grade for that week to -1.0. I thought Rob Sims’ grades had a noticeable “slump” in them, but this is incredibly dramatic; like night and day. I have no idea what happened after Week 3, but Gosder’s performance went from practice-squad material to top ten RT stuff.

Bottom Line: Gosder took a huge step forward in 2010—specifically, in Week 4 of 2010. I can’t explain what turned the lightswitch on, but if he recovers from his knee injury and picks up where he left off, Cherlius will be a top ten RT in 2011 and beyond. That’s a big “If,” though.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was backup RT Corey Hilliard, who came in cold in relief of Cherilus on Thanksgiving and turned in an impressive +1.7 grade on just 33 reps. I remember him playing a pretty good game the following week against Green Bay, too, but the PFF graders handed him a -1.8, due to a -2.0 pass block mark. He was given an overall negative grade for every game thereafter, too. His only positive grade of any sort after that New England game was his +1.9 run block grade against Tampa—negated in the overall grade by five pressures allowed, and two penalties assessed.

Bottom Line: by only allowing one sack in 271 snaps, Corey Hilliard flashed performance we had no idea was there. He played only better than you’d expect from a 2007 sixth-rounder with very, very few snaps of live action—but you wouldn’t expect much at all, and Hillard was far short of revelatory. I expect him to be in the mix as a backup for 2011, but Hilliard does not appear to be a long-term answer. He is, however, only 25.

Rookie fourth-round draft pick Jason Fox only saw the field for 26 snaps, in Week 17. A natural left tackle, Fox played out of position at RT. He didn’t surrender any QB sacks or hits, and only one pressure—but his run blocking was abysmal, graded out at a horrendous -4.0 by PFF. All the talk about him needing to develop his body, build strength in the weight room, and all that sure rings true.

Bottom Line: Fox was a project pick, and we knew that at the time. He will definitely be in the mix as a swing backup, but you cannot “pencil him in” as either the left, or right, tackle of the future just yet.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions need a long-term heir apparent to Jeff Backus at left tackle, one who can fill in for Gosder Cherilus if his rehab falls behind schedule.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,jeff backus,gosder cherilus,team needs


Anonymous,  April 25, 2011 at 5:28 PM  


jhnhth,  April 25, 2011 at 9:28 PM  

Backus, above average? Really? I understand your reasoning but I think we have to look beyond the numbers... Look at the games with Hill at qb: Look at how fast he gets flushed out - look at how quickly he unloads... It's not all on Backus, I realize, but a lot of it is. I've taken the red pill of fandom. I've been watching last year's games pretty closely and I see real problems with the OL in general and Backus in particular. Just my US$0.02. Love the blog, btw. The best Lions commentary and analysis I've found. Keep up the great work.

Ty,  April 25, 2011 at 9:36 PM  


I know, right?


Ty,  April 25, 2011 at 9:48 PM  


Don't forget, that's exactly what Pro Football Focus does to come up with these grades: they grade every single snap of every single player individually. It's great that you're actually watching the games and judging for yourself. However, EVERY tackle gets beat, and EVERY tackle struggles sometimes--try watching other teams' tape too. Backus is not Walter Jones--nobody is--but he's consistently better than most other NFL left tackles.


Ty,  April 25, 2011 at 9:50 PM  

Oh, by the way--THANKS. I've been putting an awful lot into this for an awfully long time, and it's comments like that that keep me going!


Alvin2112,  April 26, 2011 at 2:28 AM  

Another great job Ty, thanks for putting in all that time for so long, it's appreciated. I guess the prove is in the pudding isn't it, Backus has had a couple pretty good years. I still have that image of him completely whiffing(actually he didn't even sniff him,lol) on J.Peppers and seeing Stafford go down in a about a sec. PFF should have given him a -50 on that play alone,lol. I do like Backus though, he's a steady LT. Great to see CC have a good year as well, lets draft a stud Guard/Center this week so the runs up the middle get better.


the dude,  April 26, 2011 at 4:01 AM  

Ty, great work as always, but ...

One thing to remember about the Lions' passing game this past season - it was extremely dink-and-dunk, as (I believe) PFF pointed out in one of their mide-season articles. The average pass attempt distance was well below average and I feel it was a direct result of the entire O-line's inability to hold their pass blocks long enough. I think we're going to see a severe decline in Backus' pass blocking and a continuation of Raiola's free-fall.

The Lions can buy some time by picking up a guy like Wisniewski but they better hope there's a stud LT that will fall to them next year if they ignore that need this year.

Anonymous,  April 26, 2011 at 2:21 PM  

i think you mixing up your levi browns', as levi brown from arizona was drafted in the first round from penn state. he played RT in the warner/leinart era and was only recently moved to LT.

Anonymous,  April 26, 2011 at 2:38 PM  

Ok, Bacus is good. Or inside running sucks. So let's get a guard and center.

Anonymous,  April 26, 2011 at 2:44 PM  

Two identical colors on the chart, nicely done.

Ty,  April 26, 2011 at 2:46 PM  

Anon 2--

Great catch!

Malek,  April 26, 2011 at 4:35 PM  

Very good read. But the fact of us having to dink and dunk is just too obvious too all of those that watch every snap. With Calvin and Stafford Arm we need better than that. I hope the coaches realize that too......and fix our Oline this year. Inside and Out. Just like we fixed the Dline last year.

Ty,  April 26, 2011 at 4:36 PM  

the dude--

That's a great point. I'm going to go dig up that article, but I'd posit that the offense was dink-and-dunk more because Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton were running it and they were under strict orders not to screw up, than because the OL was incapable of pass blocking.

Even if you're right, and the Lions were heavily using three step drops because the pass blocking couldn't hold up (not my recollection), these PFF grades are still generated on a play-by-play basis--so if Backus were getting beaten like a drum, he'd be marked down whether or not the QB was getting rid of it before the rusher got there.


michael,  April 26, 2011 at 5:09 PM  

Ty, I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy reading your blog. You definitely break the players down and explain things in ways I don't see anywhere else. Keep up the good work!

Ty,  April 26, 2011 at 5:14 PM  

Anon 3--

Yeah, the "silver" and the "grayish green" came out more similar than I'd hoped; coming up with seven different colors that really contrast well with each other without looking heinous or unreadable is tough.

Fortunately, Hilliard and Cherilous's lines are nearly identical anyway--and I broke down their grades pretty extensively in the text.


fro,  April 26, 2011 at 7:02 PM  

It's our center that's the problem

fro,  April 26, 2011 at 7:15 PM  

And yes the dink and dunk was due to the qb at the helm, hill as no ARM to do anything else and drew doesn't have the accrucy

Ee Oulo,  April 27, 2011 at 12:13 AM  

As usual you bring interesting material to the table Ty. Thanks :)

Ryan,  April 27, 2011 at 12:35 AM  

Wish all the lazy mockers would read this!

TuffLynx,  April 27, 2011 at 10:07 AM  

I agree with Ty that the amount of short passing was more about having Hill and Stanton in the game than it was about the offensive line. Neither of those guys throw a very good long ball. The Lions did what they could execute given the personnel they were playing.

I really do not understand this absolutely manic tendency to hate on Backus. It is almost like Lions fans just want to have Superman at every position or they aren't happy. Yes, Backus makes mistakes, just like every other left tackle in the league. What people have to start realizing is that if we try to replace Backus we are more likely to get somebody worse than he is rather than finding an upgrade.

I think too many people are getting stuck in the "grass is greener" problem here.

Birdy,  April 27, 2011 at 11:13 AM  

Mostly because of the lazy mockers I've been looking around for info on how our tackles rank against others in the league. Thanks to MLive for pointing me your way.
The analysis on the guards and center were even more eye-opening. Is 13 too early to take Pouncey?
Thanks very much for putting this together. Lions in Winter is bookmarked.

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