Ah, the offensive tackles. Ever the source of Lions fan frustration, ever the source of Lions fan controversy, ever the source of Lions blogger pageviews. Last season’s Old Mother Hubbarding of the offensive tackles was a pleasant surprise; it concluded that the only need at the position was a possible upgrade over Jason Fox as the Backus’ heir apparent.
Here's what last year's bottom line was for each of the Lions tackles who saw time this year:
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?
Gosder Cherilus 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.
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.
This season will be similar, but not the same:
The green line is Jason Peters, Philadelphia’s bookend LT. With the third-best pass block grade (+14.9), second-best run block grade (+10.5), and third-best screen block grade (+2.5), Peters was an outstandingly balanced all-around tackle. With seven flags thrown his way (one declined/offset), he took a very small penalty ding.
Bringing up the rear is the Packers' Marshall Newhouse. A -40.6 overall, the 2010 5th-round pick was as bad against the pass (-21.3) as he was against the run (-17.4). His performance was marked by the worst single-game grade I've ever seen: a -12.4 against Jason Pierre-Paul and the New York Giants.
Jeff Backus was slightly off his 2010 pace, in absolute terms. His -2.0 overall, –0.8 pass block, and –2.5 penalty grades are just below last year’s marks (+1.4, –0.3, +2.5). However, his +0.3 run block, and +1.0 screen block grades are up from last season. The averages, however, are higher; Backus was not as far above average this season as he was last season.
. . . but he is still above average. Backus was the 17th-best left tackle to start most of his teams’ games, and his –2.0 overall is well above the NFL average of –6.0. His –0.8 pass blocking, it won’t surprise, is well below the +4.0 NFL average, but his screen block and run block grades (+1.0, +.03) are right in line with the NFL mean (+0.6, +0.7). He was penalized 11 times, tied for 4th-worst in the NFL . . . though four of those flags were offset or declined.
Statisically, Backus allowed a sack, pressure, or hit once every 24.0 snaps. That ranks him 48th of 76 NFL tackes, below the average of 36.6. As with the other OL positions, we must note that the Lions had the 4th-most offensive snaps and passed more often than any other team, so these results are skewed a little bit—but they reinforce the idea that Backus’s pass-blocking is the weak link in his game.
Update: the good folks at Pro Football Focus encouraged me to, as I almost always do but somehow forgot this time, take a look at Backus' game-by-game breakdown and OH MY GOODNESS:
I knew Backus started the season playing hurt, but didn't seem too far off his career norm. What I missed was his incredible ramp-up over the last half of the year (though I did see how Backus shut down the Saints' Will Smith in Week 16). Many thanks to the PFF staff for pointing this out
Bottom Line: Jeff Backus is an above-average starting left tackle. He is not dominant, but when healthy has played the best football of his life over the last two seasons. He hasn’t missed a start in eleven seasons, which is simultaneously incredible and troubling; how long can he maintain this level of performance? He is an unrestricted free agent, though both sides have publicly confirmed they intend to re-up.
After getting a wake-up call last season, Gosder Cherilus flipped a switch from “horrible” to “amazing.” His first three grades of 2010 were –3.0 or worse; after that he was positive for the remainder of the 2010 season . . . until he broke his knee in Week 13.
The story of Gosder Cherilus’s knee is the great untold story of the Lions’ 2011 season. Late in 2010, Cherilus blew out his knee. On December 17, 2010, Cherilus underwent microfracture surgery, a procedure that typically requires a full year of recovery (and until very recently, possibly a career-ender). March 24, 2011, the Lions anticipated Cherilus being ready for a full schedule of 2011 work, albeit with possibly-permanent pain in the knee.
Gosder started the first game, but committed a brutal late-game penalty against Tampa Bay, triggering a benching for Week 2. Corey Hilliard struggled, so Cherilus got the start in Week 3, at Minnesota. Cherilus was quickly overwhelmed, going back to the bench after just six snaps.. The Grandmaster was not pleased. Quoth Schwartz
We need to improve that position. ... One guy not getting it done on the offensive line makes the whole group look bad.
Unfortunately, Corey Hilliard didn’t get it done either, and Cherilus returned to the starting lineup at Dallas, where he played every snap and graded out at an impressive +1.5. For the remainder of the season he was inconsistent, mostly neutral with two peaks (+3.4 and +2.2 at Denver and Green Bay) and one nasty valley: -6.5 against Minnesota.
From this, we conclude Gosder just can’t block guys in purple.
Overall, Gosder the Gozerian graded out at –6.7, ranked 38th out of 76 tackles in the NFL. In pass blocking, he was ranked an eyelash below Jeff Backus, at –0.9. In run blocking, he was far worse at –7.5. For a player we thing of as a huge angry masher, his run blocking ranked him 61st of 76; that’s flatly awful.
You might want to sit down for this.
After the two cruical penalties in Week 1, Gosder was flagged just two more times all season. Jeff Backus had more penalties declined or offset than Gosder had called on him! Only Marc Colombo and D'Brickashaw Ferguson played as many snaps as Gosder and had fewer penalties. That's saying something.
Bottom Line: Gosder Cherilus was an average starting/rotational tackle in 2011, subpar in pass protection and poor against the run. But he was solid in the screen game—and, after a boneheaded Week 1, displayed gentlemanly play worth of the Lady Byng. Still, more questions than answers: how badly was his knee hurting him? Where did the consistency go? Why can’t he block guys in purple?
After an excellent performance in relief of Cherilus last season, Corey Hillard dramatically regressed to the mean. With just 147 snaps, Hilliard did not meet Pro Football Focus’s minimum cutoff. However, he got painted with a –6.8 grade’s worth of red in that time; a hair lower than Gosder Cherilus (who had seven times as many snaps)!
Hilliard's main problem was pass protection. He allowed a sack, hit, or pressure an average of once every 21.0 snaps; his pass block grade was -3.0. His -4.2 run block grade was slightly better than Gosder's—but again, he accumulated all that negativity on just a few reps. Any notion of Hilliard as a long term swing/rotational/starting tackle has to be shelved for the time being.
Bottom Line: Corey Hilliard had several opportunities in the first three games to overtake Gosder Cherilus, but he couldn’t come close to his 2010 performance. He’ll have to fight Jason Fox, Johnny Culbreath, and any theoretical draftees in camp for a chance at another auditiones.
SHOPPING LIST: Jeff Backus is solid at left tackle, but the Lions must find, and begin grooming, his replacement. Gosder Cherilus remains a mediocre, inconsistent right tackle with maddening potential. The Lions like Jason Fox, but he must get healthy, improve his conditioning, and do it on the field before the Lions name him Backus’s heir, or even Cherilus’s.