Ben Muth is a former first-team All Pac-10 offensive lineman at Stanford. Muth authors an offensive line-centric column at Football Outsiders titled Word of Muth. Check out Muth’s blog and follow him on Twitter at #FO_wordofmuth. You can find his RSP Writers squad is posted here.
It was personally encouraging to see that I had similar ideas about how to use Andy Levitre as Muth and a pleasant surprise that Muth thought highly of undrafted Ravens free agent Bobby Rainey as a budget-tier runner. Here’s Muth’s presentation of his team in Q&A form.
Describe your offensive system.
In an upset, I’m going with the Stanford offense. I’m bringing in David Shaw and Greg Roman to handle the passing game and running game respectively. You’ll see lots of I variations and multiple tight end sets. We are going to run the hell out of Power and Inside Zone. That’s about it as far as the running game goes. You’ll see them use every formation and shift you can imagine, but you won’t see much else in terms of play choice. The only other two run plays we’ll have is a toss crack concept and a lead/lead draw. I love the Outside Zone play, but both it and Power take a lot of reps if you want to be good at them, and this team was made for Power.
Obviously with the play book the way we have it, we want to pound it between the tackles. I also want to make sure my tight ends could block since Power often requires them to play one on one with defensive ends. So I got Craig Stevens, the best blocking tight end in the NFL, and the most complete tight end in the game Rob Gronkowski. Either one is more than capable of holding the point for us.
The design of the line makes it optimal for us to to run Power to the left and inside zone to the right. I put my best drive blocking tackle Jeff Backus on the left so he can knock the hole back on Power to open a better pulling lane. Backus should also get better movement on the backside of inside zone that will allow the running back to execute cut backs deeper into the line on that play.
DeCastro played on the right side in college and had roughly 10,457 reps pulling left for power over the last four years. So we want to him to be the puller 75 percent of the time. Although Levitre isn’t the best run blocker in the league, he is above league average. Still, we want Levitre on the front side where he’ll usually be doubling with someone. Plus, I like that I can put him next to Backus to help on pass protection.
The biggest weakness up front is Doug Legursky. But the dirty little secret of the offensive line is that centers rarely ever have to block anyone really. On Power he’ll either be doubling or down blocking, which is the easiest block for linemen. Seriously, watch a mediocre high school lineman’s highlight tape, it’ll be 70 percent down blocks. On Inside Zone Legursky will always be combo blocking so he’ll always be getting help from the guards. As long as Legursky or Spencer can direct traffic – identify the MIKE Linebacker and so forth, they’ll be fine.
One thing that shouldn’t surprise anyone is how many good running backs there are in the NFL. There were a ton of guys I liked, so I was able to save on the position a little bit. Pierre Thomas has proven he can be a No.1 back on a good NFL team and yet is still always underrated. He runs hard, has good balance and vision, and is a decent pass catcher. Behind him I have a couple undersized guys that give me a different look (although Rainey is much better between the tackles than his size would lead you to believe) as well as one traditional power back in Clay.
As far as the passing game goes, it’s going to be conservative, at least at first. A lot of play action. A lot of working short and intermediate routes over the middle of the field. The key is going to be executing on our occasional shot plays, most of which will go to Britt and Fleener.
As Luck evolves we’ll open it up more, but we’ll keep it simple the first couple of years.
Like with any team, a lot is going to fall on our quarterback’s shoulders before the snap. He needs to get us in the right play, and stay on track for first downs. We are not built to overcome 2nd and 13. For $12.5 million, Luck is a great a value in any system. Put him in a system that he was born to run (and already has) it becomes a slam dunk.
After Luck, the two most important players are Gronkowski and Britt. Gronkowski is here because he can do anything and Britt because he does the one thing no one else on my team does. We can run directly behind Gronkowski on power, we can hit him deep, we can hit him short, he can catch the ball wherever we need him to. He should be our leading receiver and the guy we look for on third down.
Britt is there to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. With the exception of Fleener, and possibly Tate, he’s the only guy on my team that can hurt you outside the numbers. We need him to create a little bit of space for the rest of the offense.
But as nice as space can be, one thing I am excited about is our tight bunch formation. With Fleener at the point, Gronkowski inside and Britt outside. We can do everything we want from this formation. We can run straight inside zone, or we can bring Gronk across for a Slice Concept and natural cut back lane. We can run the Toss Crack or a Reverse to Britt off the same look. We can motion Gronkowski into the backfield and run Power. Plus, I love spacing concepts in the passing game from tight bunch formations that lets us go straight drop back on any down, but particularly 3rd and medium.
Describe your defensive system according to the same criteria of scheme, system, play choice, and personnel fit as you did with the offense.
The plan is to run a base 3-4 defense with Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator. Obviously we’ll be multiple in our fronts, meaning we can go 4-3, but we’ll major in the 3-4. In it’s simplest terms I need my defensive line to stop the run.
I love Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane and I think both were made to be killer 34 defensive ends (and Corey Liuget could turn into a player). I’m not in love with Terrance Cody, but I think he can be an effective two-down player with enough rest. Ideally, either Sione Fua or David Carter would earn the job since both are more versatile.
Since my defensive line is designed to stop the run first and foremost, I need my pass rush to come from my outside linebackers. I like the guys I have. Lamarr Woodley is better than James Harrison at this point and really underrated. He can rush the passer from the strong side (much harder than from the weak side) and is stout against the run.
Shaun Phillips is aging, but still incredibly versatile. It’s tough to find an outside linebacker that rushes the passer like he can and can also cover effectively. I’m also really excited about Sam Acho. He can fill in for either one pass situations and provide pressure off the bench.
One last pass rush note: sacks are huge, but discomfort is just as important. I’m confident that my defensive line can push the pocket. So if my outside linebackers can force the quarterback to step up in the pocket he’ll be throwing in traffic constantly. Even if we don’t get sacks we should pressure the QB enough to take him out of his rhythm.
The biggest problem with my defense is the inside linebackers. Both are pretty mediocre. The hope is that my defensive line is good enough at two-gapping that my inside linebackers will have a fairly easy job. But it is definitely a hole. They really aren’t that great in pass coverage either, although Connor is the best of the two.
As far as coverage goes – and I’ll admit this is where I get out of my wheelhouse – I like the guys I have. Eric Weddle can fix a lot of things on the back end, and O.J. Atogwe can make a play on the ball if he’s in the area. Plus, both guys can make a tackle.
I like my corners in theory. Alterraun Verner is solid and a nice second corner. He plays the ball well and tackles well for the position. The problem is he can get overwhelmed by the physically gifted receiver. Jimmy Smith has all the tools and had a nice rookie year, the problem is off the field. Sam Shields has all the talent in the world and looked great a couple years ago. There is no reason that he shouldn’t be a a starting corner in the NFL except for the fact that he’s never done it.
Where do you believe your offense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?
My biggest concern is the health of Kenny Britt. He’s the only wide receiver I have that has any kind of track record. If he gets hurt defenses wouldn’t really have to worry about anything outside the numbers. Plus, I would have to play Fleener more and Stevens less just to have another vertical threat, which would really hurt what we want to accomplish in the running game. Just as dangerous is playing a team with Darell Revis who they can put on an island versus Britt and forget about him.
After that, teams with great depth on the defensive line would scare me. I like both of my tackles, and think both could handle anyone with a little help (using chips, slides towards these opponents, or the tight end staying in and helping). The problem is that I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving any of them on an island all game to send help towards the other (although Williams could certainly involve into that role). Still, even if a team has two really good pass rushers outside, I wouldn’t be that concerned because I’m confident we could double team them enough and run at them in the ground game to wear them out.
The concern comes when a team has guys off that bench that are pass-rush specialists. There’s nothing tougher then banging heads with a guy for the first seven plays of a drive and then seeing a fresh 235-lb. guy who runs a 4.5-40 jog onto the field for 3rd and 8. If a defense has a strong base set that can handle our running game and then a sub package that can really get after the quarterback my team could be in trouble.
The last thing schematically that would scare me is if a team plays a lot of Bear Front, particularly in nickel situations. If they have a good nose guard, my budget center could get eaten alive one-on-one. As a result, we would have to full slide everything versus a Bear front. That means that we have to keep our backs in all the time, and defenses with two good edge rushers are going to end up with a stud pass rusher on my running back.
Also my depth at guard could be better (one sentence paragraph, son)
Where do you believe your defense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?
Depth is an issue, but I have a feeling that’s going to be an issue for everyone so I’ll focus on issues with the starters. My biggest fear would be a team like the Houston Texans. A really good outside zone team with a dynamic wide receiver. I like my defensive ends, but they’re better blunting runs right at them than they are at stretching the ball and making a play.
Also, Shaun Phillips does a lot of things well, but dealing with teams running right at him is not one of them. Plus, my middle backers are weak and I don’t have faith in them scraping to make plays over the top, or running through on the backside to make plays in the backfield.
I went for three good players at corners opposed to one shutdown guy and a couple bodies. As a result, we don’t have anyone that matches up well against the “Johnsons (Andre and Calvin)” of the league. As a result, we’ll have to send extra help that way and now we are stretched thin everywhere else.
Who are your stars and why did you invest so much in them?
On offense my stars are Luck, Gronk, Britt, and my guards. I invested money in Luck because it’s the most important position on the field and Luck is a guy that I absolutely believe in. `Nuff said. My guards are key to the scheme I want to run, which I explained earlier.
I invested my money in Gronk because I think he does his job as good as anyone else in the NFL. Not only that, he plays the most versatile position in the sport. He really is the straw of my offense. He’ll block and catch and run after the catch.
The NFL is a league of specialties and versatility. You either have to be able to do one thing really well or a lot of things pretty well. Gronk does as much as good as anyone.
Britt gives me a dimension that no one else on my team does.
Name some of your offensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.
Like most teams you hope that one of your backup running backs can develop into an every down back. My best hope would be Rainey, because he was incredibly durable/productive in college and has the skill set to play in my offense. I like Stephens-Howling, but I can’t see him taking 20 touches a game.
I picked Massie solely to replace Backus. He has the the ability as a drive blocker and the athletic features to become a much better version of Backus. If he develops to his full potential I’ll have a really great tandem outside as well as inside.
Name some of your defensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.
The two Sams (Acho and Shields) have the potential to be standouts at two valuable positions. I loved how Acho looked as a rookie. O’Brien Schofield has become the trendy Cardinals outside linebacker sleeper, but I like Acho more. He doesn’t have the burst, but he uses his hands 100 times better. I could easily see Acho becoming a 12 sack a year guy. Shields has all the skills (size, speed, ball skills) to become a big-time corner.
I also like David Carter. He’s quick and surprisingly stout for his size. I could see him developing into a Jay Ratliffe type in a few years.He’s quick and plays with good leverage. I really like him, but he could be a guy who looks great for 20 plays and terrible for 60.
Which of your starters or significant situational contributors on your rosters do you believe would be on the roster bubble in 2013?
Jeff Backus is the easy one. Obviously he is a place holder until Massie is ready to play left tackle. The other guys would be Pierre Thomas and Shaun Phillips. I really like both guys, but they are in the stage of their careers where you hope you can replace them with younger (read: cheaper) guys. I put Acho behind Phillips with that goal, and three guys that could hopefully become a committee that replaces all of the production Thomas provides.
What was the most difficult part of the selection process for you?
The biggest obstacle is depth. There are a bunch of guys I wished I had the money to get for my bench. Guys I ended up with versus the guys I wanted included:
- Dan OrvloskyRicky Stanzi
- Jaquizz Rodgers/Bobby Rainey
- Rob Ninkovich/Larry English
- Anyone/Alphonso Smith
The hardest starter decision I had to make was leaving Carl Nicks off my team. I think Carl Nicks is the best offensive linemen in football and as a offensive line guy I really wanted him. But I just couldn’t squeeze him into the budget. Levitre is a great consolation prize, but I would’ve loved Nicks.
Based on your roster what type of playing facility would you want as your home stadium (describe the facility as outdoors, indoors, turf, grass, climate)?
Outdoors and in the cold. There is no other venue in which this team could play. Hopefully the NFL expands to Greenland which I’ve learned from D2 is actually very cold.
Name three risky personnel selections on offense and explain why (talent, off-field, age, injury, fit, etc.).
Britt is a risk because of health coming off an injury and the fact that I’m counting on him a lot considering he’s never done it for a full year. He’s shown flashes, but as never been a top-flight guy.
Pierre Thomas has had some health issues in the past. I think we can replace him with the guys we have behind him, but you never know.
Last is putting all my eggs in a basket that has never played a NFL game. I have all the faith in the world in Andrew Luck, but any team that goes with a rookie QB is taking a leap of faith and my squad is no different.
Name three risky personnel selections on defense and explain why (see above).
The biggest risk is Jimmy Smith. There are 150 cautionary tales of talented young players that can’t keep it together off the field. There’s a reason Smith slid in the draft, and there’s a reason his value was depressed in this project.
After that I’m counting on two aging guys to provide the same level of play they have in the past. I really like Shaun Phillips and O.J. Atogwe as players, but they aren’t as young as they once were. I like Sam Acho behind Phillips but Acho can’t cover like Phillips can. Behind Atogwe my team is even thinner. If either guy can’t perform, due to age or injury, the defense is in real trouble.
Name a few players you really wished to add, but couldn’t find the room due to the restrictions of the salary cap or the fit within your team’s system.
Like I said Nicks is a guy I really wanted, but couldn’t bring in. I also really liked Mike Wallace in the Kenny Britt role, but the extra half point was needed elsewhere. There were another 10 decisions just like that. Tyron Smith over Trent Williams, Ed Reed over Eric Weddle, 25 guys over either inside linebacker. But the Nicks and Wallace cuts were the most painful.
Which players on your team would you have added even if they cost more than the listed price?
My TEs. I absolutely needed three TEs who could play at a high level. One that can do it all, one that can block, and one that can catch. All three are absolutely essential to what we want to accomplish on offense.
How do you think the makeup of your roster and distribution of your resources illustrates where your philosophy breaks with NFL conventional wisdom?
I think I went with a fairly conventional team. I loaded up at TE as opposed to receiver, but we are not going to be running anything revolutionary on offense or defense. The most unusual thing I did is probably how I lined up my offensive tackles. Traditionally, you would put the better pass blocker-more athletic Williams on the left and Backus on the right. I chose to do the opposite. The thinking is that I want to run Power a lot and I want DeCastro pulling. I don’t want to swap Decastro and Levitre since I want my best players to be comfortable. So, I put Backus on the left so I’m running behind the better run blocker.
But more than just that, I think the lock down left tackle is antiquated. You want a great left tackle because teams typically line up their best pass rusher on the quarterback’s blindside, but there aren’t that many guys that can handle great pass rushers one-on-one, so most teams end up sending their help that way anyway. So, I’d rather leave my best pass blocker against weaker pass rushers one-on-one and just send help at their best player. A guy you can leave on an island in pass protection is valuable no matter where he plays so I want to give Williams the best match ups possible so I can do that.