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Graham Glasgow should definitely start at left guard

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Los Angeles Rams v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Guard play really is messy to sort out

During the Lions-Washington post-game show with Chris Lemieux, there were a couple of questions about offensive guard play. First a question about Graham Glasgow’s performance and then a question on Tomlinson. The two are linked, of course, and we can show you a tweet from Alex Reno from Week 1 to prove it:

As everyone is aware, Graham Glasgow played well against the Eagles and Rams and then got the start at left guard ahead of Laken Tomlinson against Washington:

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the decision to start Glasgow ahead of Laken Tomlinson, their first-round pick last year, came down to one simple thing.

"He’s performed well," Caldwell said. "And I think that’s really what it boils down to."

When evaluating the rookie’s play at the guard spot, it’s important to keep in mind what the Lions need out of their guards—and by that I mean the different things they need out of the right and left guards. Although these interior linemen are routinely declared to be relatively less important to overall offensive line success than the tackles or center, good guard play is not just a matter of being able to win one-on-one confrontations.

Consider this SI article by former NFL guard Ross Tucker on offensive line play from 2008:

The reality is, most left guards should grade out higher than right guards.

Most teams are “right-handed,” meaning they often put the strength of the offensive formation to the right side rather than the left. As a result, most slide protections—a zone scheme in which three linemen block two defenders—go to the left, which is customarily the quarterback's blindside. This means the right guard on most teams has a tougher job because he’s tasked with more one-on-one pass blocking assignments than the left guard. The stats bear this out: In the Pro Football Focus rankings of guards who played at least half of their team’s snaps last season, seven of the top 11 were left guards; 12 of the top 15 tackles also played on the left side.

Stop and think about what he’s saying there. The right guard (typically Larry Warford for the Lions) should be used to dealing with one-on-one pass blocking, and is generally on the run heavy strong side of the formation. So, possibly less pulling action but more often the tip of the spear at the designated hole. The primary reason Tucker says the left guard has an easier time is because they are more likely to get help.

But when you flip that around, it also means being involved in more two-man games or three-man games on the line with double-teams and providing help to the guys next to that left guard. Per Tucker: “The center is able to provide inside help for the left guard and the left guard is able to protect the left tackle's inside as the three work in concert to block the two defensive linemen while eyeing their other responsibility, the weak-side linebacker.”

For that, you want to have a player who is very smart, understands complicated protections, and adapts quickly to what the defense is doing along the front. Fortunately for Graham Glasgow, those are desirable attributes normally cited for centers. Here is Tucker again in a different article from 2008:

Smart offensive linemen can tell when a team is going to run a stunt based upon the alignment of the linebackers and the body lean of the defensive linemen. They can make difficult adjustments or audibles on the fly in the heat of the battle.

The difference between wins and losses in the NFL is so small that the quick decisions on blitz pick-ups by an intelligent veteran player like Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday or Chicago's Olin Kreutz could be a determining factor in the outcome. Being able to make a split-second assessment when 90,000 people are screaming and a 360-pound man is six inches from your nose is an entirely different type of intelligence than most people can even comprehend.

Guess what position Saturday and Kreutz played. Now Glasgow having been a regular starting center has a good working knowledge of the kinds of decisions and double-teams the left guard must execute; if for no other reason than because he was the guy the left guard would often be working with.

Not good at everything: the run game

Solid football intelligence, decent athleticism: what’s not to like about Glasgow? Using the tape from the Washington game, we can immediately point out that he is not that great a run blocker. There were some plays where he did just fine, but of course there were others where he did not look good. It is worth noting that the running plays which gained the most yards against Washington more often than not went away from where Glasgow’s assignment was.

2016 WAS, 2Q (10:23). Third-and-1 at the Washington 24.

This is a gimme third down conversion deep in Washington territory which ended a Detroit drive in three points rather than seven. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter brings in heavy 22 personnel: 77 OT Cornelius Lucas and 86 TE Khari Lee are to the right of 71 RT Riley Reiff. After coming in motion across the tackle box, 46 FB Michael Burton becomes a second puller behind 60 LG Graham Glasgow.

Two ugly things happen here: 51 LB William Compton (standing in the center of the screenshot, motioning to his left) manages to squeeze through unimpeded more or less straight up from where he was standing. Glasgow passes by and moves over to kick out 94 DE Preston Smith on the back side. Since Compton wasn’t slowed enough, Burton is unable to establish good position and is pushed back into the ball-carrier, 34 HB Zach Zenner. The other ugly thing is that the pulling guard whiffs on the kick out, leaving Zenner no room to maneuver. This went down as a one-yard loss for Detroit, as miserable a failed third down conversion as they’d had all year.

2016 WAS, 2Q (4:45). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 35.

The Lions run the toss sweep here, and Glasgow’s assignment is to replace and cut block 90 DE Evander Hood since 64 C Travis Swanson is one of the pullers. When the play develops, watch Hood all the way through to the end of the play.

The cut block is ineffective, and Hood stays upright. In fact, the defender is able to not only brush off Glasgow’s attempt at a cut block, but run over to the perimeter in time to make the tackle. It is not clear if there is some kind of technique problem, but whatever the reason, Graham Glasgow often does not wipe out his man completely when cut blocking.

2016 WAS, 4Q (7:01). First-and-10 at the Detroit 36.

At full motion, we can see here in the fourth quarter that our man mostly misses his block. 54 LB Mason Foster stays alive just enough to get an assist on tackling 30 HB Justin Forsett:

This play was stopped for a two yard gain. At this point, the reader may be wondering why Glasgow is such a slam dunk to get the starting job at left guard with this kind of performance in the run game. There’s only one thing to say about mediocre run blocking that barely meets minimum standards:

As the saying goes: if it wasn’t acceptable, it wouldn’t be the minimum.

Good at what Detroit needs: pass blocking

Anyone still in that “pre-Washington comeback” mentality has not been reading coverage on the Lions this week. For the benefit of those who need to catch up, here are some Pride Of Detroit posts that went up in the four days since the epic 43 second drive on Sunday:

When it comes to Jim Bob’s offense, the first rule of Lions blocking club is you do not let Matthew Stafford get hit. The second rule of Lions blocking club is you do not let Matthew Stafford get hit.

You want to see what happens when he doesn’t get hit?

2016 WAS, 3Q (8:49). First-and-10 at the Detroit 34.

Middle of the third quarter in a close game, Jim Bob sent in the best play in the Lions’ playbook: PA Z Cross with Marvin on the vertical clearout and Tate crossing behind the linebackers. Keeping in mind there are only two receivers in the pattern, forget the receivers and coverage for a second and look at the yellow box in the picture. LOOK AT IT! That is Stafford at full depth with his back foot hitting and the only defensive player within like eight yards of him is being controlled by Reiff.

Two-time Pro Bowl SS Donte Whitner ignored the clearout to jump the crosser. That was a poor decision when Calvin ran the vertical, and it is still a poor decision when Marvin runs the vertical:

The Detroit offense is built around its quarterback. If Graham Glasgow can help Matthew Stafford make stuff like this happen, the rookie needs to be in the game.

2016 WAS, 1Q (8:34). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

The call was play action, comebacks on the outside: Stafford completed the one down the right sideline to Tate for 11 yards. The protection is a complex one, with Swanson releasing to the outside against 91 DE Ryan Kerrigan and Glasgow reaching over on the 1-tech 92 DT Chris Baker to replace in the middle. Both players get help in the sense that Swanson will benefit from a chip as Zenner releases off the fake counter action to the flat and Glasgow will have 68 LT Taylor Decker sealing off from behind; but the most difficult block in this three-on-two game is Glasgow’s assignment due to where he and Baker start the play.

Two things contribute to success here: Glasgow knows there is help from behind on the left from Decker, so even if he has to get way over to the right he knows he can move aggressively and confidently. There is no sign that the former Wolverine hesitates for even a second to think about trying to cover a spin/cutback move by Baker; he’s relying on Decker to pick that up. That’s the other thing: Decker knows it too, and he throws in a hefty shove on Baker to ensure the DT goes where Glasgow thinks he’s going to be. This is solid double-teaming from two rookies.

2016 WAS, 3Q (9:35). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 16.

Backed up inside their own 20, Detroit faced second-and-long on the play right before the 52-yard bomb to Marvin. Washington sent a special blitz here, with two very wide looping rushers: 93 LB Trent Murphy going outside-in from a three-point stance and 51 LB Will Compton going inside-out. While it’s easy and obvious to appreciate how much better the quarterbacking has been for the Lions’ offense under Jim Bob Cooter, it’s useful to remember that in the first half of the 2015 season everyone would have expected this blitz to end in a sack.

Instead, check out how well the offensive line picks up the switches. First, follow Swanson at center. He looks at Baker, and sees the DT going outside against Warford. After a quick shove to help Warford get Baker in place, Swanson immediately turns back and spots Hood crashing inside.

Now pause and go back to the beginning and look at Glasgow: he follows Hood across his face and passes to Swanson, at which point Murphy streaking around behind Hood catches his eye. Glasgow completes the pass and looks at the new threat, except Murphy keeps going laterally to loop around Hood into the lane between Hood and Baker. This is where the truly impressive adjustment on-the-fly comes in: Swanson feels Hood turning and passes back to Glasgow (who picks the DE back up), and then squares up on Murphy taking the wide inside loop.

Everyone does their job to pick up this exotic blitz and Matty Wheels does the rest for 18 yards against the vulnerable underbelly of Washington’s man coverage. The interior of the line worked a double trade of Swanson to Warford at the same time as Glasgow to Swanson, then Swanson back to Glasgow. Taylor Decker the outside, no longer needing to watch Murphy, stayed alert and picked up Compton also blitzing on a wide loop. This is easily the most impressive single play in pass protection from the offensive line unit I have seen in a long time.

This was not an isolated incident of good OL handling of the Washington twist game.

2016 WAS, 2Q (15:00). Second-and-6 at the Detroit 24.

Watch the left side of the line as Decker, Glasgow, and 46 FB Michael Burton handle blind side protection flawlessly. Initially, LT has the DE rusher to the outside and LG has the DT to the inside, but they go T-E stunt and the Lions’ linemen pass their guys off to each other. Burton also spots it and throws a somewhat ineffective but appreciated shoulder at the inside looper to help Glasgow. Result of the play was an 8-yard swing pass to 30 HB Justin Forsett in the right flat to move the sticks.

2016 WAS, 2Q (11:09). Second-and-8 at the Washington 31.

Once again, Glasgow and Decker take the two rushers to the left and smoothly hand their guys off to keep Stafford alive. Instead of an inside free rusher flushing Stafford to the outside (by then Decker had lost control of his man), Detroit gained 7 yards to set up third-and-short (sadly, the stuffed Zenner run we saw earlier).

I love it when a plan comes together

Thinking back to what Ross Tucker wrote in his Sports Illustrated articles, it’s fascinating to see how the decisions by the Lions with offensive line personnel dovetail so well. The right side of the line tends to be isolated in one-on-one pass rush situations more, so moving the most experienced veteran Riley Reiff to RT shored up what was once a never-ending tale of woe. Standing next to him is the Lions’ next most experienced veteran, Larry Warford, to also take on rushers by himself more frequently.

Moving to the left side, the Lions now have two rookies, but the benefit of two centers in Swanson and Glasgow to really work the complicated double-teams. It’s unfortunate that Laken Tomlinson appears to have not made the transition well from right to left side from college, but he did play a decent game in relief of Warford against the Rams.

When the year started, I was nervous about Decker and wondered about the interior line depth. Still looking for something out of Joe Dahl (I know, he’s a late-round pick), but the emergence of Glasgow as a solid piece with Tomlinson to provide good quality backup play has really turned me around on that interior OL group. As long as the whole unit abides by rule 1 and rule 2 of Lions blocking club, the offense will be a joy to watch.