Travis Swanson is not a top five center, but he’s decent
Heading into training camp about a month ago, there were rumblings of a real chance that Travis Swanson could lose the starting center job to third-round rookie selection Graham Glasgow. Swanson did not play well in his first full season as the starter, opening the door for talk of a possible camp battle. As August came and went, it became clear that Swanson was still ahead of Glasgow and would remain the starter at least to begin the 2016 season.
In the third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Swanson was one of five players on offense identified by Pride Of Detroit’s Ryan Mathews as someone to watch:
He’ll need to be more powerful off the ball if the Lions hope to be successful running the ball up the middle in 2016, but let’s pay attention to his performance tonight as he tries to put some distance between he and Glasgow for the starting center position.
Swanson was on the hook to deliver a good performance on the road in Baltimore, and he played a tremendous game. Just about everyone on the POD staff came away impressed with how well he held his own in both “ordinary” blocking situations as well as one-on-one duels with nose tackles directly opposite him. Preseason game 3 pretty much shut the door on Travis Swanson becoming a backup anytime soon.
Don’t believe it? Let’s go to the tape.
Anchoring against the bull rush
Probably the most common complaint made about Swanson is that he is not strong enough and can be overpowered. Against Baltimore, Swanson did well against power rushes up the middle. Here we have two examples of him handling 300 pounds up the gut in pass protection.
2016 Preseason at BAL, 2Q (12:58). Second-and-10 at the Baltimore 11.
This is the swing pass to 46 FB Michael Burton two plays before the first Detroit field goal. Baltimore drops eight defenders into coverage and rush 95 DE Kapron Lewis-Moore wide to the left edge of the offensive line at the bottom and 99 DT Timmy Jernigan wide to the right edge of the offensive line at the top. This isolates 94 DT Carl Davis from the nose position against 64 C Travis Swanson.
At the snap, Swanson wins the leverage battle: look in the first panel on the left side at whose helmet is lower. Giving up some ground but maintaining a firm base, Swanson saps all of Davis’ power. By the third panel on the right, where 9 QB Matthew Stafford is about to deliver the ball, Swanson has managed to stand up Davis completely.
2016 Preseason at BAL, 3Q (13:10). Third-and-8 at the Baltimore 47.
Later in the game on third down, Baltimore brings an overload blitz to test the right side of Detroit’s offensive line. 91 DE Matt Judon rushes wide against 71 RT Riley Reiff while blitzers 31 S Terrence Brooks and 48 ILB Patrick Onwuasor are picked up by 34 HB Zach Zenner and 75 RG Larry Warford, respectively. On the other side of the offensive line, 68 LT Taylor Decker’s initial read off the formation is 51 OLB Kamalei Correa, who drops into coverage on 16 WR Jace Billingsley in the slot. 96 DE Brent Urban starts against 72 LG Laken Tomlinson and then widens to where Decker is. This leaves Swanson alone to face 93 DE/DT Lawrence Guy lined up on the nose.
Again we have an example of Swanson playing with excellent leverage against a bull rush up the middle. Swanson is the low man and absorbs the force of Guy’s burst. In the right panel, it is obvious that Swanson has reduced Guy’s charge to nothing.
From the reverse angle replay, we can also see Swanson’s hand placement. There’s good solid grip with both hands well to the inside, providing total control over Guy. Judon beat Reiff on the edge and strip sacked 8 QB Dan Orlovsky so this was not a successful play for the offense, but Travis Swanson certainly did his job.
Reading the switches
Blocking the straight-ahead power rush is an important job for interior linemen, but they must also be able to pick up unexpected rushers coming on stunts or delayed blitzes. We now turn to Swanson’s effectiveness at working with Tomlinson and Warford to keep the middle secure against the twist game.
2016 Preseason at BAL, 1Q (0:42). Third-and-6 at the Detroit 49.
On third down, the Ravens send a complex blitz. First, 57 ILB CJ Mosley angles left out of the A gap to attack Warford’s inside shoulder, pushing him outward to widen the middle. Second, Jernigan loops behind Mosley and tries to attack the outside shoulder of Swanson, further widening the A gap. Finally, 54 ILB Zachary Orr shoots through that widened gap as a delayed blitzer.
The blocking has both tackles taking the wide rushers with Warford on Mosley, 21 HB Ameer Abdullah picking up Jernigan, and Tomlinson on Guy. Notice we haven’t said anything about Swanson, who has to read all of this and help pretty much everyone at various points in the pass rush phase of the play.
At the snap, Swanson first picks up the man immediately in his field of vision: Mosley rushes away from the middle, so Swanson helps Tomlinson latch onto Guy. After Tomlinson sets up, Swanson comes back and sees Abdullah taking on Jernigan, which is the mismatch from hell. Swanson throws a shoulder in there to help Abdullah. Finally, as Orr attempts to come back to the middle lane, Swanson starts to peel off to obstruct Orr’s path to Stafford. By this time, Stafford is unloading the ball to 11 WR Marvin Jones on the shallow cross.
The second assist knocked Abdullah to the ground, but it also knocked Jernigan into Orr. Stafford had plenty of time and a clear throwing path to Marvin for the first down.
2016 Preseason at BAL, 2Q (4:21). Third-and-37 at the Baltimore 41.
While not a typical down and distance situation to analyze, the tail end of the horrible sequence in the second quarter that drove the Lions out of the red zone featured some nice blocking. Here Swanson stays alert to what is happening outside and picks up the looping defensive end, but also notice Reiff and Warford switching off their assignments on the double stunt.
There may yet be hope for the pass blocking to hold up against more complex rush schemes.
What about the run game?
We promised a full slate of nice plays by Travis Swanson, so here’s a great play he made on a run call. What is particularly shocking about this successful running play is that it is a zone run.
2016 Preseason at BAL, 1Q (0:14). First-and-10 at the Baltimore 33.
The thing to focus on is in the middle of the GIF: Travis Swanson flows left with Laken Tomlinson, then realizes 54 ILB Zachary Orr is moving up and across to play the run from the back side. Swanson pulls up and cut blocks Orr, getting enough for Abdullah to have a lane to the outside. The importance of Swanson’s cut block is more obvious from the overhead view behind the defense:
Abdullah makes the first man (95 DE Kapron Lewis-Moore) miss by skipping over the arm tackle, but Orr would likely have been able to plug the hole if not for Swanson’s dive. Also contributing a nice cut block on the play: RT Riley Reiff.
Leave Swanny alone
Travis Swanson may not be the greatest center to ever play for the Detroit Lions, but that’s okay. He’s worked hard and keeps getting better, and appears to be playing with improved technique, leverage, and coordination with his interior line-mates now that they have had an entire offseason together.
The Baltimore game made it obvious that a number of issues remain for the first-team offense to work on before Week 1, but competent center play is no longer near the top of the list. Nobody expected a perfect game and Swanson was beaten by a swim move on the late hit play by Jernigan, but for almost all other snaps he held his own just fine. Swanson is doing a decent job, so leave him alone!