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Film breakdown: How Frank Ragnow became an elite pass protector overnight

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If you thought he could only run block, think again

New York Giants v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The first two games of Frank Ragnow’s career as a Detroit Lion did not go as well as everyone (including the Pride of Detroit staff) had hoped they would. One of the big selling points pumping up the perceived value in “stealing” the former Razorback in the first round was that he did not surrender a single sack in his entire college career. Imagine our surprise, then, when Detroit’s new starting left guard struggled in pass protection against the Jets in Week 1 and again against the 49ers in Week 2. His outing at Levi’s Stadium was so bad, it earned a pretty horrific grade from Pro Football Focus.

Along with the rest of the team, though, the rookie turned it around in Week 3 against the Patriots. While Cris Collinsworth lavished praise upon Ragnow’s run blocking throughout the broadcast, on second re-watch of the game film we were pleasantly surprised by how consistent his pass blocking was (he “lost” maybe two or three pass protection reps all night). Fearless leader Jeremy Reisman asked what changed: how does Frank Ragnow go from PFF doghouse to PFF team of the week?

To hopefully shed some light on this puzzle, we unfortunately must go back to the unpleasant tape from the games against the Jets and Niners.

Chasing to the outside

Something that came out in bad tape from the first two games was a tendency for Ragnow to set for the outside rush and not make it back inside in time to close off the interior lane. Securing the inside is critical because the edge blocking depends on having a clean place for the quarterback to step up into and the players inside have the shortest and most direct path to the passer. A collapsed pocket often leads to a broken play or a sack.

2018 Week 1 vs NYJ, 2Q (0:21). Third-and-3 at the New York 3.

On the last offensive play of the opening half in Week 1, the Lions had an opportunity to take a final shot at the end zone. The play call is mirrored curl-flat combinations to spread the field on both sides and 25 HB Theo Riddick sitting down in front of Stafford near the goal line. New York came with four-man pressure, sending former Lion 51 LB Brandon Copeland twisting to the inside behind 96 DL Henry Anderson.

Ragnow lunges at Anderson as he makes the first lateral move on the switch. That throws the rookie off balance and prevents him from picking up Copeland up the gut. 9 QB Matthew Stafford is forced to sail the ball out of bounds and Detroit settles for a field goal.

2018 Week 2 at SFO, 1Q (5:28). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 34.

Matched up one-on-one with 94 DL Solomon Thomas over his outside shoulder, Ragnow takes his initial two shuffle steps to the outside. Unfortunately, Thomas explodes off the snap across the guard’s face and makes a beeline for the A-gap. Stafford comes under immediate pressure and only a broken tackle by Riddick moves the chains.

Going for a swim

It was remarkable how nearly all of the other really bad defeats for Ragnow in pass protection were at the hands of swim moves. There are so many examples that this article will just present three of them so we can actually get to the “good” tape against the Patriots.

2018 Week 1 vs NYJ, 3Q (8:16). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 34.

This is the pick-six interception play that really blew the “Monday Night Football” game open in the third quarter. Ragnow has Anderson one-on-one and bites on the jab step to the inside. With 68 LT Taylor Decker occupied by Copeland on the outside and 60 C Graham Glasgow tied up with the 1-tech, there is nobody left to assist once Anderson’s left arm is up and over.

2018 Week 2 at SFO, 1Q (5:34). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 34.

Matched up against 96 DL Sheldon Day angled on his left shoulder, Ragnow takes lateral steps to the outside to try and get better position. Similar to the inside rush we saw earlier by Thomas, Day takes advantage by going up and over with his right arm. Stafford is flushed from the pocket and prevented from setting his feet, resulting in a poor throw that hits the turf in front of 15 WR Golden Tate.

2018 Week 2 at SFO, 2Q (0:49). First-and-10 at the Detroit 34.

Near the end of the first half of the San Francisco game, the Lions had just under a minute on the clock and managed to eke out a field goal. The GIF above is from the first play of that drive, and shows Stafford taking an absolutely monster hit from 99 DL DeForest Buckner. The Niners overloaded the right side of their line, forcing the Lions to go one-on-one against Thomas (with Glasgow), Buckner (with Ragnow), and 54 DL Cassius Marsh off the edge (with Decker).

The patient “one way go”

In a way, pass blockers trying to guard against multiple rush lanes can be like defenders trying to guard against multiple routes; we sometimes hear about players like Theo Riddick running a two way go with the freedom to go inside or outside. One plan to defend that is to commit to taking one option away by positioning and simply challenge them on the other option. Back in 2014, then-defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said this: “We try to, based on our coverages, funnel a guy one way or the other, where we think the help might be. We try not to give him the two way go but sometimes it happens.”

Instead of trying to move laterally and react to whichever way the opponent would go, it seemed like the plan for Ragnow against New England was to commit to getting a good base, focusing on hands and grip, then giving up a little ground to play it safe inside. Rather than facing straight up on rushers, he kept the middle clean by consistently walling off the interior approach and funneling his rusher to the outside.

2018 Week 3 vs NED, 1Q (9:12). Second-and-10 at the New England 48.

Here is a great example of what we are talking about: Ragnow is one-on-one with 90 DT Malcom Brown. An initial jab step at the snap by Brown tries to put some indecision into the head of the young guard, but he’s having none of it. Ragnow’s stance angle invites the defender to take the outside, and this gives the rookie a degree of control over the situation since he now gets to direct where the rusher is going. The protection is good, and Stafford rifles it down the field for a chunk gain of 18 yards to Tate.

2018 Week 3 vs NED, 1Q (3:19). First-and-10 at the 50-yard line.

A bit later in the first quarter at midfield, the Lions’ first-round pick is up against 70 DL Adam Butler. Ignoring a shoulder fake by Butler to the inside, Ragnow stays committed to protecting the inside, letting 29 HB LeGarrette Blount pick up the delayed linebacker blitz.

2018 Week 3 vs NED, 3Q (4:53). Second-and-17 at the Detroit 18.

Armed with control and focus, at times it got pretty ridiculous. Here is Ragnow using a big man’s momentum against him, throwing the 320-pound Brown to the ground judo-style.

2018 Week 3 vs NED, 1Q (4:53). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.

In this early play-action pass called in the first quarter, Ragnow steers Butler to the outside and rides him off into the sunset. Stafford is all alone in the pocket and able to toss an easy ball to Blount for 8 yards.

As best as I can tell, the first time the Patriots attempted to force the issue to the inside one-on-one against Ragnow was with 71 DT Danny Shelton on the final play of the third quarter. That inside rush was picked up and walled off flawlessly, and the quick-hitting rub arrow to Tate on the perimeter went for 25 yards. Between the dominant run blocking and amazing consistency in pass protection, this was an outstanding job by the rookie and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson to fix the issues of the first two games.