Could Lane Johnson Help Revive Phillip Rivers' Career?
Say what you want about Philip Rivers and his performance over the last two seasons, but he really hasn't received a great deal of help from the rest of the San Diego Chargers' offense.
Even prior to losing Vincent Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency last offseason, San Diego's talent level on offense was starting to dwindle a great deal.
Marcus McNeill, who was a Pro Bowl caliber offensive tackle from 2006-2009, started to get plagued with injuries and is no longer with the team. Nick Hardwick's game has dropped down a great deal at center, while Kris Dielman called it quits following 2011, just one season removed from an All-Pro performance in '10.
No quarterback—I don't care how good he is, can overcome massive departures along the offensive line and maintain a high level of play. This is even more magnified with the lack of receiving weapons on the outside, a questionable running game and veteran offensive linemen not performing up to par.
Speaking of the running game, Ryan Mathews continues to disappoint after he was selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. The former Fresno State star has started 32 of a possible 48 games in three seasons and has missed 10 games over that span. In addition, he averaged a career low 3.8 yards per attempt this past season (via Pro Football Reference).
Outside of the truly elite QBs, balance is needed on the offensive side of the ball in order to succeed. San Diego has not had that over the last couple seasons.
Back to the point at hand.
Rivers was sacked just 30 times in 2011, but saw that number increase to a disturbing 49 this past season (via Pro Football Reference). Overall, he was sacked the second-most in the NFL in 2012, right behind Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (via NFL.com).
While Rodgers was able to overcome that because he had solid weapons on the outside and is more mobile, we already know Rivers didn't have those type of receivers and isn't anywhere near as mobile.
San Diego had to realize this when former general manager A.J. Smith traded for Rivers in the 2004 NFL draft.
Front offices and coaching staffs must cater their offense around the strengths and downfalls of their quarterbacks. In reality, San Diego has failed to do this recently.
Enter into the equation Senior Bowl sensation Lane Johnson, who is one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the entire draft. While the Oklahoma product is a step behind both Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher in my rankings, he is still a top-12 prospect at this point.
What Johnson did during Senior Bowl week was nothing short of amazing.
Above, Johnson is already set prior to making contact with incoming pass rusher' Lavar Edwards from LSU. This enables the OT to hold his position at the line and not get thrown into the offensive backfield. If a blindside protector is able to utilize this technique before even taking one single snap in the NFL, he is already ahead of the curve.
As you can see in the photo above, Johnson does a great job getting low on the block, using his hands to get into the midsection of Edwards, while his feet are firmly implanted into the turf. This enables Johnson to be able to maintain his spot and avoid getting bull rushed.
Due to this NFL-ready technique, Johnson will have absolutely no problem going up against stronger pass rushers at the next level.
Is there, however, an issue against speed rushers?
After all, the likes of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller with the Denver Broncos have caused major issues for Philip Rivers over the last couple seasons.
What is the first thing you recognize in the video embedded above? Notice how Jeromey Clary does not recognize that Miller is coming from the outside? Yeah, that's pretty obvious.
The more glaring issue here is that even if Clary were to recognize the Pro Bowl linebacker coming from Rivers' right side, he wasn't in position to hold Miller off. He was back peddling and way too high immediately following the snap to keep Miller at bay.
This won't be an issue for Johnson in the NFL.
I fully understand that Johnson isn't going up against NFL competition here, but that isn't the point. When scouting an OL prospect it is important to take into account consistency as it relates to technique. He handles the outside rush by continuing the defenders momentum outside. The reason Johnson is successful in doing this is that he is able to utilize that lower center of gravity and lower-body strength at the pivot in order to keep the defender from churning inside.
If you watch the entire tape I embedded above, you will notice that this is a consistent theme for Johnson throughout Senior Bowl week.
Now, refer back to the Miller sack on Rivers for a second. Even if Clary had recognized the pass rusher coming from the outside, he was in absolutely no position to keep him from getting to Rivers.
There is no reason to believe that this will be the case for Johnson should he land in San Diego with the 11th overall pick in April.
When Rivers has time to see the field in the pocket, he is among the best quarterbacks in the league. It is when he feels hurried and pressure comes from the outside that the struggling quarterback tends to make most of his mistakes.
It isn't a coincidence that his two "worst" seasons as a professional quarterback has come behind below-average offensive lines. While more mobile quarterbacks can improvise when facing pressure, it seems to really impact Rivers' play on the field.
As you can see above, Rivers throwing motion and technique are vastly improved when he doesn't have pressure in his face. That being said, as Matt Miller indicated in his BR 1000 article, Rivers has never had a great technique, even dating back to his North Carolina State days. He isn't similar to Matthew Stafford in the sense that his mechanics have taken a hit over the last year or so. Rather, Rivers had has success with below-average mechanics in the past.
This doesn't mean that his play is not impacted with pressure in his face. The following is another example of the fluidity that he can throw with when the pocket is clean.
Like most QBs, Rivers' decision making and accuracy takes a hit when the pocket is not clean. This is one of the primary reasons that he has struggled so much in the past.
According to Pro Football Focus, Rivers was sacked sacked 8.5 percent of the time he dropped back to pass last season, good for 29th in the NFL. That represented an increase from 4.9 percent in 2011. It goes without saying that his success on the field were a directly impacted.
In addition, the Chargers' OTs as a group, were among the worst in the league. Michael Harris, Clary and, when healthy, Jared Gaither, just didn't get it done.
Take a look at what happens to Rivers already flawed mechanics when he gets pressure in his face.
As you can see, Rivers is way too upright in his release here. He doesn't get a whole heck of a lot into the throw and struggles with accuracy. It seems that he gets a case of the "I don't want to get hit" syndrome too often. Of course this seems to happen a great deal to quarterbacks that are actually hit a lot. In fact, we saw this with Aaron Rodgers to an extent this past season.
San Diego's new offense will run a zone-blocking scheme, similar to what we see with the Oakland Raiders. In that, it has to find a blindside protector capable of taking on pass rushers from the outside as there will not be a whole lot of help coming to that side.
This is something that Johnson was darn good at over the course of his career at Oklahoma.
The video above shows Johnson absolutely dominating against Jackson Jeffcoat, who would have been a first-round pick if it wasn't for an injury suffered in that very same game.
Overall, there is no reason to believe that Johnson will not be able to come in and dominate from the get go. He has the physical ability, technique and athleticism to be a blindside protector out of the gate. If San Diego can get that with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, it should be doing cartwheels.
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