What Can We Expect from the New-Look Arizona Cardinals Offensive Line?
To the surprise of no one, the Cardinals’ offense was the league’s worst unit in 2012. They averaged 263.1 yards per game, 15.4 first downs a game and 4.1 yards per play. Their offensive inefficiencies last year were a direct result of poor play at the quarterback position and along the offensive line.
Over the course of the first eight games of the season, Arizona’s offensive line surrendered 31 quarterback sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 102 quarterback hurries. Their worst two-week stretch was Weeks 4 and 5. Against the Dolphins (Week 4) and the Rams (Week 5), quarterback Kevin Kolb was pressured 51 times total.
The worst individual performer during that eight-game span was right tackle Bobby Massie. On a weekly basis, Massie was beaten like a drum by opposing defensive ends. Prior to the team’s Week 9 contest against the Packers, the fourth-round pick conceded 13 quarterback sacks, three quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries.
His disappointing performances were surprising. Some draft analysts were high on Massie because of his size, power and athleticism. Sure, he was playing an entirely different position than he played in college, yet few expected such discouraging results from the 316-pound road grader.
However, the light bulb seemingly switched on overnight. Massie looked in the mirror and reflected on his poor play from the first half of the season. He didn’t like the player he had become after he examined his play at Pro Football Focus. Here’s what he told Josh Weinfuss of AZCardinals.com:
[I] Just got tired of it, man. Just getting beat like that. It ain’t cool. It ain’t a good thing to be the worst tackle in the league, man. It hurt, man. I don’t like that. I try to be the best at whatever I do so I corrected it.
Massie’s attitude adjustment not only jump-started his play, but it jump-started the rest of the offensive line’s play as well. From Week 9 on, the Cardinals’ play upfront helped them finish as the most improved offensive line in the league.
Over the final eight games, they succumbed 15 quarterback sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 31 quarterback hurries. That’s 86 fewer quarterback hurries than the 150 they gave up between Week 1 and Week 8.
Massie’s profound turnaround was remarkable. Over the final eight games, he didn’t allow a quarterback sack; he only allowed four quarterback hits and seven quarterback hurries. His late-season revival didn’t go unnoticed. Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus pegged him as Arizona’s “secret superstar” for the 2012 season.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals’ offensive line wasn’t given the opportunity to build on their improbable resurgence. When head coach Bruce Arians was hired on January 17, his first order of business was to fix the offensive line. He wanted to add talent and depth to better the unit.
Free agency didn’t have much to offer in terms of ability, so he waited and used the seventh overall pick in the draft on All-American offensive guard Jonathan Cooper. Cooper was highly touted out of North Carolina for a multitude of reasons.
The mauling interior offensive lineman didn’t appear to have any flaws. He has elite speed, is a great pass-protector as well as a superb run-blocker and has great technique. Not to mention he’s scheme versatile and extremely durable. He missed three measly games during his collegiate career.
The second offensive lineman the organization drafted was Earl Watford (fourth-round selection).
Like Cooper, Watford is ridiculously athletic for a man his size and excels as a pass-blocker. Moreover, his long arms help him engage in the run game. His only downfall was the fact he attended James Madison. His exposure was limited, and scouts felt he didn’t play against tough enough competition. If he had played at a bigger school, he would have gone off the board one or two rounds earlier.
Coming out of high school, he was recruited to play defensive tackle at the collegiate level. James Madison was the only program to offer him a scholarship, so he only had one choice. Mickey Matthews (James Madison's head coach) moved Watford to offensive guard during his freshman year.
At the pro level, it’s too early to tell whether or not Watford will get the opportunity to play guard. Due to his size, some feel he would make a better center than guard. Ultimately, only time will tell based on team needs and depth.
The final piece to Arizona’s remade offensive line is the late offseason acquisition of Eric Winston. Throughout the course of Winston’s eight-year career, he made a name for himself as one of the best pass-blocking right tackles in the NFL.
Even though the Kansas City Chiefs released the 29-year-old lineman this past offseason, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him out as the 26th-best offensive tackle in the league last year. He received above average marks as a run-blocker and a pass-protector.
Despite being signed on July 25, Winston is already entrenched as the team’s starting right tackle. Which means two of the three big-name additions have already cracked the starting lineup. Cooper’s lofty draft status has given him the opportunity to start at left guard right away.
With Levi Brown returning from a torn triceps muscle and Winston and Cooper at their respective positions, what can we realistically expect from the Cardinals’ new look offensive line? That’s the million-dollar question in Arizona right now.
It’s safe to say the biggest upgrade will come on the ground. Couple Arians’ offseason additions with his past, and all signs point to Arizona transitioning to a zone-blocking scheme. Winston was one of the most dominant right tackles in the game when he was with the Texans. Houston has lived and died by the zone-blocking scheme under head coach Gary Kubiak.
Regardless of his scheme versatility, Todd McShay of ESPN labeled Cooper as a perfect fit for a zone-blocking scheme. McShay singled out his ability as a blocker in space and his light feet. Yet, the first-round pick will need to add some weight to his frame for added sturdiness.
Brown is the only real wild card. The seven-year pro has always been a better run-blocker than pass-blocker, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see a zone-blocking scheme maximize his skills. When the Cardinals’ running backs ran off tackle in 2011, they averaged 4.1 yards per carry.
Sure, this doesn’t guarantee anything for the 2013 season, but it’s a good starting point. Backup left tackle Nate Potter attended Boise State, which means he has extensive experience in a zone-blocking scheme as well. If worst comes to worst and Brown isn’t working out, Arians could yank him in favor of Potter.
There are plenty of scenarios and personnel moves that could be made to accommodate a scheme that creates lanes for running plays. Arians isn’t married to any particular lineup right now, so expect camp battles to play out deep into the preseason.
In a stacked NFC West, he just wants to win. And right now a zone-blocking scheme on offense gives the Cardinals the best chance to win. Running backs Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington would agree. Both players are one-cut runners and look like prototype backs in Arians’ offense.
The transition may take time, but the change will be well worth it in the end. Arizona’s new look offensive line has the talent they need to help the offense thrive.
As they say, “It all starts up front.”
All statistics were collected from Pro Football Focus.
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