Back when I was a young whipper-snapper in college, I always wondered how someone could be an expert on the mating habits of beatles or just what it was about the Labour Supply Curve that could make a man want to devote his life to the marginal utility of leisure. But now I know. Life just kind of happens. You fall into something that interests you that very few people know a lot about, you become good at it, you read a lot about it, and after X amount of time, people come to you for the answers that you once searched for. Now you are the one Pearson calls when they need a quote for their newest textbook.
See, I'm also an expert on something nearly as obscure as the Battle of Masan. Back in May before I took a Battle Red Blog hiatus, I wrote 7,000 words about Xavier Su'a-Filo. I was just someone interested in the newest offensive lineman the Texans took to fill their Pro-Bowl sized hole at left guard. I never wanted this power. I never wanted to be an expert. I just kind of fell into it.
One day my phone squealed at me, and I saw the following:
This was my Pearson calling for advice on the Navajo Sandstone layer of rock that resides in the geological formations at Zion National Park. This was a graduate student filming a documentary on aquatic plants and needing someone to interview about Texas Wild Rice. Xavier Su'a-Filo following me on Twitter made me as the Su'a-Filo expert. So because of this power I have a responsibility to him and the masses on BRB to write this article.
Heading into Week Six, Brandon Brooks was hit with an Ebolic flu virus that left him crawling into a hospital bed. There he lay sprawled in a bedlam of white sheets as he puked up fifteen pounds of goo and bile. That opened the door for Su'a-Filo to make his first career start. Up until that Thursday night game against the Colts, Su'a-Filo saw limited time when Houston went into six OL sets, with a series against Dallas being his biggest sample size. His snap count totals going into Thursday Night Football against Indy were:
This was frustrating to see. After draft day, I and nearly everyone else assumed Su'a-Filo would start immediately after being selected with the thirty-third overall pick. There was only one guard selected ahead of him, and that was Zack Martin. Houston had their choice of anyone at the top of the second round, and we assumed they would get not only a top talent, but someone who could start right away.
This didn't occur. Su'a-Filo was in fact beaten out by Ben Jones. This was disparaging enough as is and even more so when you still see "QB1: RYAN FITZPATRICK" on the depth chart. Despite the anguish, hoopla, suffering, and torture, we finally had our first chance to get an extended look at the future of guard for the Houston Texans.
The results were okay, to say the least.
On the second offensive snap of the game, we saw what made Su'a-Filo a second round pick as well as what makes him sit and watch on the sideline as Ben Jones gets all the snaps. In the first quarter with 14:56 remaining, Houston ran the staple of their offense, the outside zone run, towards Su'a-Filo's side.
It's second and ten. Houston is lined up in a 122 set (1RB, 2TE, 2WR), and we get to play BFD's favorite game, "How many defenders are in the box?". The answer this time is eight--eight men in the box. Indy knows Houston is running to try and set up a more manageable third down for Ryan Fitzpatrick to pick up in an empty backfield set.
When it comes to blocking this defensive formation, it's as straightforward as it can get. There is a man in every gap, so every offensive lineman will block the player in the gap to the right of them. This leaves Su'a-Filo with a brutal block. He is matched up one vs. one against the 318 pound Cory Redding (#90).
Su'a-Filo is quick off the snap. He's taking his zone step (a short six inch diagonal step) and as you can see below, he's moving before the rest of the line of scrimmage is.
The aiming point for linemen on the outside zone run is the outside shoulder. If they can get to that outside shoulder, they can drive the defender vertically rather than horizontally down the line of scrimmage. When the back-side gets outside shoulder head placement, they can turn the defender away from the play to open up cutback lanes. At the moment, Xavier is in decent position to reach his aiming point.
Here's when the trouble begins. It doesn't derail the block this time, but it's a crucial problem with Su'a-Filo's game. Throughout this game, Xavier had terrible head placement. This isn't because of his feet; his feet are stellar. It's because he dips his head when he punches and he makes contact too soon.
Right now XSF can delay contact for a little longer and fight for the outside shoulder. Look at the rest of the line of scrimmage. Everyone other than Myers who had a man playing inches from his face has yet to attack the defender. They are all delaying contact so they can reach their target. This seems like a rookie mistake. A player who's making his first start and is overly excited to hit the defender. A player who's still young and is crude oil rather than sweet gasoline.
Su'a-Filo instead takes a step forward and makes contact on Redding's inside shoulder.
Here is the point of impact. We see Su'a-Filo's head on the inside shoulder, and we also see his hands are outside. The other problem he has right now is that his hands are abysmal. He doesn't punch the numbers, and he fails to grasp the pads when he makes contact. We will see more on the latter later.
The good news is that Su'a-Filo has a sturdy and voluptuous lower body. The one thing that you have to have to play offensive line is strength relative to your level of play. Without it, you can't play the position. There's an incredible leap in athleticism from college to the pros. The players are bigger, faster, and stronger. If you lack the athleticism, the blocks you could make in college dissipate into invisible memories and tackles in the backfield. When Xavier is lower than the defender and rolls his hips, he can drive defenders, even ones like the underrated Redding. This is even more telling to his lower body strength when you take into account his head and hand placement.
Arian Foster cuts behind the crease made by Xavier's block.
The other thing I like about Xavier is that he's tenacious. Going back to college, I loved how he played to the whistle and worked to put defenders flat on their back. Foster is down on the ground, but Xavier keeps working until the whistle and knocks Redding over the pile.
Just like in college:
For every block he makes with perfection, there is another he makes that's horrendous. Nearly everything is perfect, but he's just missing one thing to turn from good to extraordinary.
In the NFL, Xavier is still missing one or two components on every one of his blocks. On the previous play, we see Xavier take perfect steps to put him position to reach the outside shoulder, but he makes contact early and hits the inside one. This plagues him throughout the game:
Bending too early leads to poor head placement and XSF falling over and off his block. When you duck your head down early, you can't see where the defender is moving or your aiming point, which opens up space for defenders to shed the block. In my time watching NFL offensive line play, I have never seen a player end up on the ground as often as XSF did in this game. Again, it's not a case of poor feet; he gets to the block. He doesn't have to flail as a last ditch effort. It's because he lacks patience and makes contact too soon.
Also, when he makes contact, he's low with a good base, but he punches the outside shoulders rather than the chest. It works here to create a lane for Foster, but on other plays these inadequacies become detrimental. He makes 80% of a good block on this play.
Later in the first quarter, we see the same outside zone play run to his side. Except here we see a "Deuce" block with Derek Newton (right tackle #75) where Su'a-Filo peels off to the second level. The goal for Su'a-Filo here is to take his zone step to the right, offer a hand of help to Newton, and be in position in case the end (Cory Redding #90) stunts inside. Since the end is playing as a "5," he's too wide for Su'a-Filo to get a true hip-to-hip double team. XSF will need to punch the end while staying square to seal the block for Newton before moving to the second level.
Xavier takes his zone step right. It's hard to see in the images, but pay special attention to his feet in the GIFs. He takes short, quick, choppy steps. Feet are the foundation to offensive line play because if you can't get there and put yourself in a position to make a block, you'll never have any type of consistency, and offensive line play is all about consistency. Right now his feet are the best part of his game.
Newton has perfect footwork here and makes contact at the precise moment. He's low, square, his hands are inside, and his head is on the outside shoulder. Xavier looks lovely right now. He's coming at a flat angle to help Newton get movement on the block. He doesn't assume that he can't help because the end is a "5" technique and he doesn't automatically scamper to the linebacker.
Xavier has his eyes on Redding. His hands are up to punch his side.
He makes his punch while his eyes watch the linebacker. This is key. After his punch is made, he will know exactly where the linebacker is when he scrapes off the block.
Xavier seals and creates movement. Redding is now traveling to the left thanks to Su'a-filo's help. Now he will block the linebacker.
The linebacker, D'Qwell Jackson (#52), makes a nice play by attacking the block and slipping underneath. But you would like to see Xavier come off the block square. He gives Jackson the angle to get underneath. Rather than punch Jackson in the chest, Su'a-Filo has his hands crumpled shoving Jackson's side. He just rubs his belly into him instead of blocking him.
This leads to Jackson getting into Su'a-Filo's chest out of the block.
This isn't a bad block. Su'a-Filo does everything perfectly until he gets to the second level. His feet are precise. The strength is there to move the heavy Redding. He goes to the second level at the perfect time. It's a great double team, but by not leaving the block square, he creates space for Jackson to sneak into. Again, everything is nearly great, but... I'm sorry for the redundancy; this sentence structure is going to be bludgeoned to death.
In the second quarter, we see another outside zone play except here we see Su'a-Filo on a weak scoop (back-side double team). Before the snap, XSF is thinking he will be blocking a power scoop. The difference between the two is that on a power scoop Su'a-Filo is expecting to take over the block while Chris Myers (center #55) punches the outside shoulder until he feels his presence and then heads to the second level. It's more of a true double team. On a weak scoop, Su'a-Filo offers only a shove if possible before going to the linebacker. The reason why he assumes pre-snap that it will be a power scoop is because the alignment of the nose. He's playing as a "1" on the back-side of the play, which is close enough for Xavier to make an impact.
At the snap, the "1" slants towards the play-side. Myers and Xavier do a nice job taking their zone steps and reacting to the stunt. They aren't surprised. They just go with the flow of the play and understand how their assignments change.
Xavier keeps flowing to the left to try and help seal the play until it no longer becomes feasible. He can offer a hand of help until he needs to move to the second level. I enjoy his patience here, too. He doesn't attack up field once he sees the slant. He continues with the assignment and moves to the next level when he's supposed to. He has a nice feel for the zone run game.
Since he's on the back-side, he's trying to split the defense in half. So his aiming point is for the left shoulder of the linebacker. Except rather than drive him towards the play-side or up the field, he's trying to turn his back to the right sideline and be a wall between the defender and the ball carrier. Already his angle is perfect. The linebacker will flow left, so Xavier will stay at the current angle he's going at so he can get to the outside shoulder.
He comes up the field at a 75 degree angle.
Xavier makes contact. Unlike the previous plays with terrible head placement, this time it's alright. It's not ideal, yet it will do. His hands are inside on the chest and his head is centered. It's acceptable even if you would rather see it on the outside shoulder.
This is when the wheels tremble and fall off the wagon. I mentioned that XSF's hands are one of his biggest flaws. Xavier doesn't grasp when he makes contact. Instead he goes for a kill-shot and tries to scramble Jackson's brains. Yes, you want to be physical when you get there, but you want punch the chest and grab. That way the defender can't bounce off the hit and make a play. He had the same problem in college too as can be seen in this GIF (he's the left guard).
In this run scheme, this type of block is unnecessary. The goal of the back-side is to put a hat on every hat. In this still below, if Foster was able to cut back or if Myers didn't get beat, Jackson could have made a tackle on the play and turned twenty yards into five yards. Throughout this game and in college, Xavier didn't grasp the chest. It's a smaller issue in the run game that becomes exasperated in the pass game.
A few plays later with 13:16 left in the second quarter, we see the same type of play except this time it's a power scoop rather than a weak scoop. The defensive alignment is the same as last time except here the "1" doesn't slant to the left. This is a really difficult block.
Xavier takes a nice zone step left. The only problem is he's a little too high.
Myers chips the outside shoulder to try and turns the nose tackle's pads to open him up for Su'a-Filo. Xavier has a nice angle to take over the block. But again, he could be playing lower. He knows he needs to get to that outside shoulder, so he speeds up his movement at the expense of his leverage.
Myers' movement naturally takes him off the block and up field towards the back-side inside linebacker. Xavier is now moving forwards rather than at a 45 degree angle to block the nose tackle. Here he's a little lower. The key is going to be if he can get his head inside.
He's unable to. He punches the side of the defender. Again, the hand placement is awful.
The good news is that Xavier is strong. The blocks he misses aren't because a lack of strength, and that's the first concern when it comes to evaluating a rookie offensive lineman. It's a great sign that he can have head placement this atrocious and still drive the defensive lineman up-field.
Xavier gets tripped in the pile and falls down. Reaching the "1" and getting to that inside shoulder is an incredibly difficult to block. He still got the job done even if he didn't get his head inside.
As most of you know, the Texans are a zone run team with some power and man scheme plays sprinkled in. These plays utilize pulling, isolating defenders, and having the linemen block one-on-one more often. I've depicted all of the blocks Xavier made in the zone scheme, so now I want to touch on two plays that used power concepts.
At UCLA, Su'a-Filo did pull a fair mount of the time even though UCLA was more of an inside zone read team. The wart when he pulled was that he would pull too quickly and miss defenders completely or arrive to the block out of control. Here we see the a different problem thwart him.
On this play with 10:20 left in the second quarter, we see the Texans run power out of the shotgun, which is one of their favorite red zone plays to run. Ben Jones (left guard #60), and Myers (center #55) block down on the nose, everyone else has one-on-one blocks, and Su'a-Filo is going to pull through the hole and off the down blocks.
The first thing you watch for when an offensive lineman pulls is whether he gains ground with his first step. You can't just jump out of your stance and start running. You need to take a pull step (six inch step parallel to the line of scrimmage) that is flat to the line of scrimmage and takes him towards the hole. Su'a-Filo does exactly this.
The other aspect about pulling is you want to stay flat on the line of scrimmage. You can't waste your steps and run like a sloppy drunk. You need to stay in your lane. Su'a-Filo does a swell job staying on his path even though there's slight penetration coming from the defensive tackle.
Now Su'a-Filo plants to head up the hole. He needs to come right off of Jones' hip when he gets around the corner.
Everything is beautiful so far. XSF has taken a perfect pull step, stayed flat on the LOS, and come tight around the down block. Yet here is when the trouble came to XSF when he was in college. Can he a.) find the correct defender and b.) not be out of control when he makes contact?
Su'a-Filo is in great position at the moment. His head is aimed at the outside shoulder since he can't let the inside linebacker get across his head to make a play on the ball carrier.
Xavier makes contact.
But here is when XSF screws up. He finds the right man, and he's in control when he makes contact. The problem is there's no technique whatsoever when he hits the linebacker. He kind of just mashes himself into the defender like he's a freshman at homecoming. His hands are at his side. He just smushes into the defender. If someone had never played offensive line before and I told them what they were supposed to do without telling them how to block the man, this is what I would expect to see. I wouldn't expect this from a second round pick. What XSF needs to do is place his head on the outside number, bring his hands to punch the chest, and roll his hips up into the defender.
As a result, the linebacker is able to swing around the block and get to the inside of the play.
I'm sorry if you have heard this before--Su'a-Filo took great steps, had a perfect path to the defender, but he made an awful block when he got there. I saw him have trouble pulling in college again and again and again. Most of his problems in college were because he missed the defender or wasn't in control. Against Indy, he had problems making the block when he arrived. Yet he showed the ability to block the second level in the zone game. There's just no consistency or professionalism in his game.
The last run play to look at is a one-on-one block on a lead play. What a lucky dog, Su'a-Filo has Ricky Jean Francois (#99) all to himself. His block is detrimental to the play because Jay Prosch (fullback #45) is going to come off his block to the linebacker. If there's any penetration, it shuts the casket on this one.
Here the defensive tackle is lined up as a "3" technique. Su'a-Filo should take a short slide step (one six inch horizontal step) with his right foot to cover up the defender, and then one step forward with his left foot to initiate contact.
Instead, Xavier takes a slide step with his left foot. He opens the door for the defensive tackle to get into the backfield. Offensive line is a position all about precision; sloppy play like this leads to monstrosities occurring.
Su'a-Filo goes to make contact, but he can't. His left arm is hanging pendulously and his right arm is going towards the chest of the defender meekly. Francois is in complete control. He has outside placement, has taken on exactly half of the lineman, and has both hands inside.
All Xavier can do now is fight for a stalemate. On the bright side, he's lower than the defender and is able to recover and bring his hands inside.
Now they each just fight back and forth to try and gain position in a game of human tetherball. This is an awful play by the defensive lineman, but Xavier deserves credit for recovering like he did.
Despite it all, XSF ends up squaring the defender up and gets his hands inside on the numbers.
I know this is a Su'a-Filo article. Yet I need to point this out.
Jay Prosch is the worst fullback I've ever seen. He rarely blocks the right defender, and when he does he just lowers his head and butts into them. He plays with horrendous technique. He never has correct head placement. He's just a wreck of a player. Prosch is running a lead play and rather than block one of the linebackers who's uncovered, he runs into the side of the defensive lineman. It's a lead play. Everyone knows what that is, and what his job is, and look at him now.
Foster has absolutely nowhere to run.
Xavier is able to recover on this play. Yet the wrong steps leads to him having the wrong head placement, which opens the door that a better defensive lineman would have blown right through like the big bad wolf. The strength is there, the leverage is there, the hands are there for once, but everything else is gross.
If you thought that was nauseating, cheer up because it's about to get worse. Xavier was admirable in the run game. In the pass game, he was pre-2014 Derek Newton bad.
XSF has the "B" gap and is matched up against his new bestie Cory Redding (#90).
Redding lines up as a "3". At the snap, he rushes straight forward through the gap. Xavier does a nice job putting his quickness to work and snaps out of his stance. He has a good base and is in sound position to mirror Redding.
When it comes to pass blocking as a guard, you don't want to allow a ton of space. Unlike playing tackle, you are trying to make contact as soon as possible. Space is at a premium because of the distance to the quarterback. Interior rushers have a shorter path to the quarterback. You don't want to make contact two yards back because then the defender is a rip away from the sack, and the quarterback has no time to react. The center and guards are trying to create a horizontal wall in the center of the line of scrimmage for the quarterback to throw behind.
A guard tries to snap out of the stance and punch. They don't kick slide nearly to the extent that tackles do. Yet here we see Su'a-Filo retreating backwards and creating space between him and the defensive tackle.
He doesn't punch until he and Redding are head up. The issue though isn't when XSF makes contact. It's his feet. When you punch the defensive lineman, you want to be strong and back on your heels. You don't want to be on your toes when you punch because this leads to leaning and zaps your power. Yet what we see here is that when Su'a-Filo goes to punch Redding, his left leg is balancing on his toes.
When XSF punches, he extends forward. Redding takes his arms and knocks them off of Su'a-Filo. This is a direct result of not staying on his heels and leaning forward when he makes contact.
Redding swims over the top as Su'a-Filo drops his files onto the floor.
Now XSF fights back to recover.
It doesn't matter because Redding has a wide open path to the quarterback.
When you watch Xavier pass block, you see this constantly. You see him mirror the defender well, but when he punches, he leans forward and plays on his toes too much.
All of this weight going forward leaves XSF susceptible to swim moves and for defensive lineman to pull him forward and yank the rug out from underneath him.
The other issue that plagues XSF in the pass game is his hands. He plays patty-cake too much. Just like in the run game when he heads to the second level and pushes rather than grasps, he does the same in the pass game. He punches without grabbing the chest, resets, and punches again.
On this play, Su'a-Filo is away from the call so he's playing big on big rather than a gap. He is lined up with Drake Nevis (#94) who's in proximity as a "3" technique.
Su'a-Filo gets out of his stance.
And he continues to retreat backwards. Like the last play, he's giving the defensive tackle room to rush. This would be acceptable if he was going against a "5" technique that he had to hurry over and meet, but not in this situation. It's surprising to see someone who's had extensive time playing guard do this, even if he played tackle and guard in college like XSF did.
Xavier reels back for his punch.
Unlike the last play, Su'a-Filo has a nice base when he punches. He's not leaning forward. His knees are fairly bent, and he's back on his heels.
Yet he doesn't grab the chest. He punches, retreats and then...
...punches again. This completely dismantles the pocket. The goal is to create a wall. You want to minimize space, punch, and grab so you can control the defender at the line of scrimmage. Once the hands are inside, you just shuffle along and mirror him.
Now Nevis has speed and momentum going forward, which makes him a more powerful player. He shoves Su'a-Filo's chest and just drives him into Fitzpatrick.
Oh, this is not a one time occurrence, though. Xavier refuses to snag jersey in pass protection.
It's perplexing to me to see such a fundamental aspect of the game never used. You punch and grab to control the defender. Su'a-Filo doesn't so. After contact is made, the defender can bounce off his block, shed and then chase after the quarterback. I really have no idea what's going on. It may be because even though XSF's lower body is sturdy, his upper body is weak and he's afraid of getting pulled down. This would also explain the leaning shown earlier.
But XSF's bench press in the combine was above average, and he is able to get separation when he punches in this game. It may be a bad habit he still has from his college days; here and here he's grabbing after punching, though. Whatever the reason is, it's something a man and laptop can't tell. It's something for Xavier and the coaching staff to figure out. Yet that doesn't change the fact that there are cracks in the foundation of how XSF pass protects.
The surgery was a success, but your father still died. The car runs, but we had to put in a new transmission. We are offering a you a promotion, but it doesn't come with a pay raise, only a title change. Xavier drove the tackle two yards backwards, but his head placement was inside rather than outside and he fell off the block. Xavier took a great angle to the linebacker, but he failed to grasp the chest, which closed the cutback lane. Xavier had a great mirror on his pass protection, but he was on his toes when he punched and ended up falling forward while the defender ran away.
At the moment, Su'a-Filo is a wrinkled shirt underneath the bed. He needs to be starched, dry cleaned, and ironed. His edges are corroded and grimy. He's a second round pick who needs more time and polish. He will need to learn how to grasp the chest, be more patient with when he makes contact, be square and on his heels when he punches in pass pro, hit the right target, and play with his hands inside.
These are all just subtle technique changes, though. There isn't any reason why he can't fix these flaws with coaching and practice. The things that can't be taught--quick feet, strength, viciousness and instinct--are all there. The guard that Houston took in the second round to start right away doesn't and shouldn't. He's a sixth offensive lineman with the potential to be a stalwart on the line of scrimmage for years to come if he can correct his technique and become a consistent player.
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