Every Play Counts: Miami Dolphins' Jake Long an OK Left Tackle, Great Right Tackle
Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.
Everyone already knows that Miami running back Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns and threw for another as the Dolphins dominated the New England Patriots. But not enough attention has been paid to the role that rookie offensive tackle Jake Long played as the Dolphins' offense suddenly and shockingly came to life on Sunday.
Specifically, there were 10 plays on which the Dolphins moved Long from his usual position on the left side and instead had him play on the right side in an unbalanced line, and an examination of Long on every play of the game shows that while he's just OK at protecting quarterback Chad Pennington on pass plays, which is his primary responsibility when he's playing left tackle, he's dominant as a run blocker, which is his main job when he's a right tackle.
Long was great in short-yardage situations on Sunday. The Dolphins had a first-and-goal in the first quarter on which Long first blocked defensive end Richard Seymour out of the play and then went up to the second level and blocked cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Ronnie Brown didn't get into the end zone on the handoff, but if he had, Long would have deserved the bulk of the credit.
The play after that was the first time the Dolphins used what they're calling their "Wildcat" offense, with Long moving over to the right side of the line, Pennington lining up as a wide receiver and Brown taking a shotgun snap. Brown ran right behind Long for a two-yard touchdown on the play. Although Long's block didn't look dominant -- he didn't knock anyone down or anything -- he did exactly what he needed to do: He took a hard step toward the sideline and sealed off the edge, which cleared the path for Brown. From the Dolphins' perspective, the block was executed perfectly.
Long wasn't perfect on every running play. On a first-and-10 handoff to Ricky Williams in the second quarter, Long was at left tackle, one-on-one with Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green. Long made good initial contact with Green, but he didn't sustain his block, and Green tackled Williams for a two-yard gain on a play that could have gone a long way if Williams had been able to get past Green and break to the outside.
But most of the time, Long doesn't just sustain his run blocks, he also pushes his man a few yards down the field. If you see a replay of Brown's second touchdown run, watch Long at left tackle, lined up against Green. Long makes the contact and then continues to drive forward with his legs, like he's pushing a blocking sled. By the time Brown ran past them, Long had pushed Green five yards back.
On the Dolphins' second offensive play of the game, Long was lined up at his usual position of left tackle, matched one-on-one with Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour. This is a rookie in his third NFL game going against a five-time Pro Bowler. And Long absolutely destroyed Seymour. Long got under Seymour's pads, pushed him straight back for five yards, and had Seymour looking like a scrub, not like one of the highest-paid defensive players in the league, which is what he is.
Long had a lot of blocks like that. On Brown's third touchdown run, Long was on the right side in an unbalanced line, and he abused Patriots defensive end Ty Warren, knocking Warren several yards back as Brown ran past them into the end zone. On a run to the right by Brown late in the second quarter, Long, at left tackle, knocked Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel to his knees and kept him from ever getting within 10 yards of the play.
Long is already one of the best run-blocking offensive tackles in the NFL, and on the 10 plays Sunday when he lined up on the right side, he looked like a natural there.
Unfortunately, when Long is on the left side, protecting Pennington, he doesn't look so natural.
Pennington was never sacked on Sunday, but there were a few plays when Long left him vulnerable. On one Pennington pass in the first quarter, Long was at left tackle with Seymour to his inside and Vrabel to his outside. He gave a quick shove to Seymour and then turned toward Vrabel, but it was too late: Vrabel was already past him. Fortunately for the Dolphins, Brown stayed in for pass protection and kept Vrabel from getting to Pennington, with Long eventually coming over to help Brown. I can't say for sure what the Dolphins' protection assignments were on the play, but it looked like Brown bailed Long out by blocking Vrabel when Long should have.
On another pass play, a second-and-12 in the third quarter, Long was at left tackle with Patriots outside linebacker Adalius Thomas to his outside. At the snap, Patriots safety Rodney Harrison blitzed to Long's inside, and Long let him go to block Thomas. That was a mistake; if Long had to let someone go it should have been Thomas, who had a longer route to get to Pennington. Fortunately for the Dolphins, Pennington got his pass off just before Harrison hit him, and it was complete for a 12-yard gain to Williams.
Two plays later Long made a similar mistake: When Thomas looped to the inside to blitz, Long got caught flat-footed and let Thomas go when he should have followed him. But, again, Pennington escaped the pressure and passed for a first down. Any of those plays could have resulted in Pennington getting sacked, but since Pennington got the passes away despite the pressure, no one will remember how Long screwed up.
One of the good things about having a weak-armed quarterback like Pennington is that the Dolphins are going to throw mostly short passes, meaning they don't need the offensive line to hold its blocks quite as long as they would if Pennington were throwing downfield more often. And most of the time, Long at least got in the way of the guy he was pass-blocking for long enough that Pennington could get a short pass away. On the first play of the Dolphins' second offensive series, for instance, Long was matched one-on-one with Vrabel, who blitzed as Pennington dropped back to pass. Vrabel got a fairly good first step and appeared to have Long off balance for a moment, but Long quickly recovered and stayed in front of Vrabel long enough to allow Pennington to get the pass off.
Of all the Patriots who rushed Pennington with Long blocking them, the one who was the most effective was probably defensive end Jarvis Green, who almost disrupted one of Pennington's first quarter passes simply by pushing Long straight back toward Pennington. The knock on Long coming out of college was that he would struggle with speed rushers, as he did with former Ohio State defensive end and current Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston. But on Sunday it was the bull rush that seemed more effective against Long.
When I was at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I talked to several NFL people who thought Long, a left tackle at Michigan, should move to the right in the NFL. Based on the way he played Sunday, I'd have to concur. He's as good as they come at opening holes in the running game, but I'd be worried if I were a quarterback counting on Long to protect my blind side.