Between The Lines: Broncos' Ryan Clady Proving to Be a Dominating Tackle
In a 2008 draft filled with offensive tackles, Ryan Clady was thought off as the risky upside pick who could end up being the class' best long-term value, but one that might take a little longer than Jake Long, Chris Williams or Branden Albert to reach his full potential.
But 10 games into his rookie season, Clady is making an argument to be the NFL rookie of the year. And if this is what Clady looks like raw, then the Broncos have a potential Walter Jones to count on for the next decade. According to Stats Inc., Clady has given up only 1/2 sack this season, one of only three starting tackles in the league who hasn't given up a full sack. He's a big reason the Broncos have given up only eight sacks all season, after giving up 32 sacks last year.This was supposed to be one of Clady's biggest challenges of the season--a head-to-head battle against Falcons defensive end John Abraham, one of league's leading sackers. It didn't end up that way. Abraham suffered a shoulder stinger and was kicked in the head which gave him a neck injury that limited his playing time. And even when he did play, the Falcons tried to move him around to get him more favorable matchups than Clady.
So instead, Clady spent most of his day battling Chauncey Davis, a much easier matchup. Clady generally dominated the 2005 fourth-rounder. Davis recorded two tackles all day, one of which came on a play where he wasn't blocked by Clady. His only tackle on a Clady block came when Clady drove him back a couple of yards on a slow-developing run, but Davis eventually got free to make the tackle for a one-yard gain. It was one of only two tackles Clady's man made all game. Abraham recorded two tackles, but both came on plays where he wasn't blocked by Clady.
What stood out was Clady's athleticism, his long reach and his adequate strength. While he's not a pile-pusher in the Jon Runyan mold, he is able to handle bull rushes, and with his athleticism, he's very capable of taking speed rushers and forcing them to take a wider and wider outside loops to try to get to the quarterback. Clady's supposed weakness coming into the NFL was his weak lower half that he would need to strengthen, but that wasn't apparent against the Falcons. Atlanta's defensive ends got no pressure when they tried to bull rush Clady. The only success they found came when they tried to beat him to the edge, but even that was fool's gold. Abraham, Davis and Jamaal Anderson all tried to fly past Clady on speed rushes, and Abraham had enough speed to pull it off, but even when he did, Clady's long arms and quick feet meant that Abraham had to go too wide to get to Cutler. He would eventually get past Clady, but when he did, he found himself already past Cutler, and Cutler just had to step up a little into the pocket to get off the pass.
As we mentioned, Abraham didn't spend most of the game lined up against Clady, but in the fourth quarter, the Falcons decided to put best-against-best, and Clady won the battle. Clady took advantage of Abraham's aggressiveness, using Abraham's momentum against him to let Abraham run himself out of several running plays. And on pass plays, there was only one snap all game where Abraham truly beat Clady. On a third-and-one late in the second quarter, Abraham ran an inside twist, where he looped in to try to shoot through the middle of the line. Clady stayed with him instead of handing him off, and Abraham was able to get free, but by the time he got into the backfield, Jonathan Babineaux has already sacked Jay Cutler.
When Clady did face Abraham, he also showed some of the savvy of a veteran. When Abraham did get a little advantage on the rookie, Clady didn't panic. He once pulled down Abraham with what looked like a hold, but since it wasn't called, it was just an effective play. And when Davis managed to fight off his initial punch and push away his hands, Clady kept shuffling his feet, slid with Davis and got his hands back on the defensive end to control him.
What was most impressive was how the Broncos showed complete confidence in Clady. He didn't need help from a running back or a tight end to chip his man. Thanks to Clady's talent, the Broncos can confidently ask him to handle the defense's best pass rusher one-on-one, which enables them to get more receivers into the pattern.
Clady isn't a finished product yet. The Broncos like to use his athleticism by pulling him on little loops where a tight end blocks down on the defensive end while Clady pulls out to find a linebacker or a defensive back. But while Clady has the feet and the agility to block downfield, he sometimes struggled to lock up his assignment when he was sent downfield to block. Like most offensive linemen, he actually has more trouble hitting a moving target, especially small defensive backs. Late in the second quarter, Clady whiffed on blocking cornerback Chevis Jackson on a screen pass, and Jackson made the tackle--one of the two tackles Clady allowed in the game. But he also had success nailing Keith Brooking downfield on a run late in the fourth quarter. Clady's capable of blocking downfield, but it appears to be one of the weaknesses of his game right now.
While Clady will continue to get better, he's already a left tackle that any team would be happy to have protecting their quarterback's blind side. And as he showed against the Falcons, he's already a tackle who forces defenses to scheme around, which is a very impressive quality for a rookie.