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Seahawks cut blocking no longer a laughing matter

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back at the first months of the season, the offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks was criticized, laughed at, and lambasted for its inconsistency and level of play. One of the easiest things for critics to attack with the Hawks line were the plays the team would run with every offensive lineman executing a cut block, often very poorly.

One of the biggest critics of the work of the offensive line was NFL Analyst Brian Baldinger, who continued to harp on the Seahawks offensive line over and over again through the season, including here:

And here

However, as the weeks have worn on, between position shuffling, injuries healing and the addition of Duane Brown, the line has started to show proficiency at certain aspects of its job. In particular, while the Seahawks line was widely ridiculed early in the year following plays which called for all of the linemen to make cut blocks (such as in the first clip above), often unsuccessfully, there has been an absence of this in recent weeks. However, it’s not because the team has not been running them.

For example, this picture from week three against the Tennessee Titans shows all the offensive linemen attempting cut blocks, with zero of the cut blocks putting the defender on the ground.

Further, while some observers may posit that cut blocks are going the way of the dinosaur because of the athleticism of today’s defensive linemen, that ignores the fact that when executed properly, the cut block can completely eliminate a defensive lineman from a play.

For a prime example of exactly this, here is the pre-snap alignment of the Seattle offense facing off against the Philadelphia Eagles on a second down play in the second quarter on Sunday.

The important Eagles to pay attention to here are the four defensive linemen with their hands in the dirt. Left to right, they are Brandon Graham (55), Fletcher Cox (91), Beau Allen (94) and Vinny Curry (75). The numbers are more visible once the ball is snapped, so here is a capture from just after Russell Wilson receives the ball from Justin Britt.

The next image in the progression shows four of the five linemen engages in cut blocks, with left guard Luke Joeckel, who had been uncovered at the time of the snap, looking for someone to hit. In this picture Britt and Ethan Pocic are in the middle of their blocks, while Brown and Germain Ifedi are just about to make contact.

The cut blocks on this play works to buy Wilson enough time to get rid of the pass, and here is a still of the moment the ball is being thrown,

with a follow up showing the ball in the air (circled in red) and no defender within five yards of Russell.

The offensive line blocking on this play was great on the interior. Britt absolutely destroyed Allen Beau, which is not surprising since Beau is a career backup with only seven starts as he approaches the end of the fourth year in the NFL. Perhaps more impressive is the individual sprawled out on all four on the ground next to Pocic. That is two time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

Cox may not be the most athletic defensive tackle in the NFL, but he’s probably close. He matched Seahawks strong safety Bradley McDougald in the 3-cone drill at the combine (7.07 seconds) and put up an impressive 4.79 in the forty yard dash. To put that time in perspective, of the 432 defensive tackles that have completed the forty yard dash at the combine since 2000, Cox’s 4.79 time is one of the eight best. And yet rookie Pocic left him watching harmlessly as Russ delivered the pass. Here is a clip of the play to show the line performing the cut blocks in action.

Ifedi and Brown at the tackle positions could make their cut blocks better, as neither of them takes the defender they are blocking to the ground. With more space to cover before engaging, they both had more difficult blocks to execute than either Pocic or Britt, but that doesn’t excuse it. Now, if that failure is also partly due to the Eagles defensive ends rushing to contain Wilson rather than force pressure, that changes the moment of engagement just enough to make the cut blocks far more difficult to execute perfectly. Again that’s not an excuse for either of those guys to be standing up at the moment the ball is released if the assignment was to put them on the ground, but since neither defensive end is anywhere near in a position to be able to alter the throw or play in any way, at some level it is mission accomplished for Ifedi and Brown.

In any case, the cut block is not dead, and in particular it is not dead because of the increased athleticism of defensive linemen. The cut block is used extensively, particularly by college teams like Navy and Georgia Tech, as an equalizer to neutralize larger, more athletic defensive linemen. It’s value lies in the fact that when it is executed properly it allows for the complete neutralization of a defensive player, because that player ends up on the ground. Yes, more athletic defensive linemen and linebackers make it harder to properly execute, but that simply means offensive linemen need to be that much better at it.

The difficulty comes from the fact that to properly execute it requires a complete commitment from the blocker, and failure to engage the defender at the right time in the right place with proper form effectively leaves the defender unblocked. In contrast, when performed with proper form at the right time and right place, it has the ability to completely remove the defender from the play, such as when a rookie offensive lineman starting the seventh game of his career leaves a two time Pro Bowler in his prime able to do no more than bear crawl.

In short, it boils down to cut blocks being an all or nothing technique. Once a player has mastered it, that player has the ability to take any defender, no matter how athletic, completely out of a play. However, while a perfectly executed cut block is spectacular, an imperfectly executed cut block is just as spectacular in its failure.