It’s easy to focus on the negative after a loss. The Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line makes that particularly easy. Lord knows I’ve written my fair share of criticisms about the right side of the line. And guess what: Against Von Miller and the Denver Broncos’ battery of stunts and twists, they struggled mightily.
You know who didn’t? Justin Britt.
So, how about we focus on the positive: Seattle’s center was among the most effective players on the field on Sunday. Did he win every play? No — the other team has good players too. But Britt took it to Domata Peko and Shelby Harris in Denver.
That’s not easy! Peko remains a dominant two-gap run defender. He aligns head-up over the center, and overwhelms blockers with brute force and natural leverage. Once he drops anchor, he’s tough to move off his spot.
It’s just as tough when he shades to either side. Peko has more spring than he’s given credit for. He’s an agile guy with good initial burst. Once in either A-Gap, he plops his ass in the ground and laughs at any attempt to budge him out the way.
Trying to run outside zone or any kind of angle block concept becomes a nightmare. Double him, and Peko has the strength and anchor to dig his heels in the ground, eating up a pair of blockers as his linebacker buddies flow to the ball. It becomes an exhausting, infuriating day for a center.
Blocking Peko when he’s straight ahead is hard enough. Blocking him on the move is damn near impossible.
Britt worked Peko on the ground in a way you just don’t see. He won with hand placement and footwork. This is teaching tape:
That’s not normal. The reach block is the toughest block in football.
On outside zone, the center’s goal is to get his backside ear to the frontside armpit of the guy he’s blocking. On the example above, that means Britt shooting across Peko.
The tackle was lined up as a one-technique (shading the center’s shoulder). That’s where Peko usually does his best work. Two-gapping is brutal, often thankless work. One-gapping is fun. He gets to leap off the ball, beat the center to his landmark, force the running to divert his path, or gobble up the ball carrier at, or behind, the line of scrimmage.
Peko typically sons fools off the snap, then drops anchor in your backfield. Not against Britt. Peko found it tough going all day.
Re-watch the example above. Both players got a good jump off the ball. Peko knew what was coming; he went to work.
Britt’s initial fit was excellent. Coaches talk of the triangle fit: a blockers hat and hands forming a triangle – hands inside the pads of the defender, the helmet running towards the target. Britt got to his landmark.
That’s when the athletic traits started to takeover. Britt exploded on contact. He ran through Peko. Move them with the lower body, control them with the upper body.
Britt’s play strength and hip flexion are excellent. He locked on Peko and controlled him. Britt was able to establish his hands inside. From there, he could use his lower arm to twist Peko back towards the middle of the field. It’s tough to drive someone with Peko’s girth and strength straight back off the ball. Now imagine doing it while you contort your midriff.
You can’t do it any better than this:
Some plays are subtly beautiful.
(Is now a good time to point out that both players on the right side of the line whiffed their blocks? No? Ok, I’ll move on.)
Peko struggled to deal with Britt’s combination of technique and strength:
It wasn’t just on outside zone either. Britt did an excellent job as the point man on some of the Seahawks’ newfangled, fancy gap-scheme concepts (sarcasm intended). Britt set the point while others pulled and orbited around him:
It’s a bang-bang play. Britt’s initial fit was everything.
Britt had to pin Shelby Harris, who had subbed in for Peko at nose tackle. The center was able to snap his hips and land a good shot on Harris. Pushing him off the ball wasn’t the goal. It was all about sealing the angle. Job done.
A tackle convert, Britt has always been an athletic guy. He can jump out in space and lead the charge on a screen when asked:
That athleticism comes most in handy, though, when climbing up to the second level:
That’s another gap scheme run. This time the blocking mechanics are far more difficult. It’s a scrape-cross block. Meaning: Britt has to scrape a first level defender (clip him with his shoulder; disrupt the timing) before climbing up to wall off a second-level guy – in the example above, MIKE linebacker Brandon Marshall.
If Britt was unable to get a clean strike on the Broncos’ three-technique, Seattle’s misdirection concept would have been rendered null-and-void.
It was a nifty design: The team isolated the boundary cornerback, crafting a 1-on-1 matchup with their running back in space.
The Seahawks setup to run a classic counter play: a pair of backside blockers wrapping around, while the running back heads towards the frontside of the formation, before planting his foot in the ground and shifting his body weight violently.
That part was all smoke and mirrors. Seattle hoped Denver’s linebackers would bite on one of the most common gap scheme runs. They did.
The real magic took place on the other side of the field. There, the Seahawks down blocked the frontside of the formation: Right tackle Germain Ifedi down blocked Von Miller, who had pinched inside; Jaron Brown cracked Darian Stewart, a safety spinning into the box.
Britt was left with the most difficult task. First, he had to scrape the defensive tackle, allowing guard J.R Sweezy to pull across the formation. Check.
Then he had to climb and seal Marshall. Britt made it look easier that it is. Remember: He has to get across the linebacker’s face mask and pivot him towards the middle of the field. When the pair initially engaged, Marshall was in a good position to shed Britt and converge on the ball-carrier:
Marshall was still reading the play. Britt locked his giant mitts on the linebacker and shuffled across his face.
Once in position, Britt flipped his hips toward the sideline, walling off the play and opening up an alley for Chris Carson to charge into.
That’s the kind of creative angle design the previous offensive staff failed to build into the gameplan. It gets the most out of Seattle’s best interior lineman. It takes advantage of Britt’s foot-speed and understanding of positional leverage — where his body needs to be in relation to a defender’s. Add that to his strength and hand usage, and you have a pretty awesome package.
And it doesn’t end there! Britt is a mauler in the run game, we know this. His issues in pass protection have always been what’s distinguished him from the upper echelon of the league (which is a tad ironic, given that most of the NFL commentariat focus on big blocks in the run game because, well, it’s kind of obvious to see what’s happening).
Britt played well in pass pro on Sunday. Peko isn’t much of a concern as pass rusher these days. Britt was able to get under his pads and lock him up.
Harris offers a little more oomph. He did little to nothing on Sunday.
When Harris is on the field, the Broncos like to split its front – running a wider four-man front with a pair of-three techniques, helping to camouflage the different stunts, twists and gap exchanges they chuck at an opposing offense.
Split-fronts also make it harder to double team an interior rusher. It’s a long way for the center to travel.
Most of Denver’s gap exchanges were aimed elsewhere. Vance Joseph, rightly, looked to isolate Ifedi, Sweezy, and Pocic in pass protection, picking on the Seahawks’ weakest points.
Still: Britt did a good job of keeping alert for any edge rusher swooping inside.
Above, the Broncos setup in a mug front – a pair of linebackers walked down either side of the center. Mug fronts are brutal for blocking schemes. Are both linebackers blitzing? Are they both dropping? What if one comes and the other bails? If so, which one’s the blitzer?
At the pro level, if a team is sending just one of its linebackers, defensive coordinators like to run rain blitzes — whichever way the center pops up, the opposite linebacker blitzes.
Teams – most notably the Patriots and Vikings – love to tag an extra blitz onto their double A-Gap looks. They will send a slot corner, overload one side with a boundary corner, or run some kind of game on the other side of the formation.
With so many moving pieces, it’s tough for an offensive line to pick up who is blocking who.
Seattle struggled on that earlier example (it looked more like a preordained single MIKE blitz rather than a rain blitz). Denver walked down safety Justin Simmons, overloading one side of the formation. Both defenders on the overload side dropped into coverage, while the slot corner on the backside zoomed towards the backfield.
The Broncos ran another game inside, blitzing the linebacker to Britt’s left, and looping Von Miller from the edge to the other A-Gap.
Denver was hoping for one of four outcomes. The first: Get Britt to slide toward the blitzing linebacker, have right tackle Ifedi bite on Miller’s initial rush, hope running back Rashaad Penny was forced to pick up the blitzing slot corner, and have Miller loop around, running unblocked right into Russell Wilson’s lap.
Or: Have Britt slide to the ‘backer, Ifedi pick up the slot corner, and have Miller wrap around 1-on-1 with a running back in pass protection, right in Wilson’s grill.
Or: Have Britt slide toward the linebacker, hope Penny shot forward to help double team Miller, and have the slot corner careen into the backfield untouched.
OR: Have Britt slide away from the blitzing linebacker, and watch Penny misread his blocking assignment (the back should read inside-out), picking up the slot corner rather than the linebacker streaking through the middle of the line.
None of those options were good for Seattle. Figuring out the blocking mechanics was tough. But the Seahawks did a really, really nice job. Even if the blocking plan wasn’t exactly by the book.
Ifedi spotted the stunt, let Miller go, and slid over to cut-off the slot corner. Britt popped out to his right toward the dropping linebacker, leaving a free gully for the other linebacker to blitz. No bother. Penny spotted it and skated over to get in the way. Finally, Britt picked up Miller gliding in from the edge, stone-walling the pass rusher.
Wilson was put under duress but he was able to get rid of the ball.
Sunday’s matchup was a tough one for Seattle’s o-line. It isn’t going to get much easier in the coming weeks. It’s also not getting any tougher. The Broncos front is among the best of the best in the game, against both the run and pass. They’re schematically sound and have star individuals.
The Seahawks can’t say the same for its offensive line. But the group showed signs of incremental progress. That’s all people can ask for given the personnel.
No one was better than Britt. The center showed off the flashy side of his games as well as its subtleties. Keep it up, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be discussed as one of the league’s better centers.