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The Drive: A brief look at Mike Iupati

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

Look! Another useful resource from Pro Football Reference.

If that is accurate, Mike Iupati was only full healthy for a brief stretch of last season. Facing the Rams in Week 2 of last season he was not listed on the injury report, and the Rams had a pretty good couple of defensive tackles—good and very different from each other in skill set. Let’s look at a drive from that game. On this day in which writing for a fan site feels especially trivial, I will pick a drive at random, something around five plays, and interpret the tape as fairly as I am capable.

1st & 10 at ARI 20

(11:25 - 1st) D.Johnson left guard to ARZ 21 for 1 yard (R.Wilson, M.Brockers).

Here he (#76) is facing Aaron Donald. You know that guy. Impressive highlight reel. Undersized. Probably bad against the run. Very highly paid. Etc.

Snap. Good initial quickness out of his stance.

It looks like the play call is for Iupati to double Donald with left tackle DJ Humphries. But ...

Iupati puts Donald on skates before the rather crappy assist by Humphries even arrives. Here’s the relevant portion of the play.

Humphries is a bit slow to peel off and when he engages a second level defender, it’s only after allowing a linebacker into the backfield. Bad zone blocking is the pits. The Ram in the above photo just above the splayed legs of Donald is Ramik Wilson, and Wilson is the main agent of stopping David Johnson. Here’s a look at the fine hole provided Johnson, and if you look closely, you can see Wilson free within that hole.

Yes this play brings myriad joys, only one of which is shameful(ish).

Not too hard to spot the good blocking is it?

It is debatable whether Humphries should have peeled off quicker and engaged Wilson or if Johnson simply should have had the burst to run away from Wilson, who was behind and to the left of the hole. But some months from now when Iupati is matched one-on-one against Donald in a run blocking situation, we can be sure he is at least capable of knocking the All-Pro five yards off the line of scrimmage.

2nd & 9 at ARI 21

(10:48 - 1st) D.Johnson right guard to ARZ 28 for 7 yards (J.Johnson).

Hmmm.

The leftmost defender in the above shot, 91 of the Rams, Dominic Easley, flattens his pursuit. Iupati struggles to engage in space. Which isn’t terribly surprising but which muddies what appears to be the best hole for Johnson.

Johnson cuts right.

And the play for Iupati is more or less over. Maybe relevant but I notice that after Easley disengaged Iupati walked very slowly and very gingerly forward, as if babying his body a bit. As if somewhat injured, if I were to speculate.

Pass blocking!

3rd & 2 at ARI 28

(10:02 - 1st) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short middle to C.Kirk to ARZ 38 for 10 yards (J.Johnson).

Iupati is matched against Ndamukong Suh.

Suh eventually backs him down until both are dangerously close to the quarterback.

Suh is beginning to edge toward Iupati’s outside shoulder. We might call this a very modest advantage.

Ever so slightly worse for Iupati now, as Suh disengages and surveys the doin’s of Sam.

Big advantage Iupati: Suh is cleared totally from disrupting Bradford’s throwing lanes, and that’s important because Arizona’s short routes are beginning to break open. Bradford stalls.

Iupati begins losing his block.

And, as if spurred to throw not by timing but the panic of a strip sack, Bradford finally gets rid of the ball. Iupati survives about three seconds as a pass blocker matched one-on-one against Suh. Sufficient time on third and two but probably not sufficient should Wilson revert to old habits. Suh is never fully free but the way he walks back Iupati is distressing.

1st & 10 at ARI 38

(9:21 - 1st) PENALTY on ARZ-D.Humphries, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at ARZ 38 - No Play.

1st & 15 at ARI 33

(8:53 - 1st) B.Clausell reported in as eligible. D.Johnson left tackle to ARZ 37 for 4 yards (J.Johnson).

This is just as the center is snapping. Iupati is first out of his stance.

Crummy chemistry with Humphries continues.

Glancing block against Wilson ...

... which works well enough. Iupati is clearing Wilson sideways just behind Arizona’s 64, center Mason Cole. But as you may have been able to tell from (#67) Justin Pugh’s pull to nowhere in the previous picture, the blocking scheme is a mess and only the slightest of seam is every created. It’s not for nothing as Johnson follows Pugh and slowly sneaks his way off left tackle for four.

2nd & 11 at ARI 37

(8:09 - 1st) S.Bradford pass short left to R.Seals-Jones ran ob at ARZ 45 for 8 yards.

Michael Brockers slants in from Iupati’s outside shoulder, attempting to create a positional advantage.

He does not.

Which is pretty darn important because as you can see Donald has made short work of the rookie center. That throwing lane and tiny bit of room is how this play ends with a completion of eight yards instead of a sack.

3rd & 3 at ARI 45

(7:32 - 1st) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete short left to R.Seals-Jones (J.Johnson).

Rams blitz thus:

Which Iupati negotiates like a pro.

In no way preventing Bradford from throwing a premature pass to a covered receiver.

Throwing to a tight end running a quick slant, when that tight end is at best open to the inside because of superior size and positioning, Bradford gives him one of these—what might generously be called a back shoulder throw.

Punt.

Let me wrap this up before the sun sets.

Iupati is slow, very slow. He doesn’t excel squaring blockers at the second level and instead relies on bulk and upper body strength to disrupt and stagger. Against a concerted effort by an elite bull rusher, he falters, ceding ground but not altogether losing his defender. He run blocks very well, achieving both position and push, and can by himself achieve the kind of movement one expects of a double team. Iupati is skilled at recognizing games and stunts, and though his overall slowness may force him to wait for that kind of pressure to reach him, he does not passively retard the defender’s movement but delivers a pop and locks on.

While I simply do not have the time to fully vet this opinion, it sure looks like he’s very good at keeping his arms inside the defender’s body, so that when he holds (and all offensive linemen hold) his knuckles remain flush against the defender, thus avoiding the stretched jersey or jackknifed torso of the defender which often signals officials to flag the play. In 39 games over the last four seasons, Iupati allowed six sacks and was flagged for five holds. J.R. Sweezy in four seasons and 44 games allowed 11 sacks and committed 13 holding penalties, including 3.5 and six last season.

When healthy, Iupati is a considerably better player than Sweezy. And while the condition “when healthy” might bring to mind the phrase “other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?”, it should be noted that before 2017, Iupati never missed more than four games in a season, and in 2017 he missed 15 games because a “bone spur broke off and [was] cutting his tendon.” Maybe the big man’s body is breaking down but definitely shit happens, and I’d make a small wager on the latter as the more likely of the two scenarios, knowing Iupati’s upside is still very, very high.