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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Penn's State - what Donald Penn's injury means for the Bucs

How valuable is a left tackle in today's the NFL? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent $41.7 million on one in 2010, but they're now going to learn just how valuable Donald Penn is to the team – by his absence. Allegedly playing a game of basketball during the weeks between the end of OTAs and the beginning of training camp, Penn has managed to injure himself, bad enough that there's concern about whether he'll be able to make any of training camp at all – and might even keep him out of the beginning of the regular season. (***UPDATE*** - it appears that Penn has been taking part in an amateur competitive basketball league called the Venice Basketball League, where he plays as part of the team "United Nationz") Penn may have screwed himself right over – there is allegedly a clause in his contract forbidding from playing basketball (again, allegedly at this point) during the offseason, so a large chunk of his contract may well have been wiped out by this incident – but there is a bigger question to be answered: how badly does it screw the Bucs over? How badly will the Pro-Bowl tackle be missed?

NB: At time of writing, extent of Penn's injury wasn't known. It has since been reported as a calf strain.

To understand this, there are certain aspects of Penn's play that need to be assessed separately, because, despite his 2010 Pro-Bowl appearance, Penn is far from a complete tackle. As such, his absence might not be felt as keenly on even a majority of plays – in fact, on some plays, we might see an improvement in play from the left tackle position; but those few times when Penn's absence will be felt, it will be because the outcome could be disastrous.

It is important that I make my position on Penn clear: I was, until recently, a huge, huge supporter of Penn; however, due to an offseason of particularly missing football (and practising for a new weekly feature The Pulling Linemen will be introducing during the season), I have recently been breaking down Bucs' gamefilm from the 2011 season, focusing on specific players. When focusing on LeGarrette Blount, one thing stood out repeatedly – that Penn is arguably the most overrated tackle in football. I was shocked – as I said, I was a huge Penn fan up to that point – but what you can see on film is unavoidable. The thing with Penn's play is that he is very much a one-trick pony – in all but one aspect of tackle play, he is average at the very best, and at worst, does more damage than if he wasn't there at all (let's just say, there's a reason why the Bucs rarely had right guard Davin Joseph lead blocking on a pull to the left – namely, Penn could never move his defensive end at all, thus giving Joseph no space to lead block effectively). However, that one trick that he does possess, he does as well as any other tackle in the league – it is the one aspect of play in which Penn is truly elite: handling outside pass-rush.

That Penn is bad in the run game is no secret – in fact, 'bad' is a huge overstatement of his abilities. He is terrible, rarely making his intended block, and when he does, he almost never sustains his block through the whistle, but rather maybe block a defender for a few seconds before he seemingly runs out of energy. His issue is one of technique; simply put, he fails to drive the defenders back at all – at best, he keeps the defenders where they are, but never actually pushes anyone back – and that mostly comes from poor leverage, which comes from Penn struggling to get lower than his opponent. This is, in part, because Penn rarely lines up in a traditional three-point stance, but rather the two-point, which is typically only used in pass-protection, due to a need to drop back, rather than burst forward.
Penn, looking
relatively svelte...
Coming out of a two-point stance not only means Penn is at a poor angle to get lower than the defender, but also means he lacks a lot of the burst that comes through firing out of a three-point stance. The obvious question is why Penn would come out of a two-point stance at all – and I'm afraid the answer appears to be weight-related. It is no secret that Penn is one of the more 'portly' offensive linemen in the league, with his weight reportedly ballooning to 360 pounds during the 2011 season. It is enough of an issue that Penn has a bonus in his contract that he only receives if he weighs below 330 pounds when officially weighed by the team, four times in a year. With Penn weighing as much as he does, it does make him much slower out of a three-point stance than he would be if he weighed closer to 300 (in fact, I'd argue that Penn would have a chance to be a truly great left tackle in all aspects of his game if he could get his weight down to 300 at the start of each season, as it would allow him to move allot more freely – or at least, would have had he not been injured). So, he compensated by often lining up in a two-point stance – sacrificing leverage by doing so, and thereby making him incredibly ineffective in run-blocking.

Of course, one could well argue that the left tackle position places a premium on pass-protection, not drive-blocking, and to an extent that's true. However, I have bad news for Penn supporters: Penn is not as good at pass-pro as you think he is. Many point to the fact that he has shutdown many of the league's elite pass-rushers during his career, and that is true – but it runs deeper than that. The reason that he was so effective against those pass-rushers is that, in large part, those pass-rushers' best moves tend to be utilising the outside-rush, and that is the aspect of being a left tackle that Pen is truly dominant in. He is so good at protecting against outside-rush that even when DEs and OLBs attempt to fake outside then come back in with a spin move, Penn has shown that he can control the spin move as well as anyone I've seen, completely nullifying even Dwight Freeney's fearsome spin. The problem is that, while a majority of RDEs will go to the outside more often than not when pass-rushing, they will occasionally go inside... and Penn's inside is softer than a marshmallow in a microwave. It is surprising how relatively infrequently Penn's inside was attacked in pass-protection, as there are many occasions where doing so would have led to an easy sack. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a division foe who seemed to abuse Penn's inside the most, namely New Orleans' end Will Smith, no doubt something he recognised thanks to going against him twice a year, when he wasn't busy helping to run the bounty program (allegedly), or taking banned diuretics. Penn's inside was not just a problem in pass-rushing situations, either, as attacking Penn's inside in the run game made for an easy tackle-for-a-loss – rewatch the second Bucs/Saints game in 2011, several times Penn took a step outside in run-blocking, only to have the DE shoot across his face through a massive hole into the backfield.

So, the Bucs will have to turn to another tackle for the early part of at least the preseason, if not the regular season. Most likely, it will be Demar Dotson who will get the first shot at stepping up. Dotson has mostly been used as a blocking tight end in his career so far, though he did get first-team reps during 2010 OTAs, when Penn was holding out for that monster contract he eventually got on the opening day of training camp of that year. As I've suggested above, Penn will not truly be missed in the run game, and personally, I do not believe there will be much of a noticeable dropoff at all in run-blocking – if anything, we might even see improved run-blocking from that position as a result; and likewise, he has been a liability in pass-protection, on his inside, up to this point. But that is the most ironic part of the whole story.

As you'll already know, the Bucs spent big in free agency this year, signing three high-priced FAs in the first twenty-four hours: wide receiver Vincent Jackson, cornerback Eric Wright, and, most excitingly for me, left guard (and highest-ranked interior OL in the TPL100) Carl Nicks. Nicks is one of the true elite linemen in the league, and not only was he a huge, huge part of the reason Drew Brees was able to accomplish all he has over the past few years, but there is perhaps no bigger testament to his talent that an incredibly, incredibly average tackle, Jermon Bushrod, was voted to the Pro-Bowl in 2011 – which anyone with any experience playing OL will be able to tell was almost entirely down to the fact that Nicks played so damn well, that Bushrod often got credited for the residual effects from the sheer dominance of his neighbour's play. And that's the kicker. Penn was dangerously, dangerously susceptible on his inside – I believe that, had we not upgraded the left guard position, Freeman was in danger for as long as Penn continued manning the left tackle spot. With Nicks on board, that ceased to be a worry, for he is truly good enough to pick up Penn's interior slack in addition to his normal assignment. With his inside now covered, in pass-protection situations, Penn would then have been free to fully exercise that one aspect of the game in which he is truly elite – the outside-rush. With Penn manning the outside-rush as well as he would have, and Nicks able to protect both the 'A' and 'B' gaps on his side, Josh Freeman's blindside would have been as protected as any quarterback's . That is what the Bucs will no have to face at least the start of the season without.
Carl Nicks, saviour of the B-gap

So that is where the Bucs now stand. In the run game, they may actually have more success than they would have had with Penn healthy, which no doubt is music to new HC Greg Schiano's ears, with his commitment to running the ball. For those times, however, when the Bucs go to a traditional drop-back pocket pass – those plays when the QB is most vunerable – we are unlikely to have as protection nearly as good as what it could have been with that big #70 on the line. But here's the further irony... any pass-rusher worth his salt will occasionally need to go inside rather than outside, to keep tackles honest. When those pass-rushers do try and go inside, they'll come up against Nicks. In that respect, when compared to what the level of pass-protection was like when current-center Jeremy Zuttah was manning the left guard spot, the Bucs' OL will no doubt be better in 2012 than in 2011 – which might lead some to speculate that whoever steps up in Penn's stead is actually the better offensive tackle. The reality is, that tackle will almost certainly not do as good a job as Penn would have, due to his highly effective skills in dealing with outside-rush, and the Bucs' pass-pro will suffer without him.

And yet... while Nicks' presence alone will make the line seem better at pass-pro than when Penn was there, whoever steps up will have a very, very good chance at being much better than Penn in run-blocking, even when not accounting for what Nicks brings. The left tackle might be the person most responsible for the QB's blindside, but if Schiano truly wants to run the ball as often as he says, might he not be better off permanently replacing Penn in the lineup with a tackle who can actually bring something to the run game, rather than someone whose drive-blocking ranges from below average, to actively harming the team? If Penn's replacement can be even slightly better than average in protecting against outside-rush, on balance, the team may well be better off with a different left tackle. The saddest part is that Penn could be truly dominant as an all-round left tackle, if only he lost serious weight. Penn's injury, however, will not help him lose weight, and if anything, is more likely to cause him to pile on the pounds due to the inactivity that will come with the healing process. His inability to control his weight, even with six-figure bonuses being placed in his contract to entice him to do so, already speaks of a lack of self-discipline... the fact that he has allegedly put millions of dollars in jeopardy by playing offseason basketball, despite the being allegedly forbidden to do so by his contract, and potentially putting his QB's health at risk by doing so might be too far.

Player bios for the Venice Basketball League team "United Nationz" - including Donald Penn, bottom right

The “Buccaneer Way” Schiano has been spouting all offseason rests on three central tenets – Trust, Believe, and Accountability. It is that last tenet that Penn must now face up to – being accountable to the stupid decision he made, and the outcome thereof. There are many discourses in sports media that fail to match up to the reality – such as, say, LeGarrette Blount being a one-dimensional back incapable of being a receiver out the back field or a contributor in pass-protection, something that anyone who focuses on his tape will be able to tell you is completely untrue. Likewise, there is a common discourse that Penn is one of the better tackles in the league. I feel I've given adequate evidence to show that this is not in fact true at all – he is dominant in one of the position's responsibilities, but bad at the rest of them. Nonetheless, the fact that the notion of Penn as a premier tackle is so widely held means that the Bucs might well find themselves heading on a particular train of thought. The replacement LT is likely to be at least as good at Penn in the running game – indeed, it would be incredibly hard to find a tackle who will be worse – and will
Has Penn gone astray
from the "Buccaneer
have a very good shot at being much, much more effective than Penn. If that tackle can prove to be decent in pass-protection, the Bucs might find themselves weighing the two tackles against each other, and they could well find themselves leaning towards the player who can contribute consistently in all aspects of offensive line play, rather than the guy who is dominant in a small part of the role and sub-par at the rest of the role. With his lack of self-control being to certain extents contrary to the “Buccaneer Way”, all that may well conspire to let it be known that the team are open to inquiries about Penn, while the (false) notion that he is a good tackle is still held across the league.

So, to answer the question that kicked off this piece – how valuable is a left tackle in today's NFL? For a team like Green Bay or New England, where the run game is more an after-thought than an integral part of the offense, it is no doubt a hugely valuable position. But in those sort of teams, Penn would not have risen to be as widely-respected, for whatever reason, as he is, for those teams pass so often, Penn's soft inside would have been brutally exposed for all to see. For a team that intends to be run-first, run-often, such as Schiano's Bucs, the left tackle might only be as important as far as he can contribute to that run game, and that's not something I am convinced about at all. Ultimately, the Bucs may find themselves better off as a result of Penn's injury, especially if the circumstances surrounding the injury does indeed release the team from being responsible for several million dollars, making him easier to shift. Is the left tackle, as a position, valuable in today's NFL? Of course – but Donald Penn might not be so valuable any more.

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

*DISCLAIMER* certain parts of this article is, at time of writing, based on currently unconfirmed reports

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