News & Analysis

Examining Pressure: Are Left Tackles Overvalued?

The blind side. It’s a movie. It’s the left tackle’s responsibility to protect. But is it overvalued?

To begin, I’d like to admit that I came into this project slightly biased as I believe the swing toward the passing game in the NFL necessitates a team has two good offensive tackles, not just one.  The old adage that you put your best pass protector at left tackle (the blind side) and your mauling run blocker at right tackle (teams used to run to the right more often) is outdated.

I’m also of the belief that scouting jargon such as, “he’s a right tackle only” no longer holds water as NFL offenses are less predictable with regard to run direction, while NFL defenses are more unpredictable with their dispersing of pass rushing talent. In other words, the left and right tackles both need to run block and pass block with equal acumen.

Perhaps NFL teams have been reading our research as the NFL Draft saw a surprising emphasis on right tackle candidates.

On a macro level, it’s easy to dismiss the need for an elite left tackle given the recent Super Bowl winners. Since we started grading in 2008, here are the Super Bowl winning teams along with their starting left tackle, overall grade, and rank at the position:

SeasonTeamLeft TackleGradeRank
2008Pittsburgh SteelersMax Starks+14.222nd
2009New Orleans SaintsJermon Bushrod-8.069th
2010Green Bay PackersChad Clifton+2.133rd
2011New York GiantsDavid Diehl-17.669th
2012Baltimore RavensBryant McKinnie+3.98th in playoffs

It should be noted that the last two Super Bowl winners faced different cases as Diehl took over for the last six games of the regular season and carried his poor play into the playoffs, while the Ravens re-shuffled their offensive line just before the playoffs and McKinnie played well during their four-game run.

In the grand scheme, recent Super Bowl winning trends are a small sample, but as we dive into the numbers, we get a better picture of the true value of the left and right tackles.

 

Is the Blind Side Really Blind?

Conventional theory tells us that the left tackle is more important because a right-handed quarterback is unable to see the left tackle’s battle with the right defensive end while the right tackle and left defensive end should be in clear vision. Another common assumption, which is also questionable, states that righties always throw better to their right, therefore more passes must travel that way. This may be the case at youth levels, but it’s not the case in the NFL:

%AttemptsaDOTYds/AttComp %Acc %YAC/Rec
Right24.8%11.17.159.2%65.0%4.5
Middle52.4%7.77.868.0%75.7%5.6
Left22.9%10.86.958.6%64.7%4.8
Total100.0%9.37.463.7%70.5%5.2

Since we now know that quarterbacks evenly distribute their passes to both sides of the field, the “blind side” must now come into question. Obviously if a quarterback is throwing to his left, he will not be looking to the right side, so we can assume that he must now turn his body toward the throw which now puts the left tackle clearly in his vision while the right tackle now becomes his “blind side.”

In this snapshot, Brady is reading the field to his left, thus making the right tackle responsible for his blind side on this particular play. He is unable to see Von Miller and the result is a sack and a fumble.

Brady is once again blindsided after the right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, surrenders pressure to Cameron Wake.

Drew Brees gets blindsided by DLE Charles Johnson on this play.

Von Miller gets the sack and forced fumble on Phillip Rivers as the route combination dictates that Rivers read the left side of the field.

According to our numbers at PFF, the rushers coming off the left end have continued to improve.

 

Chicken or the Egg

Are the best pass rushers really moving to the left side or are the right tackles simply getting exposed?

It’s not as if this trend is brand new, especially after big name defensive ends such as Reggie White and Michael Strahan did most of the work on the left side during their respective careers. In recent years, however, pass rushers are finding more success when rushing from the defense’s left, against the right tackle. Looking at the Top 25 edge rushers using Pass Rushing grades, this has been the left/right split:

YearFrom Left EndFrom Right End%Left End
2008101540.0%
2009101540.0%
2010121348.0%
201191636.0%
201216964.0%

2012 saw a big jump in production from left side pass rushers and not coincidentally, we saw 16 of the Top 21 pass protectors residing at left tackle. This brings us to our original question: are the best pass rushers really moving to the left side or are the right tackles simply getting exposed? The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Protect the Blindside

Prevailing wisdom is that the defense’s best pass rusher is placed on the defensive right (opposite the left tackle) in order to attack the quarterback’s blind side. Call it the “Lawrence Taylor Effect” if you’d like. It was so eloquently explained in the movie, The Blindside, as he was one of the first pass rushers to keep offensive coordinators up at night looking for new ways to provide help to the left tackle.

Perhaps the easiest way to protect from blindside edge rushers is with a top-notch pass blocking left tackle and teams started to invest heavily, both financially and through the draft, in finding a left tackle capable of holding up “on an island” against the league’s best pass rushers.

Here’s a look at how NFL teams are investing in their tackles:

Avg Salary
Left Tackles$4,706,407
Right Tackles$2,445,490

On average, left tackles make nearly twice as much as their right tackle brethren. The NFL has determined that the left tackle’s job is more important and they’re being paid as such.

Not only are they getting paid, but teams have done a good job of identifying the best pass protectors and putting them in the desired left tackle spot. This is the left/right split for the Top 25 tackles according to pass blocking grade:

YearLTRTTotal% LT
200814112556.0%
200913122552.0%
201013122552.0%
201115102560.0%
2012*1692564.0%

*2012: 16 of the Top 21 played on the left.

To further the point, we compared pass rushers who rush from both sides of the line to see where they had the majority of their success.

Pass Rush SnapsSkHtHuTotal PressurePRP
From Left End15,9243063441,1321,7828.9
From Right End18,5163313771,1211,8297.9
Total35,0346447372,2843,6658.3

Rushers with at least 100 attempts from each side of the line experienced a 1.0 difference in Pass Rushing Productivity with it being more difficult when they matched up against left tackles.

The NFL’s strategy of putting the best pass protector at left tackle has forced defensive coordinators to…

Move Your Best Pass Rushers

With heavy investment in left tackles, defenses may have started to identify their best pass rushers and used them to attack the perceived weakness of the offensive line: the right tackle. As the table above shows, 2012 saw a major increase in left side pass rush success as 16 of the top 25 edge rushers in the league did the majority of their work on the left. Perhaps it was just a one-year anomaly, but even if the numbers returned to status quo, the pass rush threats who reside on the left side do not compare favorably, for the offense, to the talent and investment in the right tackle position around the league.

 

Is the Blindside More Valuable to Protect? 

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Is the Blindside More Valuable to Protect?

A quick recap: the NFL has determined that the left tackle is a premium position and teams have made it a point to find and pay these individuals. Subsequently, the best pass rushers are forced to either beat the league’s best pass protectors off the right edge or move to the opposite side in order to take advantage of a slightly easier target, the right tackle.

Now that we have some history and strategy out of the way, does it matter if the quarterback faces pressure from the left or right tackle?

Prevailing theory is that pressure that comes from the left tackle should have a crippling effect on the offense while pressure from right tackle should be easier to overcome.

The numbers do not back this up:

CategoryDrop-backsRunAttCompComp%Acc%YdsYds/AttTDINTTD/INTQB Rating
2012LT9326472434047.0%61.8%39775.521260.8158.8
2012RT11039082442151.1%64.0%48685.917220.7765.0
'08-'12LT37952202921144649.5%63.5%177356.11021240.8262.6
'08-'12RT47613343643179449.2%63.6%217816.01021350.7661.9

In our five years of data, there is little difference in quarterback performance when pressure comes from left tackle versus right tackle. Yards per Attempt, Accuracy Percentage and QB Rating are almost identical.

How do PFF passing grades stack up?

CategoryPFF Rating
2012LT-21.4
2012RT-24.2
2008-2012LT-80.2
2008-2012RT-130.6

Quarterbacks perform worse when the pressure comes from right tackle. Intuitively, this makes some sense as we’re generally not harsh on a quarterback who is pressured and sacked. We rarely downgrade a quarterback in that instance so perhaps pressure from right tackle leads to more errant throws while “blindside” pressure leads to sacks.

But…

CategoryRun%Att%Sack%
2012LT6.9%77.7%15.5%
2012RT8.2%74.7%17.3%
2008-2012LT5.8%77.0%17.2%
2008-2012RT7.0%76.5%16.4%

This is not exactly the case. Over the five years, pressure from left tackle has resulted in a sack only 0.8 percent of the time more than pressure from right tackle. In fact, 2012 was the first year that saw right tackle pressure actually led to a higher percentage of sacks than left tackle pressure.

When we add quarterback hits to the equation we see a slight increase in effectiveness from left tackle pressure as quarterbacks hit the ground 2.2 percent more of the time compared to right tackle pressure. Still, the number is hardly significant enough to deem front side pressure as less significant.

There’s one other interesting difference when comparing left and right tackle pressure.

CategoryADoT
2012LT9.2
2012RT8.7
2008-2012LT9.3
2008-2012RT8.5

Once again, intuitively speaking, this chart makes sense. Pressure that the quarterback sees should lead to quicker throws while the backside pressure takes longer to affect the quarterback who has an extra tick to get the ball down the field.

All of the passing numbers are nice, but one of the biggest questions I received after I wrote the first piece in this series, Examining Pressure, was about forced fumbles from the blindside. Surely there must be more forced fumbles on sacks that come from left tackle…

Where FromTimes PressuredSacksForced FumblesSacks/PressureForced Fumbles/SackForced Fumble/Pressure
LT463080214117.3%17.6%3.0%
RT476178312316.4%15.7%2.6%
NFL Total9916757686115.8%10.6%0.6%

Since 2008, pressures from left tackle resulted in a sack and forced fumble only 1.9 percent more than pressures from right tackle. That’s good for less than four forced fumbles per season. As much as the blind side strip sack sticks in our memory banks, it only occurs slightly more than the forced fumble from the front side.

 

Winds of Change in the NFL

The data clearly shows that NFL teams have put their best pass blockers at left tackle, but is it necessary? We now know that pressure that comes from all angles is equally detrimental to quarterback performance, so how can teams use this information?

Right Tackle Only

Gone are the days of designating a player as a “right tackle only.” Given the data, it does not make much sense to deem a player incapable of pass protecting from left tackle, but having complete faith in his ability to pass protect from right tackle where we’ve shown that his performance is just as important as the left tackle’s and he has to go up against the likes of Cameron Wake, Von Miller, and other top-notch pass rushers who come off left end.

When evaluating offensive tackles, if you don’t trust a player on the left side, he might as well just be a guard.

There is one caveat in this scenario. Many have cited the difficult transition when moving from left tackle to right tackle and vice versa. While I certainly believe that some players may be incapable of making the move, it’s not an impossible task, and in fact it’s very common when players transition from college to the NFL. Of our Top 10 rated right tackles in 2012, only one, David Stewart, played the same position in college while eight of the 10 played almost exclusively at left tackle.

So while some may argue that the transition is not always easy — and I have no doubt that it’s difficult — in the long run I believe that the player will find a way to play to his natural ability, whatever it may be. It’s not like we’re asking the lineman to go play receiver. If it were such an impossible task, there would not be such a high rate of success in the transition from college to the NFL.

Again, that’s not to say that every player can make a smooth transition from one side of the line to the other, and there may be instances where a player is simply better on one particular side. OT Michael Oher may be the best example as he’s been noticeably better on the right side as opposed to the left. But if you’re going to designate a player as a ‘right tackle only', it should be based on a player’s inability to pick up the left tackle position, not because of his skill set.

Building the Offensive Line

First, the investment in left tackles should be re-considered. Of course they’re extremely important, but they should not receive the full allotment of resources for the entire tackle position. Many teams, when faced with the question of how to invest in their LT/RT have gone way of Elite/Average or even Elite/Poor with respect to both player ability and finances.

Here’s a look at a few teams who invested heavily in their left tackle and all but neglected their right tackle with the on-field product backing up the financials.

PlayerTeamPrimary PosCap ValuePFF RatingDraft RoundDifference
Trent WilliamsWASLT $13,985,198.00 18.81st
Tyler PolumbusWASRT $704,805.00 -24.0UDFA $13,280,393.00
Jake LongMIALT $12,804,960.00 -0.41st
Jonathan MartinMIART $869,867.00 -22.02nd $11,935,093.00
Jordan GrossCARLT $11,504,340.00 16.31st
Byron BellCARRT $474,626.00 -8.2UDFA $11,029,714.00
Russell OkungSEALT $8,964,960.00 21.01st
Breno GiacominiSEART $2,254,960.00 -11.65th $6,710,000.00
Duane BrownHSTLT $4,568,175.00 35.61st
Derek NewtonHSTRT $485,489.00 -8.77th $4,082,686.00
Eugene MonroeJAXLT $5,062,460.00 21.01st
Guy WhimperJAXRT $2,129,495.00 -14.64th $2,932,965.00

To be fair to the Dolphins, they spent a second-round pick on Jonathan Martin and it’s an almost identical move to what the Cleveland Browns did in 2012 by using a second rounder on OT Mitchell Schwartz with over $10 million invested in LT Joe Thomas. The difference for the Browns was Schwartz performed very well and graded at +16.1 for the year, while Martin struggled at right tackle before taking over for Long on the left side toward the end of the season.

All of the other teams on the list invested heavily in the left tackle position and all but neglected the right tackle position with predictable results.

Perhaps a better way to go about building your LT/RT combination is by way of Good/Good rather than Elite/Poor. It may be unrealistic to go Elite/Elite and spend “left tackle money” on both positions, especially when the interior positions need not be neglected, but finding two competent players to play tackle is likely better than paying 10 times as much for a left tackle while paying minimally for the right side.

There’s one other factor to consider: division strength. I’m not sure it’s the best idea to base all team-building decisions on the three teams competing in your division, but perhaps as a tie-breaker when determining how to invest in left and right tackles, it makes sense.

In the Jaguars’ situation, for instance, the right tackle has to go up against Derrick Morgan in Tennessee, J.J. Watt in Houston (in base packages), and Robert Mathis in Indianapolis. Neglecting the right tackle in their case would be a bad move. On the other hand, if you’re the Detroit Lions, your left tackle has to go up against the likes of Clay Matthews in Green Bay, Julius Peppers in Chicago, and Jared Allen in Minnesota.

 

Final Word

There’s a lot to digest here, but it can be summed up rather quickly. The right tackle should no longer be viewed as the athletic inferior to the left tackle and teams should change their team-building strategy to make this happen. Today’s passing NFL makes it a necessity to have two competent pass protectors on the edge and when scouting players, if a tackle is deemed to not be good enough to play left tackle, well you’re better off just putting him at guard rather than exploiting him at right tackle. There’s no hiding — defensive coordinators will find him.

 

Follow Steve on Twitter.

 

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