Throughout the preseason you may have read my words and the words of others at Cover 1 describing our bafflement at the competition between guards John Miller and Vladimir Ducasse. We didn’t believe that there was truly a competition. Miller was arguably the most consistent offensive lineman last season, and his arrow was pointing up. Ducasse has been a journeyman backup and a guy most thought was brought in with offensive line coach Juan Castillo as a tag along due to the coaching changes.
To our surprise, Miller has really taken a step back. The new techniques and traits needed to be effective in offensive coordinator Rick Dennison‘s outside zone running scheme have caused Miller to struggle. Miller is a powerful guard who thrives in inside zone and gap schemes, in which he can generate power into a targeted strike — a strike or blow that can create a gap, blow a defensive lineman off the ball, or at least give him that split second to torque and turn the defender, giving the running back an entry point for the run. The areas where he struggles are the areas in which Ducasse excels.
Ducasse is quick out of his stance, which in outside zone runs is extremely important. You may have heard center Eric Wood discussing the scheme on WGR550 recently, and how they have missed some blocks on the backside of these runs. That’s where I believe Ducasse is ahead of Miller and maybe the reason he is starting. Against the Bengals, Ducasse executed rather well in this area.
On the following play Dennison combines his outside zone run with some gap/man principles by running a stretch zone/G-pull. It’s a play on which left tackle Dawkins will block down so that Richie Incognito can pull. But pay attention to Ducasse. On this play he has a defensive tackle in a 2i technique.
With the run going to the left side of the offense, the 2i forces the block to be secured by Ducasse alone with no help from center Eric Wood. This is where his quickness off the snap is critical. He must be able to work to the play side shoulder with a ‘reach’ block. Coaches typically teach for that first step (Ducasse’s left foot) to drop and gain width, typically outside of the defensive lineman’s shoe. How deep of a drop or width of the step is really predicated on the alignment of the defender and if the lineman will be getting help.
The second step must be through the crotch of the defender, and then the third step upfield. But the play isn’t perfect by Vlad; his left hand should be play side, allowing him to guide the defender, and his right hand should be in the sternum area.
Although it is incorrect, his ability to reach block, get to the front half of the defender, is what the coaches covet. This is especially true when McCoy reads it correctly and is able to cut it back, which he doesn’t here. But the play is there.
On the next play, the Bills run a crack toss to the field. They have Mills and O’Leary pull, which means Ducasse has a very tough block on the defensive tackle, who is in a 4i technique. But again, his foot quickness helped get Shady along the perimeter.
On the snap, he takes a deep 1st step. That allows him to gain ground laterally with the use of angles.
His second step then is right down the center of the defender. By the time he hits his third step the defender slants inside, so Ducasse has to adjust, and he does it flawlessly because of the fluidity he possesses.
With the defender too far upfield, Ducasse can now use angles to take him out of the play.
Buffalo did run a lot more inside zone and gap/man runs, and I don’t expect that to change too much. However, the staff will still need to run outside zone concepts from time to time, as it is what sets up the Dennison bootleg game. So you can see why Ducasse may have a slight edge over Miller. Ducasse is more athletic overall and able to make these blocks on the backside.
On this play, the Bills send out 12 personnel and run outside zone into the Bengals’ over front. Ducasse has the defensive tackle aligned in another 2i technique, so he has to execute another reach block.
His first two steps are executed perfectly, but his hand placement is too wide, the defender gets into his body and is able to lift Vlad. Ducasse continues to hand fight, but more importantly, he is able to work laterally down the line of scrimmage.
He is able to block the defender while taking a quick peek at Shady to where he is in his read. McCoy is about to cut it back, so Ducasse adjusts. He slides to the backside shoulder and then washes the defender down, giving McCoy a crease to get upfield. This was a very nice exhibition of staying in the fight by using his athleticism.
I know a lot of fans are calling for major changes across the offensive line coming out of the bye week, and I am one of them. I am a big fan of John Miller, but the string of games he put together before the Bengals game was bad. His limited athleticism was exposed by defenses and, more importantly, by the techniques needed in this scheme. Can he pull? Absolutely. He is able to short and long-pull, but he struggles on reach blocks and in space climbing to the second level. Reach blocks are characterized by short area quickness, explosion, angles, and the athleticism to adjust on the fly. Those are not strengths of Miller’s.
Ducasse doesn’t have the ceiling that Miller does, but the staff is trying to jump start the run game. In order to do so, they need a guard that can execute reach blocks, more specifically on the backside of these outside zone and pin-and-pull runs. That is where Shady is going to be cutting it back.
Teams will be fast flowing wide to stop McCoy, and the team needs Ducasse in the game to at least be in a position to cut off the backside defensive linemen, take over a shade defensive tackle, or scoop to the second level to wall off a pursuing linebacker. Ducasse’s play against the Bengals was average, but it wasn’t bad enough to throw Miller back into the lineup.
He isn’t a long term solution, and this probably won’t be the last change at the position, but the staff had to do something to motivate Miller and attempt to get the run game going.