This past offseason the Giants signed Nate Solder to a 4-year $62m deal that made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL. The splash signing was an attempt to right the ship, which had gone adrift and been neglected for many years. So far in 2018, the narrative is that Solder has not lived up to his big contract. He is attributed for giving up six sacks, which is tied for second-most among tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Fans recall the Atlanta game on Monday Night Football where he gave up two sacks in the first half and several hurries. Before we get into the tape of the miscues, we must understand Solder as a blocker. Warning: for those that want to judge linemen by box scores only, this piece is probably not for you.
Solder’s 6’8″ 325 lb frame with 35 1/2″ arms makes a very formidable wingspan for oncoming pass rushers. Back in 2011, Solder ran a 4.34 20-yard shuttle at the NFL Combine, showing elite body control (that score is in the 100th percentile for tackles, according to the Scouting Academy). This frame and agility show through 7.5 seasons of NFL tape, all but this current season with the New England Patriots. Their offensive line coach for all but two of those years was Dante Scarnecchia, regarded around the league as one of the reasons for the Patriots’ years of success. Scarnecchia teaches blockers to actively get after and engage defensive linemen in pass protection. This really benefits tackles with Solder’s traits. Please listen to the quick clip from Scarnecchia at a recent COOL Clinic:
The concluding line stands out: “But we’re gonna hit these assholes as hard as we possibly can WITH THE PROPER LEVERAGE as we possibly can” (emphasis mine). What does this look like for a tackle trying to block often a very athletic edge rusher from the outside? Please see the below clip from the recent Super Bowl:
This angle set is one way that tackles take on wide edge rushers in pass protection. A jump or a quick set is another way to block a defender closer to the lineman. Both of these techniques emphasize maximizing the leverage that Scarnecchia talks about above. Back to the COOL Clinic:
This protection style and mindset initiates contact instead of waiting for the defender to do so, essentially default aggression. One part that can not be ignored is the strike element the blocker must put on the rusher. In either setting technique discussed, often the blocker cannot cut off the oncoming rusher. The tackle must wait for the rusher to get to or just beyond his own depth and then violently strike the rusher (Scarnecchia teaches making a W with the tackle’s hands and targeting the shoulder area). The timing is absolutely crucial to get the defensive end off his trajectory to the QB. Please see below from the Super Bowl again:
Solder’s Giant Shoulders
The 2018 Giants are still finding their identity on the offensive line. Position coach Hal Hunter’s unit uses some of the elements described above but also mixes in a lot of vertical sets. The Giants’ offense wants to be multiple, and their line seems to be no different. Vertical sets are widely used in the NFL and utilize a tackle’s athleticism, size, and strength to anchor farther back in the pocket. See the below excerpt from Howard Mudd’s book, View From the O-Line (ironic because he does NOT like vertical sets):
For Solder, at times vertical sets have given him issues, technique-wise, specifically on two of his sacks. Pass rushers, especially those with stronger speed-to-bull rushes, are overpowering him. Please see below:
The cardinal mistake made above, well documented by astute observers like Dan Duggan and Geoff Schwartz at the Athletic, is Solder’s shoulders as he retreats backward. He opens them to his target, perhaps a habit of aligning his first strike as described above, and by the time the pass rusher is near him, two problems emerge. First off, he is so deep in the pocket that his margin for error in anchoring is very small. Secondly, since his shoulders are open, his entire body is exposed for the pass rusher to strike. Please see the below from offensive line guru Jim McNally from the same COOL Clinic:
Effect of Stunts/Line Games
In regards to Solder’s sacks allowed, one other theme emerges. On three of his six sacks (the most recent three), the defense has lined up with a 4/4i technique DT close to Solder’s inside shoulder. Please see below from the previous McKinley sack in Atlanta:
The Giants struggled with stunts earlier in the season on both sides of the line. On later downs, defenses like to mix in more exotic fronts like above, subbing in faster interior defensive linemen to rush the passer. When these players are aligned this way, it’s a big red flag for stunts and line games on the perimeter of protection. Some lines answer by vertical setting because it allows the guard and tackle to be closer together. Please see below from tackle Joe Thomas again in Mudd’s View from the O-Line:
Quite simply, one of the answers Coach Hunter and the offensive line are putting to work is working to one of Solder’s weaknesses. Frankly, there are no easy outs here to stunts, and Hunter may be using vertical sets for a good reason. Solder’s linemate is rookie left guard Will Hernandez, and if Solder does not vertical set, a “short corner” exists for the 4i DT to exploit to get around Hernandez. Either way, defenses may be picking up on this tendency, as the most recent sack Solder surrendered shows. In Week 8 against the Redskins, defensive coordinator Brian Manusky moved Ryan Kerrigan from his usual spot on the left side of the defensive front to Solder’s side. Please see the below clip:
Statistics are Muddied
Lots of suggestions are being tossed out there to attempt to answer Solder’s sacks. Statistically, the average time allowed for the QB (snap to first contact from rusher) is 2.65 seconds on the six sacks allowed. Although that seems short, that is enough time for QB Eli Manning to get through at least two reads in a progression. Revisiting the tape, on half of the sacks there is a possibility that the ball should have been out. On all six of these snaps, there was no use of pre-snap motion or shifts, clues that help QBs decipher the coverage they are seeing and deliver the ball on schedule. Nevertheless, a defeat for a tackle is a defeat, so these sacks would have resulted in hits on Manning if he delivered the ball. On that note, Solder only has allowed one hit on Manning outside of the sacks. His hurries (13) and pressures (20) are middle of the road for tackles, interestingly on pace for the lowest totals since 2014 with the Patriots (PFF). Big Blue faithful do not believe Solder’s salary can be justified with statistics that are not upper tier. There is some validity there, but box score valuation is not the path to winning football.
The bullishness for Solder stems from when he is left to just “do his job” against edge rushers, he has been very effective. The Twitter mob rarely highlights the strong play in games such as the Texans in Week 3 that included pitching a shutout of sacks, hurries, hits, and pressures against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney. He struggled in the first half against the Falcons, yes, but the second half was very strong. Fans will see Manning hitting the top of his drop and a defender flying by him a yard or two to the outside as a result of Solder’s good first strike. Some have noted that Manning’s drop depth may be the issue. Again, there is some validity here with Solder’s technique. Specifically on his six sacks, Manning’s average drop depth was 8.08 yards, with a maximum depth of 9.0 yards (occurred on play-action from under center). These numbers are in line with the intermediate concepts called on the plays (such as the Hank Concept or the Drive Concept) and would mirror Tom Brady’s drops for intermediate concepts in New England. Qualitatively, yes, Brady’s footwork is excellent and he most often hits the top of his drop and moves forward to deliver the ball on schedule. It does not take film analysis for fans to know that footwork is not Manning’s strength. But in terms of protection, the main issue is not Solder allowing defenders access to the top of Manning’s drop, but more tied to the interior pocket and Manning’s spatial awareness of frontside pressure.
Overall, there is no question that the Giants’ offensive line has to play better. This goes to individuals like Solder, but the success going forward is a matter of playing to his strengths, not replacing him for other high priced talent. This means angle sets and engaging rushers with his deliberate and precise hand placement and not getting caught engaging deeper in the pocket with vertical sets where his length cannot be utilized. If the Giants choose to stick with more vertical sets, then his technique must improve. This may be a key factor in determining the future of Hal Hunter as coach of the offensive line, as Solder’s strengths and technique were apparent from his tape with the Patriots. Football minds know that no amount of dollars paid to him can instantly change that. They also know relying on PFF rankings or a box score does not tell the entire story at all. He is the player and leader he was with the Patriots and should be a Big Blue part of the Giant turnaround.