Rams' Saffold solid in first shot at left tackle ..
BY JIM THOMAS • Sunday, September 19, 2010 12:05 am
With the lights dimmed, a mini-fireworks display erupting, and Rams fans screaming approval, Rodger Saffold ran out onto the Edward Jones Dome turf last week with the rest of his Rams teammates.
"I saw the flames. I saw the smoke," Saffold said
A few minutes later he saw Joey Porter, who breathes fire as Arizona's pass-rushing linebacker.
Porter is known for trash-talking during games, and Sunday was no exception. He directed some remarks Saffold's way early in the game, but on the advice of his veteran teammates, Saffold didn't bite. So Porter switched tactics.
"He was kind of talking to me through Steven Jackson," Saffold said. "He was like, 'Oh man, you ain't going to be able to do nothing with Rodger Saffold blocking for you.' "
Saffold didn't appreciate the insult, but kept his mouth shut.
"I just pretty much tried to do my job and then go back to the huddle," he said.
Saffold was one of only two rookies to start at left tackle on the NFL's opening weekend of play. (The other was Trent Williams of the Washington Redskins.) He graded out fairly well when Rams coaches reviewed the game film, but he had some rough moments as well.
"I thought he did a pretty solid job," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "He had the one sack I think that he gave up, but for a rookie in his first game at left tackle, pretty good."
Actually, the play Spagnuolo referred to wasn't a sack, it just felt like one for quarterback Sam Bradford. Early in the third quarter, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell beat Saffold with an inside move and clobbered Bradford, who got the pass away for a short gain.
Porter got around Saffold a couple of times for quarterback hits, one of which may have contributed to Bradford's second interception. Not unlike the rookie quarterback making his first NFL start, the Cardinals threw a lot at the rookie left tackle making his first NFL start.
"There's some things I need to work on," Saffold said. "There were a lot of shifts and a lot of different movement that game that I needed to attend to the next day in the corrections meetings."
Between Porter and Campbell, and blitzing linebackers and defensive backs, Saffold faced a lot of different defenders. At face value, this Sunday's challenge looks much different for Saffold. The Raiders play an "even" front, with four defensive linemen as opposed to Arizona's 3-4. The Raiders usually don't blitz much, relying on their front four to pressure the quarterback. So in that sense, Saffold's task could be less complicated this week.
Nonetheless, Saffold still has to worry about multiple defenders. He expects to see end/linebacker 'tweener Trevor Scott on some plays; end Matt Shaughnessey on others; and even 6-6, 310-pound tackle Richard Seymour on some. (That's assuming Seymour, who has a hamstring injury, plays.)
As he studies more film, and gets more experience, it will be easier to zero in on the techniques and idiosyncrasies of each opponent. For now, it's tough enough honing in on one opponent a game, much less three. Take Porter, for instance, who entered this season second in career sacks among active NFL players.
"Porter had many different moves," Saffold said. "He had the speed to come off the edge. He had a good inside move. He had a spin move that was pretty good. His bull rush isn't as strong as others, but because he's so quick, it doesn't look like his shoulders ever come down. So the bull rush can take you by surprise."
The art of left tackle
Jim Hanifan spent 31 years as an NFL coach, with 25 of them spent coaching the offensive line. He has coached some great offensive lines, and some great linemen. So what does it take to be a great left tackle?
"You've got to be a hell of an athlete," Hanifan said. "There's only one guy in my years of coaching — and coaching that particular position — that really wasn't a great athlete."
Hanifan was referring to Billy Shields, who played left tackle for him in 1979 with the San Diego Chargers. But Shields was so smart, and so dedicated, that he was a successful left tackle.
"Billy understood how important technique was," Hanifan said. "And he knew that every step he took, if he didn't do it exactly right, disaster was waiting for Mr. Fouts."
(That is, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.)
Every Friday during the season at the end of practice, Shields asked Hanifan to stay with him for an extra half-hour to work on pass sets.
"That was a comfort zone for him," Hanifan said. "He knew that if he just was a little bit off, he could really have a problem because he did not have the 'quicks' — the speed that you need. Now what he did have was an outstanding brain, and he had long arms."
Long arms can be a great help to a pass blocker, and Washington left tackle Joe Jacoby put them to great use when Hanifan was with the Redskins.
"Joe had the great reach, so that if he fouled up, golly, he still had those arms where he could get out there and strike," Hanifan said.
Time after time, Jacoby used those long arms and strong punch to knock one of the game's best all-time pass rushers off course: Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants.
As valuable as technique and long arms are for a left tackle, or any pass-blocker for that matter, the great ones have great balance and footwork. They can bend their knees and move laterally.
"The most vivid picture would be Orlando Pace," Hanifan said. "Orlando, when he was in his prime, you've got a guy 325-330 (pounds) and 6-7."
Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf, who was primarily a right tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals, used to tell Hanifan that Pace looked like a basketball power forward "with 19-inch guns." In other words, big biceps.
The basketball reference is appropriate, Pace says, because he thinks it helped him develop nimble feet.
"I always played basketball," Pace said. "I don't know if it was moving the feet defensively or doing those type of (basketball) drills when I was in high school, but I think it really enhanced the footwork."
Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowler in 12 seasons with the Rams, knows that footwork helped make him one of the game's elite left tackles and a potential Hall of Famer.
"I always say the game is played with footwork and hands," Pace said. "And then there's a certain attitude you have on the field. Your feet are going to put you in position to make those blocks, and then you have to know when to strike and have a pretty good punch when you engage somebody.
"Most left tackles are pretty much known for being good pass blockers as opposed to being good run blockers because it's more of an athletic position to put the linemen in."
It's the age-old truism of protecting the (right-handed) quarterback's blindside, and facing the opposing team's best pass rusher every week.
Is Rodger ready?
To a large degree, footwork and agility made the Rams decide to play Saffold at left tackle instead of Jason Smith.
"Rodger's got the skill and ability to play the position," said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was an all-Big Ten center at Michigan State. "We've seen in the time that he's been here that he'll work at it."
Saffold is the type of player who likes to pick up tips wherever he can. Hanifan, who does radio work for the Rams' flagship station (WXOS, 101.1 FM) has given Saffold some basic advice and encouragement.
For example, Hanifan told him that even Pace learned you need to lower your hips and sink in your stance to neutralize a bull rush. Before the Arizona game, Saffold said Hanifan told him, "Stay low, stay squared up, and you'll be fine."
"I like him," Hanifan said. "I like his attitude. I like his quickness. I like his feet. He's got good feet, good balance."
Pace likes him, too.
"I think he's getting better every week," said Pace, who watched all of the Rams' preseason games, and attended last week's regular-season opener. "Left tackle's such a tough position to break in because you're going against some of the best pass rushers in the world. It's a tough deal to break in and really be dominant in your first year, but I think the most important part is that you get better week in and week out."
Any praise from Pace is extra-special for Saffold. That's his idol. Like Pace, Saffold grew up in the Cleveland area, and has followed Pace's career closely. He has studied tape of Pace, and when given Pace's Rams jersey number (76), had make sure it was OK.
Saffold has never spoken with him directly, but Pace let Saffold know through Rams officials and former teammates that he was fine with it.
"I think it's good," Pace said, "as long as he represents it well."
Because around these parts, that's a big jersey to fill.