Last time, we explored what to expect from, and what should be expected of, Jeff Allen this year. Moving forward with our examination of our newest offensive linemen, we turn our attention to Donald Stephenson.
Donald Stephenson only played two years in college which some people are taking as a cause for concern. But when he did play, it was at the position on the line with perhaps the least margin for error: blind-side tackle. I say “blind-side tackle” because LT is only the toughest position when the QB’s right-handed (okay: so that’s the case, like, 99.5 percent of the time), but what makes it tough is not which side of the center you’re playing at, but the fact that the QB can’t see what’s coming from your direction and a failed block could result in huge consequences (ask Joe Thiesman).
At his time at Oklahoma, Stephenson logged over 100 knockdowns in each of his two years starting. For comparison, Jeff Allen averaged somewhere in the mid-80s per year over a four year span in college. Additionally, at the NFL level, 100 knockdowns is generally the benchmark for OLs to hit if they wish to be in serious contention for a Pro Bowl berth.
A knockdown is almost as simple as it sounds like… almost. A knockdown is when you force the defender you’re blocking to the ground, and there are two types of knockdown. The first type, which doesn’t really have a special name, is when you force the defender you’re blocking to the ground and move on to take on a still-standing defender. The second type is called a “pancake” and consists of, as you’re knocking a player down, following him to the ground, landing on top of him, and staying put (effectively removing any chance that defender had of making a stop for the rest of that play, since, if you can’t get up, you likely can’t tackle/sack anybody, you can’t defend/intercept any passes and you can’t force/recover any fumbles).
Regular knockdowns are preferable for running plays when the OL is serving as a lead blocker. In this case, when a defender is knocked down, by the time he gets back up the play is long past him. Pancakes are best reserved as the type of knockdown to use in a pass play. As I previously stated, if you can’t get up, you can’t get sacks/interceptions/etc. Knockdowns are one of few stats kept track of for OLs throughout their football careers (you’ll also see stats for sacks allowed, QB hurries allowed and TD-resulting blocks). When you hear “knockdown” just remember that this number includes pancakes. Like all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, all pancakes are knockdowns but not all knockdowns are pancakes.
Essentially, Stephenson did very well in neutralizing players in large part due to this ability. To boot, the Oklahoma line as a whole only gave up 11 sacks last season… as a whole!
So, if Stephenson played so well, why did he only start for two years in college? When Stephenson arrived in Oklahoma he found himself behind junior OT Trent Williams on the depth chart. The same Trent Williams that the Redskins chose as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. When Williams arrived in Oklahoma in 2006 he found himself in a similar quandary sitting behind OT Branndon Braxton. Fortunately (for Williams) Braxton went down to injury partway into the 2006 season and Williams was afforded the opportunity to showcase his abilities as a freshman. The next season the coaches split snaps between Williams and Braxton. Stephenson wasn’t quite so fortunate to receive a similar opportunity; following Braxton’s departure, Williams did not miss college playing time with the exception of the last regular season game of his senior year.
We should probably give Stephenson a little more attention than we have been, don’t you think?
Stephenson is set to be a “swing” tackle this year. If Albert or Winston need a breather, Stephenson will be our guy. And believe it or not, swing tackle is one of the tougher jobs on the offensive line. Don’t believe me? You’ve seen a tackle come out of his stance before; one of the first things he does is flip his hips to the outside. Get out of your chair and try it. To spare you some embarrassment (or at least an explanation to your co-workers), I won’t ask you to get down in a three-point stance; you can start off in a position that still has a good bend in the knees and waist. Now, open your hips out to the right (like a RT) bringing your arms up like you’re blocking. Now, try it opening your hips out to the left. One of those felt more natural and fluid than the other, didn’t it?* This plays a large part of why great RTs can make lousy LTs, and vice versa; you’re trying to get your body to do something that just doesn’t feel right.
* It did.
In order to excel in the swing tackle role (truly excel), Stephenson will have to rep this over and over and over again until opening his hips one way feels just as natural and fluid as opening his hips the other way to realize similar success at both positions (LT and RT). Thankfully, his success in college at LT seems to indicate that he’s well versed in opening his hips to the left, so Cassel won’t have to worry much about his blindside when Albert needs a break. How well Stephenson will do when Winston needs a break is the bigger question mark right now.
I am a huge proponent of the “lockup Albert to a long-term deal” crowd, and I think Winston is a Godsend, but Stephenson will be a significant contributor. As Paddy recently pointed out, Albert is ranked highly in pass protection, and Winston in run blocking. If Stephenson can spell our players for a stretch of plays they’re less successful at (Albert on runs and Winston on passes), it’ll keep our starters fresh and read to dominate even more on the plays they’re best at. That would be a significant contribution.
So is Stephenson a starter this year? No. Will he be a starter for the Chiefs in the long-term? Not if Pioli does his job and extends Albert’s contract. But he will play an important part in our line’s success this year, and that is worth a third-round pick.
Well played, Pioli, well played…