Only so much can be learned during the NFL preseason. Teams approach each game with vanilla schemes; there isn’t a full weak of opponent specific film review and planning; every projected starter or role player who has a paper cut is held out or severely limited for these games; and so on.
One area of the game that doesn’t change much is what happens in the trenches. Offensive and defensive linemen won’t purposely change their technique, their assignments, or even their intensity and effort level. As a result, it is valuable to take a look at how a new offensive line played against one of the more well respected defenses in the league — even if they weren’t at full strength.
Over the next two days we will focus specifically on Quenton Nelson’s first NFL game performance, looking at the pass and the run separately. Today, we start with pass blocking.
This is a designed play-action roll out. Nelson allows his man to come through the line away from play direction, biting on a would be hand-off to Marlon Mack. This is a clear win for Nelson.
On this play, Luck takes a three step drop from the shotgun. He will need a pocket in front of him to step into his throw. Nelson helps provide that pocket by allowing the defender to take himself wide and then controlling him physically as he tries to turn the corner. The defender had no chance of making a play on Luck at any point here.
This play demonstrates an area that Nelson will need to refine. Every offensive snap where Nelson was able to get his mitts into the defender, he easily won. At the NFL level, defensive linemen will be better hand fighters and quicker than they were in college. In this case, the defensive lineman clubs over to get penetration. Nelson recovers enough to keep his man’s momentum moving past the pocket but Luck is forced to step up and avoid the pressure. He fails to get the first down and takes a good shot for his effort.
This is another example where the defender dispatches of Nelson with his hands. Here the defender clubs and uses a quick swim move to gain the advantage. Nelson has to recover and likely gets away with a hold here. He also got help from Ryan Kelly, which allows Brissett to get this pass away cleanly. Still, quickness at the NFL level is a learning experience for players at every position and Nelson will need to work on how to combat it if he wants to become a more consistent pass blocker.
This is possibly the best example for why Nelson doesn’t project well to play tackle on either side of the line. Quenton Nelson’s best attributes are his brute strength and his size. This makes him most comfortable as a blocker when he can engage his opponent early. This gives him the tendency to reach and get off-balance when the defender uses speed instead of strength off of the snap. Here, the defender is able to club and swim to the outside with too much speed for Nelson to catch up. He has to grab the defender to slow him down and keep him from getting the sack or batting the pass down.
Notice the difference here. The defender takes a more direct angle to Luck and tries to go through Nelson. Quite simply, this isn’t going to happen. Nelson is far too strong and has too much balance on downs like this for the defender to have an impact.
This play is the same as above. When Nelson engages and squares up with a defender, the down is over. The only chance a defensive lineman has to win against Nelson is to keep his hands out of his chest and force him to rotate his hips and surrender his base.
While this is not a great down for Nelson, it displays his strength and base. He loses off of the snap by taking a strong initial punch from the defensive lineman, rocking him back on his heels. He keeps his feet moving to recover and is driven back six yards after initial contact. The strength is displayed here when you notice that by the time Ryan Kelly comes over to possibly help, Nelson has the defender under control. It took a lot of energy to push Nelson back in the pocket like that and in the end, the defender had nothing to show for it.
Quenton Nelson displayed all of the attributes fans hoped he would show in his first performance. He dominates defenders at the line of scrimmage far more often than he does not. I counted anywhere between 3-5 losses, depending on how hard you are grading him, in over 30 snaps. There were about 3-5 snaps where he didn’t lose, but he didn’t really win either. The rest? Clear wins.
His biggest weakness is lateral agility, making him susceptible to speed and quickness. In a phone booth, he is a dominant player. On an island, at tackle, his issues with speed could be brutal.
For the game, I would give him a B grade in pass protection. There are four plays above where Nelson didn’t win or play a meaningful role in helping to keep the pocket clean. There were 19 total passing snaps and at most two legitimate pressures/hurries. As a rookie getting his first experience against NFL caliber defensive linemen, a 10% “hurry” rate is reasonable.