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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ali Marpet and JR Sweezy form dynamic duo for Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Leonard Wester (66), guard J.R. Sweezy (73) and center Ali Marpet (74) set up to block against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ offensive line is a much improved unit compared to last year and has given up only seven sacks (tied for fourth-best) and 17 QB hits (second-fewest), ranking third in DVOA run blocking and ninth in DVOA pass blocking through the first five weeks of the season. The O-line was shuffled around this offseason with the return of guard J.R. Sweezy from injury, inserting him at right guard and switching Ali Marpet from RG to center.

The Bucs signed Sweezy from the Seahawks in 2016 to upgrade the interior of their O-line, but went the entire year without him due to season-ending back surgery. Sweezy is a former defensive lineman and seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State who has always been known for his rugged style of play, showing very good competitive toughness to maul defenders and finish blocks with authority.

Before signing with Tampa, Sweezy was still learning the nuances of playing offensive line, particularly in terms of using his hands in pass protection and developing a consistent pass set. So far in 2017 Sweezy has started at RG in the first five games and looks like a much more refined player, helping to justify general manager Jason Licht’s decision to sign him to a five-year $32.5M deal.

I was skeptical of both the signing of Sweezy to such a large contract and moving Marpet inside to center to accommodate him, primarily due to the fact that Marpet was a rising star at guard. Marpet’s elite athleticism coupled with very good mental processing marked a player with tremendous play speed. Moving a player with Marpet’s skill set to center almost seemed like a waste when he was nearing Pro Bowl-level play at guard, but I am happy to say that I have been proven wrong.

My rationale lacked insight into how improved Sweezy would be and how seamlessly Marpet would make yet another position switch (Marpet played left tackle in college). Tampa Bay’s front office and OL coach George Warhop deserve an enormous amount of credit for the unit they’ve put together and developed in 2017.

Marpet’s third position switch in three years led him to center, the quarterback of the OL, and a position that requires more mental aptitude than any other position on the offense minus the QB. Making the protection calls, identifying blitzes, and making fast decisions in tight quarters are some of the abilities centers must possess to succeed. Not only has Marpet been astute in the mental side of the game, his athletic profile coupled with size (6-4/307), play strength, and hand usage have produced feats on the field that only a handful of guys in the NFL can do from the C position.

Sweezy’s biggest improvement has come in pass protection, namely jump-setting defensive linemen. The jump set requires precision with his pass set to obtain the half-man relationship by working inside-out on the opposing D-lineman. This is done with precise hand placement, timing, and power to latch onto the defender, plus the necessary grip strength to sustain and end the fight quickly at the line of scrimmage. This technique is often administered when the QB is throwing the ball quickly in the direction of the jump set, with the jump serving as a means to get on top of the lineman to ensure his hands stay down and the throwing lane remains intact:

Sweezy has demonstrated very good explosiveness to drive out of his stance, gain ground, and attack the opposing lineman with violent hands and a strong base. Turn on the tape of the Bucs and you will see Sweezy executing this technique at a high level against all competition. The 45-degree set is another type of set that Sweezy has successfully used, even against defensive ends when they line up over his outside shoulder:

Sweezy’s biggest contribution to the O-line has been the elite level of aggressiveness, physicality, and tenacity he plays with on a per-snap basis. Looking for work in pass protection when uncovered is a vital trait for offensive linemen to have — not only to assist their linemates, but to discourage outside pass rushers from countering inside, or at least getting them to think twice about it after a few rib shots like this:

Marpet put on a show in Week 5 against the Patriots in one of the more impressive performances from a center that you will see this season, particularly in terms of reading keys and diagnosing line games and stunts from the Patriots’ defensive front.

On this first play the Patriots run a T-E stunt with the tackle slanting across Marpet’s face to the inside, and the end looping around to try to sneak in the backdoor. Marpet does an excellent job of carrying the DT to his right, and Sweezy shows good mental processing and spatial awareness to maintain his level with Marpet and react inside to pick up the DT. Marpet’s eyes are looking past the man he is engaged with for a possible looper. Marpet quickly recognizes it, aptly releases the DT to pick up the DE, and protects the left A gap:

Here is another example of Sweezy’s jump set succeeding on a play-action pass, demonstrating excellent initial hand placement, re-leveraging of hands to maintain control, and keeping his elbows screwed into his body. This allows him to have very good hand-anchor strength inside the defender’s frame to strain and protect the A gap, avoiding a holding penalty and allowing the QB to stay on-platform for a completion:

Marpet’s explosiveness out of his stance once the ball is snapped — using his hands to quickly make contact with defenders lined up on top of him — is simply outstanding. As a center the hand used to snap the ball is often vulnerable to being trapped by the head-up DL, so being explosive after the snap to get that hand up and onto the defender is critical in pass protection.

Marpet has Patriot DT Malcolm Brown lined up on top of him in a 0 technique on a play-action pass, so it is important for him to have a strong base from snap to finish, with quick and explosive hands to maintain first contact. Marpet displays independent hand usage and alternate strikes to gain control, with his snap-hand showing elite grip strength to maintain leverage and control despite Brown’s best efforts to disengage. Due to his strong base, good pad level, and excellent hand placement, Marpet is able to handle Brown by himself, giving QB Jameis Winston nearly five seconds to find an open target:

Another example of Marpet showing elite use of hands begins with a subtle yet effective left-handed strike to get the head-up nose tackle off balance. Marpet follows it with a two-handed strike to Brown’s breastplate, latching onto his chest to create leverage, gaining control, and pushing him down the line of scrimmage:

Marpet not only shows elite use of hands in pass protection, but also as a run blocker. Marpet has Brown again aligned as a 0 technique, with the offense running outside zone to his left. Marpet needs to work his hips around Brown’s big body for a reach block, and does so using his backside drag hand to create leverage to get around for the seal, creating a reliable read and alley for the runner in the process. This is an advanced technique that requires very good hand placement to prevent the defender from undercutting the block inside:

Marpet’s initial hand placement, quickness, and strong base in pass protection gave Brown fits all night long, and offered a demonstration of how refined he has become in one of the more difficult aspects of playing the center position. Here’s another example of Marpet winning a hand battle with Brown, sustaining his block, and maintaining the firmness of pocket for Winston to have time and space to operate:

These next two clips are great examples of mental processing to key and diagnose a T-E stunt by both Sweezy and Marpet. First, Marpet has Patriot linebacker Trey Flowers aligned as a 0 technique prior to the snap, with him stunting at the snap to his left. Marpet uses his outside hand as a lever to track Flowers’ movement, using his eyes to see past him for the looping DE. He quickly recognizes the T-E stunt and passes off the slanting DT prior to releasing and picking up the end:

Next we have Sweezy and Marpet working as a team to pick up another T-E stunt. Notice how quickly Sweezy keys Patriot LB Dont’a Hightower hesitating to loop around, quickly transitioning to assist Marpet on the tackle. Marpet uses his eyes to see past his man and simultaneously pickup Hightower for a 2-for-1 block. This is a great example of maintaining levels as offensive linemen, ensuring no leakage gets through the pocket:

Marpet’s use of hands, mental processing, use of leverage, and ability to sustain blocks all exist at an elite level this season. With Sweezy alongside him to assist on stunts and double-teams, these two have quickly formed one of the most potent G-C combinations in the NFL. Considering this is Marpet’s first year at a new position and first year alongside Sweezy, the Bucs have to be ecstatic about how their O-line is starting to take shape.

Each player works extremely well off the other in the pass game, and with running back Doug Martin finally back, expect these two to be the catalysts for an even more dynamic run game as the year progresses.  The LG position still needs to be upgraded, but Marpet and Sweezy appear to have have two of the three interior OL spots locked up for some time in Tampa.

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