Beyond, of course, the return of Jake Locker at quarterback, the most intriguing player to watch on offense for the Tennessee Titans in Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers was center Brian Schwenke, making his NFL debut stepping into the lineup as a performance-based replacement for Rob Turner. To get an idea of how he played, I watched the all-22 from Sunday's game with a particular focus on Schwenke and how he did.
Normal disclaimers apply to this post. This is based on my view of what I saw out of Schwenke in the game. I am doing this without specific knowledge of the playcalls, San Francisco's defensive tendencies, knowledge of the specific strengths and weaknesses of particular players and how the two teams schemed to attack each other. Importantly for my evaluation of Schwenke, I cannot give you a technical analysis of what he did wrong, in terms of hand placement, leverage, recognition, or the like; I'll talk about some or all of those things in this post, but somebody who really knows what they're talking about could come to a vastly different conclusion. This is what I think, based on what I saw, based on what I know.
And, well, Schwenke looked like a fourth-round rookie playing his first game against a very good defense, including particularly a quality defensive line. He learned his lesson quickly, in fact on the very first play from scrimmage. He dropped into a pass set as Locker dropped back to throw. When NT Glenn Dorsey rushed, his punch rocked Schwenke back a good yard-and-a-half and the pressure induced Locker to throw the checkdown to Chris Johnson. Not exactly the start the rookie was looking for, I'm sure.
He'd do better after that play. The subsequent third-and-2 play featured a loop stunt by the 49ers Schwenke, Andy Levitre, and Michael Roos picked up well enough to enable Locker to find Kendall Wright for not just the conversion but a 21-yard gain. He did a solid job on Dorsey the first run play after that conversion, a 5-yard gain that would have gotten more had Chance Warmack been able to make his play (as Greg Cosell noted in his weekly appearance with the Midday180 on 104.5, Warmack has a disturbing tendency of ending up on the ground on run plays). The very next play, though, showed that as was the case in pass protection, Schwenke is an up-and-down player. It seemed like he initially had the edge on Dorsey, but the former LSU player was able to shed him and make the play in the hole to the left.
I'd say those four plays on the first series, a mix of the good and the bad in both pass protection and run blocking, served as a good indicator of what was to come the rest of the game. Chris Johnson's three-yard gain on second-and-1 at 2Q 14:12 was a good example of both in the same play-he showed good quickness at the snap to get around Dorsey and get to the second level to block Navorro Bowman, then whiffed on the block. Bowman didn't make the tackle on the play, but that's still a minus for Schwenke. (Bowman and Patrick Willis are both really, really, really good by the way. That shouldn't be news to anybody, but watching line play closely like this gave me plenty of reminders about that.)
Schwenke's most notable good play was one where Willis wasn't superb-the screen to Chris Johnson that ended up a 66-yard touchdown. Part of the reason the play worked was it was a well-timed call against a blitz. Second, Willis didn't read the screen until it was too late. If he does, I think he beats Schwenke to the spot. As it was, Schwenke got the key block (circled) and the rest was just CJ in the open field.
The most persistent issue I noticed with Schwenke was poor leverage. It doesn't matter how strong you are when you don't play with the leverage you need. I think that was the issue the first play of the game. Justin Smith similarly rocked him back a couple yards on the play at 2Q 1:37. That play was another completion, so Schwenke's minus didn't affect the play, but I'd bet his presence was one of the reasons the Titans adopted the quick pass heavy gameplan they did. The play where Schwenke's lack of leverage proved most costly in a film session is another play where he wasn't involved in the action involving the football.
The play came at 13:03 of the second quarter. Chris Johnson ran what looks like a counter to the right side, gaining nothing, and Delanie Walker is called for holding on the play. Schwenke's assignment was to execute a down block on defensive tackle/tight end (really, he wears #83) Demarcus Dobbs. And, well, the result led me to break out the Ben Muth X of Great Shame.
I would put one of Locker's three sacks on the day on Schwenke. At 4Q 9:56, the 49ers ran a T-T stunt. Justin Smith (also really, really, really good in case you haven't heard) lined up over Levitre. His job in the play is to slant down on Schwenke, causing Levitre to follow him, and ideally leaving a free rush lane for Ray McDonald. Of couse, when the result is as the below, that Levitre picks up McDonald is irrelevant.
As I commented on Twitter, Schwenke learned this play that pass-blocking while facing your quarterback is really, really hard. This lesson was reinforced at 5:12 of the fourth quarter, when this happened. Different players involved (Smith and McDonald were out of the game at this point), same result.
Locker got this throw off, but it was an unsuccessful play forced by the bad protection.
Of course, Schwenke and the Titans did adjust better to some things the second time they saw them. Here's a view at 2Q 1:18.
By aligning the way they did, with LB Brooks on Warmack's outside shoulder and McDonald on Schwenke's right shoulder, the 49ers thought they could isolate Schwenke on McDonald 1-on-1. And if McDonald wins at the snap, Locker's going to have to deal with immediate pressure. Locker hasn't even received the snap here, and McDonald has already beaten Schwenke. Locker would manage to throw this ball away, but this play lost very, very quickly.
The 49ers tried the same thing at 4Q 14:23, with the Titans facing a third-and-6. Here's a similarly-timed shot.
Complete night-and-day from the first photo. Note (1) the location of Schwenke's left arm. It's in a much better position to handle McDonald. One of the difficult tasks for a center is responding quickly to a player lined up over you and getting your arms up from snapping the ball to blocking position. Bad the first play, good here. (2) Warmack's stance. This is a hard assignment for a center. So, you help him. Warmack's body is cutting down that pass rushing lane, making Schwenke's life much easier. Instead of throwing the ball away and eating dirt, Locker scrambles for the first-down conversion.
When I wrote about the switch before the game, I indicated I didn't think Schwenke would be much of an upgrade from Turner, just differently flawed. In the first game, he lived up to that billing. He was solid in pass protection when it came to San Francisco's many, many stunts, twists, loops, and defensive line games, with the notable exception of the two plays I highlighted in the post where he ended up trying to block while facing Locker. There was nothing so impressive as what I noted of Turner in the summer, but he didn't get out of position lunging after guys. Actually blocking the defender was sometimes a challenge, at least until the 49ers took out their good players in the fourth quarter. I didn't highlight every pass pressure or quarterback he gave up, and the illegal use of hands penalty on an unspecified player at 2Q 12:02 (though not the sack) was on him.
I didn't highlight them with any screenshots, but in the run game I thought he was solid at the point of attack. His problems there came when the play was to the other side, particularly when it came to sustaining his block. With only 12 called runs compared to 48 pass plays, though, consider this a bit of a small sample size against a good defense. I'll be curious to see how he does against St. Louis, a better pass-rushing than run-defending front line.
As I noted in the disclaimer paragraph, I'm not sure how many of the flaws Schwenke showed are quickly correctable. Some of them, probably, but my guess is leverage will be a work in progress for him for a while-definitely for the rest of this season and quite possibly beyond. I suspect body shape will be part of that transition, or maybe that's just my bias against large linemen kicking in.
My thoughts on center, though, are still my thoughts on centers-it's the easiest place to hide a player on the offensive line. There were a number of pass plays where Turner had no specific responsibility and just helped Warmack or Levitre (or check with both). Schwenke, assuming he can quickly clean up some of the stuff that plagued him against the 49ers, should be an adequate enough starting center if the pieces around him were good enough, and his flaws still stick out if they aren't good enough around him. Long-term I like him a lot more than Turner or Fernando Velasco. In terms of 2013, I'm not sure the Titans would be clearly better off with any one of those players over the other two. Schwenke still has half a season to change my mind on that, though.