So Just How Good Was Willie Colon Last Year?

Even with him sidelined for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, there’s a lot of debate about whether Willie Colon is an above-average right tackle, average or a guy who is a menace to himself and Ben Roethlisberger.

Just check out this thread over at the always entertaining Steel City Insider forum where Colon’s value is being debated.

On one side of the debate, you have Pro Football Focus, which rated Colon as the third best offensive tackle in the game last year. As PFF saw it, Colon was an exceptional pass blocker and a solid run blocker. On the other hand, Football Outsiders’ Robert Weintraub (and several of the Steel City Insider’s forum commenters) see Colon as a below average tackle who will be relatively easy to replace. As Weintraub explained:

He improved last season, and he is better, at least at present, than anyone the Steelers can replace him with.  But we’re not talking about Mike Webster in his prime here.  Colon was dreadful in 2008–his play got him to mediocre.  He is fine when engaging the man in front of him, but struggles to get to the second level, or with multiple or changing assignments.  His punch is soft, and his feet aren’t too nifty.  It’s a loss for the short-term, but  it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the backups reach his level by season’s end.

I can’t really completely agree with that assesment. I’ve been watching Colon game-by-game since he began playing as a rookie during the disappointing 2006 season. I would agree that he’s better off blocking a man in front of him than trying to hand off players or going to the second level, but when he locks up a guy, he usually drives them back, and as a pass blocker, he’s made a pretty impressive improvement since a rough start as a raw rookie.

My personal opinion is that Colon was the Steelers’ best offensive lineman in 2009, and was a very, very good pass blocker. I don’t see him in the same class as Pro Football Focus does, but I do see him as much closer to that than to being an liability who could be easily replaced.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it. You can also go to the tape and see some of what I’m talking about. Depending on who you listen to, Colon gave up either nine sacks (Stats Inc), six sacks (Pro Football Focus) or five sacks (my count after watching and logging every sack of the 2009 season).

Let me take you through the five sacks I logged. It’s worth noting that I didn’t see Colon give up a sack until Week 14 of the season.

Sack #1: It’s hard to know if Colon is to blame for this sack. The Steelers’ offensive entire offensive gameplan against the Browns was a disaster, and the blocking scheme was a big part of the problems. On this play, the Steelers’ line blocks “down” which left Marcus Benard free to come in unblocked to sack Roethlisberger. If you want to blame Colon, feel free, but I don’t feel completely comfortable saying that Colon screwed up–it’s hard to say without knowing the assignments.

Sack #2: This time Colon was clearly beaten. Cleveland’s Benard went the long way around him with a speed rush. But it’s also worth noting that the sack came 3.6 seconds after the snap. The average sack occurs 2.7-2.8 seconds after the snap (I timed every sack of the 2009 NFL season to come up with that number), so the sack is also somewhat on Reothlisberger.

Sack #3: Willie Colon’s man recorded this sack, but it’s not really fair to blame it on Colon. Colon maintained good position on Brady Poppinga, but Roethlisberger held the ball for 4.6 seconds, and gave Poppinga an easy angle to him by stepping up in the pocket.

Sack #4: Colon gets clearly beaten this time. Antwan Barnes uses his speed to run around Roethlisberger, although Colon wasn’t the only offensive lineman to be beat.

Sack #5: This one again isn’t Colon’s fault. Joey Porter runs all the way around Colon, but it takes him more than five seconds to do it. If Roethlisberger hadn’t held the ball for way too long, he wouldn’t have been sacked.

So by my count, there were five sacks that Colon gave up, and of those, two were clearly not his fault and a third is questionable.

Pro Football Focus blames Colon with a sixth sack. The difference is a sack in the Lions game, which I’m very confident is this one. Technically, Colon’s man made the sack, but I blamed it on Trai Essex because it was Essex’s man who initially hit Roethlisberger and forced him to tuck the ball. At that point, Roethlisberger wasn’t going to get rid of the ball, it was just a matter of who would finish him off. If you want to blame him for that sack (I don’t), you could say he was responsible for three sacks that were clearly his fault and three more where he could share at least some blame.

The nine sacks that Stats Inc. gives him make no sense to me. My best guess is that one of them is this sack against the Titans. Jevon Kearse comes in unblocked, but is blocking a rusher that was lined up head-up on him and inside of Kearse–the normal blocking rules are that you block from inside to out. Without the Steelers announcing that Colon blew it, I don’t know how you can blame him for that sack.

I also feel pretty confident that Colon is being blamed for this sack against the Bengals. The problem with that is that while Colon’s man (Robert Geathers) ends up with half the sack, it only comes after Antwan Odom hits Roethlisberger, forces him to tuck the ball and Pat Sims wraps him up.

As far as the ninth sack, I’m at a loss to what it is.

So here’s what I see. Colon gave up less than an average number of sacks for an NFL right tackle last year, and he did that despite having a quarterback who holds the ball longer than almost anyone. People can debate the stats, but from what I see, especially in pass blocking, Colon will be hard to replace.
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  • Ncoolong

    Excellent post, JJ…not that I'm very old, but it wasn't long ago when stats keepers were comfortable with pinning a sack on the line, and not one individual. Now, it seems every sack HAS to be blamed on one lineman, and I don't feel that's in the spirit of what the offensive line is supposed to be. It also is accepted that the QB is a part of the whole group, meaning if he hangs onto the ball for longer than he should, he shares the blame with everyone else.

    In the first sack you highlighted here, if Colon is blocking down, then the scheme was to cut him loose and/or have a back pick him up on the backside, because the QB is going to be rolling to his left. I haven't seen it lately, and I don't remember much about that game (thank God), but I know the Steelers ran those plays frequently enough. To me, that sack personifies exactly why you credit the line with a sack.