The Struggles of Eric Fisher
By Eric Paolini
Kansas City Chiefs rookie right tackle Eric Fisher is having an up-and-down season. Fisher is only three games into his career, but he has struggled thus far. It is not as if he’s played poorly entirely. He’s had some good moments and as he learns his new position on the right side, learns the offense more and more, and gets NFL game experience, he can turn into a very solid tackle.
While it's not terrible that Fisher is struggling -- the Chiefs are indeed 3-0 -- it should provide some concern. The Chiefs have given up 10 sacks so far. Four other teams have given up that many and five that have allowed more. Kansas City’s struggles in pass protection were on display last week in Philadelphia, where the Chiefs surrendered five sacks. While the number of sacks yielded by the Chiefs is a bit high, the number of quarterback hits allowed is closer to that of the middle of the league. What this means is that besides the game against the Eagles, the offensive line hasn't played badly,
Fisher struggles with two aspects the most: defending against the bull rush and run blocking. The rookie out of Central Michigan consistently looks lost on run plays, especially when it's time to move to the second level and face linebackers. Too often, Fisher will disengage with the defensive end to move to the second level or on to another player.
Take, for example, a Jamaal Charles rushing attempt against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1. It's a simple play. The Chiefs have tight end Anthony Fasano on the right side of the line next to Fisher. Charles gets the handoff, and with fullback Anthony Sherman leading, heads to the right side of the line. Fisher's assignment is defensive end Tyson Alualu. Fisher hits Alualu once toward the middle of the field and immediately sets his sights on linebacker Geno Hayes. Fisher gets Hayes just as Sherman does. Meanwhile, Alualu, now unblocked, nearly gets Charles in the backfield. The play results in a 3-yard gain.
This type of play is not all that damaging. The Chiefs did pick up positive yardage and they did get into the end zone on the very next play. But this play is somewhat indicative of Fisher's struggles. His performance on that run was not ideal, and if Charles didn't slip out of a lunging Alualu's grasp, the play could have lost yards.
Fisher’s other flaw in the run game is being lost. We can go back to the same game and to one of its earliest possessions. It's a counter to the left for Charles. The play itself is beautiful to watch simply due to the movement of the Chiefs line, even if the attempt didn't gain much yardage. The left guard Jeff Allen pulls to the right and loops back between right guard Geoff Schwartz and Fisher. Center Rodney Hudson fills Allen's vacated space. The play is designed to create a hole and pathway for Charles in the center of the offensive line. This play fails, thanks to two blocking blunders. Fisher leaves Alualu for Fasano to block. While Fasano is a good blocking tight end, he can't handle a defensive end of Alualu's size. Alualu collapses his way into the hole, taking out Chiefs blockers. The other mistake is that Fisher doesn't really make a useful block. Fisher comes off the snap looking to block the defensive tackle, who attacks the middle of the line and is blocked by Schwartz. Fisher looks to the second level for someone to block, choosing linebacker Paul Posluszny. Fisher’s block amounts to a hockey check, which turns out to be somewhat effective, although the play is essentially dead at that point. Fisher looks for his next target, which was Hayes. Fisher inexplicably spins and loops around the pile of players on the ground, chasing Hayes -- who was already out of the play completely.
To me, this play shows a lack of instinct in the run game. Throughout the play, Fisher is unsure of what to do. Once again, the play doesn't fail simply because of Fisher's failure to make a meaningful block. Even if Fisher had made an effective block, the Jaguars defense was in good position and may have stopped the run regardless. But consistent plays of a similar nature could very well be damaging.
Luckily for the Chiefs, they have a very good run game -- both in terms of the offensive line and a running back. As a team, they barely miss out on being a top-10 run team (in terms of rushing yards per game).
Now these are only two examples of the very bottom of Fisher's play in run-blocking situations. There, of course, plenty of times when Fisher makes a solid block and doesn't get out of position. Without a doubt, his strength as a tackle is his pass-blocking. He can get out of balance at times and be pushed back into the quarterback.
Fisher succeeds the most when the defensive end tries to speed rush on the rookie’s right side. Fisher has the speed and stability to force the defender up and out, which creates a good pocket. In situations such as these, Fisher rarely gets so out of balance that he can't make a solid attempt at a block. But it appears he anticipates this type of block possibly a bit too much. Fisher can be vulnerable to a defender setting him up outside and then crossing him over. At this point Fisher can become unbalanced just enough to be bull rushed into Alex Smith's lap.
Fisher hasn't been only unimpressive. In last week's game against Philadelphia, defensive linemen Connor Barwin and Fletcher Cox stunted their pressure, with Barwin coming behind Cox. Following his natural instinct, Fisher is initially off-balance as his assignment is moving toward the center of the field. Fisher regroups quickly and contains Cox. Ultimately, Smith would be sacked as he could not find an open receiver, but this was not due to Fisher whatsoever.
The Chiefs’ offense is set up in such a way that any growing pains Fisher may experience won't be that detrimental. The offense is built on safety, a trait that is perfectly suited for Smith. It's designed to get the ball out of Smith's hands quickly. That means the offensive line isn't required to hold their blocks for long periods of time. They don't have to wait for pass routes to develop 20 yards downfield.
One play the Chiefs like to run is a rollout to the right. Once Smith gets the ball, he rolls out of the pocket. On these plays it is very important for Fisher to maintain his block long enough for Smith to clear. Rarely do the Chiefs roll out to the left, as it is not easy for Smith to throw the ball running in that direction because he is right-handed. On these plays, Fisher has been mostly solid.
As the season progresses, if the Chiefs can dictate the style of game they wish to play (basically, playing conservatively with a lead) Fisher's struggles shouldn't cause too much concern. As a whole, I think the Chiefs will struggle on offense if they have to mount a comeback. In that type of situation -- where the offense would have to look down the field more, requiring more time for Smith to wait in the pocket -- Fisher's struggles may be magnified.
Then again, it has only been three games. Fisher is playing in a new offense and on the opposite side of the field. It may take him a while to become the dominant tackle the Chiefs selected with the first pick in this year’s draft.