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Chiefs’ Eric Fisher film review: My left tackle

I have a confession to make. I was really, really worried about reviewing Eric Fisher’s film.

For starters, I’m in a hurry. With training camp looming, the time for film reviews from last season is coming to a close, and I still have lots to do. I did review Mitch Morse (of course) and wrote an article about him coming out Wednesday, then I did something entirely new and different and reviewed the inside linebackers NOT named Derrick Johnson on the team and talked about that on “The MNchiefsfan Podcast” on Monday.

(Side note: yes, if you haven’t heard, I’ve started a podcast. Check it out here if you like. I think it’s OK)

So there’s a lot of work to be done. But that wasn’t the real reason I was worried about Fisher’s review.

No, the reason I worried was that over the course of last season, during my live viewing of games, I felt like I was noticing Eric Fisher too much. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. Generally speaking, you don’t want to notice offensive linemen much at all during a broadcast. As I reviewed LDT’s and Parker Ehinger’s film, I still had the nagging feeling that I was seeing a bit too much of Fisher. And so I was concerned that once I started reviewing Fisher’s film I’d find that he had finally stopped improving after getting better every season, or maybe even backslid.

Considering Fisher just signed a contract worth $12 million a year (putting him in the top seven LT contracts in the league), the last thing I wanted to think was that Fisher had peaked as a player or was regressing. Hence, my nervousness.

But that can’t stop us, amirite? For frame of reference, here’s a link to Fisher’s end-of-year film review last season. With that in mind, let’s talk about Fisher’s numbers and what he did last season (if you don’t know how I review OL film, click here. We’re tracking wins, losses, and neutral plays, as well as pressures, hits and sacks given up).

Here’s a look at the stats Fisher put up in the games I reviewed (remember, we’re short on time so I went with five games). I mostly focused on games Fisher faced tough (and very different) types of competition: Watt/Clowney/Mercilus in Houston, Mack and Irvin in Oakland, Addison and Johnson in Carolina (Addison surprised me), and of course Ware and Miller in Denver. My premise is that if Fisher could hold his own against that group, that tells us something solid about him. I also reviewed New Orleans because it seemed only fair to watch him against more average players.

All right, let’s talk about those numbers, specifically within the context of what Fisher’s numbers were last season. For starters, and on the “maybe bad news” side of things, Fisher’s win percentage was down a full 10 percent from last season. However, I don’t feel much of a need to panic for a few reasons.

  1. The 2015 Fisher film review included multiple games against subpar edge players, particularly in the pass rushing department, where this time I narrowed my scope to (mostly) good-to-elite players. That dragged Fisher’s win percentage up last season for obvious reasons.
  2. Win percentage means a lot less to me than loss percentage. Give me an offensive lineman who never loses but rarely “wins” all day over a guy who wins a ton but loses 20 percent of the time. OL wins don’t mean a play succeeds, but OL losses often means it fails.
  3. My own standard for what constitutes a “win” has changed over time. I know for a fact that this year as I graded players I was more stingy with wins in double-team situations, among other things.

For all those reasons, I’m not sweating Fisher’s “drop.” A 30 percent win rate is quite respectable based on the way I grade players now.

What I want to focus on is that loss percentage. It was wildly surprising to me, given that my in-game perspective on Fisher prior to reviewing his film was that he may have taken a step back in 2016. If you’ll recall, my “line” for starting offensive linemen is 10 percent. If an OL can keep his loss percentage below that, I’m OK with him starting. The lower the percentage, obviously, the happier I am.

The fact that Fisher’s loss percentage went down despite playing against (overall) superior competition in the games I reviewed in 2016 is quite impressive. With only one “easy” opponent, you would imagine that even an improved Fisher would see a rise in his loss percentage, or perhaps at best mirroring what he did against overall inferior competition in reviewed games the year before. Instead, he did BETTER.

And it wasn’t just his patsy game that did the trick either. If you compare the numbers Fisher put up against Denver in particular, the difference is staggering. Last season, Fisher lost on over 14 percent of his snaps against Denver’s brutal pass-rushing group. In 2016, he acquitted himself significantly better.

Additionally, on a personal matchup note, Fisher managed to finally do something that I hadn’t seen him do yet: play a decent game against Khalil Mack.

In previous years, Mack had his way with Fisher the majority of the time they matched up on pass rushing downs, with the only reprieve being when Reid’s scheme protected Fisher or Jack Del Rio (for some reason) put Mack on the other side of the defense. In the game I reviewed in 2016, Fisher (after a first snap) did a very admirable job keeping Alex clean and not letting Mack or Irvin get to him.

The nice thing about the teams I chose this season is that it allowed me to see how Fisher fared against power rushers, speed rushers, combination rushers and proficient technicians. This gave me a chance to see where Fisher might struggle. In previous years, power rushers gave him fits as he wasn’t able to anchor well in vertical sets when he couldn’t time his punch correctly (side note, if you haven’t done so, read this piece on the three different OL sets by Geoff Schwartz. You will feel very football smart afterwards).

Overall, Fisher has evolved into a tackle that can generally handle anything that’s thrown at him in pass protection.

While this isn’t a perfect pass protection set, it demonstrates where Fisher has improved over the last few years. In previous years a bull rusher with Watt’s strength would bull Fisher right into the quarterback if Fisher didn’t land the first punch (which he did not here, seemingly unable to time it as he waited for Watt to get within range). Here, though, Fisher is able to reset his hips and slow Watt’s advance. Watt then transitions to a rip move and Fisher (legally and correctly) uses the leverage he regained by resetting to continue to slow Watt up. Alex Smith ends up with more than enough time to make a throw.

Fisher’s strength has been a point of issue for years, especially in vertical sets where he wasn’t the aggressor against pass rushers and instead had to wait for them to come to him. So often you’d see someone get inside his pads (James Harrison still does this to him, but I digress) and blow him backwards for an immediate pressure/hit/sack. Now, Fisher consistently re-anchors and stops the movement to give Smith time to throw.

Additionally, Fisher’s added strength comes through when he’s allowed to be the aggressor in pass protection and throw the first punch.

When Fisher punches first in a jump set, edge rushers very rarely do much of anything. Fisher has terrific length for a tackle (it’s easy to forget, with all the concerns we’ve had about his strength over the years, what a big guy he is) and seems to have pretty heavy hands when he playing offensive line, well, offensively. I personally wish we saw a lot more of Fisher in aggressive sets, because it’s where he does far and away his best work.

He ends up tripped by a different player on this next play, but you can see that he packs a wallop.

As I said, I’d like to see Fisher get a chance to use that strength more often rather than relying on his kick-slide to mirror and catch defenders. While he’s come a long ways in that area (and will generally keep up with speed rushers without much issue), it’s not where he looks his best. On the attack is clearly where he’s most comfortable.

Another aspect I saw Fisher improve (though there’s still work to be done) is picking up blitzes and stunts. This used to be a major problem, but for his part, Fisher was pretty consistent at seeing movements like that from a defense and adapting his protection accordingly.

On the whole, Fisher’s pass blocking looked markedly improved from last season, where I wrote that while Fisher’s numbers were solid, I still wasn’t completely comfortable with him as the left tackle because of the number of borderline plays he had where he BARELY avoided a loss. Those were way down in 2016, as Fisher continues to look more and more comfortable in his lateral movement (footwork was an issue in 2015, much less in 2016) and anchoring skills. While I still wouldn’t call him elite in this area, I think I’m ready to say he’s developed into a solid (though imperfect, which we’ll get to) pass protector. Which is a far cry from what I thought I’d be writing about him during the course of the 2016 season.

(Long side note... this kind of thing is why I don’t trust my instincts as to what a player is doing during a live broadcast. There’s just too much emotion involved. A single bad play or two bad plays can swing your entire view of a player’s game even though he played another 55 snaps. Splash wins or losses carry entirely too much weight. One day I’ll learn that. In the meantime I’ll be pleasantly surprised at times and completely horrified other times when I go back and review film)

As a run blocker, Fisher is everything you want in a left tackle.

There’s actually not a ton to say on this aspect of Fisher’s film because it’s essentially a “solid all the way across the board” situation. There really isn’t area of run blocking Fisher isn’t very good at on a consistent basis. It has been and remains the far superior aspect of his game.

Fisher’s a strong run blocker who is aggressive at the point of attack. He’s good at locking onto defenders and staying locked on until after the ball carrier flies through whatever hole the line is trying to create. He generates push in the situations that require it, and is very rarely going to be the reason a run didn’t work out as planned.

Additionally, Fisher is exceptional at combo blocks, helping briefly with a defensive lineman then getting to the second level and locking onto a linebacker. When he does so, Fisher rarely whiffs (which is a rarity among linemen, as it’s difficult to pin down smaller, faster players in space). He also demonstrates (at the second level and at the line) a very good understanding of angles and where the runner is trying to get to.

What I love most about this block isn’t the strength Fisher shows here. It’s the fact that he understands that HE should move as the runner moves, thus always staying between the runner and the defender (hence, “sealing the defender off” as a thing you hear people say when they want to say football stuff). Fisher very consistently demonstrates a wonderful understanding of how not to just block harder, but to block smarter. And that’s very valuable in the run game.

So with Fisher having developed into a decent pass protector and a very good run blocker, what’s stopping me from calling him an elite left tackle? Well, his pass protection still isn’t consistently good enough to warrant it. As I’ve said before, Fisher (especially in vertical sets) tends to “catch” more often than “punch” as a blocker, and at times it just gets him killed.

Now look, that was an AWESOME rush by Mack. Absolutely fantastic hand placement, great body control, and a pretty unique move (you don’t see a lot of pass rushers try a bull rush that looks like that, with the outside hand staying free). Sometimes you just lose to a great player, and Mack is (in my opinion) the closest thing in the league to Justin Houston in terms of a guy who matches great athleticism with exceptional strength. No shame in that.

However, Fisher brings some of this trouble onto himself by waiting for Mack to make the first move. Talking to a few guys I trust regarding offensive line issues, they agreed this is often because a tackle doesn’t trust his timing on a punch in a vertical set and doesn’t want to get caught lunging. So instead they wait on the defender and react, in the case of a bull rush by catching and anchoring.

So I get the technique and I understand that Fisher might be hesitant to try and punch from this kind of set (Tamba Hali has feasted for years on tackles punching too soon and destroying their hands), but it’s something he needs to become more comfortable with if he wants to go from “decent” pass protector to “great.” Yes, he did a solid job against Mack most of the day, but he was a couple of snaps away from being nearly perfect. And in the world of offensive linemen, a couple of snaps go a long way.

Another issue Fisher has is he’s still a bit clumsy with his kick-slide. I don’t think he’ll ever be a smooth player in that regard, and his balances was markedly improved from 2015, but I’d still like his movement to be a bit more natural. He still occasionally gets caught crossing his feet (it actually happens in the gif above), and that will cause you to lose all leverage against a bull rush. Again, it’s improved, but not where it needs to be for Fisher to be what people would like for him to be.

Eric Fisher will probably always be a controversial player for Chiefs fans due to the fact that he was a first overall pick who will likely never be a superstar. I doubt his pass protection will ever be good enough for him to be considered an elite left tackle. However, in 2016 he held his own against some of the best in the business and dominated some inferior competition, while showing improvement on his weaknesses. We’ve been talking about Fisher taking steps forward for years. Well, he’s finally at a place where he’s OK just as he is, and I’m more than comfortable calling him my team’s left tackle.

Hopefully, as the season progresses we see yet another step forward. But one can only be so greedy I suppose, even with former first overall picks.