The Buffalo Bills have struggled to find competence at the guard position ever since Andy Levitre departed in free agency following the 2012 season. In the two seasons since Levitre left, Colin Brown, Doug Legursky, Kraig Urbik, Erik Pears, J.J. Unga, Chris Williams and Cyril Richardson have all seen time at guard, but nobody was able to provide a positive impact on the offense.
With a surplus of salary cap room available to play with this offseason, Buffalo Bills’ general manager Doug Whaley needs to focus on finding a quality veteran guard that will provide stability to a weak unit. The left guard spot in particular has been a disaster, as that position has been responsible for six sacks and 80 pressures over the past two years, compared to the 201 total pressures allowed by the rest of the offensive line.
During the past two seasons, the Bills have ran behind a left guard 134 times for just 471 yards (3.5 yards-per-carry). 244 of the 471 yards came after contact and the longest rush went for just 16 yards. Needless to say, the position has held Buffalo’s offense back.
A player that could potentially be a difference maker for the Bills is Mike Iupati, a 6’5” 331-pounder that’s been named to three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team since being selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
The Bills hired the 49ers former offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, who will look to install a power run game that relies on effective guard play in order to create holes and space for running backs. In the four years that Roman coordinated the 49ers’ offense, the team ranked 1st, 4th, 4th, and 7th in rushing yards, with Mike Iupati playing a big role in that success. During Roman’s tenure with the 49ers, San Francisco’s offense gained 1,553 yards on the 336 rushing attempts behind Iupati, an average of 4.6 yards-per-carry.
Mike Iupati is one of the league’s most dominant run blockers, as the 27-year old is consistently able to get his long arms inside the pads of defenders and drive them off the ball. In his five-year career, Iupati has graded out in the top 10 of ProFootballFocus’ Run Blocking grades four times (10th, 4th, 2nd, 16th, 2nd). He wins by maintaining a low center of gravity, with a wide base that allows him to stay balanced when engaging with linemen, and plays with a mean streak.
Greg Roman’s rushing attack asked Iupati to pull and get to the second level with traps, counters, iso and power, but also required him to move downhill with inside zones. Despite his massive size, Iupati showed an uncanny ability to get out in space and effectively seal off defenders when pulling.
In the following clip, Iupati pulls across the line of scrimmage and delivers a key block that gives running back Frank Gore a clear path to the endzone.
He’s able to get out in space again in this clip, also against the Rams. After making contact with his initial defender, Iupati releases and gets downfield, delivering another block to a Rams defender that lets Gore get outside for a gain of 16.
When blocking down, Iupati is aggressive and physical, as you can see in the following clip against the Chiefs. Iupati doesn’t have a man in front of him, so he releases to the second level of the defense, where he seeks out a defender to punish. He’s able to get in front of the linebacker, who falls, freeing up Gore to pick up a few extra yards.
At times, Iupati’s aggressiveness can hurt him like it does here against the San Diego Chargers. Iupati doesn’t get low off the snap and lunges towards defensive tackle Corey Liuget. Liuget is able to get under him, before shedding the block and making a tackle for loss in the backfield.
While Mike Iupati is utterly dominant in the run game, he can struggle quite a bit in pass protection, particularly with speed. Due to his aggressive nature, Iupati can get too high out of his stance, which causes him to lose leverage when engaging with defensive linemen. As a left guard, Iupati typically lines up across from the three-technique defensive tackle, most of whom are smaller and quicker than he is, so leverage and technique is key. In the following play, Iupati gets too high in his stance, which allows Bills’ defensive tackle Kyle Williams to get inside his pads, before using his hands to get off the block.
While he struggles with speed and quickness in pass protection, Iupati is able to hold his ground, or “anchor” against most power moves. In the next clip, Iupati keeps one of the most powerful defensive tackles in the NFL, Dontari Poe, at bay. Poe is explosive at 345-pounds, but Iupati is able to maintain leverage and fight him off.
Another area of pass protection where Iupati is impressive is with his punch. As an offensive lineman, having the ability to “punch” and create space between themselves and the defender is extremely important. Iupati is able to knock rushers off balance and alter their route to the quarterback.
If the Bills want to maximize the potential of EJ Manuel and compete for a playoff berth in 2015, fixing the glaring hole at left guard should be the team’s first priority. Far too often you’ll hear people talking about how “guards aren’t valuable” or aren’t worth lucrative contracts, when in reality, a guard holds the same overall importance to an offensive line that a left tackle does. The past two seasons of Bills’ football can attest to how difficult it is to hide below-average talent at the position, and hopefully Doug Whaley can see that.
At his introductory press conference, Rex Ryan told reporters that he wanted to “build a bully” with a ground-and-pound style of offense, which was backed up by his hiring of Greg Roman as offensive coordinator. Iupati plays like a bully and could be the piece that gets the Bills’ offensive line on track.