New York Jets – An In-Depth Look at Willie Colon

Mike Nolan with an in-depth look at recently signed New York Jets Offensive Guard Willie Colon.

With Matt Slauson recently signing with the Chicago Bears and the impending departure of Brandon Moore, it is becoming more and more likely that New York Jets free agent signing Willie Colon will be a starter at one of the Guard spots. Colon was signed to a one year, $1.2 million dollar deal, the right price for a guy who has played only 12 games in the past 3 years.

The Steelers were willing to let Colon go due to his recent string of injuries. After starting 50 consecutive games at right tackle for the Steelers, Colon suffered an Achilles injury that sidelined him for the entire 2010 season. Upon his return to the lineup in 2011, Colon tore his tricep in week one, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. When he returned in 2012, the Steelers moved him to left guard where he started 11 games, missing 5 due to a knee injury. The Steelers were so fed up with the string of injuries that they released Colon without attempting to restructure his contract after apparently telling him that they would.

With all of this in mind, Colon’s career can be broken into two phases: Pre-(Achilles) injury and Post-Injury. Pre-Injury, Willie Colon was one of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL. Pro Football Focus rated Colon as the third best tackle in the NFL in 2009. They also said that he was the overall best pass protecting tackle in the NFL. When you watch film from 2006-2009, PFF’s ratings are realized. Colon has solid footwork and athleticism, but it is his sheer power that jumps off the film.

The Steelers week 12 game against the Ravens from 2009 might have been Colon’s best game of the year. There are prime examples of him physically dominating the line of scrimmage against the likes of Kelly Gregg and, even, Haloti Ngata. Let’s look at a play from that game that I think sums up Colon pre-injury.

Colon (#74) is lined up at right tackle in a Tight Bunch set. The ball is at the Steelers 32 yard line.

Colon Play 1(1)

The Steelers run a modified Isolation run play out of the bunch set. This means that the line will be in a man blocking scheme. Colon is one on one with Kelly Gregg in this play, widely considered to be one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. Colon’s footwork is OK on the play as he’s got himself in a stalemate upon initial contact with Gregg off the ball. His pad level is a little high, but his hand placement is perfect. He has both hands on Gregg’s chest plate.

Colon Play 1(3)

After the initial stale mate, Colon starts moving his feet again and easily drives Gregg back two yards. With Gregg on roller skates, he desperately tries to get off Big Willie’s block to make a play on Rashard Mendanhall.

Colon Play 1(5)

This is the best part of Willie Colon during the period. As Gregg tries to get off of Colon’s block, Colon uses his leverage against him and finishes the block. While it was actually a pretty savvy play by Gregg by at least getting his body in the hole, Colon was able to drive him 4 full yards off the line of scrimmage and put him on the ground.

Colon Play 1(6)

This play shows that while Colon might not have the greatest feet and quickness, his raw power allowed him to be physically dominant at times. Against one of the best defenses in the NFL, Colon was able to have one of his best games of the season. Here is an example of how Colon’s power and aggressiveness could sometimes bail him out when he doesn’t take great steps.

Here the Steelers are running a quick draw play. Colon is at right tackle. On a draw play, the tackle wants to fake a pass set with the intention of driving the defender once he makes a pass rush move. To make it easier, Colon should set hard inside of the defender to entice him outside and up field. Instead Colon takes a pretty bad set and is nose to nose with the defender.

Colon Play 2 (1)

Because Colon takes a bad set, the defender makes an inside move and beats him.

Colon Play 2 (2)

Here is where I was truly impressed by Colon’s raw power. Instead of letting the defender get away and make the play, Colon keeps good hand placement and hip tosses the defender. This is another example of how powerful and aggressive Colon can be even when he is not technically sound.

Colon Play 2 (3)

This play is good illustration of how Colon can put himself in bad situations by taking bad steps on certain plays. Because of this he has a propensity to commit penalties. Ever since he was inserted into the starting lineup, Colon has been near the top of the list of most penalized offensive linemen.  Often times when putting himself in bad situations he tries to bail himself out by holding.

Colon probably never made the Pro Bowl because of his tendency to commit penalties. However, he was still widely considered by many to be one of the top tackles in the NFL before his Achilles injury. After his Achilles injury in 2010 and his tricep injury in 2011, the Steelers decided to move Colon to left guard. While it was his first time playing Guard in the NFL, Colon played guard at Hofstra so it shouldn’t have been too unfamiliar to him.

As expected there were growing pains, when watching Colon’s first game at left guard in week 1 against the Broncos, it is clear that he is having trouble adjusting. Most likely it was due to both playing a new position and coming back for his first game in a full year. The two major things that gave him trouble were pass protecting against pass twists and combo blocks in the run game.  Let’s look at an example of Colon against a pass twist from week 1 –

Here on 3rd and long the Steelers are throwing the ball. Upfront the offensive line will be using a man blocking scheme. The Broncos will only rush 4 but will do an inside stunt between the 3 technique and the 1 technique. Colon is lined up at left guard.

Colon Sack 1 (1)

Off the snap, Colon takes a bad set and doesn’t move his feet to mirror the defensive lineman.  Because of this DT Mitch Unrein is able to get leverage inside and up field and is looking to pick Maurkice Pouncey.

Colon Sack 1 (2)

Because they are in a man protection scheme, Pouncey and Colon need to pass off this twist.  With good balance and communication, Pouncey should take Unrein and Colon will take Derek Wolfe who is the second DT on the pass twist. Because Colon took a bad set and Pouncey doesn’t see it coming, Unrein successfully picks Pouncey and Wolfe is screaming around Colon unaccounted for.

Colon Sack 1 (3)

Now Colon realizes what has happened and leaves Unrein to make a desperation attempt to get Wolfe who is wrapped around Roethlisberger’s legs, essentially leaving two pass rushers unblocked.

Colon Sack 1 (4)

Wolfe sacks Roethlisberger and Colon is laying on his stomach watching. What this shows is Colon struggling to adjust to a big difference between playing guard and playing tackle. In the NFL, most pass twists will come on the inside, especially on a team like Denver that feels comfortable letting their two outside rushers rush on an island. When teams only rush 4, they will often incorporate pass twists inside because 3 offensive linemen (Guard-Center-Guard) are responsible for two pass rushers. Unlike when playing tackle, Colon is going to see a lot more pass twists and needs to stay balanced in order to pass the twist off.

Colon Sack 1 (5)

Remember this was the first game of the year. The thing that I like about Willie Colon is that he progresses as the season goes on. He even progresses as the game goes on. In their Week 2 win against the Jets, Colon started off in a similar fashion as he played in Week 1. He struggled with a pass twist that led to a sack and he struggled with a few outside zone plays. However, as the game went on he clearly got more comfortable. Here is a prime example:

This is an example of Colon’s struggle pulling since he switched to Guard. Here the Steelers are in a strong I set and the Jets are lined up in a 3-5 defense out of their 46 base. The Steelers are running a basic power play with the tight end blocking out on the widest defender.

Colon Pull 1 (1)

Right before the snap the Jets shift their defense bringing Bart Scott over the tight end in a pure 46 alignment.

Colon Pull 1 (2)

The Steelers are running Power right, one of the most basic run plays in the game. The tight end is blocking out and the fullback is the “first puller” meaning he is responsible for the first guy that shows. Colon is the “Second puller” and is responsible for the second guy that shows. In this case the fullback, Will Johnson is responsible for Bart Scott, while Colon is responsible for David Harris.

Colon Pull 1 (3)

Colon takes a decent “skip pull” where his shoulders stay square to the line, but it doesn’t seem like he knows who he is supposed to block. Because Scott is on the line, it should be simple for Colon, but he flattens down the line as if he should get Scott. Although the Jets are in a good defense to blow this play up, Colon’s block should be a simple one. Instead of getting up field and blocking David Harris he simply falls over the full back and Harris makes the play in the hole.

Colon Pull 1 (4)

Harris and Scott tackle Dwyer for no gain.

Colon Pull 1 (5)

This play shows that Colon is not completely comfortable on these pulls and doesn’t completely trust his teammates to make their blocks. This is just a lack of game speed repetitions. As he has to do this block more and more, he gets better at it.

Later in the same game, the Steelers are in the exact same formation and will run the exact same power play.  This time the Jets are in a 4-3 base defense.

Colon Pull 2 (1)

Here Colon takes another decent “skip pull.”  The main difference here is that Colon pulls through the hole decisively to get David Harris and Will Johnson goes outside to take Bart Scott.

Colon Pull 2 (2)

This is a great job by Colon.  Not only does he get a body on Harris, he seals him to the inside, giving Dwyer a huge hole to run through.

Colon Pull 2 (3)

Colon gets more decisive and comfortable as the Jets’ game wore on. Later he makes another great block on a pull that propels Isaac Redman into the end zone for the touchdown that iced the game. After the first series there wasn’t any glaring mistakes in pass protection and he did a solid job run blocking, especially when he was one on one with Sione Pouha.

Colon’s progression through week 2 was only the start of a season that showed further improvement and promise as the season went on. From a horrible performance in week 1, Colon was grading out as one of the better Offensive Guards in the league by Weeks 8 and 9. He put a string of impressive performances together and played a huge impact in the Steelers offense, especially in the run game. Week 9 against the Giants was arguably his best game of the season as he paved the way for 158 yards on the ground.

Here the Steelers are in an offset I formation and are running an Isolation run play. Willie Colon is at left Guard with Giants DT Chris Canty lined up in a 3 technique over him.

Colon Giants 1 (1)

In this Isolation play the offensive line will be in a man blocking scheme with the full back taking the play side inside linebacker. Colon takes a great step off the ball with his first step splitting the crotch of Canty. His pad level and hand placement are also perfect with Canty’s helmet being much higher than Colon’s.

Colon Giants 1 (2)

With absolutely perfect technique by Colon, he is able to not only drive Canty but turn him and seal him to the outside. With Will Johnson tossing the linebacker, Isaac Redman has a huge hole to run through.

Colon Giants 1 (3)

Colon drives Canty down the line of scrimmage for good measure and Redman is able to break off a 17 yard run early in the game to set the tone for the Steeler offense.

Colon Giants 1 (4)

Colon’s film breakdown shows a player who still plays with the nastiness and aggressiveness that he played with at tackle for the Steelers. His technique can get a little funky, but his sheer power often times bails him out. This power can allow him to be dominant at times, especially in the run game. He has shown struggles in picking up pass twists on the inside after being in one on one situations so often at tackle. However, when he is in one on one situations in both the run and pass he can be physically dominant and very rarely allows pressure on the Quarterback. His greatest strength may be his hand placement, as he almost always has control of the defenders chest plate. This is actually quite amazing considering how short his arms are.

What this means for the Jets is that they are getting a pretty athletic and extremely physical lineman that can step in at either of the guard spots and add depth at tackle. He has greatly improved on some of his initial weaknesses like combo blocking and pulling. While his strength is clearly in man blocking schemes both in the run and pass, he has shown the ability to get better when utilizing other schemes as the Steelers used some zone in 2012. I’m looking for him to step into Marty Mornhinweg’s offense and have some growing pains at first.  s the season wears on, he should be able to pick up on the zone blocking schemes that dominate this version of the West Coast offense. When Mornhinweg does use man blocking schemes, look for Colon to be one of the Jets most proficient offensive linemen. He should complement Nick Mangold nicely as he did Pouncey in Pittsburgh. Colon will just need to continue to improve on the things he has struggled with like Pass Protection against twists, penalties, and consistency in his footwork.

From an attitude standpoint, I haven’t heard anything negative about Colon. If anything, he brings a chip on his shoulder mentality because of the way things ended in Pittsburgh. There was a report that he was extremely upset that the Steelers didn’t try to restructure his contract despite them telling him that they would. The other thing he brings the Jets is Super Bowl experience. Colon won a Superbowl and was on the sidelines for another one. It can’t hurt to bring in a guy who has been where the Jets ultimately want to be.

The tale of post Achilles injury Willie Colon is one of inconsistency. Sometimes he uses pretty bad technique while other plays his technique is flawless. Before the injury, Colon was as consistent as they came outside of his penalty problems. He was considered to be one of the best tackles in the NFL and as he settled into his new role at Guard, some of the inconsistency started to go away.  That is until he injured his knee in week 11 against the Ravens. This was probably the last straw for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the primary reason why they decided to cut ties without trying to restructure his contract.

Since his injury problems started, there is always a new setback that resets Colon’s progression.  After his knee injury in 2012 it is almost certain that there will be some time needed to regain form and who knows when another injury might stop his progression. Reliability is the risk the Jets will take on in 2013.

They signed him to a one year deal and will definitely have to add depth at the Guard position in case another injury does happen.  At worst, the Colon experiment doesn’t work and you have a year of Vlad Ducasse, Caleb Schlauderaff, or a rookie having to fill in for the injury plagued big man. At best, if Colon can regain form and continue to get better as a Guard, the Jets may have a guy that is a huge step up from Matt Slauson for the long term. If he stays healthy and is only here for one season, then he is a stop gap, who again is much better than Matt Slauson. The key is health. If Colon can stay healthy with the Jets, he may find himself in the Pro Bowl that eluded him during his prime years with the Steelers.  Either way, this is a low risk, high reward move for John Idzik and the Jets.