The Atlanta Falcons signed guard Brandon Fusco to a three-year contract worth $12.75 million earlier this week at the outset of free agency. With that contract, Fusco immediately leapfrogs Wes Schweitzer as the team’s prospective starting right guard this season.
The Falcons interior line play struggled at the end of the 2017 season thanks to an injury to left guard Andy Levitre forcing the team to start backup center Ben Garland for several games. Garland and Schweitzer both were continually exposed against the formidable fronts of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in the Falcons playoff game.
So it was understandable that the Falcons wanted to try and shore up that position by adding a player like Fusco. But now it’s time to truly examine whether or not his signing will, in fact, achieve said goal.
I went back and looked at six games of Fusco’s last year when he served as the starting right guard for the San Francisco 49ers. The six I watched were some of his best and worst based on Pro Football Focus grades. I saw his three best performances, which came against the Los Angeles Rams both in Weeks 3 and 17, as well as his Week 9 performance against the Arizona Cardinals. Three of his lowest-graded games came against the Washington Redskins (Week 6), Tennessee Titans (Week 15) and Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 16).
It was Fusco’s first and only year playing under head coach Kyle Shanahan, formerly the Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. As such, Fusco should have no issue adapting and picking up the current Falcons offense helmed by Steve Sarkisian.
Fusco will also no doubt benefit from playing between Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Both are among the best at their positions, and as such should make whoever plays right guard’s job much easier.
Let’s get started by looking at Fusco’s abilities in pass protection, as he’ll be charged with protecting the soon-to-be wealthier quarterback Matt Ryan.
Pass protection was an area that Fusco routinely struggled with during his six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He was among the league’s lowest-graded guards in pass protection per PFF in 2015 and 2016, his final two seasons in Minnesota.
Watching Fusco’s 2017 film, you still see some of those same issues at staying in front of quality pass-rushers. Many of Fusco’s issues in pass protection stem from the fact that he doesn’t do a consistent job initiating contact with a defender.
Typically in the NFL, it only takes two to three seconds between the time the ball is snapped and the quarterback throws the football. That means that engagements between offensive and defensive linemen can be quick and decisive, leading to the player that initiates said engagement to have a decided advantage in determining how it will go.
This is why it’s important that a player like Fusco do a better job initiating these engagements, particularly given how with the Falcons in 2018, Fusco will face no shortage of prolific pass-rushing defensive tackles. Fletcher Cox, Geno Atkins, Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, David Irving, Mike Daniels and now possibly Ndamukong Suh are just a few of the names that he could be set to square up against given the Falcons’ schedule.
But let’s start with the positives for Fusco and show some examples of times when he does do the right thing in pass protection.
Fusco has enough athleticism to hang with quality defensive tackles as he showed at times in matchups against the likes of Aaron Donald and Matt Ioannidis last season. The latter gave him a fair share of struggles in their Week 6 matchup, but there were examples of when Fusco did things right with clean footwork and a good punch, he was able to stonewall the young Redskins pass-rusher.
One of the reasons that likely attracted the Falcons to Fusco this offseason was the fact that he held his own against Aaron Donald in their lone matchup this season during Week 3. Fusco didn’t face off against Donald all that much early in the game. But during the fourth quarter, as the 49ers attempted to make a comeback against the Rams, the two players got a number of one-on-one matchups. Here are some examples of some very good reps going against Donald:
The Falcons hope that Fusco’s experience with being able to contain Donald will benefit them should they face the Rams again next January.
However, not all of Fusco’s reps against Donald went in his favor. Donald was able to beat Fusco on what amounted to the game-sealing sack late in the fourth quarter:
You can also see Fusco’s issues against other quality pass-rushers like Jurrell Casey in the 49ers matchup against the Titans:
It’s not just inside counters that Fusco struggles with, as he can get beat with pure power:
Fusco often liked to jump set players, which can be advantageous for blockers with initiating the engagement with a defensive lineman before the latter is ready. Here’s a good example of Fusco doing so against the Rams in Week 17:
But here’s an example where he tries this against Ioannidis against the Redskins and fails. The only reason why this doesn’t result in a sack is mostly due to Fusco getting away with holding Ioannidis after he gets beat.
But generally speaking, Fusco’s jump sets work out in his favor, particularly when he isn’t facing quality rushers like Ioannidis.
Another area that I thought Fusco consistently did a good job in was adjusting to stunts, particularly tackle-end (T-E) stunts. This was an area in particular that I thought Schweitzer declined in during the course of the 2017 season.
Now that you have been painted a portrait of Fusco’s strengths and weaknesses in pass protection, let’s move on to examining how he functions as a run blocker.
A big part of the outside zone scheme that Shanahan implemented both in Atlanta and San Francisco, is the need to make reach blocks on stretch plays to the outside, the bread-and-butter run play of the blocking scheme.
Fusco is capable of this, but it’s not necessarily something he excels at. Let’s look at some positive examples:
While Fusco wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a classic “road grader” when it comes to his run-blocking abilities, there are notable examples when he does look the part. Here’s one against the Rams.
But it’s not all good with Fusco when it comes to the ground game.
And once again Fusco shows up on Jurrell Casey’s highlight reel:
But most of Fusco’s inconsistencies and struggles in the ground game came when he was asked to climb to the second level to take out linebackers and defensive backs. Fusco is a decent athlete, but by no means a premier one.
Former Falcons starting right guard Chris Chester was a dynamic athlete for the position, given his past as a tight end at Oklahoma. This made Chester particularly adept at locating and destroying defenders on the second level like a heat-seeking missile. This led to a number of big gains for the Falcons in 2016.
However, with Schweitzer taking over in 2017, this second-level blocking ability became a lot more problematic and the Falcons ground game suffered somewhat.
Fusco is much more reminiscent of Schweitzer than Chester in this regard. However, the hope is that with added experience in playing in the outside zone scheme, Fusco can be a bit more consistent this year than he was a year ago.
Let’s start with a few good examples of when Fusco hits those second-level assignments:
Here’s another example from the same game:
It’s mostly less rangy linebackers like Dansby that Fusco is able to track down and take out on the second level. Here are some examples of faster linebackers being able to beat him in their pursuit of the ball:
Another example of Fusco’s inability to make quick adjustments in space:
But there are examples where Fusco does catch athletic linebackers like Jack. Hopefully, the Falcons see more plays like this in 2018:
Overall, Fusco is a solid addition to the Falcons offensive line. He’s likely an immediate upgrade over Schweitzer at right guard. The Falcons are probably hoping that Fusco can offer similar value as to what Chester did at the position from 2015 to 2016.
While he lacks the wealth of experience Chester had within the scheme and the athleticism, he should provide a lot more consistency that goes with some with a wealth of NFL starts.
Fusco can be considered a decent stopgap at the position that should be able to handle the starting gig competently for at least the next two seasons. That buys the Falcons more time to continue to develop Schweitzer as well as 2017 fourth-round pick Sean Harlow. It also gives them two more offseasons to potentially add another developmental starter via the draft without being forced to start him immediately.
While I doubt Fusco will go down in the annals of great Falcons blockers throughout team history, he should be a perfectly capable starter that should provide a small but substantial boost to the Falcons offensive line in 2018 and beyond.
Camp Battles at Cornerback
Aaron breaks down the battles and storylines at cornerback entering Falcons training camp. He discusses the impact of Justin Bethel, Isaiah Oliver’s potential to start fast as a rookie and settles the Robert Alford vs. Desmond Trufant debate once and for all.
Bengals Season Preview With James Rapien
Aaron is joined by Locked on Bengals host James Rapien to look at the Bengals 2018 outlook. They discuss the surprising return of head coach Marvin Lewis, whether the Bengals offense is too focused on A.J. Green, their offensive line troubles and whether the William Jackson vs. Julio Jones matchup will be a must-see battle.
James is on Twitter: @JamesRapien.
Camp Battles at Linebacker
Aaron breaks down the storylines and battles at linebacker entering training camp. He discusses expectations for the Falcons young linebackers to take their games to the next level.