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Muench's Trenches: Interior battles


Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan is drawing plenty of attention following the Wolverines' 29-6 loss to Michigan State, and not for all the right reasons. Don't expect his stock to dip despite the lopsided score and controversy. Separate the controversy from the tape and if anything he bolstered his first-round status.

Working against DE Shilique Calhoun and quick-twitch OLB Denicos Allen, Lewan struggled to counter the few times he overcommitted to the outside and the defender shot inside. That doesn't come as a surprise, though. He has never been an elite athlete and won more battles than he lost in pass protection thanks to impressive hand placement. It was game over once he got his hands inside and extended his arms. He also showed good balance and lateral mobility mirroring once locked on.

Driving defenders off the ball is Lewan's greatest strength, and it showed up yet again on this tape. He generates above-average initial surge thanks to a quick first step, he drives his legs though contact, and he has the killer instinct to put defenders on their backs once he gets them on the ropes.

As far as Isaiah Lewis's face mask in the second quarter. NFL coaches have little patience for players who get flagged for personal fouls with any kind of regularity, and Lewan has to control his emotions better. However, there's a lot to like about his aggressiveness and tenacity as long as he can harness it. He's the kind of player that teammates love and opponents hate.

Here's a look at three trench matchups that jump out at me heading into Week 11. Remember, defenders frequently move around. Even though these players won't butt heads on every snap, it will be productive to watch when they do.

Penn State C Ty Howle vs. Minnesota NT Ra'Shede Hageman

The 6-foot, 293-pound Howle isn't blessed with great length, bulk or power. He makes up for it with quickness, effort and toughness. While he struggles to drive defenders off the ball and can give too much ground in pass protection, he can harass his assignment long enough to create a seam for the ball carrier. The 6-6, 311-pound Hageman's substantial size advantage isn't as big a concern as it would be in other matchups. Howle's skill set makes him a good fit for Penn State's zone-heavy scheme that asks him to wash defenders down the line of scrimmage instead of asking him to move them off the ball. Hageman is on the taller side for a defensive tackle and has problems keeping his pads down. If he plays too high, the feisty Howle is capable of frustrating him.

The concerns for Howle are Hageman's initial quickness rivaling his own and length. Hageman will shade Howle's outside shoulder. His first step will make it tough for Howle to cross his face and reach him when he lines up over Howle's play-side shoulder. Meanwhile, Howle will need to help his guards when Hageman lines up his backside shoulder. Hageman is quick enough to split interior offensive lines and make plays in the backfield when he lines up over the center and the center doesn't help out the backside guard with a strong punch. The problem for Howle is his length raises concerns about his ability to stun Hageman before the talented defensive tackle gets his momentum going.

The Nittany Lions will need to give Howle plenty of help in pass protection. Hageman has the power base to drive Howle back and make it tough for QB Christian Hackenberg to step up in the pocket. He doesn't have to win with the straight bull rush to be effective either because he is a strong hand fighter with good lateral mobility for his size.

Alabama RG Anthony Steen vs. LSU DT Anthony Johnson

Steen is a technician who gets into sound position, and his initial hand placement appears to have gotten better this year. His effort is consistently above average, and he finds a way to get the job done more times than not. Johnson, on the other hand, is a little more uneven in terms of his performance. His pad level is inconsistent, and he takes too long to get off some blocks. However, he has the edge in terms of initial quickness, hand speed and strength. If Johnson plays as well as he can, Steen is going to have his hands full.

As a run defender, Johnson has the first step and lateral agility to prevent Steen from sealing him on Alabama's zone runs as well as the low center of gravity and thick lower body to anchor when the Tide tries to run right at him. He can improve his consistency in terms of shedding blocks, but he flashes the ability to stack and shed quickly. Finally, Johnson is developing into an effective pass-rusher and has recorded a sack in three of his last four games. He can push the pocket and closes well for his size. If Steen doesn't sink his hips and stay in front of him, Johnson is more than capable of moving QB AJ McCarron off the spot.

Notre Dame LG Chris Watt vs. Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald

This power versus quickness matchup pits the 6-4, 308-pound Watt against the 6-0, 285-pound Donald. Watt is big enough to overwhelm Donald and drive him when he stays low and gets into sound position. That won't be easy, though. Donald isn't a massive space eater, but his low center of gravity and above-average first-step quickness make it tough to get under him and move him off the ball one-on-one.

I'm interested to see who wins with his hands when Notre Dame drops back to pass because neither appears to have a clear advantage in this area. Watt delivers a strong compact punch, gets sound initial hand placement and resets his hands quickly when they get knocked down. Donald has above-average upper-body strength and the heavy hands to knock bigger blockers off balance. Finally, Watt is capable of holding his ground against Donald's bull rush, so Donald has to make the most of his superior lateral mobility by forcing Watt to move side-to-side.