Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Nov 2008
compiled by Vince Verhei
As most of you know, this is the fourth year of the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, where a group of volunteers (and FO staffers as well) charts every game of the season to track things that the play-by-play does not track, and create new statistics. This is where we get our numbers on defensive coverage, or how often teams blitz or run play-action fakes. Occasionally you'll see these stats during the season, but the turnaround time is slow, so our database is usually behind the actual games by a couple weeks.
Then again, we don't need the database to learn something from the game charting project, because all that tape-watching turns us into scouts as much as statisticians. We asked a few of our game charters to share their thoughts on the games and teams they've charted so far this season. The comments below represent their opinions, not those of any FO writer. Most charters concentrate on a specific team or two, so not every team is represented. But if you want to know not just which teams are winning, but why, the insights are quite interesting.
Last week's NFC comments can be found here; AFC comments follow.
Offensive line: As we talked about last season, the offensive line is blossoming into a good unit -- not elite yet, but good enough. It's actually surprising, though, considering only two starters return from last season: center Samson Satele and right tackle Vernon Carey. Both have actually been outshined by the two biggest acquisitions in this area, four-year veteran Justin Smiley at left guard and rookie left tackle Jake Long, he of the first overall pick. Smiley has been instrumental in the offense, lead-pulling a number of times on runs and exploding pretty well at the point of attack. And yet, the MVP of that group has to be Long, with just good enough pass blocking to keep the quarterback clean for a decent while, and superb, ferocious run blocking. While he'll draw the occasional holding penalty, and his technique could stand improvement, he's pretty much the building block the Dolphins hoped for when they drafted him. Amazing story at right guard as well, where Ikechuku Ndukwe, a journeyman and late free-agent addition to the team last year, has taken firm hold of the position after an early injury to rookie Donald Thomas; no real highlights, but no real bloopers, either. The unit as a whole? Few penalties, sound blocking, and -- for the most part -- textbook fundamentals. They rank highly in most everything except yards per carry, where they are around league average with 4.05 yards a pop.
Passing: Quarterback Chad Pennington has to be the single most important addition the Dolphins have made since Ricky Williams in 2002, and the best at his position in 25 years. His impact has been undeniable: eighth best quarterback in the league by both DVOA and DPAR, with a solid completion percentage of 66.5 percent. Pennington is well known for his accuracy and smarts, and he hasn't done anything this season to disprove that notion. The Dolphins shortened his drops after the Week 2 debacle against Arizona, moving him from 5-steppers and intermediate routes to 3-steppers and short, quicker routes; this has given him a huge boost, allowing him to move the chains methodically, while building timing with his receivers. Pennington isn't the beneficiary of a great receivers corps: Ted Ginn, Jr., and Greg Camarillo basically round up the entire wide receivers for the team, while tight ends David Martin and Anthony Fasano provide him with up-the-middle and inside seam routes that he's prone to exploit. All four are solid "hands" guys (a particular surprise regarding Martin, who last season was nearly booed out of Miami after a disappointing season), with Ginn probably as the best route runner of the bunch. Ginn also provides the team with their only deep threat; while Martin is blossoming into a productive tight end, and has made a number of important catches of intermediate yardage, really no receiver in the team is more dangerous than Ginn. His improvement, slow as it has been, is very important for a team hinging it's hopes on no one else.
Rushing: Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have proven a very effective combo this season, mostly since the Wildcat phenomenon -- and it's only going to get better. A quick peek at the Premium content (subscribe while supplies last!) shows the Dolphins with the 16th best rush offense through Week 10, and projects them as the best down the road -- a testament to the easier second half of the schedule the Dolphins are allotted. Brown is the more effective runner, both more productive and more efficient than Williams, even though Williams has a slightly better Success Rate (Williams is 15th, Brown is 16th). Brown's running is a physical, bruising style that tends to both populate highlight reels and shorten careers, but so far so good for him: He unofficially leads the league in safeties knocked to the ground while running into the end zone (three this season, if I recall correctly). Williams is the change-of-pace back -- even though he no longer has that explosive burst that characterized him in years past, he's smart and consistent, and he can still outrun an unsuspecting defense (as you might've noticed from his long run against the Seahawks last week). I-formations with two tight ends are not unusual, and are very efficient in picking up first downs in power situations, making defenses bite into the play-action later in the game.
Wildcat: The three basic plays out of this strategy (Sweep, Power, and Counter) are the bread-and-butter that the Dolphins use when they break out into these formations (basically defined by having Ronnie Brown in a shotgun and Pennington split wide, usually with Williams out wide, opposite of Pennington, motioning in a sweep prior to the snap). They have basically used two formations: one with Brown alone in the backfield, with 3 wide receivers, Patrick Cobbs at H-back and a tight end (usually Fasano); and one with Brown surrounded by split backs (usually Williams and Cobbs). They also have a formation with Pennington at quarterback and Williams (or Brown) split wide, motioning in a sweep prior to the snap, though this shouldn't be considered part of the Wildcat package in that there's no real threat for Pennington to run either Power or Sweep. A staple of this package is left tackle Jake Long lined up outside right, covering right tackle Vernon Carey and providing a really lopsided matchup for the offense on that side. The added wrinkles throughout the season (e.g., the option pass, the sweep and reverse to Pennington) have run with consistent success. One writer compares the Wildcat to training wheels for the Miami Dolphins, and I agree: It's a package that has allowed them to be competitive and surprise a few rivals while building confidence and synchronization, though it definitely expands their playbook and forces defenses to stay on their heels, which benefits the entire offense. Definitely, though, it has made Sundays a hell of a lot more fun.
Defensive front seven: The Dolphins bet heavily on rookies and free agent pickups on this area (Kendall Langford, Phillip Merling, Randy Starks, Akin Ayodele, Reggie Torbor, and Charlie Anderson are all new this season), and it has paid off handsomely. The Dolphins' defensive front is tough to the point of attack, ranking as the eighth best rushing defense in the league (a huge step up from last season's next-to-last ranking); much of this can be attributed to Parcells' "binky," Jason Ferguson, who has so far been a dominant stopper in the middle of the line. The Dolphins are fast off the edge as well, mainly because of last season's prized free agent acquisition, Joey Porter, who since late last season has come back to the disruptive form he sported while in Pittsburgh. Porter has lately drawn double coverage (usually left tackle and at least a chip from a tight end or running back), and that has opened up spots for other players on the defense. The main surprise in this unit? End-turned-outside linebacker Matt Roth, a draft pick from the Nick Saban era who has generated pressure and played pretty well against the run. The inside linebackers have been solid, if unspectacular; just as expected for Akin Ayodele, but dissapointing for Channing Crowder, a player expected to fill Zach Thomas' shoes. Crowder is at best a slightly above-average linebacker who sometimes overachieves. He tends to bite hard on play-fakes, but he's solid in coverage (for both teams: sure tackler, but sure 5-yards as well).
Defensive backs: This unit was much-maligned early in the season because of last year's horrid performances. However, the return to form of Yeremiah Bell and the continued stellar performance of Will Allen and (surprisingly) Andre Goodman has turned this unit into a reliable group that doesn't give up as many big plays as before, and is in fact shutting down receivers at times. Allen is the technician of the group: He follows receivers step for step when in man coverage, plays zones with discipline, and is adept at swatting the ball at just the right time, a technique that Goodman has picked up and used effectively throughout the season, but one that teams have certainly scouted and adjusted for, as Goodman has had a couple of receptions given up that he was too late to bat down. Bell is the hard-hitter; he's solid in coverage, and pretty good at dislodging the ball from a receiver upon the catch. Renaldo Hill rounds up the safeties; he's not as bad as his missed assignment against the Jets in Week 1 would have you believe, but he's nothing special either. Michael Lehan was playing well until his injury a couple of weeks ago, and Jason Allen, the ill-fated first-rounder from Nick Saban, has filled in since. He's a very talented player, and thus has great range and closing speed, but he just hasn't quite grasped the pro game, and remains a small reliability in coverage.
Coaching: Earlier in the season, the Jets (not sure if it was Brett Favre or offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) were forcing the deep passing game. Lately they are running more of the "Chad Pennington" offense: screens, traps, draws, crossing routes and deep throws off of play -action. And while Jets fans are often frustrated by this ("We have Favre, go deep!!"), it is a better fit considering the skill players.
The Jets have also done a great job of spreading the ball in the passing game. Last year it was Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery and nothing else. This year they are getting the tight ends (Dustin Keller) their slot receiver (Chansi Stuckey) and their running backs touches in the passing game.
Defensively, outside of the Chargers game, the Jets' game plan has been solid all season. They always seem prepared and consistently find ways to break down the opponents' blocking schemes to get blitzers untouched to the quarterback.
RB/KR Leon Washington: Touch-for-touch (my version of pound-for-pound) he's the Jets' best offensive player. He can take it the distance as a runner and receiver, can get the tough first downs, and is a good blocker in blitz pickups, despite his lack of size. It seems that whenever the offense gets bogged down, Leon Washington sparks the team with a great run off of a draw play or takes a screen pass 20 yards.
TE/HB Dustin Keller: I list him more for his potential than actual production. He showed flashes of his big-play ability early in the season, but it seemed like he struggled with his route-running as he and Favre were often not on the same page. It all came together for Keller against the Rams, and he gives the Jets a legitimate match up problem in the passing game.
ILB Eric Barton: Cornerback Darrelle Rivas and nose tackle Kris Jenkins are the obvious defensive stars. They are playing at a Pro Bowl level. However, Barton has played very well this season. He's good in pursuit against the run, and does a good job in the zone versus the pass.
OLB Calvin Pace: He is an obvious choice as well, but after watching the linebackers make no plays last year, I had to mention him. He will never be a 10-sack type pass rushing linebacker, but he does everything well. He is great playing the run at the point of attack. He rarely gives up the edge and takes on lead blockers aggressively. Against the pass he can run with most tight ends and is a power pass rusher.
Weaknesses: While the offensive line is much better this year, the Jets still have problems running the ball in short yardage and they can't line up and blow the better defenses off the ball.
Favre simply isn't as accurate as he used to be. He reminds me of an older pitcher who still has good stuff but hangs curveballs. He's just really streaky at this stage.
Outside of Darrelle Revis, the cornerbacks are all average at best. Teams with good pass protection will pick the secondary apart.
My overall impression from watching five of the Jaguars' first six games was that I was watching a team that was going to have a hard time getting to 8-8, partly because of the relatively tough divisional schedule -- but mostly because they contrive to keep less-talented opposition in the game at all times, and the Jags' various units seem to take turns underperforming their reputation, dragging down morale in a big way. I was not remotely surprised that the Jags bottled it vs. the Browns and Bengals. I don't know much about the backroom politics in Jacksonville, but I don't think beating up on Detroit is a sign that they're through whatever problems they had.
The Jags' defense has regressed from the level they performed at in 2007 under Mike Smith. The defensive line has generally been the best of the three units, with John Henderson still capable of being very disruptive, and Reggie Hayward frequently impressing with smart, tenacious play. Tony McDaniel is coming along nicely. Neither Quentin Groves nor Derrick Harvey have made a great impact, however, and certainly can't be seen as every-down guys yet. Paul Spicer and Rob Meier are no longer exceptional in any way.
At linebacker, Mike Peterson has drifted a bit, though he still makes high-impact plays with some frequency. Daryl Smith may be the better player in this unit.
The real problem is in the secondary. Drayton Florence in particular does not close down plays in front of him well, looks a half-step slow running downfield with wide receivers, and is a minor liability in run support. Reggie Nelson has the look of a player who has stopped improving his mental game. The same might be said of Rashean Mathis. None of the rotation guys have really stood out as assets or liabilities in my charting.
All the secondary guys and linebackers seem prone to poor tackling at inopportune times, at least as often as they make exceptional plays.
The offense played better than the defense in Weeks 1 through 6, but the destruction along the offensive line clearly undermined the Jags' plans in a major way. There's not a lot to say about David Garrard's performance, really. He looks like a perfectly average quarterback through the first half of the season. His bad plays generally stem from ugly mechanics. Tony Pashos has been the best lineman, but the rest have all been guilty of blown blocks at inopportune times. Certainly the run blocking has been only sporadically what it was in 2006 and 2007.
When the run game worked in Weeks 1 through 6, it was Greg Jones who often caught my eye. Strong, aggressive play, and he rarely picks the wrong guy to block on the second level, when he gets there. The problem is, the holes stopped opening up as the season wore on. Maurice Jones-Drew is still a dynamic, exciting back, but Fred Taylor only seems to play well this year when the Jags are up. He's gotten stuffed far too often, and rarely makes the first guy whiff in open space, as he once did. I can't see the Jags keeping him without restructuring his contract in 2009.
Matt Jones has saved his career, plain and simple. Very often he's the isolated split end on the weak side of an unbalanced formation, wisely. The staff is trying to put him "on an island" where he can use his height, etc. But he's got more than that now. He's a good route-runner, especially on medium-depth hitches, and is now an asset in run-blocking.
Reggie Williams has been good at what the Jags ask him to do, which is absolutely nothing glamorous. He run-blocks shockingly well for a player with his "reputation," if you will. The Jags frequently motion him into the I-backfield, where he'll stop behind the weakside guard and tackle, about 1 yard behind them. His job is typically to seal out the cornerback/edge rusher as the Jags run between the tackles. Obviously there are wrinkles (Williams sneaking through the trash to pop out the opposite side for a wide receiver screen, etc.), and I think it's the Jags' most effective formation, especially when they've got a lead.
Troy Williams is now a replacement guy getting by on good speed. Dennis Northcutt, a replacement guy getting by on smarts and guts. Marcedes Lewis seems underused. The backup tight ends, Richard Angulo and Greg Estandia, get a lot of snaps and generally acquit themselves well, but are at or near their ceilings.
Punter Adam Podlesh is routinely outkicking his coverage.
I've only charted once but I'm a dedicated fan, and wanted to make this observation. A lot of clubs will pass early, and present a lot of exotic wide receiver looks, etc., to set up their running game. With the Titans, they accomplish the same thing with threat of the tight ends running into the middle of the field. With exotic looks for Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler, etc. The Titans were doing some very odd things with Scaife in particular in the early weeks. I think it was to get the attention of the defensive coordinators around the league.
Matt Cassel has really progressed throughout the season. When they played in San Diego, he looked like a JV quarterback. But last week against Buffalo, when Bill Belichick entrusted him with making some throws, he did that. This Pats offense looks a lot like their '01 and '03 Super Bowl-winning offenses.
The Patriots run draws more than any team I've seen.
All the buzz in Miami is about the Wildcat offense, but the real key to their resurgence has been the effectiveness of Chad Pennington in the intermediate passing game.
An Oakland Raiders game is a tough watch in real time. It's even more excruciating to chart them, but they don't throw too much so at least the clock moves a little faster.
Since the less that is said about the Raiders is probably the better, I'll stick to the interesting stuff. The Bills attacked DeAngelo Hall 11 times in Week 2 . The first four were incompletions, including an interception. Six of the next seven passes were completed, four for first downs, all in the second half. In Week 6, Drew Brees completed more passes in three quarters than JaMarcus Russell completed in the two games I charted for the Raiders combined. In fact, Russell couldn't even attack 2007 FO Piñata Jason David; David only allowed one catch on seven targets and grabbed an INT.
On the other side, the Saints didn't attack Hall that much and instead focused on the Raiders' linebackers. Brees completed 13 of 15 passes against Raiders linebackers to seven different receivers; eight of those receptions gained first downs or touchdowns. In fact, 14 of the 30 pass plays for the Saints got first downs, and they were six-of-six on third down rushing, five first downs and one touchdown. If game charting is "Press Your Luck," drawing the Raiders is a "Whammy."
Quarterback: Both Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels are solid quarterbacks, but their big numbers are all a product of the receiving corps in general and Andre Johnson in particular. Schaub has a few annoying tendencies: His passes tend to get batted down at the line, he has his Favre moments (usually a result of staring down the intended receiver), and, fair or unfair, he isn't exactly durable. I know that the MCL tear was a late hit, and he was deathly ill for the Colts game, but he has still missed a lot of time for a quarterback over the past few years. When Rosenfels comes in the Texans spread the offense out a little more, and they like to put him in the shotgun. I believe they think his field vision is better than Schaub's. Unfortunately, both the games he's played in thus far have been marred by a ton of mental errors that have overshadowed how stellar he has otherwise been.
Running back: Only two runners of any consequence. Steve Slaton has been everything you've heard and more. A plurality of his runs for big gains come from yards after the catch. Ahman Green is still very explosive for those five plays a game before he hurts himself again. He easily beats Slaton to the line, but it takes less contact to bring down. Vonta Leach has been admirable enough as a blocking back. He has had a few big plays, but the Texans still run a few too many offensive plays to him. At least they've stopped splitting him out wide.
Receivers: Easily the best group on the team. Andre Johnson's only flaw is that he can sometimes catch a case of the drops. Kevin Walter is a solid receiver, but also very good in the blocking game -- the Texans love to put him in motion to the side of the run -- and is good to be involved in a few trick plays or screens a game. Owen Daniels also spends a lot of time presnap in motion, and while his blocking is still rough, this year the Texans have been sending him out so much it's been irrelevant. Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones are both cut from the same cloth: deep threats on offense and return threats on special teams. Davis is a bit less raw on slants and such. Without Mark Breuner around, it's hard to make fun of his diminished blocking skills.
Offensive line: Here's where the problems start again. Boy, bet you thought you were done with that mantra, huh? Lets start with the good. Both the starting guards, Mike Briesel and Chester Pitts, have been very stellar. Pitts is still the best of the Texans at getting to the second level on pulls and tosses. That was short.
Eric Winston has regressed some thus far this year, but at least he has tended to bury most of his bad plays in the same couple of games. Duane Brown had a solid first few weeks but has been abysmal ever since; any bull rush with speed has him scrambling, and he has spent more time laying on the ground than Jenna Jameson. The biggest data point was Week 8 against Minnesota when Jared Allen took him to the woodshed, but Winston was even getting dominated by NFL legends such as Robert Geathers and Jared DeVries. Now you can see why Eprhaim Salaam has been getting some series in relief.
Finally we come to the David Eckstein of football, one starting center Chris Myers. I admire Chris greatly. He puts in a ton of effort, he makes decent snap calls, and by all accounts he seems to be a standup guy and skilled at what he does. Unfortunately, the NFL is full of these linemen that can generate enough force to send his listed 300-pound frame backwards often enough to make his starting role a bit of a stretch. This was perhaps best demonstrated by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who sent him back so far on a stretch play that he essentially tackled his own rusher, but over the course of the year, many a pocket has broken down as he has been overpowered.
Defensive line: I can flatter Mario Williams with a ton of superlatives, but instead I'll just call him what he is: a one-man pass rush. Undrafted rookie Tim Bulman has been a nice change of pace. He doesn't rush the passer extremely well, but he is great at shuffling over on the run to get stops. Occasionally Earl Cochran and Amobi Okoye remind you that they are around, but they have generally been mediocre or worse. I'm not sure if Travis Johnson and Anthony Weaver even really play football, because after I see their pictures in the starting lineup, I never hear their names the rest of the game. Perhaps if we find Trent Green again, that will provoke Johnson to show up and shout at people.
Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans has been playing injured since Week 3, and it has shown. He's noticeably slower in pass coverage and doesn't have the same burst coming off the line on the run anymore. He makes some plays on guile and football smarts, but otherwise has been inadequate. Before Zac Diles broke his leg, he was having a decent season as a first-time starter, but I think he's eventually going to become a two-down rush specialist. He looks lost in coverage. Morlon Greenwood has entered that phase of his career where if he were a celebrity, he'd be appearing on late-night infomercials, like Bowser from Sha Na Na.
Defensive backs: Fred Bennett is still the best the Texans have and his benching (which I'll get into later) was inexplicable. Jacque Reeves has played a little better than I thought he would, which means he has been below average: He was abused by Bernard Berrian in Week 8. Dunta Robinson has come back from knee surgery and played like he has a clubfoot. I'm thinking he needs to be a safety for the rest of the year if he does play. Demarcus "The Cushion" Faggins has been absolutely dreadful for the second year in a row. You may remember him from such plays as "96-yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson" and as an extra in "Missed tackles in every carry against the Texans for more than 20 yards since 2005."
One of my favorite assertions of the season was in Week 4 when the Texans were up against the Colts and everyone and their mom told you that with both starting safeties out, the Texans were going to be even more vulnerable to the pass. First of all, telling someone to start Colts against the Texans is not exactly rocket science. Secondly, the Texans losing both safeties is sort of like when the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail lost both of his legs; I guess theoretically it weakened them, but overall it was pretty redundant. Will Demps and Eugene Wilson are the Texans' best pair of safeties, but neither of them are much in deep coverage, and when your best safeties coming over in back-to-back years as training camp free agents, that's a pretty damning indictment of your in-house options. Brandon Harrison showed absolutely no reason to play him ever again. Nick Ferguson is the same all-run, no-pass safety he has always been, only now he's old. C.C. Brown is still dreadful, and losing him was a blessing in disguise.
Overall thoughts: The offensive play-calling has improved as Kyle Shanahan has gotten experience, but it's still been very vanilla and mostly run out of the I. The Texans almost always have a man in motion before the snap, something I'd like to see how they'd do without, because they've been very turnover prone this year and I wonder if getting rid of the excess motion would help with that.
Defensive coordinator Richard Smith needs to be fired. Now. He has patently refused to let his rookies and young players like Bennett and Antuan Molden see the field even despite the failings of everyone in front of them. Is there any reason left to not see how the rookies have done? Why is Demarcus Faggins still on the roster?
Second complaint: Smith almost never blitzes. We have a column where we are supposed to mark rushers on pass plays. Before I start charting my half, I usually just mark down "4" on every pass play the Texans run, knowing that I will maybe change two or three of them at the most. And when he does send a blitz, it's often a terribly designed blitz. One play against the Lions sent Dunta Robinson from the inside on a corner blitz. This was his second game back from his injury. By the time Dunta was even at the line of scrimmage, Dan Orlovsky had thrown the ball. Mario Williams is a great start to a pass rush, and maybe the personnel in place isn't optimal for blitzing, but if the Texans defense is so bad, shouldn't they be trying to force more big plays? Don't they need those turnovers? I just don't see how any rational person could keep doing what he's doing.
I'd expect this team to get in a few shootouts, but at this point I think a realistic record to end the season is 6-10 or 7-9. This is not a playoff team, and once again they should be spending their draft picks and dollars on defense during the offseason, hopefully with a new coordinator to actually try to exploit them.
All have to say is that Ellis Hobbs is the most overrated corner in the league. I agree with Phillip Rivers. When he does make the occasional play he beats his chest like he just won the Super Bowl (or fell down trying to cover Plaxico Burress).
Overall, I don't know how the Patriots are 6-3. Matt Cassel has no pocket presence and is generally not a good quarterback. I guess it's just another credit to the coach. I don't know how he does it.
James Harrison is the most impressive defender I've seen this side of DeMarcus Ware. Beating Kellen Winslow one-on-one is not tremendously impressive, but beating Tra Thomas one-on-one is sweet for a linebacker. Harrison requires constant attention from the left tackle and usually a tight end, and his impact plays are not created by scheme. He really had a nice game against Baltimore in Week 4.
The linebacking crew in Pittsburgh, in general, are very good. I've got individual notes lauding the play of Larry Foote and Lamar Woodley in addition to the Harrison notes above. In particular, they all really get after the quarterback.
The Pittsburgh sack problems are largely related to the offensive line, but some of the blame also lies with Ben Roethlisberger and his struggles to read blitzes.
It's worth noting that throwing a short dumpoff to a slot receiver or tight end from the blitzing side is a popular way to defeat the zone blitz. The Bears, Niners, and Falcons used this to great effect against the Eagles, who have coverage issues with their linebacker and safety personnel.
Troy Polamalu is a great player and covers over some mistakes by Ike Taylor, but he's susceptible to play-action.
Owen Daniels of the Texans is a really good tight end. He has yet to blow any block in the five Houston games I have charted, and I have seen him make very difficult catches several times. I can not recall a ball being thrown his way that was dropped, or defensed, regardless of the accuracy of the throw.
I wish I had the same praise for Texans cornerbacks Fred Bennett and Jacque Reeves, who are porous at best in the secondary. The receivers they cover are routinely open, and they are hardly ever close enough to defense the pass or find themselves in the passing lane. Its not as if they are being asked to cover receivers for long periods of time either, with Mario Williams consistently getting pressure off the edge.
Antonio Cromartie has been playing a kinder, gentler form of defense wherein he gives the receiver plenty of room to comfortably catch a pass, then he fails to wrap up and make the tackle. When he does play the receiver close, it has quite often ended with laundry on the field. Cromartie also made a questionable call during the offseason when he decided to bathe his hands in concrete. Right now the much-heralded Cletis Gordon is playing better ball.
Quentin Jammer, on the other hand, is quietly having another very solid season. When he has gotten beat, it's either been on an amazing play by the wide receiver (Buffalo), or the safety help was out of position (Miami). Of course, two days after I write that, Jammer is absolutely toasted by Mark Bradley. Who? Exactly.
Speaking of safeties being out of position, Clinton Hart has been a serious liability in coverage (until the firing of Ted Cottrell). Eric Weddle does a decent job wrapping up when tackling, making him one of the few reliable tacklers on the defense. The problem he has is that he's undersized and lacks stopping power.
I don't care to count how many times the Chargers pass defense has been picked apart when they drop back into zone. If your quarterback hasn't been playing well, the Chargers defense can make him feel like a Hall of Famer. Send a tight end up the seam and you can look forward to an easy 20 yards. It happens at least once a game. Two more staples are the 7- to 10-yard stop route in front of Cromartie and the slant in front of Cromartie. Free yards never tasted so good.
Mike Tolbert is the polar opposite of Lorenzo Neal. He is a beast running the ball, has pretty good hands, and is fast. He is also such a liability as a lead blocker that the Chargers often take him out and motion Brandon Manumaleuna into the fullback position on running plays. Tolbert has the aggressiveness down, but his technique is lackluster and his reads are suspect.
LaDainian Tomlinson has been hampered by a combination of turf toe, age, and cautiousness. He has been playing at least a step slower and lacks any kind of push when he gets into a pile. It's depressing to watch a back like Ronnie Brown push for an extra two to five yards in a spot where Tomlinson goes down without a fight. To put his malaise in perspective, 180-pound Darren Sproles gets more push up the middle because Sproles actually drives his legs.
On special teams, Kassim Osgood has been and continues to be the man on coverage. Darren Sproles is my favorite guy to watch with the ball in his hands (go Pocket Hercules Lite!). Mike Scifres had some subpar games early in the season but has returned to form as one of the best punters in the league. Nate Kaeding continues to be among the league leaders in having the face of a little boy.
After the two bogus turnovers in Denver, a bogus fourth quarter pass interference in London, and a bogus fourth quarter pass interference against the Chiefs, the Chargers are officially leading the league in getting corn-holed by officials. Every team has bad calls go against them, but the number of questionable calls at the closing of close contests culminating in contestable points is confounding. It pisses me off as well.
30 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2008, 2:38pm by Scott C