Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Dec 2008

Cover-3: The Division Bell

by Doug Farrar

Atlanta Falcons Running Back Michael Turner

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10 at Atlanta Falcons 13 (OT)

Let my words, like vegetables, be tender and sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them. -- Anonymous

When I did an Every Play Counts on current Falcons and former Chargers running back Michael Turner last July, a few things concerned me about the Falcons' big-ticket free-agent acquisition. The "Breather Effect", which Marshall Faulk brought up in the NFL Network's Combine coverage, is that gap between perception and reality when it comes to players who gain productive yardage in short doses behind marquee backs like LaDainian Tomlinson. In Pro Football Prospectus 2008, Aaron and I wrote about the history of backups who get their shot elsewhere, and the trend isn't generally encouraging. The Falcons line finished 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards in 2006, and I didn't see Turner as a back that could transcend bad blocking. He had all the inline power you'd expect out of a guy his size (5-10, 244), but I didn't see much lateral mobility or second-level burst. At times, he would hesitate at an off-tackle opening, or cut back inside.

Given the limitations I saw, and what I perceived to be a long-term rebuild of the Falcons' offensive line, I anticipated that Turner might experience a disappointing season, and that the team would regret not going after one of the backs in a ridiculously stacked draft class. 332 carries, 14 games, 1,421 yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection later, it was time to dial up the tape on this edition of Michael Turner and see what was going on. He was facing a Buccaneers defense that allowed him 42 yards on 14 carries in Week 2, but had been decimated by the Panthers' power running attack in their previous game.

First play from scrimmage, and the Bucs were already getting pushed around. Turner got the ball out of an I-Formation from the Atlanta 25, and right guard Harvey Dahl pulled through the left A-gap, starting a wave of demolition that gave Turner his lane. As Turner rumbled through that lane behind Dahl and fullback Ovie Mughelli, defensive tackle Jimmy Wilkerson tried to get his bearing and wrap Turner up, but it was too late. Gaines Adams and Tanard Jackson made the stop after a five-yard gain.

Another I-Formation, and Turner headed left into a wall for a three-yard gain. The Bucs stopped a Jerious Norwood run on third-and-two for no gain, ending the Falcons' first drive, Score one for them, but it wouldn't always be that easy.

The Falcons started their second drive on the Tampa Bay 34 due to an ugly three-and-out by the Bucs that included two penalties. Atlanta went back to power, sending Turner up the middle out of an offset-I. Turner went right up the middle, back into that scrum, and somehow made it out the other side for five yards, stretching for a final gasp of turf while escaping the half-tackle of end Kevin Carter. I wouldn't put Turner in Brandon Jacobs' class as a power back or anything, but one thing became abundantly clear right off the bat: Cheap tackles were not going to work any better here than they did against the Panthers the week before.

On second-and-five from the Tampa Bay 29, the Falcons started to realize that they'd have to shake things up, play-calling-wise. Another I-Formation, and the Bucs brought six to the line in front of three linebackers who did not intend to drop into coverage. Turner's run left netted no yardage. A third-and-5 false start by left guard Justin Blalock out of the shotgun put the Falcons in a hole, which Matt Ryan filled up with a 23-yard jet to Michael Jenkins. Tampa Bay was still playing the run -- they certainly had a bead on Turner -- and Atlanta eventually got bogged down at the 10. A Jason Elam field goal put the game's first points on the board.

Atlanta forced the Bucs to adjust at the start of their third drive when Ryan unloaded with another beauty with five minutes left in the first half. Roddy White took off from the right side, and Ryan hit him with a bullet 30 yards later, in front of Philip Buchanon and Tanard Jackson. Turner was busy at the line -- he headed out to Gaines Adams' neighborhood and knocked Tampa Bay's star right defensive end ass-over-teakettle with an outstanding pass block. Turner picked up nine yards on the next play with 4:17 left in the first quarter. The left side of the Atlanta line, tackle Todd Weiner and Blalock at guard, simply pushed Tampa Bay's right side back until Turner had a rushing lane.

Four plays later, Atlanta's power and Turner's agility met with impressive results. With 2:40 left in the first quarter, the Falcons ran a full house backfield with Turner behind Mughelli and tight end Jason Rader. Tampa Bay brought four. Right guard Tyson Clabo took Wilkerson, who was now playing left end, out of the play with a great hand-punch. Turner hit the line and bounced right, showing an agility I really haven't seen from him before. He got around linebacker Cato June, who was tied up with Mughelli at the second level, and gained 18 yards before Barrett Ruud took him down. Soon after, he scored his 15th rushing touchdown of the season from the Tampa Bay 1.

The second quarter was a mish-mash of short Turner runs and Ryan interceptions; Turner gained six yards on four carries, while Ryan threw two picks in eight attempts. The third quarter would be far more to Turner's liking. The Falcons took over at their own 37 after a Bucs' three-and-out with 12:36 left in the quarter, and immediately started working on Tampa Bay's right side with Turner as the primary weapon. First, a three-yarder that was a bounce outside left and all yards after first contact. Then, three more up the middle out of a full house that blew open a hole which Tanard Jackson came up to fill.

Three plays later, after a nine-yard pass to White and a no-gainer on the the ground, Turner took the ball out of an offset-I and headed left behind his sliding line as Mughelli provided backside protection. At the second level, Turner zoomed past the whiffs of tackle Ryan Sims and cornerback Ronde Barber (seriously -- the Buccaneers used to know how to tackle, didn't they? This is a recent development, right?) before Greg ”Styles G.” White brought him down from behind.

Two more long runs at the end of the third quarter further established Atlanta's power game. On first-and-10 from the Atlanta 8, Turner took the ball outside left tackle behind some really nice inside blocking. He was met by Ronde Barber at the 10, and we've seen this movie before. Turner laughed off that tackle attempt and gained eight more yards. After another full house formation went for only two yards, Turner took the ball at the 20 and shot up the middle out of that offset I with the slide protection and Mughelli picking up the backside defender (they love this play, and it's easy to see why). The middle of Atlanta's line just parted the Red Sea, and Turner had an easy road for 22 yards.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Turner headed upfield on a little screen that gained 12 yards, which is something I'd like to see the Falcons do with him more often. I like the running back Turner has become, and I now see why he's a good fit for this system. He's gained some acceleration and ability to jet outside, but he also has good patience, especially against defenses like Tampa Bay's that will get caught overpursuing at times. He's great at putting his head down on first contact and picking up more yards inside -- I don't have yards-after-first-hit stats, but I'd bet he's right up there. I don't know that what I saw in this game was conclusive, because Tampa Bay's run defense is flat-out sucking wind right now, but it's not really fair to praise Carolina for breaking that defense down with power and then turn around and discount what Turner did against that same sudden weakness.

I'm not sure whether I saw a different and less-developed running back in San Diego, or whether Turner's just a perfect fit for what the Falcons have going right now. His workload is vexing -- he's on pace for 379 carries and only 7 catches. That 98.2 percentage is third-highest among all backs with 370 or more total touches in a season. Christian Okoye in 1989 and John Riggins in 1983 were the only ones with higher "carry rates". His DYAR and Success Rate point to consistency issues that elite power backs like Jacobs don't have. But as the complementary pointman to Matt Ryan's amazing rookie season, Turner's been everything the Falcons asked for.

The Dallas Cowboys' Front Seven

New York Giants 8 at Dallas Cowboys 20

While all the blah-blah-blah surrounding the Dallas Cowboys has been about the function and dysfunction of their marquee players on offense, the less-reported but far more important story is the striking improvement of their defense. In Weeks 1 through 9, Dallas ranked 18th in defensive passing DVOA and 24th in defensive rushing DVOA. From Week 10 through Week 14, 10th against the pass and first against the run. They lead the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, which is no surprise when you look at the abilities of "endbacker" DeMarcus Ware, the NFL's current sack leader with 19. Fellow endbacker Greg Ellis and nose tackle Jay Ratliff also provide their share of pass pressure.

Ratliff has been somewhat hidden behind the juggernauts at his position, but he's a different breed of cat. At 6-4 and just over 300 pounds, he doesn't fit the behemoth mold. He's much more about aggressiveness and pursuit. This unit that had grown in stature through the second half of the season beat the holy hell out a Giants offensive line that gave it right back to the Steelers and Ravens defenses this season, and they did it with pure athletic domination, sacking Eli Manning eight times.

Fittingly, the first sack happened on the Giants' first play from scrimmage. New York lined up with two receivers and an offset-I with Kevin Boss in an H-back look just outside and behind right tackle Kareem McKenzie. The Cowboys had five at the line, but Ware didn't have his hand down -- he acted more as a blitzing linebacker would. Presnap, Boss went half-motion to center and back to the right. When Manning took the snap, Derrick Ward headed upfield, taking any blocking threat out of the way. Ware hit the gas so fast, left tackle David Diehl didn't even get a decent block on him. Ware simply went around Diehl, and enveloped Manning from the blind side. Manning fumbled on the hit, but left guard Rich Seubert recovered after disengaging from right end Chris Canty. Ware is just too fast for any single blocker to consistently contain.

Dallas started the second quarter with their second sack of the day. The Giants had the ball on their own 19 on second-and-11. New York had the same formation as in the first sack, only this time, Boss lined up on the left side and went in motion over to the right. The Cowboys had five at the line again, but Anthony Spencer was in Ware's right side spot, and there was coverage help on Boss from the left side, as Ware dropped back to cover Boss. Dallas brought inside linebacker Bradie James on the right, and James shot through the open inside gap, shedding Ahmad Bradshaw easily and bringing Manning down at the 13.

Sack #3 came nine plays into a second-quarter megadrive from the Dallas 19 with 6:23 left in the first half. This was all Ware again, as the Troy Terror cruised around McKenzie in a shotgun formation. Ware again showed his speed off the snap, and his ability to circle around a block. McKenzie tried to keep him outside, and Manning stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure, but Ware showed McKenzie aside with one hand and used his amazing agility to right himself and head upfield after Manning.

The fourth sack happened with two minutes left in the first half, and the Giants with the ball at their own 36. Manning in shotgun again, but the Cowboys only brought four at the line this time. Greg Ellis was the star on this play, as he mirrored Ware's ability to get around his blocker on an outside move, brushing Diehl aside and setting back after Manning as Ware had done to McKenzie. Manning was a dead duck from two sides -- had Ellis not gotten to him, Ware was about to break a double-team.

The next two sacks came on consecutive plays halfway through the third quarter. Starting at the New York 45 on second-and-8 with 7:50 remaining, Manning took that snap out of a single-back, three-wide set with Dallas putting five at the line. Manning gave a cursory play-action fake to Bradshaw, but it didn't matter -- by the time that happened, Canty and Spencer were in the process of beating their men on either side of Manning, sharing the takedown in the end. Ratliff was on the bench taking a breather on that play, but he'd be back for the next one. Bad news for the Giants, because while Ratliff pushed and pulled in the middle, both Greg Ellis and Jason Hatcher were crashing in on right tackle Kevin Boothe, who had replaced the injured McKenzie, with Ellis getting there first.

Canty and Ware got the final two sacks, though it really wasn't sporting after McKenzie left. The Giants desperately need Brandon Jacobs back in the lineup -- Dallas didn't respect the run or Manning's playfakes at all. The Cowboys are as creative in their pressure packages as they have to be, but this was just as much about the ability of that line to tee off, blow through blocking and make things happen. It starts in the middle, with Ratliff upsetting the inside. I've been more and more impressed with Ratliff the more I've seen him this year, and I was very happy to see him get a Pro Bowl nod. You know about Ware and Ellis and Canty, but do yourself a favor the next time you watch the Cowboys -- check out the man in the middle.

Pittsburgh's Final Drive

Pittsburgh Steelers 13 at Baltimore Ravens 9

Setting the debate about Santonio Holmes' late touchdown catch aside, the primary question about the win that gave the Steelers the AFC North was how Ben Roethlisberger was able to march downfield against the NFL's best defense. The Ravens' D had locked Pittsburgh up for the most part before Big Ben took the field with 3:36 left in the game, down 9-6 with the ball at his own eight-yard line. What happened? According to many, the breakdown started with the hamstring injury that took cornerback Fabian Washington out of the game and put journeyman Frank Walker on the field.

However, it was cornerback Corey Ivy who allowed the first inroads, trailing Hines Ward on a cross from left to right. Linebacker Antwan Barnes broke through and flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket, but Roethlisberger extended the play long enough for Ward to run his route and pick up 13 yards to the Pittsburgh 21. The Steelers went right back to the line, no-huddle, and went with basically the same formation -- Ward inside left. This time, Ivy blitzed off the edge instead of playing Ward tight, and Roethlisberger had the easiest completion he'd have all day over the middle for another 13. Two incompletions followed -- one to Nate Washington and one to Santonio Holmes. Washington dropped a sideline throw to the right with Walker in tight, and Walker actually knocked the ball away when he went up to jump with Washington. The Holmes incompletion was a Roethlisberger wobbler, and Big Ben looked mighty confused about that one. Miscommunication on a route? Perhaps. Lobbying for a flag? Why, sure.

On third-and-10 from the 34, the first kill shot. Roethlisberger saw his pocket collapsing from both sides, stepped up, and threw across his body to Washington at the 41. Ed Reed was playing Washington off, and he slipped and fell to the ground when Washington headed upfield after a little comebacker. Washington made it to the 50 before Reed brought him down. Reed was closing in on Washington as the receiver was turning around to run -- had he kept his balance, Washington probably would have been stopped short, and the Steelers would have had a major conundrum on their hands. Success is a thin, thin line.

After a short slant for nine to Washington (with Walker in coverage), the two-minute warning, and a three-yard draw by Mewelde Moore for a first down, the Steelers lined up shotgun, three-wide, at the Baltimore 38 with 1:24 left. Washington, wide left, ran that comeback again, and Samari Rolle (literally) fell for it this time. Washington gained 24 yards, down to the Baltimore 14, and the Steelers were in business. Ward caught a quick pass wide left and headed upfield for 10 on the next play; after clock-stopping spike and a drop just short of the end zone by tight end Matt Spaeth, we had controversy.

The two things I read and heard most about the Ravens' defense on that last drive was that they were greatly affected by Washington's absence and Walker's presence, and that Rex Ryan didn't dial up enough blitzes. I'm not convinced that either theory is feasible. Walker played well enough on that drive -- he batted a ball away and prevented a succesful pass play, which the more talented Rolle and the enormously more talented Reed, were not able to do. The one time Ryan did bring a blitz, Ward made him pay over the middle. No, this was less about Baltimore's faults and more about Pittsburgh's abilities. When the Ravens played zone, the Steelers found the holes. They used crossing routes and comebacks masterfully to gain momentum as the drive went along. Roethlisberger was as good under pressure as you'll see him.

That touchdown may or may not have been a phantom, but Pittsburgh's offensive execution was all too real.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 18 Dec 2008

9 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2008, 12:38pm by black president

Comments

1
by David C (not verified) :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 3:41pm

It's almost impossible not to notice Ratliff. He gets mentioned as many times per game as Ware. Madden couldn't stop talking about him.

2
by Temo :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 4:02pm

Also, I thought a couple of those sacks can be more accurately described as "coverage sacks".

Edit: (Talking about the Giants-Cowboys game here)

3
by Eli (not verified) :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 4:27pm

It seems to me from watching, not charting, the Ravens/Steelers game that on that last drive the Ravens rushed only 3 on several key third down conversions which I don't remember them doing earlier in the game.

4
by Shattenjager :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 5:14pm

Pink Floyd titles are always awesome.

5
by DrewTS (not verified) :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 6:24pm

Right guard Tyson Clabo took Wilkerson, who was now playing left end, out of the play with a great hand-punch.

I believe "great-hand punch" was one of Chris Jericho's famous list of 1004 holds.

6
by black president (not verified) :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 6:32pm

Great stuff, Doug. I remember being frustrated with your Atlanta chapter of PFP08 because you didn't really explore the scouting/system angles of the Turner signing, but you're spot on when you point out that he's a perfect fit for what ATL is doing right now - I really would attribute a lot of their success this year to doing a good job at scouting players for their system (and of course a magical rookie season by Ryan).

OTOH, I feel like positioning it as an issue of spending on a free agent vs drafting a RB is kind of missing the point. I'm not going to be able to articulate this well, but I feel like signing Turner freed them up to use draft picks on more important positions, especially at the top of the draft; saying a talent-poor team shouldn't spend money on talented young players in free agency when they can draft them instead seems like a weird way to frame it? I mean, the criticism only works if you think the money could be better spent somewhere else or if you think the contract will be an albatross, both of which would be pretty much demonstrably untrue?

8
by Doug Farrar :: Fri, 12/19/2008 - 4:01am

Well, it worked in this case because of a lot of things I didn't see coming. I had no idea Thomas Dimitroff would have the draft he did, and that's where the Turner signing makes sense in a way -- you're getting Curtis Lofton in the second round instead of the best running back available, and the Falcons really needed Curtis Lofton. I didn't know that Paul Boudreau would come in as the new line coach and get that power zone going so well, which works perfectly for Turner. Certainly, I didn't know that Matt Ryan would become perhaps the best rookie quarterback, well, EVER. I'm a big believer in building through the draft and accentuating through free agency; I just didn't have enough confidence in the replacements who have made this such a special year for the Falcons and their fans.

9
by black president (not verified) :: Fri, 12/19/2008 - 12:38pm

fair enough!

7
by Danny (not verified) :: Fri, 12/19/2008 - 12:37am

by Shattenjager :: Thu, 12/18/2008 - 5:14pm

"Pink Floyd titles are always awesome."

I agree 100% with this post!