Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
10 Sep 2008
by Doug Farrar
New York Giants 16, Washington Redskins 7
Since the clock ran down in Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants' defensive line has been a cauldron of uncertainty. This means that Mathias Kiwanuka should feel right at home. If there's any defender who's had to change his stripes often during his NFL career, it's the 2006 first-round draft pick from Boston College. "Kiwi" had a very interesting rookie season, picking up 53 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. However, the play he's still best known for was a "catch-and-release" of Titans quarterback Vince Young, the result of Kiwanuka's oversensitivity to the roughing the passer rule.
In 2007, the Giants made two important defensive moves when Michael Strahan decided to play one final year -- they moved Tuck inside, where he would dominate at defensive tackle, and Kiwanuka was sent to the strong-side linebacker position full-time. The move wasn't completely foreign, as he'd been used as a linebacker in certain packages, and Kiwanuka took to his new role. He also played some end and even tackle in New York's "Four Aces" line, but he missed the team's unbelievable Super Bowl run after breaking his leg in November.
When Michael Strahan retired and Umenyiora was lost for the 2008 season with a torn lateral meniscus, Kiwanuka moved back to the right defensive end position. Tuck took the left side, and the Giants went forward against the Washington Redskins in the NFL's 2008 season opener in the hope that their formidable line wasn't going to spring holes everywhere.
In the opener, the Giants benefited from Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell's tendency to hold on to the ball far too long in the pocket. Campbell has gone through more offensive coordinators than any player should have to, and he's now adjusting to the timing of the Holmgren derivation of the West Coast Offense, as taught by former Seahawks quarterback tutor and new Redskins head coach Jim Zorn. On Washington's first play from scrimmage, Tuck shifted outside a double-team anchored by right tackle Stephon Heyer and brought Campbell down. Campbell had clutched and should have released the ball, which is something that observers of this game would be repeating a lot. Heyer was flagged for a false start on the next play, and that particular sequence of events should tell you everything you need to know about how Tuck will handle the Giants' left defensive end spot.
On to Kiwanuka. The Redskins' first drive ended when Campbell handed off to Clinton Portis on a third-and-20 from their own 17. Portis tried to head left and got a few yards up the gut, but Kiwanuka disengaged from left tackle Chris Samuels and showed good agility in reversing his field and getting the tackle. He showed this ability again when the Skins had second-and 15 from their own 19. The Redskins lined up in an I-formation, and Kiwanuka blew past Samuels only to watch Portis head up right guard on a draw. Kiwanuka stopped on a dime, reversed his course, and took a great angle to help free safety James Butler make the tackle on Portis. It's not uncommon to see a defensive end roll back to playside, but it's not every day you see a defender doing it this quickly. Quick ends will wing it and get within the vicinity of the ballcarrier, but Kiwanuka is very precise.
What Kiwanuka could not find, and this was apparent from the start, was consistent pass rush impact. Part of that was technique -- twice in the first quarter, I saw him come off the ball later than the rest of the front four. Most of it was his proximity to Chris Samuels, who had a whale of a game. Still, Kiwanuka's acumen against the run had me making more notes than I expected. On a tackle of Ladell Betts with 1:23 left in the first quarter, he read the line perfectly and sifted through trash to get to the ballcarrier. I like the way he mixes speed and technique as a run defender.
On the next play, both Kiwanuka and Tuck rolled back into intermediate coverage, and Campbell threw an incompletion. Yet another stalled drive for Washington.
With 10:52 left in the first half and the Redskins at their own 36, Kiwanuka grabbed Chris Cooley's jersey as Cooley went by him in the backfield. Cooley broke away and made the catch, gaining 18 yards. Kiwanuka was flagged for holding on the play. Samuels, who received a penalty of his own for an ineligible downfield pass, was developing more aggressiveness, blasting Kiwanuka with his hands and stopping him on counter plays. This drive ended in a touchdown for the Redskins, and Kiwanuka had few answers for Samuels at this point.
Kiwanuka's best play of the day came with 35 seconds elapsed in the second half. The Redskins had second-and-6 from their own 37, and lined up in I-formation with Antwaan Randle El in motion left to right. At the snap, Samuels pulled inside. Kiwi bounced off Cooley and blew across the line to wrap Portis up two yards behind the line. This brought Kiwanuka's quickness to light again, and illustrated that getting too creative with slide protection without a backside blocker was a mistake.
Kiwanuka followed that play by coming as close to a sack as would get all day, beating Samuels around the edge and just missing Campbell before the pass was released.
After those little victories, Kiwanuka went back to his role as Samuels' chew toy. On a 23-yard Portis run with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Samuels boxed Kiwanuka outside as Portis read the play and cut inside for a huge gain. In pass protection, Samuels gave a little ground as the game went on, but not enough to threaten his quarterback. I noticed that the Washington line will wear down if you keep going after them when I reviewed a Redskins/Cowboys game last year in preparation to write about Seattle's first-round playoff game. What did I learn today? Mathias Kiwanuka is no DeMarcus Ware.
The play of the day involving Kiwanuka happened in a third-and-5 with 5:20 left in the third quarter. It's too bad this play wasn't a first down for the Redskins, because Portis deserved one. The Redskins lined up single back. Kiwanuka used a rip move to get an edge on Samuels. Portis hurried over and absolutely decleated Kiwanuka. Just a kill shot of a chip, and Kiwi went down like Han Solo in Carbonite.
Of course, Kiwanuka's real concern came on the last play of the game, when Samuels allegedly intended to cut his opponent by grabbing him from behind and falling onto his ankles, basically tackling his lower legs as Kiwanuka went by.
Kiwanuka called it a dirty play, but I don't know that it was anything but a flash reaction. Samuels had an easier time of it with Kiwanuka than I thought he might. Even late in the game, Samuels was walling him off over and over, leaving Campbell with little backside pressure. That subconscious "do whatever you have to" reaction you might expect to see from a lineman getting beaten repeatedly would have been a big stretch.
I'd call this particular game in favor of Samuels by a pretty wide margin (though it was Portis who had the knockout!). Kiwanuka tried rip moves, bull rushes, straight speed, and for the most part, nothing seemed to work. However, Kiwanuka did impress me with his short-area speed and determination on running plays -- the further away he was from Samuels, the better he looked. It will be interesting to see where Kiwanuka is in his development as a pass rusher when the rematch takes place at FedEx Field on November 30.
New York Jets 20, Miami Dolphins 14
True to his past as Bill Belichick's defensive backs coach in New England, Jets head coach Eric Mangini has retooled his new team's secondary since taking the job before the 2006 season. He inherited strong safety Kerry Rhodes, the FO favorite drafted in the fourth round in 2005. However, 2007 first-round pick Darelle Revis was a standout who faced some very tough competition in his rookie season. Then, to complement Revis's physical nature, the Jets selected San Jose State cornerback Dwight Lowery in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.
Lowery gained a reputation as one of the NCAA's top pass defenders in 2006 and 2007, with 13 total interceptions for the Spartans in two years after a time at Camarillo College. In 2007, he was an All-American first-team selection by the American Football Coaches Association despite the broken jaw he suffered in the last spring practice. Lowery had to have his jaw wired shut, and lost 10 pounds.
In his first regular season NFL game, Lowery started at left cornerback when Justin Miller was unable to go because of a toe injury. Revis manned the right side. Lowery played well through the game, trailing Dolphins receiver Greg Camarillo especially well in press coverage, with and without help up top from Rhodes. Sean McCormick and Benjy Rose, our resident Jets fans, thought enough of Lowery's performance to mention him in the 2008 season debut of Audibles at the Line, and I wanted to review two plays that Sean and Benjy mentioned.
The Dolphins were down 20-7 as they started a drive from their own 42-yard line with 12:11 left in the game. Chad Pennington drove his new team against his old one to the Jets' 10-yard line, which is where our story begins. A first-down sack from the 10 put the ball at the New York 16, and Pennington connected over the middle with tight end Anthony Fasano for a 14-yard gain, and third-and goal from the 2.
On the next play, the Dolphins lined up in a left offset-I with three wide. Davone Bess, who was far right outside, motioned presnap to stack behind Greg Camarillo. The Dolphins had used this stack previously in the game to split coverage; I also saw them do it with some success against the Saints in the preseason. Lowery had Bess outside and motioned inside with him. At the snap, Bess headed back outside to the back of the end zone, with Lowery keeping Bess from a free release to the rear right pylon.
As Pennington's throw came in, Lowery got both hands on Bess' chest, but did not obstruct him in any way from catching the ball. The throw was to Lowery's right, and since he had position to the back of the end zone, I give the defender double points for not only batting the ball away, but establishing that position without drawing any sort of contact penalty. Bess simply had nowhere to go.
Fourth-and-goal. Camarillo was Lowery's next matchup in this drive. The Dolphins went goal-line, with Camarillo motioning left to right and angling into the end zone at the snap. Lowery played the ball like a ten-year veteran with first-day legs, cutting in front of Camarillo and batting the ball away once again. The drive was over, as was the game.
Earlier this week, I was talking to Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. Rob's an old friend and an expert whose opinion I trust when it comes to college players. We discussed Lowery, and why he slipped to the fourth round with all his talent. Teams were particularly concerned about Lowery's speed during workouts, but as Rob told me, "he's another one of those kids where all you have to do is turn on the film. You'll know he's a player." Rob also told me that he's seen few defensive backs consistently around the ball more than Lowery during his time at San Jose State. From what I've seen, and the inevitable growing pains aside, Lowery shouldn't have too much trouble taking that ability to the next level.
Buffalo Bills 34, Seattle Seahawks 10
Special teams coach Bobby April stands tall in the pantheon of assistant coaches with the ability to get their personnel units to perform at a level beyond the norm. As we point out in the Bills chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, most teams see a high degree of variance in special teams from year to year, but Buffalo's consistently high special teams rankings go against that trend. Since 2004, when April came to Buffalo from the St. Louis Rams, the Bills have added to the reliable roster spots taken by punter Brian Moorman, kicker Rian Lindell, and kick returner Terrence McGee. Roscoe Parrish replaced Nate Clements as the team's primary punt returner in 2005, and only Devin Hester provided more value in that capacity in 2007. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2008, finished his first preseason with 360 combined return yards.
The Bills welcomed the Seattle Seahawks into Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday, and treated their guests to a special teams tour de force. Buffalo outgained Seattle in net punting average, 40.6 to 30.0. They put up 120 return yards to Seattle's 54, and 20 of the 34 points they scored were direct results of special teams play -- two Lindell field goals, Parrish's 63-yard second quarter punt return, and the real embarrassment for the Seahawks: a 19-yard third quarter touchdown pass on a fake field goal from Moorman to defensive end Ryan Denney. Let's look at Parrish's return, and the fake field goal.
The return touchdown was a real beauty because it showed, in sharp detail, the importance of special teams blocking. The Bills have been known for their technique and intensity in this regard since April came on board. Let's look at that return one moment at a time:
Parrish talked about the play after the game: "When you break a long run like that, you don't want to cut back inside because all of the pursuit is coming from the inside. The guys did a good job of holding their blocks and that's the key thing. I just do whatever I have to do to get off their blocks and get to the end zone."
Well, one team had a plan, For Plackemeier, this would be his last game as a Seahawks player -- he was unceremoniously cut on Tuesday and replaced by ex-Packers punter John Ryan.
As for the fake field goal, with his typically mordant sense of humor, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren tried to envision a scenario in which an entire field goal coverage unit could be forgiven for missing a 6-foot-7, 264-pound defensive end lining up as a potential receiver. "Unless they slipped him in from the sideline, but that's against the rules."
Denney said after the game that as many times as the play had been rehearsed in practice, "so far I haven't dropped one. We've probably done it six or seven times in practice, and I've been 100 percent."
While the rest of the NFL looks on with admiration (and in some cases, confusion) at April's special teams, the Bills know they'll have the winner's edge in many tight contests, because their front office pays attention to the "little things" that others ignore.
20 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2008, 8:02pm by Chris