Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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29 Oct 2008

Cover-3: Pushing Forward Back

by Doug Farrar

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

New York Giants 21 at Pittsburgh Steelers 14

The defensive line was unquestionably the star of the New York Giants' improbable championship run last season. In Super Bowl XLII, that line decimated New England's seemingly impenetrable front five, wreaking havoc all day. The Giants continue to perform at a very high level in that department, ranking seventh in defensive DVOA and ninth in defensive Adjusted Line Yards despite the losses of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Only the Steelers have a higher Adjusted Sack Rate.

Still, if you look at the games and the numbers this year, the Giants' best line currently resides on the other side of the ball. This was an underrated unit last year, and they're finally getting some attention as the offense becomes the story. You can't rank first overall in offensive DVOA without a great line. I had been waiting to write about this line until they came up against a real test, and a trip to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers' awesome defense seemed like the perfect time. Left tackle David Diehl, left guard Rich Seubert, center Shaun O'Hara, right guard Chris Snee, and right tackle Kareem McKenzie had to make some adjustments and it took some time to set everything right. But in the end, the Giants won the battles up front, and I think this game was a real turning point for the five guys who keep the New York offense running.

On the first play of the game, first-and-10 from the New York 20, the Steelers brought four at the line. Running back Brandon Jacobs headed right on a pitch, and Snee pulled right. Gap integrity is a huge thing when you're facing the Steelers, and linebacker James Farrior got inside between right tackle Kareem McKenzie and tight end Kevin Boss as McKenzie dealt with the push inside. As Snee pushed LaMarr Woodley outside, Farrior wrapped up Jacobs, and the Giants suffered a loss of three yards on the first play.

On second-and-13, Larry Foote blitzed untouched, but Manning, operating out of the shotgun, hit running back Derrick Ward on a four-yard outlet pass. The Giants then got their first taste of that creative Pittsburgh defense, where linebackers and safeties can arrive from a host of different locations. Third-and-9 saw the Steelers bring five, with Troy Polamalu giving a presnap blitz look before dropping into coverage. It took a shotgun formation (and Jacobs helping with backfield blocking for Manning) to complete an eight-yard pass to (the other) Steve Smith. One yard short of their first first down, the G-Men punted the ball away.

The second drive was slightly more successful, as the Giants started from their own 35 with a 17-yard pass from Manning to Domenik Hixon. Operating out of the shotgun again, and with Jacobs helping with blocking, Manning had just enough time to get the ball off. The Giants showed their first power formation from the Steelers' 48, with seven at the line and Jacobs getting five yards. O'Hara did well to engage nose tackle Casey Hampton at the snap, passing him off to Snee and hitting the second level. A cutback lane was open for Jacobs on the left side, and that's where he went before Hampton moved over to make the tackle. Chris Hoke replaced Hampton on the next play, which allowed O'Hara to get down and dirty with some really nice (legal) handfighting inside.

The Giants were doing well here, matching the physical Steelers blow for blow. Third-and-five from the Pittsburgh 43 saw the Steelers break through, but Manning dumped another pass off to Ward out of a shotgun, trips left formation. Ward rumbled forward down to the Steelers' 26-yard line. Just as much as the New York line was ready for the challenge of that defense, the game plan was also to mitigate constant pressure with shorter passes, and the Giants took their chances with their physical backs against the Steelers linebackers and secondary in space. Ward led the Giants with five receptions.

One reason for the Giants' success against the tough middle of the Pittsburgh defense, led by Hampton, was that they weren't afraid to go back to the well if something didn't work. Against defenses this effective, you'll often see teams finesse themselves out of the picture, but offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride refused to play that game. When Jacobs was stopped for no gain on first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 26 with nine minutes left in the first quarter, the next call was Jacobs inside, and this time, it was a six-yard gain. On the first run, the Steelers simply caved that line in. But the Giants responded with force on the six-yarder, as Jacobs headed off left guard with Snee pulling left and demolishing Larry Foote and pushing him back a good three yards.

I have been impressed in the past with this line's ability to block in tandem, pulling guards against slide protection. I was just as impressed in this game with the ability to line up, straight ahead, and go man-on-man when the first play from scrimmage indicated that the fancy stuff was out. Manning continues his short shotgun passes, and the linemen held the point just long enough. A Jacobs fumble recovered by McKenzie helped stall that drive and led to a John Carney field goal, but the Giants knew they had the line to withstand Pittsburgh's brutal attack.

The Giants couldn't get more than four field goals thorough the start of the fourth quarter; not even their line could trump the Steelers defense in the red zone. They have had more trouble offensively in the red zone, based on their DVOA in that area, than anywhere else. They rank 21st in the red zone, and 11th in goal-to-go. The surprise was that the Steelers defense -- 18th in red zone pass DVOA, 7th in rushing red zone DVOA, and 31st in goal-to-go situations -- had been problematic through week seven. This game alone shot them up to first in red zone rushing DVOA, and seventh in goal-to-go.

Appropriately, a block won the game for the Giants. Tied at 14 halfway through the fourth quarter after James Harrison's emergency try at long-snapping gave the Giants a safety, New York drove from their own 47 down to the Pittsburgh 2-yard line in six plays. The blocking of that line and tight end Boss was never more impressive. On second-and goal with 3:11 left in regulation, the Giants went heavy right, with guard Kevin Boothe lined up outside McKenzie. The play went left, as Harrison left his coverage area to go after the run, only to be blown back by Jacobs on a block that left Harrison wondering exactly where he was. Manning threw the ball to a wide-open Boss in the end zone, and that was the ballgame.

In the end, the Giants wore the Steelers down, and it was just as much about their offensive line as it was their vaunted defense. Pittsburgh gained only 10 yards in the fourth quarter, while the Steelers' defense gave up crucial longer runs on first down in the final Giants' scoring drive. New York's linemen were tested and pushed back repeatedly, but they kept fighting back and they showed their persistence in the end. This is where the heart of the defending champs can be found.

Matt Ryan's Big Day Out

Atlanta Falcons 14, Philadelphia Eagles 27

Coming out of their nightmare 2007 season and needing a complete makeover more than any other NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons started their 2008 draft by selecting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan third overall. Compared by many to another B.C. alum named Matt (Hasselbeck), Ryan was considered to be the best of a very weak quarterback class. The Falcons could have bolstered their line with that high pick, but that pulled the trigger on Ryan, and that decision has already proven to be very wise. Through seven games, Atlanta is 4-3, having matched last year's win total, and Ryan currently ranks 14th in DYAR among quarterbacks this season. He faced his biggest challenge to date at Philly's Lincoln Financial Field against an Eagles team ranked fourth in pass defense DVOA and fourth in Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is well-known for his creative blitz packages, and lesser rookies would have folded in the face of Johnson's defense.

Ryan started the game deflecting Philadelphia's pressure with a short slant to Brian Finneran, a rollout pass to Roddy White, and a swing pass to Jerious Norwood. Taking the ball from his own 22 to the 50-yard line, Ryan then overthrew Harry Douglas out of the shotgun on third-and-4 to end Atlanta's first drive. On Atlanta's second drive, Ryan kept with the quick outs to offset pressure. He did have trouble with Asante Samuel. The cornerback tipped two early passes, and picked Ryan off on third-and-13 at the Philadelphia 32. Ryan thought he had Douglas downfield, and Samuel jumped the route.

The first quarter ended in frustration for the Falcons; drive number three went no further than the first two. Ryan only had two passes on this drive. On the first one, he tried a little pump fake and discovered that timing is very important when you're facing the Eagles defense; Trent Cole came through and just plowed him, picking up what looked like a pretty ticky-tack unnecessary roughness call in the process. Cole started his descent on Ryan as Ryan still had the ball, and I continue to wonder how the NFL expects defenders to de-molecuralize before they hit the quarterback when they're that close and the ball remains in the quarterback's hands. Ryan got his clock cleaned on a fair hit. The second pass was a five-yarder to Norwood on third-and-8 out of a shotgun set with two backs; the Falcons weren't going to jeopardize the franchise again.

The second quarter started out as more of the same. Ryan found out a bit more about NFL secondaries when Sheldon Brown broke up an out route to Roddy White on first-and-10, and Samuel broke up a beautiful long pass to White on third-and-9. The ball was at the end of White's reach, and Samuel pulled White away from the ball as he was trying to take it in.

Finally, drive number five saw some payoff. Ryan hit Michael Jenkins over the middle for 19 yards on first-and-20 (after a Todd Weiner holding penalty) as a two-tight set brought additional protection. He then overthrew Norwood by a couple time zones on a long play-action pass, and missed a screen to running back Jason Snelling after a fake draw. But on third-and-10 from the Atlanta 45 and 9:05 left in the first half, Ryan threw the kind of pass that has so many people excited about his future. The Falcons went shotgun, two backs, and Ryan threw a bullet between Samuel and linebacker Stewart Bradley (who will have his own Cover-3 profile soon) into White's hands. White ran 38 yards to the end zone. Samuel and Bradley were running toward each other, in a direct path to where the ball had to be for White to catch it. Ryan had to calculate the timing of that pass at a freakish level to avoid any number of things gong wrong, and that's exactly what he did.

Ryan ended his day with 23 completions in 44 attempts for 277 yards, two sacks, two touchdowns and two picks. Some of those incompletions were pressure-based, as the Eagles lived up to their reputation. Ryan ranked 13th in DYAR among quarterbacks last week. Were it not for a ridiculous unreviewable muffed punt call late in the game, the Falcons had a decent shot at an upset. Though he's still learning and the curve is always steep for NFL quarterbacks, Ryan was a big part of that. I asked Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com's Senior Draft Analyst, if there's anything that surprises him about Ryan's success based on what he saw of Ryan at Boston College.

"I'm not really surprised that Ryan has succeeded this early, but I am a little surprised that he's done it with a team that everyone wrote off before the season started," Rang said. "You could argue that the biggest surprise of Atlanta's draft has been left tackle Sam Baker, whose play has obviously helped his quarterback. But Ryan is a leader, he's a very cerebral quarterback, and he's great on the field as far as accuracy, reading defenses and adjusting at the line. You might beat him once, but he's going to learn from it and take care of things next time.

"Ryan doesn't have that huge arm, and I think a lot of teams fall in love with arm strength, but he's got enough to get the ball where it needs to go, and he's got so many other attributes."

I concur. Having watched Ryan in four different Falcons games, I don't think there's a necessary skill he either doesn't have or can't acquire over time. I am impressed with his ability to throw across his body -- not with the show-offy mystery balls you'll get from some of the stronger-armed quarterbacks in history, but passes with touch and accuracy. The late pass to Michael Jenkins that set up the winning field goal in the win over the Bears two weeks ago was a great example of that.

While he's not as mobile as Atlanta's last franchise quarterback, Ryan has the ability to roll out without losing his form and he's adept at stepping out of pressure in the pocket. It's unusual for a quarterback to have his sense of the pocket this early on in his NFL career, especially against a defense that brings this much pressure. Ryan's got all the throws, and his ability to stay cool under pressure will serve him very well as the Falcons find their way. If you want to find the next great NFL quarterback, this is where you should start looking.

Mike Singletary: An Eyewitness Account

Seattle Seahawks 34 at San Francisco 49ers 13

I had a few ideas for the third subject in this week's Cover-3, but then I remembered that Craig Massei, a good friend who covers the San Francisco 49ers for the SF Insider Web site and magazine, was a party to the most talked-about coach's press conference since Dennis Green wigged out two years ago. When new Niners head coach Mike Singletary threw tight end Vernon Davis off the field in a loss to the Seahawks and then went off postgame about what he will and will not accept, it was more than YouTube magic -- it was a balm for fans who have had their fill of this formerly great franchise's inability to resemble any fraction of what used to be.

Massei has covered the team for years, but nothing could prepare him for Singletary's mission statement. "I've never been around anything like it before in my life," he said. "It was spine-tingling because it was so forceful and genuine. One of my colleagues called it the greatest postgame news conference in history. It was really something. It kind of left you in awe, and it was something that immediately became the story and left the game kind of secondary. It made me think that, man, this guy's got something here."

One of the reasons that the press conference resonated so strongly was Singletary's role with the team. Mike Nolan's first hire when he took over the team in early 2005, Singletary "definitely was called upon for motivation and intensity," Craig said. "He'd often address the team once a week with a speech."

Why Davis? Was this a cumulative issue that finally boiled over? "Davis really hasn't been that much of a problem (in the past)," Massei said. "He's a hard-working guy, but he's still immature and has a big ego. Singletary was just setting him straight, and his action shouldn't be taken for more than that. I don't see it hurting the team in any way, and some will see it as a positive that he went overboard to make a point to Davis."

Still, Singletary's got a real uphill battle with his current team. "He's raising the Titanic," Massei said. "Something is wrong with this team at its core. Yeah, there's some good talent, but this team's a wreck right now. It's really sort of difficult to say what the front office is thinking, because things are sort of up in the air in that department also, and I think the team is thinking of cleaning house as much as anything after the season. I think the front office is going to kind of go with the flow with Singletary for a while and see where it leads."

Going with the flow is hardly Singletary's nature, though. It sounds as if everyone else will be trying to catch up!

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 29 Oct 2008

27 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2008, 11:11pm by tuluse

Comments

1
by phillyangst :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 3:29pm

I was impressed with Ryan's poise and ability to make the right throw with that kind of pressure on him. The Iggles really played the run well this game which allowed for placing pressure on Ryan. If Atlanta had been more successful running this game would have been much different.

2
by horn (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 3:57pm

That throw was Fouts-esque. As was his ability to get up after that Cole hit.

4
by Tundrapat (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 5:08pm

I think the adjective is 'Foutish'. Or 'Foutastic'.

21
by roguerouge :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 9:26am

Foutsesque?

3
by pound4pound (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 4:58pm

Doug alluded to Ryan's accuracy a couple of times. I've heard this from other observers as well, and I'm wondering if there's something that the stats are missing here? Ryan completed just under 60% of his passes in college last year, and he's completed under 57% this year. I haven't seen Ryan myself yet, and I'm curious what I'm missing.

7
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 5:27pm

From my P.O.V., it's as much accuracy for his experience, or accuracy with throws I don't really expect a rookie to make, than overall accuracy. It's not like he's pinpoint on a Steve Young level, but he has the ability to make throws on the run, and across his body, and between defenders, that are very impressive. And they're repeatable. Like most young quarterbacks, he'll fall too much in love with his arm in certain situations and throw up goatballs that are easy picks, but what I don't see are the kinds of meltdowns that tend to follow one or two bad passes from quarterbacks that just aren't going to make it in the NFL. He has a great ability to learn, but a short memory. Nice balance there.

15
by RORICON (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 2:02am

Accuracy, from a scouting perspective, means precision of ball placement - completion percentage is a little more context dependent, like most things in football.

Great article, Doug. Ryan could very easily end up being the most important draft pick in the franchise's history. Sam Baker has also been an underrated element of the Falcons' success this year (and his injury problems are going to be an underreported element of their struggles to come - wayne gandy and todd weiner are not solutions at left tackle).

5
by scatman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 5:17pm

Ryan ain't caught no 43 yard pass from Troy Smith yet - that's all I know

8
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 5:29pm

I've read that the Falcons intend to run some sort of "Dirty Bird" Wildcat package with Norwood as the quarterback, so you never know...

16
by RORICON (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 2:11am

They've run some direct snap plays with Ryan either split wide or not in the game at all - as early as week 1, even.

6
by Just walking by (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 5:21pm

guys,

its almost a given that the G-men are winning it all this year, barring serious injuries, so let's relax, and watch some football.

20
by Unverified Telamon (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 9:19am

Wow, you guys really have become the Patriots, how ironic.

9
by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 7:14pm

Great article--I'm really liking these raw FO writings without the heavy hand of ESPN all over your honest observations.

10
by Tundrapat (not verified) :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 8:30pm

Looking at the other side of the 'SEA-SF' review; what to make of Seneca Wallace? I haven't been overly impressed thus far, and about half his 220 yards came on those two odd, short patterns to Leonard Weaver.

Still, keeping in mind that he hasn't had that much time under center with the first team, and the receivers are still learning their locker numbers, I'm starting to think that Wallace may be a serviceable #2 QB for Seattle. Then again, in a timing-based WC offense, anyone who has to replace the long-time starting QB is going to demonstrate a severe drop in production.

Thoughts?

11
by JasonK :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 8:34pm

"I have been impressed in the past with this line's ability to block in tandem, pulling guards against slide protection. I was just as impressed in this game with the ability to line up, straight ahead, and go man-on-man when the first play from scrimmage indicated that the fancy stuff was out."

I noticed the same thing. The Giants' run blocking in previous games involved lots of pulling by their linemen. Against Pittsburgh, though, they stayed at home pretty consistently. I suppose that their film study told them that the Steelers front-7 was just too good at shooting gaps and getting penetration off the snap for the slower-developing runs with pulling linemen to work particularly well.

14
by Quincy :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 10:23pm

It seems to me that teams have done a much better job these last few weeks of stopping Jacobs on outside runs behind the pulling guards. Count me among those who believe using Ward on quick-hitters will be more effective until they find a way to soften up the defense.

12
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 9:27pm

It's unusual for a quarterback to have his sense of the pocket this early on in his NFL career, especially against a defense that brings this much pressure.

Is this true? Pocket presence seems like one of those unteachable attributes. I know from watching Grossman, I wish his pocket presence could be improved, of course Grossman could be an exception.

13
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 10/29/2008 - 9:34pm

Matt Hasselbeck from 2004 to 2005. Huuuuuuuuge difference. He wouldn't flail around at pressure anymore -- he'd step up, or back, or around, and make the throw. It was noticeable from the preseason on.

17
by WhatIsFootball (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 3:13am

GREAT article, detailed and thorough but fast too. Any insight as to how successful Mike Singletary will be? 49ers have the skill players and the O coordinator to move the ball. O'Sullivan is Rex Grossman in terms of soul-crushing bad decisions/throws but maybe Hill will be consistent.

19
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 9:10am

No real coaching experience to go on, but my sense is that he's going to have a back-and-forth with Martz at some point over general offensive philosophy. Martz leaving at the end of the season and the offense regressing due to personnel and scheme issues in the short term after that wouldn't surprise me.

18
by fiddy cent beer (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 8:53am

The Giants' OL plays with great toughness, and they play together. The same could be said of both D-fronts on the field that day. The Steelers' OL is nowhere near that level (Hartwig and Stapleton excepted). Exhibit A: those twin bone-head penalties which killed their 8th possession. Crunch time, and game over; in particular, Kemoeatu's penalty displays everything the Giants' group is not: dumb and fake tough. Starks and Colon are overmatched outside and Kemoeatu is not a player you can win with.

Sam Baker has started 5 games and finished 3. He's played well enough in those, but Ryan has played many, many more snaps. Therefore, Baker is not the difference, overall. Off limited views, I opine that Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl are the deep blue steel in that front.

22
by RORICON (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 11:26am

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to intimate that Baker is THE difference-maker for that team (it's really a confluence of factors, and it largely comes down to excellent scouting and roster decisions), merely that he is their best lineman and has played well at the most difficult position on the line. Of course, I find out today that he's going in for back surgery this week, so I'm not optimistic about him contributing much for the rest of the season. This could prove crucial for the Falcons, who now have to start Todd Weiner (old, balky knee been giving him trouble all year) or Wayne Gandy (even older, just coming off a torn ACL) at LT.

You're right about Dahl and Clabo (I think; I have no idea what 'deep blue steel' means) - Dahl is inconsistent and doesn't play with great leverage, but he's probably the team's best run blocker and is a great system fit, likewise with Clabo. Blalock still makes a lot of mental errors but he's improved a lot from last year, and could become the team's most powerful blocker.

23
by fiddy cent beer (not verified) :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 12:51pm

Roricon:

Sorry. Didn't mean to come off as, well, challenging wrt Baker. Just sayin...

Thanx for the eyes-on the Falcs. I gather you're a fan. Surprised to hear that Blaylock is struggling between the ears; iirc, he scored high on the Wonderlic and he was a 4 year starter at a big time program. Right side player at UT tho, and it's not like that school prepares OLmen...

Still. Ryan is the real deal, imo. Very smart player, saw a lot at BC, excellent leader. Coming out, one rap on him was a relatively high # of INT. However, those struck me as product of a player truly trying to win it, rather than curry his sheet. Unfortunately, the Eagles didn't provide much for him to work with.

Gandy is a warhorse. I suppose he passed his physical, or the Falcons wouldn't have taken him back. However, he's not very likely to be game ready. For a while, ATL may adjust their pass game towards YAC patterns. Depending on schedule, they could get by run heavier.

Interesting story developing there. Mike Smith has to be the leader at the turn in the CotY Stakes.

24
by ArchnerdUW :: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 1:25pm

Nice Temple of the Dog reference. And, as always, good article.

25
by underthebus :: Fri, 10/31/2008 - 7:56pm

Watching Ryan he's reminded me of Chad Pennington before he had those shoulder injuries in. Not a strong arm, but accurate. Good pocket presence and same build/body type.

I just hope he can avoid those injuries, so we could see what Pennington might have become.

26
by tuluse :: Fri, 10/31/2008 - 11:09pm

I'm not positive, but I think Ryan has a stronger arm than Pennington ever had, and I think injuries Pennington had were pretty rare. So chances are high that he won't run into the same problems. I don't think he is as accurate though, but he does have an uncanny ability to read defenses for a rookie.

Disclosure: The only Falcon's game I've seen was against the Bears. Man, do we suck against rookie QBs.

27
by tuluse :: Fri, 10/31/2008 - 11:11pm

double post