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?
17 Sep 2008
by Doug Farrar
Denver Broncos 39, San Diego Chargers 38
"Well, why don't we go ahead and join the others, shall we? No sense staying here, now, by ourselves ... out of screaming distance." -- Banes
It's a long way from a free-agent rookie contract to the responsibility of replacing one of the most feared defensive players in the game, but that's the trip Chargers linebacker Jyles Tucker completed in one season when Shawne Merriman pronounced his 2008 season a done deal. Tucker was an afterthought in 2007, ranked 70th on NFLDraftScout.com's list of defensive ends and omitted entirely from the list of players invited to the Combine. Tucker started all 14 games for Wake Forest's 2006 ACC championship team, and received Honorable Mention All-ACC honors after putting up six sacks in his senior season.
Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com told me that Tucker was "the classic late bloomer. You mentioned his senior success, but until then he had only pedestrian production, posting three sacks in 17 starts (and seeing action in 11 other games) over his first three seasons. The transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker with San Diego has shown Tucker to have an upfield burst and closing speed he rarely showed while at Wake Forest."
Tucker had a brief, shining moment in his rookie year when he won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Chargers' season finale, amassing three sacks and two forced fumbles against the Raiders. But putting up a good game against alleged tackle Barry Sims in an "Elvis has left the building" game is one thing -- taking over for Shawne Merriman and becoming a pointman for San Diego's outstanding 3-4 defense is quite another. I remember writing about that game, and Sims' abysmal efforts, in the last Audibles of the regular season. Here at FO, of course, we adjust for opponent both in our stats and in our evaluations. Tucker's first chance to impress as a starter in 2008 came against the Denver Broncos last Sunday.
From the first play, where Tucker helped with weakside zone coverage, it was obvious that he'd be asked to cover more than Merriman does. Merriman, like DeMarcus Ware, is a mislabeled linebacker playing end. Tucker looked fluid in his backpedal from the start. Another early look had fellow linebacker Shaun Phillips blitzing up the middle while Tucker played to contain as the fourth down lineman. Denied their elite pass rusher, it seemed that the Chargers were going to use his replacement as a jack-of-all-trades, allotting the big-play responsibility to others. Phillips will have to step up, while defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell will have to draw up some favorable and inventive blitz packages. Bringing safety Clinton Hart off the edge seemed to rattle Jay Cutler a bit, though Denver's quarterback had far too much time to throw for the most part.
On Denver's second drive, which began at the 11:20 mark in the first quarter, Tucker showed a worrisome tendency to get washed away or spun around against run-blocking. When he shot off the line from the right side as an edge rusher, he went about as far forward as rookie left tackle Ryan Clady let him. I did not see a lot of push or aggression against the run or the pass.
This was also the first time I've seen Clady in a Broncos uniform. Color me impressed, and expect him to show up in a Cover-3 very soon.
Clady also stoned Tucker on the Jay Cutler-to-Tony Scheffler touchdown pass with 13:53 left in the first half. As Cutler threw a dart past two defenders from the San Diego 3, Tucker tried to beat Clady to the outside to no avail. As Clady fanned him out, Tucker attempted an inside spin move, only to be blocked out by left guard Ben Hamilton. This was symptomatic of Tucker's day: Close, but no cigar.
I like Tucker's athleticism, and he'll develop some valuable experience as a pass rusher over time. However, expecting him to replace Merriman at a comparable level is foolhardy at best. Merriman and Tucker are two players with radically different skillsets. The Chargers clearly missed Merriman's aggression on the field, and as much as a blown fumble call and a malfunctioning replay booth were the deciding factors in this Chargers loss, the story with legs is that San Diego's defense has a great deal of adjusting to do.
Carolina Panthers 20, Chicago Bears 17
"I love to see a fat guy score. Because first you get the fat guy spike, then you get the fat guy dance." John Madden
In 2007, the Carolina Panthers finished 20th in our Adjusted Line Yards stats, and 15th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Not bad for a team that gave DeShaun Foster 103 more carries than DeAngelo Williams, and started four different quarterbacks through the season. The Panthers' offensive line was a lonely bright spot in a bad offense, but the team had changes in mind after the 7-9 season was over. The Panthers would go from the zone-blocking system that favors lighter, quicker linemen, and focus on the inside power game. Two first-round draft picks solidified that goal -- Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart with the 13th overall selection, and Pitt left tackle Jeff Otah with a 19th overall pick acquired from the Eagles in a trade.
While Stewart's prospects are just about flawless, there were questions about Otah before the draft. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds on one of his lighter days, Otah was one of a handful of physically imposing but raw senior prospects drafted in 2008. Because he only played two seasons of major college football, missed the Senior Bowl with a sprained ankle and ran a 5.55 40-yard dash at the Combine, scouting reports and draft boards were divided on Otah. One thing was for sure, though: For a team like the Panthers, whose owner had promised a focus on Steelers-style smashmouth football, Otah would be a solid addition. Given his troubles with elite pass-rushers in college (he gave up 8.5 sacks in his senior season), Otah would move to the right side in the NFL.
Of course, I wanted to see Otah work against pass rushers most of all -- guys his size are supposed to dominate the inside. On Carolina's second offensive play, Adewale Ogunlye was angled outside Otah's right shoulder, and beat him with an inside move to put pressure on Jake Delhomme before Delhomme got the ball out on a six-yard pass to tight end Jeff King. Otah was then flagged for a false start when the Bears used presnap motion on the line.
The Bears had eight at the line on the next play, releasing Brian Urlacher into coverage as defensive tackle Israel Idonije twisted outside and engaged Otah, leaving the outside free for Mike Brown's safety blitz. The pressure forced a quick throw, and an incomplete pass to D.J. Hackett. This is the type of play where I'd like to see more forward drive by Otah. Later, we'd see quite a bit more of it.
On Carolina's second drive, Otah found himself lost in the undertow of Chicago's pass rush more than once. The Bears frequently blitzed, bunching Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer between and behind the ends and tackles, leaving Urlacher to drop into coverage. They'd use motion on the rush, then they'd come out with seven-man fronts on other plays. Otah didn't seem to know where to go at times. The Panthers countered by putting a tight end on Otah's right side pretty frequently.
For all of Otah's still-unrefined technique and propensity for being beaten by the more advanced aspects of the pro game, there are times when his sheer power makes a play, and you can see how he could be the cornerstone of the kind of offense the Panthers desire. With 11:48 left in the first quarter, the Panthers lined in an extreme power formation, with tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario on Otah's right. Delhomme handed off to fullback Brad Hoover, and Otah bulled Ogunleye out of the picture. He then blocked Urlacher away from Hoover as Urlacher was coming in to tackle. Otah plowed everything in his path a good six yards downfield, and Hoover made it for five and a first down.
Otah got to show his pass-blocking moves on the last play of Carolina's second drive. Facing third-and-13, Otah started to fan Ogunleye outside, but it's easy to tell that at a certain point in that kind of motion, he's more comfortable establishing the point and just physically dominating his opponent. That's all well and good when the opponent in question doesn't possess a palette of moves designed to defeat the straight-on blocker. For the most part, Otah was able to fend Ogunleye off. Otah did not allow a sack in this game. The Mike Brown blitz alerted the Panthers' coaching staff to the importance of tight end help on the right side, and expecting a rookie to peel off Adewale Ogunleye and stop a safety careening in like a bat out of hell is a bit much.
I also wanted to see how Otah would hold up as the game went on. The temperature in North Carolina was around 90 degrees at game time, with humidity that made it feel more like 110. With 4:30 left in the third quarter, my question about Otah's ability to endure the conditions at his size was answered convincingly. The Bears were up, 17-6, but the Panthers were driving in Chicago territory. The Panthers lined up at the Chicago 25 in a full house ("inverted bone") formation with Hoover and King as the fullbacks. Stewart took the handoff from Delhomme and scattered right for 12 yards, while Otah pushed Lance Briggs a good 10 yards back against the play, helping to create the seam. That scoring drive featured more Stewart power running, and put the Panthers within 4 points.
Right now, Otah's your basic Power Tackle 1.0, maybe in the vein of Max Starks. He does have the drive and endurance you want in a player who does what he does, and his pass-blocking moves are reasonable at this time. The next challenge for Otah will be to adjust when defenders learn the moves that beat him on a regular basis. It seems like anything inside would have a good chance -- spin moves and such would be tough for him to adapt to. On the other hand, it's difficult to plan your next spin move when little birdies are circling your head following an Otah decleater, and that's what the Panthers are counting on. Between Otah's strength and Stewart's impressive ability to chew up yardage, the power's back on in Carolina.
San Francisco' 49ers 33, Seattle Seahawks 30
"Like a duck on the pond. On the surface everything looks calm, but beneath the water those little feet are churning a mile a minute." -- Jimmy McGinty
After watching their formerly vaunted rushing attack plummet in 2006 and 2007, the not-always-on-the-same-page Seattle Seahawks braintrust of Tim Ruskell and Mike Holmgren decided to make sweeping changes. Gone was 2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander, the victim of the Curse of 370. In came ex-Panthers guard Mike Wahle, a casualty of the Carolina scheme delineated elsewhere in this article, and former Cowboys running back Julius Jones, a casualty of the fact that he wasn't Marion Barber. Jones gained 45 yards on 13 carries in his first game for the Seahawks, and Buffalo's defense proved tough to solve. His debut at Seattle's Qwest Field, against the San Francisco 49ers gave him another chance.
The first play of the game did not augur well; Jones got ankle-tackled by cornerback Nate Clements, and that's not something you want to see out of a marquee back. What you discover with Jones is that he's very reliant on blocking -- almost to a fault. His first touchdown as a Seahawks player illustrated this.
With 9:21 left in the first quarter, the Seahawks lined up in an I-formation, three-wide. 49ers safety Dashon Goldson came in free past Walter Jones on a backside blitz. (Note: We'll call the Joneses "Walter" and "Julius" to avoid a great deal of confusion.) The action was so easy, Goldson didn't hear the bullets whistling by his head. He wrapped up Matt Hasselbeck, who had just handed the ball to Julius on a perfectly executed draw. Julius first headed straight, aided by fullback Leonard Weaver's upfield block, and eased left past two grasping defenders. Wide receiver Billy McMullen engaged Walt Harris at the 13-yard line. Harris and Nate Clements both whiffed their tackle attempts, and Jones was off to the races.
San Francisco's awful secondary tackling aside, this was a great showcase for Julius and his ability to make a play happen around some good downfield blocking. Kudos to Hasselbeck as well for selling the fake perfectly; he knew he was going to get knocked around with no protection, and he waited until the last millisecond for the handoff. Julius showed good vision and patience in waiting for things to open up.
Another interesting play: Second-and-11 from the Seattle 19 with 1:52 left in the first quarter. Single-back, three wide. Jones took a pitch left, and ran along the line. He's very good at timing his breaks to the open field from blocking closer to the line. Walter sealed off Justin Smith inside (this, by the way, was an amazing play on his part, because Smith was outside Walter's left shoulder at the snap), and as Julius headed through the open field to the left, McMullen put a perfect seal block outside on Walt Harris. Meanwhile, Mike Wahle held off Patrick Willis downfield long enough for Julius to get a few extra yards.
By the end of the first quarter, Julius had displayed everything he would show later. It was the first time Seattle saw what it was really getting.
I'm beginning to understand why Julius was less successful behind that massive Dallas offensive line; he isn't that bruising rusher that will use an inside scrum to bounce into danger and make contact. Nor will he mimic Marion Barber's Tasmanian Devil style. Julius feels far more comfortable running behind and beside mobile blockers. He needs a succession of things to happen around him to be productive. In that regard, the Seattle linemen, with Walter seeming to play faster this season and the addition of the athletic Wahle (not unlike the addition of Eric Steinbach in Cleveland before the 2007 season, though Wahle is more aggressive and less athletic), are by far the better fit, especially in Wahle's ability to get to the second level. That's where Julius needs an escort.
Certain elements of his style drive me to frustration. His patience at times turns into procrastination, and legitimate opportunities at the line will close up while he's picking through his options. He's too easy to tackle, especially if he's turning off the edge. He's far better in space than in traffic, though he doesn't get confused with defenders flying around him -- he's an agile mover at the second level and beyond. The "Shaun Alexander, Jr." comparison I made when Seattle cut this deal isn't too far off. There's good and bad about that, but the good is that the Seahawks didn't spend tens of millions on Julius like they did on Alexander after his MVP season. They've got him on a front-loaded, four-year, $11.8 million contract with over $4 million in incentives, and they can easily cut bait and draft a running back in 2009 or 2010 if need be.
It's good for Seattle that Julius Jones rushed for 127 yards on 26 carries against the 49ers; there have been far too few days like that on Seattle's calendar in the last two years. What's even better is that he's a good fit with this team from a rushing and receiving perspective. I didn't like this move when it was made, but I'm beginning to believe. Julius Jones and the Seahawks could be a perfect short-term combination.
14 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2008, 3:58pm by panthersnbraves