Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Catch Radius: The Bigger, the Better?

Our season finale of catch radius focuses on the growing size of Josh McCown's talented receiving duos, including breakout stud Alshon Jeffery. Also: Anquan Boldin's incredible year.

17 Sep 2008

Cover-3: The Replacements

by Doug Farrar

San Diego Chargers Linebacker/End Jyles Tucker

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 Right Tackle Jeff Otah

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.

Seattle Seahawks Running Back Julius Jones

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.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 17 Sep 2008

14 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2008, 3:58pm by panthersnbraves

Comments

1
by DFJinPgh (not verified) :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 2:04pm

Wow, Doug, great article. This is exactly what I'm looking for when I read FO analysis pieces!

Do you TiVo™ these or do you tape and re-watch?

2
by A. Diggity :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 3:47pm

Great article...this is exactly what I want out of Football Outsiders. Stuff like this makes the new Any Given Sunday that much worse by comparison.

3
by Drunken5yearold :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 4:02pm

Great article; this is why we come back here.

Regarding Tucker, I'd thought he do a decent job replacing Merriman. What most people forget about Merriman is that he's very much a boom-or-bust type pass rusher: he'll either get the sack or get nowhere close (i.e. he records very few hurries). This has been symptomatic of the Chargers defense in general the past two years, and I seem to recall FO predicted a decline for the unit this year because of it (at least in part).

Tucker will most likely be platooned with Marques Harris for much of the year, unless he shows vast improvement. He had problems with his conditioning in the first game against the Panthers (the SD Union-Tribune reported that he missed a whole quarter because of it). This should help be more effective. A lot of backups can do well in limited time precisely because they can afford to go all-out whenever they are in, and many struggle during the transition to starter.

The Chargers' defensive woes go far beyond replacing Merriman with Tucker. Inside linebacker has been a problem area with Derek Smith and Matt Wilhelm starting. Stephen Cooper (suspended four games for stimulant use) is a far more effective run defender than either of them; look for the Chargers run defense to get a small boost when he comes back. In addition, both Luis Castillo and Jamal Williams rested for much of the preseason because of injuries/age. Their rustiness is an obvious factor in the ineffectiveness of the defensive line, which is compounded by the fact that the d-line backups suck, which puts more pressure on the starters to stay in and contribute. The secondary has not been sterling either (especially Cromartie's meltdown against Denver), but I think they're an effective unit that is being picked apart because of the complete lack of a pass rush.

Defensive Coordinator Ted Cottrell certainly doesn't help matters much, although the Chargers defense has looked much better after the half in both games. However, I doubt this is due to any brilliant in-game adjustments on his part. I think the Chargers would be better off firing Cottrell and promoting Ron Rivera to DC (although I've heard that many Bears fans have less-than-inspiring things to say about Rivera). Anyway, I would expect these two games to serve as a wake-up call to the players, and for the defense to steadily get better as the season progresses. Schemes will be changed to improve the pass rush, which should help the pass defense, and the return of Cooper will help the run defense.

4
by jpo287 :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 5:28pm

Great article. I'm not crazy about your ranking metrics but there is nowhere else you can get articles as good as the one above. Just outstanding!

Out of curiosity, how does Otah's only playing 2 years of college ball affect his potential/development. I would assume he is behind other players coming out of college which would mean he has more upside for future development. Or is that just wishful thinking?

Again, great article.

5
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 7:40pm

"Merriman, like DeMarcus Ware, is a mislabeled linebacker playing end"

I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that Ware was one of the few 3-4 OLBs that actually were LBs..you know, dropped back into coverage on downs, etc.

7
by Arson55 :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 4:11am

Yeah. I don't get that either. Ware is one of the most complete linebackers in the league. From Pro Football Prospectus 2008: "Ware is the ideal player for the system because his ability to rush the passer while maintaining his gap responsibilities makes him a rare commodity and, arguably, the best all-around linebacker in football." I realize that they don't specifically mention coverage but how can he be the best all-around linebacker (even arguably) unless he can cover to an extent too?

Now, I'm a Cowboy fan so I watch all of their games that I can. Ware does drop into coverage from time to time (not often but on occasion). And when he does he is good at it (not great, but certainly not a disaster). The coaches tend to have him rush because he's one of the best pass rushers around, but not because he's incapable of coverage.

Maybe I'm making too much out of it. But there's no reason for that line in the article. Why throw in that statement and give an inaccurate picture of a player not relevant to the article?

6
by armchair journe... :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 8:57pm

Great piece. Keep up the good work.

8
by David :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 9:00am

It might be worth mentioning that Julius Jones had his big day rushing against a Nickel Defense. The 49ers spent all day in a 4-2-5 defense (Manny Lawson only saw the field on Special Teams), as this had worked well against the Seahawk offense in the past

11
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 3:39pm

I was going to mention this too. What is a little odd is that Seattle were more successful passing from a base set while running better from their 3 receiver package. Mike Sando on ESPN has been writing some very good stuff about this in his NFC west blog.

It seems that the niners were willing to concede the run as they felt that it wasn't going to beat them if they contained Hassleback. A similar effect can be seen in the 8 sacks the hawks totted up. Seattle blitz a lot and the niners were throwing deep (no catches for Davis, Walker or Keasey), figuring that they might take their lumps but they would be paid off with big play down the field. Though some of the sacks were JTO's fault for holding the ball too long.

Also I'd mention just how bad Aubrayo Franklin has looked in the opening two games, I'm not sure there isn't a centre in the NFL that couldn't push him around like one of those little toy vacuum cleaners with the coloured balls.

As for Dashon Goldson on the first long run; I question whether or not he nailed Hassleback on purpose. He had a fantastic view of the play but went straight for the qb as if he'd been ordered to try and get a good hit in. Hassleback went into the game with a bad back and the back-up Seneca Wallace was hurt in the warm-ups, I don't think it is beyond the realm of possibility that the coaching staff wanted to rough up the qb.

9
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 10:51am

First, thanks for the kind words. Still working out the litle things with the format, but great to see that people enjoy it.

Regarding Ware, the comment about his position was in no way a slight -- I believe him to be the best "endbacker" in the NFL, and I thought the same before Merriman was hurt. But Ware was targeted eight times last year to Merriman's four -- even Greg Ellis was targeted more. The amazing thing about Ware, as PFP 2008 outlines, is his ability to explode to the quarterback while maintaining gap responsibility. He ran a bit more with tight ends in 2006 (13 targets), but it looks like the Cowboys are playing more to his strengths.

12
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 3:44pm

It's good stuff. My only reservation is that perhaps looking at one player over several games might be more instructive. I always felt that the biggest weakness of EPC is that quite often the player under observation is up against very strong/ weak opposition, rendering the observation a little pointless ie. "random end failed to get any pressure against Walter Jones", doesn't tell you mush other than Jones is very good. I can see how this would be much harder to organise though.

13
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 3:44pm

It's good stuff. My only reservation is that perhaps looking at one player over several games might be more instructive. I always felt that the biggest weakness of EPC is that quite often the player under observation is up against very strong/ weak opposition, rendering the observation a little pointless ie. "random end failed to get any pressure against Walter Jones", doesn't tell you much other than Jones is very good. I can see how this would be much harder to organise though.

10
by In_Belichick_We... :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 12:32pm

Good stuff. Nice to see writing about the NFL that isn't just some random opinion. There is way to much of the "this is what I think" writing out there, with no real content to back up the opinion.
Yikes, I'm considering a friggin football website as my home page:)

14
by panthersnbraves :: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 3:58pm

The only place to hear anything about the Panthers - or quite frankly, any in depth analysis.

If I don't check in daily, I get hives.