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?
26 Aug 2009
by Doug Farrar
The last time the St. Louis Rams selected an offensive tackle at the top of an NFL draft, it was Orlando Pace, who was taken first overall in 1997. Pace became part of the undersold power in the Greatest Show on Turf, one-third of the elite tackle triplets at his peak along with Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden, and one of the finest players in the history of the Rams franchise. Jackie Slater would have a solid rebuttal if you called Pace the team's best all-time lineman, but there's no question Pace had everything it took to be one of the best ever -- agility, power, intelligence, and an on-field mean streak that belied his quiet and friendly nature. Pace signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Bears on April 2 after the Rams released him as part of a salary purge.
With Alex "The Human False Start" Barron and Adam Goldberg as the only established starting tackles on the roster, the Rams went to the well with the second overall pick in 2009 and selected Baylor's Jason Smith. A converted tight end, Smith displayed outstanding agility and wonderful second-level speed as a blocker in Baylor's spread offense. At the NFL level, a few alterations would have to be made. Since the Rams aren't exactly going to run the Fun-and-Gun under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo and former Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur, who now runs the offense in St. Louis, Smith may need to bulk up the 6-foot-5, 309-pound frame we saw at the Scouting Combine.
But the biggest adjustment that Smith, or any lineman who played predominantly in a spread offense in college, has to make at the pro level is the switch to a three-point stance presnap. Spread linemen don't need to explode into defenders due to wider line splits and various defensive adjustments. Speed is often more important than power, and the kind of drive-blocking required in the NFL is frequently de-emphasized. And though Smith's positive traits had teams overlooking those potential adjustments in ways they wouldn't ordinarily with two-point linemen, Senior Analyst Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com told me that "it was one of the rubs with Smith. He flashes a terrific punch, but isn't as functionally strong as the others in this class –- Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, and Andre Smith. So, when pass rushers get their hands into him, he can be beaten, especially when he has poor pad level."
I wanted to see how Smith would handle the bull- and edge-rush of Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis, and whether he had the potential to deal with a more physical game. Barron and quarterback Marc Bulger were out of this game, replaced by Goldberg and Kyle Boller through the first half.
On their first offensive play, first-and-10 from the St. Louis 16 with 9:45 left in the first quarter, the Rams called a Steven Jackson run to the left out of an I-formation. Smith had tight end Randy McMichael chipping outside, and McMichael engaged linebacker Stephen Nicholas out of a five-man front at the snap. Davis took Smith outside, and Smith blew the block entirely. The Rams were fortunate that the play went the other way and Jackson ran for nine yards.
Smith looked better on second down, pushing Davis inside as Boller rolled out right and threw a short pass to receiver Keenan Burton. On the next play, first-and-10 from the 28, Smith went inside again, cutting tackle Trey Lewis as Jackson headed left again. Jackson headed around right end on the next play, and Davis got underneath Smith's pads, lifting him out of the play. This was the first of many instances I saw in which Smith let his pad level get him in trouble. He plays very upright -- almost standing straight up at times -- and he'll have to correct that if he hopes to succeed in the NFL.
Another thing Smith will learn over time is to adjust his blocking for what's in front of him. On third-and-9 from the 29, he pinched inside again to help Richie Incognito, letting linebacker Mike Peterson come through unobstructed. The pressure from Peterson forced a quick throw from Boller to fullback Samkon Gado. Pass incomplete, drive over.
The Rams' next drive started at their own 17 with 3:22 left in the first quarter, and on the first play, Smith's potential in pass protection really flashed for the first time. St. Louis came out in a three-tight end set, with Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema outside Smith on the right. All three tight ends released downfield at the snap, and Smith immediately took a step outside to engage Davis, who was rolling up off the edge. Smith set his feet quickly and rode Davis out of the pocket in textbook fashion. There aren't many young tackles in the league who have that nice "fanning" ability (I compare it to the arc of an opening door). Even a monster like Ryan Clady tends to take pass rushers more head-on. Smith reminds me more of Joe Thomas in this regard. Boller threw a floating goatball to Fells that was almost picked by cornerback Brent Grimes, but Smith did his job on that one. On second-and-10, Gado headed up the middle for no gain, and Smith fell on his face as he tried to cut fellow rookie Peria Jerry inside. Jerry had moved on to his right to help stop the play, and linebacker Curtis Lofton filled the hole that Smith left open.
Third-and-10 saw the Rams line up shotgun, with Smith in a two-point stance. His increased comfort with this was obvious. The Falcons showed a five-man front with linebacker Coy Wire over center, but Wire looped to blitz over Smith. After helping Incognito chip Davis, Smith peeled off and just demolished Wire, blocking him back from right to left tackle and out of the play. He seemed so much more sure of his bearings off the snap; there wasn't that extra split-second required to bring his head up and drive-block. Boller stepped up in the pocket and hit Laurent Robinson for 19 yards on a comeback. Still, it was a Kyle Boller> drive, so it ended at the Atlanta 40 at the start of the second quarter with an overthrown pass to Robinson in the end zone. Through that second drive, Smith consistently showed more agility (and ability) in the two-point stance when the Rams would run shotgun.
When I first heard that the Rams were moving Smith to right tackle and Barron to the left, I thought that the team was either making a horrendous mistake, or getting ready to sign Michael Vick. The latter was the only circumstance where putting the better tackle on the right side made any sense at all. But no, Vick's blind-side protection will come from Winston Justice, which must seem like poetic justice to some. In truth, the Rams will have to bring Smith along gradually because the adjustments he must make are graphic. With a starting quarterback in Bulger who has played all 16 games in a season only once in his career, and Boller now playing the part of Option B, quarterback protection in St. Louis becomes more important than ever.
Can Smith buck the odds and figure it out? Rang is aware of the obstacles but likes Smith's chances over time. "I do not know of any top-tier tackle over the last ten years drafted out of a two-point offense, so comparisons are tough. Considering the adjustment he's making in terms of stance, left to right tackle and, of course, the jump in size and athleticism of the pros, I'm not at all surprised he's struggling. I spoke with Jason several times last year and I believe he has the work ethic to take advantage of his skills and ultimately be a standout. At this time, however, it appears that it may take at least a season or two for him to really acclimate."
After they lost the Mark Sanchez derby, the Washington Redskins took a different tack with the 13th overall pick and selected Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo. In 2008, Washington had the fewest sacks in the NFC with 24, and posted one of the worst Adjusted Sack Rate totals in the NFL for the third straight year. This despite bringing six or more pass rushers 14.4 percent of the time in 2008, third-highest in the NFL. Orakpo was the second part of a front four overhaul that began when the Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth and gave him the gross national product of France to soak up double- and triple-teams. Having Haynesworth on board will help veterans like Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter, but more was needed.
Orakpo put up 23.0 sacks in his 21 college starts, exploding for 11.5 takedowns and 15 quarterback pressures in his senior season. The Redskins slotted him in as a strong-side linebacker, but his primary task right now is to become the edge-rush threat his team desperately needs. If his effort against the Steelers is any indication, Washington made the right choice.
The Steelers started their first drive at their own 29 with 8:08 left in the first quarter. Charlie Batch was in at quarterback, and four-fifths of the starting offensive line was in there (Doug Legursky standing in for Chris Kemoeatu at left guard). The Redskins started out in a 5-2-4 look, with Daniels at left defensive end and Orakpo filling the left B-gap. The steelers put two tight ends right to deal with that threat, but left tackle Max Starks didn't have an answer for Carter, who blew right by him and deflected Batch's pass. To add insult to injury, Starks was flagged for holding, and Haynesworth erased Legursky and center Justin Hartwig on his way to the quarterback -- he just got there after Daniels. The "yes, it's against Pittsburgh's line" qualifier is in full effect, but you start to see what kind of line the Redskins could have this year if Haynesworth stays healthy.
Orakpo showed his closing speed to the quarterback on the next play, a first-and-20 from the Pittsburgh 19. Motioning over from weak side to strong side blitz off the edge (the Washington line was moving around like crazy presnap), he had a clear path to Batch as the tight end released and right tackle Willie Colon set inside to help with Daniels. Batch got the ball off incomplete, and Orakpo blew up the play. A few plays later, on third-and-12 from the Pittsburgh 35 with 5:23 left in the quarter, Orakpo lined up on the right edge, stunted inside, and got another clear path to Batch, who bailed out to his right and threw what was first called a 47-yard completion to Santonio Holmes, but was reversed on replay. Orakpo got through because of his own speed, but also because Starks had to stay inside to help Legursky with Haynesworth. By the time Starks peeled off, Orakpo was already past him.
Pittsburgh began their next drive at the 50-yard line with 4:03 left in the first quarter. Orakpo blitzed off the left edge, and Hines Ward motioned left to right to help Heath Miller with the blocking on that side. The Steelers engaged in a nice bit of influence blocking out of an offset-I, with Ward bunching inside and Orakpo following his lead, The handoff to Willie Parker went to Orakpo's side, but Parker bounced outside and Orakpo couldn't recover in time to make the tackle. Blitzing off the left edge on the next play as well, Orakpo seemed to get the advantage on Miller to start, until Miller used his own momentum against him and pushed him out of the way of Batch, who was dropping back after play-action. This is a pretty common theme among rookie edge-rushers –- they tend to be one-direction missiles, and they have to learn that pro football is a 360-degree game (You'll see the same thing in Aaron Curry to start).
By the end of their second drive, the Steelers had to commit excessive resources to the Haynesworth/Orakpo combination, putting the center/guard on Haynesworth, and Starks/Miller on Orakpo. After Orakpo sacked Dennis Dixon to end Pittsburgh's third drive, and Haynesworth came out of the game healthy, Pittsburgh moved to a "check with me" system between their tackles and running backs re: blocking Orakpo.
The focus is understandable because of the things that Orakpo can do. He's not just an extremely effective pass-rusher off the edge; he also closes a gap with amazing quickness out of the linebacker spot. What he hasn't done, and what he'll have to learn, is the coverage aspect of the linebacker position. He seems lost in space at this point, but that's understandable. What I didn't see was any of the hesitation that puts some rookie ends behind the 8-ball. More than once, I saw Orakpo making sure his teammates were lined up in defensive motion sets before he put his hand down. The Redskins are asking a lot of Orakpo to be an effective edge rusher and strong-side linebacker, but early indications tell me that he's up to the challenge.
As it has been with older brother Vernon, the knock on former Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis is that you have to accept lapses in discipline and physical gaps in consistency if you want the raw athletic potential he brings to the position. In three seasons with the Fighting Illini, Davis picked off seven passes and gained a reputation for quick-closing coverage and dynamic run support. The question going forward was whether he would be able to cut down on the missteps and breakdowns that caused head coach Ron Zook to demote him to the second team for part of the 2008 season. Given the Dolphins' need at the cornerback position and the team's "my-way-or-the-highway" ethos that starts with Bill Parcells and works its way down, Davis seemed like a good risk.
When Miami selected him with the 25th overall pick, Vontae became one-half of the first duo of first-round brothers since Peyton and Eli Manning. Given Vernon's spotty NFL career to date, the Davis clan hasn't quite matched the Manning resume. And when Vontae was nailed for three penalties in his preseason debut against the Jaguars (fair catch interference, personal foul, defensive pass interference), it seemed that his old debits might be catching up to him.
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano remained patient, saying that Davis' three "minus plays" had to be taken in the context of his overall performance. Davis' challenge in the follow-up against the Panthers would be to leave the blockhead stuff out and play with the awareness that could make him an elite member of the Dolphins' defense.
The Panthers' offense spent most of their first quarter with blast runs and short passes, but Davis got his first half-tackle with 1:33 left in the quarter, when backup running back Mike Goodson went off left tackle. Davis, playing right cornerback about seven yards deep, shed the block of receiver Kenny Moore, and came up to help Channing Crowder bring Goodson down for a one-yard gain. Two plays later, Jake Delhomme threw a little outlet pass to Goodson behind the line of scrimmage. Davis closed quickly, didn't let Goodson escape, and slowed him down for the Crowder tackle and a four-yard loss. Backup Matt Moore threw a dinker to receiver Jason Carter a couple yards behind the line halfway through the third quarter, and Davis drove to (and through) the ballcarrier once again.
I didn't see as much of Davis' coverage ability as I would have liked, but the preseason is often about baby steps, especially against a conservative offense like Carolina's. What I wanted to confirm was the renowned closing speed and technique, and I think the Dolphins have a winner there. Davis is on my list of players I'll revisit through the regular season, because I want to see how he fares when asked to backpedal consistently and play the complete game.
21 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2009, 9:23am by Dice