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?
16 Sep 2009
by Doug Farrar
Forget about Thunder & Lightning and Smash & Dash -- in Tampa Bay, it's all about the 2-2-1. No, that's not an area code thing; it's how new Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and Offensive-Coordinator-of-the-Week Greg Olson want to rotate running backs Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham. As Morris told the St. Petersburg Times on August 25, the idea will be to give the starter two series, the second back two series, and the third back one series. "If it works, that's what I'd like to do. I want to go into it with that thought," Morris said, though he left open the possibility that a good day by a particular back could alter the plan.
Williams's participation was a fine example of beating the odds. Drafted fifth overall by Tampa Bay in 2005, he took the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in a landslide but it's been downhill since. He wasn't as effective in his sophomore season, and he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee in October, 2007. After a 14-month rehab, he enjoyed a brief comeback before tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee in the 2008 season finale. The question was obvious: Coming back after those two injuries, would he have anything left? His answer against the Cowboys was absolute and unequivocal -- Cadillac is back.
The thing that stood out about Williams above everything else in this game was the speed of his cuts; they were truly amazing, under the circumstances. I had a good measuring stick in Dallas' Felix Jones, and I didn't see any real difference between the two backs when they changed direction. It's no surprise that he's still fast in a straight line, but there wasn't a hint of hesitation when he needed to plant and cut.
FO Injury Guru Will Carroll expressed surprise at Williams's recovery and subsequent performance. "The patellar tear is massive. I didn't think he had any chance of coming back from it and would love to know who did the surgery. Everyone thinks of Wendell Davis with that, but medical science has come a long way. Put that on top of his other knee issues and I'm not sure if it was easier ("knew how to rehab") or harder ("cumulative damage") but Williams is absolutely sui generis. I have no idea if he can stay healthy, but he sure looked good for one game."
Williams had the first of his 13 carries on the Bucs' first offensive play, from the Tampa Bay 20 with 9:35 left in the first quarter. He took the ball from Byron Leftwich in a single-back set with tight end Jerramy Stevens motioning left to right. The Bucs did a nice hybrid blocking scheme with center Jeff Faine, right guard Davin Joseph, and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood sliding to the right, and left guard Jeremy Zuttah and left tackle Donald Penn taking defenders man-on-man to the left. Dallas set up with their usual 5-2 front. Williams followed the slide to the right, but wasn't quite quick enough to the hole before Keith Brooking closed the gap, limiting the run to a two-yard gain. Anyone worried about Williams's speed to and through the hole didn't have long to fret. On the next play, he shot out of an offset-I like a bullet, headed left, and cut around left tackle as Penn blew a blitzing Bradie James out of the play. Right end Anthony Spencer overshot his pursuit, and Williams exploited the hole with terrific speed and agility for an 11-yard gain.
Two plays later, Williams decided to take the right side out of a single-back from the Dallas 34. Tackle Jay Ratliff blew through Faine and fell towards a Williams takedown, but Cadillac was having none of it. He eluded Ratliff, accelerated between Spencer and linebacker Steve Octavien, and hit the alley in another gear behind three perfect blocks from Joseph, Stevens, and Trueblood. And as much as Williams impressed on this 14-yard gain, I have to mention how well the Buccaneers were blocking downfield. The receivers were committed to it, and the linemen were quick enough to make things happen at the second level.
The Bucs started their second drive at their own 22 with 1:14 left in the first quarter with two more impressive Williams runs. They went back to their split blocking, and Williams headed up the right B-gap for seven yards. On the next play, he took the ball out of another I-formation and showed his ability to cruise through a tight lane, up the middle for an eight-yard gain. Speed, moves, and power -- he'd shown it all.
Of course, the money play came with 12:18 left in the first half, on the eighth play of that same drive. Williams lined up single-back with Stevens in motion from left to right. At the snap, he started outside as Stevens, Trueblood, and Joseph established the seam. Dallas lined up in a four-man front with safety Ken Hamlin coming fast on a kamikaze blitz. Stevens picked Hamlin up, Penn cut end Steven Bowen for the inside lane, and Spencer was washed out by Joseph. Kellen Winslow's soldierly block of Bobby Carpenter was the final piece of the puzzle. Williams hit the lane so fast, he was circling his right arm just to keep his balance. And then, at the 35-yard line, he did a little jump-step worthy of Gale Sayers to give the extra shot of momentum needed to blow by cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Scandrick wound up eating turf, and Williams concluded the 35-yard run by splitting Terence Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh before Sensabaugh finally brought him down at the five-yard line. Williams's vision was also exceptional on this play, especially when he cut outside Carpenter as Faine had him near the line. Carpenter couldn't adjust quickly enough because of Williams's cut speed.
Williams got a one-yard touchdown run two plays later; the capper on a remarkable comeback story more cinematic than a 13-carry, 97-yard stat line can tell. As Moose Johnston said in the booth, the guys who have this kind of injury don't generally come back, and the ones who do aren't the same. For at least one game -- and hopefully many more -- Cadillac Williams was the exception. And Coach Morris had to revise his 2-2-1 equation, keeping Earnest Graham out of the picture as Ward ate up carries and Williams devoured everything else.
From his days at Michigan, inside linebacker David Harris has found ways to surprise people and exceed expectations. After suffering an ACL tear in the second game of his freshman year of 2003 and missing the rest of that season, Harris began his recovery in 2004 with seven games, but another knee injury slowed his progress. Everything turned around in 2005 and 2006, as Harris logged a total of 184 tackles in those two seasons. In 2005, he won the Roger Zatkoff Award as the Wolverines' top linebacker after starting the final 11 contests on the weak side. In 2006, he upped the ante with 13 starts for a run defense that allowed the fewest yards per game (43.38), the lowest season total for a Division I-A team since Arizona's 30.1 YPG in 1993.
As an inside linebacker, Harris was ranked second in the 2007 draft class, behind only Mississippi's Patrick Willis, by NFLDraftScout.com, and the Jets took him in the second round with the 47th overall pick. Harris seemed determined to earn that spot right away, making Mike Tanier's Too Deep Zone All-Rookie Team and picking up an astonishing 30 solo and 41 total tackles in his first two starts. As Eric Mangini's 3-4 conversion froze Jonathan Vilma out of the picture, Harris took over and became the face of the linebacker corps. Harris's sophomore season was a disappointment by comparison -- he missed five games with a groin injury, and almost all of his stats (Stop Rate against the run was the one notable exception) fell precipitously.
In 2009, the combination of good health, comfort and familiarity with the demands of the NFL, and the defensive schemes of new head coach Rex Ryan, have put Harris in a breakout position. Ryan imported his "46" concepts (among others), which demand that linebackers get and stay in position to have a free run at the man with the ball. He also brought fellow inside linebacker Bart Scott, a smart and dynamic veteran very familiar with Ryan's defensive schemes, from Baltimore. Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine immediately recognized Harris's abilities and saw a perfect fit on the strong-side inside. Harris's assignment would be clear -- stay in the headup position, read the tackles, and attack anything that looks remotely like a ball carrier.
Scott and Harris have already learned to work well together, as they did on the Texans' second offensive play, from their own 22. Out of a base 5-2, Scott blitzed, while Harris dropped into coverage out of an interchangeable look. Harris learned a bit about Houston's offensive line on the next play, however, when running back Chris Brown headed up the middle for 11 yards and center Chris Myers just blew Harris out to the left side. Two plays later, Matt Schaub tried to throw a little left screen to Steve Slaton. But Harris, freed up to pursue to his right by Kris Jenkins taking Myers and end Marques Douglas dealing with left guard Chester Pitts, blew out the screen and caused an incompletion by jacking Slaton up three yards behind the line of scrimmage. This time, it was Scott hanging in space while Harris was the bulldozer. Clearly, Ryan likes the schematic advantages of interchangeable roles with his inside 'backers.
Ryan showed his love for formation diversity on the next play, third-and-12 from the Houston 38. Another 5-2 pre-snap look, but with Jenkins starting off at left 3-4 end and then motioning right as if he were playing right end instead. He took a step inside, then backed up to linebacker level, between Harris and Scott. This was their cue to walk up and hit the A-gaps for everything they were worth. Scott got held up on the right side by Slaton, but Harris had a free lane and hit Schaub just as he let off a long pass to Andre Johnson that was about ten yards wide. Harris was all over the place against the Texans, leading the team with six solo tackles and five assists. His sack, which came with 7:07 left in the third quarter, was the result of a linebacker twist with Scott that simply overwhelmed Houston's offensive line. Get the big guys up front to command the space, then have your linebackers pin their ears back: That's a Rex Ryan defense.
This was Harris's first game in a new system that seems tailor-made for his talents. He's a great downhill tackler with excellent pursuit. He's better in coverage than I was led to believe, though he won't set any land speed records with his backpedal. Where I think he will benefit most is in his ability to trade responsibilities and assignments with Scott in a defense that often matches generic first looks with wildly creative results. I'm looking forward to watching Harris through the season; it looks to me that he's about to realize his great potential.
Does it make sense to select your key offensive linemen early in the draft? At FO, we have found that teams taking a lineman, or linemen, whose draft spot(s) total at least 1200 value points on the Draft Value Chart, tend to improve pretty drastically on offense in the following season. Fifteen teams have done so since 2001, and the 12 with follow-up seasons in the books improve by an average of 15 percentage points of DVOA. It's not just horrible teams regressing to the average -- five teams with above-average Offensive DVOA in that first season spent at least 2,000 "value points" on offensive linemen and four of those teams improved by more than 20 percentage points each. It's not an infallible theory -- Cincinnati's Andre Smith could easily join Arizona's Levi Brown (2007) and Detroit's Jeff Backus and Domonic Raiola (2001) as "value additions" who didn't make much of a difference -- but for every one of those guys, there are five who contributed to an offensive resurgence.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are one team that could use a resurgence led by their line. In 2008, they lost Brad Meester, their starting center, for the first six weeks of the season. Starting guards Mo Williams and Vince Manuwai were each lost for the season in the opening game. Tackles Khalif Barnes and Tony Pashos were ineffective all year; Barnes led the team with six blown blocks and Pashos racked up four holding penalties in a Week 12 contest against the Vikings. As part of their rebuilding effort, the Jags spent their first two 2009 draft picks on tackles -- Virginia's Eugene Monroe and Arizona's Eben Britton. Taken eighth and 39th overall, Monroe and Britton totaled 1,900 value points.
Baylor's Jason Smith came out of the draft with more sheer athleticism, but for those concerned about Smith's ability to block in a three-point stance, Monroe was the top man at his position. At 6-5 and 309 pounds at the Combine, he has prototypical left tackle build and power. "He's a bit bigger in the middle than you'd like, and he tends to catch ends instead of using his punch to keep them off balance," Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com told me. "But he's got good feet, and keeps them moving in pass protection to mirror his man. Monroe rarely gets beat, handling bull rushes as well as most inside and outside moves with ease. He will block down inside to take defensive tackles out of the play, and he's able to neutralize linebackers at the second level. At Virginia, he shifted to tight end on some strong-side run plays in order to use his strength and athleticism."
Rang had this to say about Britton, who played both tackle spots at Arizona, and the move to the right side. "He's got good initial hand punch and can physically control his opponent when he locks on. Cognizant pass blocker who recognizes the blitz and adjusts quickly. Flashes a deep kick-step to force pass rushers wide. Despite his height (6-6), he can play with leverage in the running game and drive defenders off the line. He was protected as a pass blocker by the Arizona spread scheme. Britton lacks the elite foot speed of top left tackles, and he will struggle in pass protection."
However, value points and evaluations can't help block elite pass rushers. In their NFL debuts, Monroe and Britton would have to deal with Indianapolis Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Britton showed excellent drive power on Jacksonville's first offensive play, from the Jags' 20 with 9:59 left in the first quarter. At the snap, he got off the ball very quickly and bulled the 3-technique tackle out of the play to the left as Maurice Jones-Drew headed right. The nest play was a screen to Pocket Hercules, and Britton took to the outside to run interference, blocking safety Antoine Bethea downfield. On the other side, Monroe fanned out to block Freeney, and got abused by the inside spin move. Had the play not been going the other way, that might have been ugly. Two plays later, on a draw to Jones-Drew from the Jacksonville 41, it was Britton's turn to get upended by the spin -- this time, from Raheem Brock. Monroe set his feet and took Freeney head-on, which meant that Freeney wasn't going anywhere. NFLDraftScout mentions that Monroe has a Walter Jones upside, and while I'm not ready to go there yet, he reminds me of Jones in that if he gets in position with a solid foundation, you won't often beat him by taking him straight on.
Two plays later, with the ball on the Indy 48, Monroe had his "Welcome to the NFL" moment. Freeney lined up wide and at an angle. Monroe started to fan out to the left again, which was an open invitation for Freeney to debacle him with another inside spin. This he did, shooting past the rookie and bring Garrard down at the Jacksonville 44. When facing Freeney, who has amazing inside/outside speed but not great forward power, Monroe might benefit from more of a straight dropback so he can adjust to either side.
I felt I got a good sense of Monroe's and Britton's basic abilities through this game, but I wanted to avoid making too many judgments just yet. These were two kids in their first NFL game, dealing with one of the elite pass-rushing squads in the NFL, and it would be unfair to put them under the microscope. Still, this was a marker for the future, and Cover-3 will revisit these two -- perhaps when the Jags welcome the Colts to Jacksonville Stadium on December 17.
11 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2009, 3:43pm by shake n bake