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?
09 Sep 2009
by Doug Farrar
Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman wanted Mike Goodson to be the future of the Aggies, but Goodson decided that his future was in the NFL. After numerous conflicts with his college coaches and a career in which his undeniable talent didn't show up in the stats, Goodson made himself available for the 2009 draft. The questions were numerous -- how could a player whose yards per carry declined in each of his three seasons, whose Speed Score was a very average 97.9, and whose 0.2 POE ("Points Over Expected" -- in short, our college version of DVOA) ranked 130th in the nation, attain the kind of diamond-in-the-rough status associated with his name pre-draft?
The answer was, as it so often is, pure athleticism. Goodson popped off the tape at A&M with a combination of breakaway burst and the ability to bounce outside that had NFLDraftScout.com comparing him to Jerious Norwood. NFLDS Senior Analyst Rob Rang told me that Goodson's "agility and straight-line speed made him one of the more eagerly anticipated athletes for scouts to watch at the Combine. While his numbers weren't jaw-dropping, Goodson's vision and explosive first step make him appear even faster and more elusive on the football field than in workouts. He lacks the bulk for the inside and some have questioned his toughness. As a receiver, returner and outside runner, however, Goodson can make an immediate impact and develop into a legitimate weapon defenses have to account for."
The Carolina Panthers, fully paid up on power running with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, drafted Goodson in the fourth round and let him loose in the preseason to see if he might be the kind of outside speed threat that could make Carolina's running game the most potent in the league. At the end of the preseason, he led the NFL in total yards with 426 -- 197 yards on the ground with 40 carries, 51 receiving yards with eight catches, and 188 yards on nine kick returns. He gained 52 rushing yards on 11 carries in Week 4 of the preseason against Baltimore's defensive starters, and he faced a mix of Pittsburgh starters and second-teamers in the exhibition finale.
|Figure 1: Panthers Power Run Right|
Goodson's first run of the day came on the second play of Carolina's second drive with second-and-8 from their own 20, and demonstrated how the Panthers use their tight ends in interesting run-blocking schemes. Tight end Gary Barnidge lined up to the right of tackle Geoff Schwartz, and Dante Rosario was outside Barnidge. At the snap, Barnidge and Rosario set inside, with Barnidge taking defensive end Nick Eason, and Rosario on linebacker Andre Frazier. At the same time, Schwartz pulled right and bulled linebacker Arnold Harrison out of the way, while guard Duke Robinson headed up the second level to pancake safety Ryan Mundy. With a clear lane, Goodson shot through the first gap, and then bounced outside again to elude cornerback Keenan Lewis, who shed the block of receiver Dwayne Jarrett. Goodson picked up 11 yards and showed that his speed is a perfect match with power blocking. I was also impressed with Robinson's speed on this play -- I interviewed the 6-5, 330-pound lineman before the draft and it was nice to see him making waves.
After an 11-yard pass from Josh McCown to Jarrett, Goodson tried one up the middle; not advisable against this defense. McCown tried a little fake sweep to receiver Kenny Moore, but the Steelers read run all the way and bottled Goodson up. Two plays later, Harrison got the sack/forced fumble/recovered fumble combo, and that was that. Unfortunately, it also revealed Goodson's weakness in blitz pickup, something that scouts noted during his A&M days -- Carolina was in a shotgun, two-back set, and Harrison was Goodson's assignment. Harrison just bulled past the rookie.
Goodson got his next shot with 3:14 left in the first quarter, starting the next Carolina drive at the Panthers' own 29. Carolina again went with two tight ends right, this time out of an I-formation, but Goodson ran weak side between Schwartz and left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, as fullback Tony Fiammetta blasted a hole in the left B-gap. This was where you saw Goodson's ridiculous burst -- he hits the hole decisively and with alarming speed. He absolutely flew past the linebackers before cornerback Roy Lewis took him down 12 yards later. On the next play, the Panthers tried Goodson up the middle again, to no avail. He tried heading inside right behind a fullback blast but got caught up in the line and tackle Chris Hoke quickly took him down from the back side. Two plays later, after 10 yards worth of McCown passes, Goodson took it outside right again from the Pittsburgh 48. This time, the Panthers ran their two tight ends left, sending the Pittsburgh line sludge that way. Goodson bounced outside Schwartz and cut back in just as quickly, heading upfield for eight before Lewis took him down again. One trait Goodson shares with the better speed backs in the game is that he doesn’t suffer from a discernible change in velocity when he cuts -- he's able to get back in top gear right away.
I'm looking forward to seeing how the Panthers use Goodson, and I wonder if he might not be what Tashard Choice was for the Cowboys last season -- an unexpected production machine, surprising everyone out of the fourth round, and making the depth chart very interesting. Last season, the Panthers ranked third in runs up the middle (181), 21st in runs to left tackle, and 15th in runs to right tackle. It's a brutally effective attack, but there isn't the waterbug who can bust plays outside and make the defense worry. Carolina's front office saw the need for more versatility, and Mike Goodson might be the right lightning for Carolina's dual dose of thunder.
No team ran more two-tight end sets in 2008 than the Tennessee Titans -- Jeff Fisher's team went that way 39 percent of the time, up from 27 percent in 2007. The Titans didn't get a great return on that investment, however, as Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler finished 23rd and 29th in DYAR, respectively. With an eye toward a more productive receiver corps in general, the Titans traded their second-round pick in 2010 to New England to acquire a third-rounder, where they drafted South Carolina tight end Jared Cook with the 89th overall selection. At 6-5 and 246 pounds, Cook projected to be part of the new wave of big receivers misclassified as tight ends. Steve Spurrier once compared Cook to Calvin Johnson, which seems like a bit of exaggeration by the Ol' Ballcoach, but the talent is undeniable. At the Combine, Cook finished first among all tight ends in the 40-yard dash (4.49), vertical jump (41 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 3 inches) before injuring his quadriceps during his second 40-yard run. He played split end and flanker for the Gamecocks in addition to his natural position and with Tennessee's seemingly wide-open (read: unimpressive) receiver positions, Cook could write his own ticket with a good preseason.
I asked Terry McCormick of the Nashville City Paper to outline where and how he sees Cook fitting in. "The Titans like the size and speed combination that Cook brings," Terry said. "They are using him as sort of a hybrid tight end/wide receiver, splitting him out wide a lot during training camp and preseason. Eventually, he will be a tight end, but they are giving him a lot very quickly to see how he handles both roles, because they know he can create mismatches on linebackers, safeties and corners. For what his eventual role will be, think Shannon Sharpe and how the Broncos used him."
When I started watching the Titans against the Cleveland Browns to check out Cook's five-catch day, my first impression was that Crumpler, always a big guy anyway, spent the offseason alternating between the AFC and NFC Stuffed French Toast at IHOP. So, there's your blocking tight end (or, in a pinch, your blocking sled). How was Cook used? He got his first look from Kerry Collins with 10:32 left in the first quarter, with the Titans facing third-and-five at their own 30. Tennessee went shotgun, single-back, with Cook wide right. Cook ran a drag route over the middle, escaping cornerback Rod Hood, and headed upfield for a 12-yard gain. Collins had tackle C.J. Mosely in his face, but Cook's speed made the developing route possible, where other tight ends would not have been ready to make the catch in time. The Browns were playing a five-under two-deep, so all Cook had to do was beat the one man.
That put the ball at the Tennessee 42. Five plays later, with the ball at the Cleveland 33, the Titans went bunch left with Cook and Bo Scaife inside, and receiver Justin Gage outside to motion right. At the snap, Cook chipped defensive end David Veikune and shot out on a seven-yard hitch route, eluding Veikune and linebacker Beau Bell for two more yards. Blocking is not Cook's strong suit (as it was said in the FO Almanac: "Spurrier would put him at tight end, watch him miss a few blocks, throw his hands up, and split him wide"), but the chip was a nice effort.
We next saw Cook with 9:28 left in the first half, with the Titans on another of their monolithic drives. On first-and-10 from the Cleveland 29, the Titans went three-wide, with Cook inside right. He took a quick receiver screen upfield for four yards and out of bounds. Not terribly impressive, but Tennessee might get some mileage out of this one if they catch a cornerback playing off Gage on the outside, as Eric Wright was doing here. Then, with 1:51 left in the first half and Vince Young in the game, a quick five-yard slant out of the shotgun with Cook inside right again. Cook finished off his day with a short pass in the right flat from Young a minute later, as Tennessee was beating the blitz. Cook took the ball upfield, getting inside position and juking cornerback Gerald Lawson out of his shorts for a nine yard gain before Wright took him down. Young tried to hit Cook on a deep comeback three plays later, but cornerback Corey Ivy was flagged for an 18-yard interference penalty. If you count the infraction (and I prefer to with receivers), Cook was good for six receptions for 57 yards (five for 39 actual), which tied Gage for the team lead.
The Titans are moving Cook around, trying to see where the mismatches are, alternating him between safeties and cornerbacks in practice. He's getting daily lessons in professionalism from Crumpler, who's been very generous with his time (though hopefully not with the compote), and the veteran's words seem to echo the way everyone in the organization feels about Cook. "I'd do it for anybody, but he's got special talent, and in order for him to reach that full potential, it's important that he attacks this game as a professional every single day," Crumpler said.
Cook finished the preseason with 17 catches for 159 yards, painting him as Tennessee's go-to guy. Will that extend into the regular season? He's currently recovering from an ankle injury and will most likely be a game-time decision for the season opener on Thursday against the Steelers.
When you finish fourth all-time in the Pac-10 in sacks and you don't receive an invitation to the Combine, it's safe to say that you begin your NFL career with a chip on your shoulder. That's the story of Oregon ILB/OLB/DE Nick Reed, a second-team All-American and Hendricks Award finalist who was snubbed on the trip to Indy and barely made the East-West Shrine game as a last-minute addition. At 6-2 and 245 pounds, Reed confused many scouts who didn't know where he'd best line up in the NFL -- they believed that he didn't have the size or speed to edge-rush consistently, nor the quickness in space to trail backs and tight ends as a linebacker.
"This has been the story of my life as a football player," Reed told Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News in late February. "I've always been too small. Nobody gave me much of a chance to make the jump from high school to college. Everyone said I was too small. I wasn't invited to any high school all-star games. So you just prove them wrong."
Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell likes tweeners more than most, and Reed's combination of relentlessness and intelligence impressed Seattle enough to take him in the seventh round and put him at defensive end. Reed became the star of the Seahawks' preseason, amassing an NFL-best 4.5 sacks. He also forced two fumbles and picked off a pass in his NFL debut against the Chargers when he dropped into coverage in the right flat and intercepted a Charlie Whitehurst throw.
Reed made Seattle's final cut, but the still-unanswered question is if he can play his game against first-string talent. He saw a bit of time in the first half against Kansas City, showing good burst from right defensive end to the pocket on the 31-yard run by Jamaal Charles that closed out the first quarter. Reed finally started breaking through the Patrick Kerney/Darryl Tapp rotation late in the game, but not before he lined up in a very interesting position with 3:35 left in the third quarter. The Seahawks put Reed in at a wide three-technique, shaded outside left guard Darryl Harris, and Reed dropped into coverage at the snap while Craig Terrill lined up over center and right end Lawrence Jackson provided pressure on a 7-yard scramble by Tyler Thigpen.
This was a cool setup, and it showed me that the Seahawks like Reed's ability to cover short areas (It was also nice to see pressure from Jackson, the 2008 Seahawks first-round pick who's on all the milk cartons that Vernon Gholston isn't). Former defensive coordinator John Marshall ran some zone blitzes with frequently comical results; replacement Gus Bradley might have better luck with Reed and Aaron Curry, two potential pass rushers who seem comfortable dropping back. Not that I'm putting Reed anywhere near Curry's league -- believe me, I'm not. But defenses need guys like this, who can do a few things consistently well in specific situations.
Reed put his array of end moves to use at the start of the fourth quarter. The Chiefs had first-and-10 from their own 38, and Reed blasted off the line from the right side, put a nice inside spin move on left tackle Barry Richardson, and transitioned into a bull rush. However, new backup Matt Gutierrez had just enough time to heave a long bomb to Ashley Lelie, who torched cornerback Kevin Hobbs for a 33-yard gain. (Note: Hobbs pretty much cut himself on this play). Reed tried to take Richardson head-on from a slanted stance on the next play, and Richardson tossed him aside. He also got busted for defensive offside on that play. These are the battles Nick Reed doesn't want to fight in the NFL -- going man-on-man with the average tackle, who will outweigh him by at least 50 pounds. Reed doesn't have the sheer burst to make that push. What he does have is great quickness from his stance -- on the play after the penalty, he flew past guard Tavares Washington on a six-yard run. He has decent, though not remarkable, recovery speed to get back into plays after an edge rush.
The two plays that made him a name to remember came one after the other, starting with 1:21 left in the game. The Chiefs had first-and-10 at the Seattle 39. Gutierrez lined up shotgun, and at the snap, Reed went outside Richardson with kind of a "grab and rub" move -- he used his inside arm to push himself past Richardson, dipped his inside shoulder to the point that he was leaning at a 45-degree angle and almost fell down, and turned as Gutierrez dropped into the sack. On the next play, Reed tried another inside spin on Richardson, flushed Gutierrez out of the pocket, and forced an abysmal throw to linebacker Will Herring that ended the game.
In preseason football, projecting second-string rookie performances into regular-season situations is the game within the game. In that regard, Reed's an interesting case. He's not a "Rudy" with a motor and nothing else. On the other hand, he doesn't scream "Future Pro Bowler." What I see in Nick Reed, more than a starting defensive lineman, is a guy who can be used to great effect in a rotation, especially in obvious passing situations. For the price of a 247th overall pick, he's quite a bargain.
5 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2009, 3:43pm by Bionicman