Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
24 Dec 2009
by Doug Farrar
Pitt linebacker Clint Session hit the NFL draft in 2007 measuring in at anywhere between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-0 (depending on who you believed) and 235 pounds. The Colts liked that he played in a defensive system similar to theirs, and drafted him in the fourth round despite the fact that Session didn't receive an invitation to the Scouting Combine. He forced five fumbles as a senior, and saw NFL action sooner than expected. Freddy Keiaho suffered a concussion and Session graduated from the backup role. Session really put his name on the map in Week 10 of his rookie season, when he picked off two Philip Rivers passes in a close loss to the Chargers. Injuries stunted his progress early on, but Session would flash impact potential in certain plays, like when he broke Jamal Lewis' facemask in December of 2008.
"Clint has what my old coach in Pittsburgh, coach (Chuck) Noll, used to call 'a six-inch punch.' The Muhammad Ali punch that Sonny Liston never saw, that's what Clint has," Tony Dungy said of Session in 2008. "It's very quick, and it doesn't look like much. But he rocks people and he knocks people back." Session got a full-time starting spot in 2008 and he's only gotten better, adding consistency to the highlight-reel stuff. He's now become a linchpin of a Colts' defense that has held up through a series of tight wins, including last Thursday's against the Jaguars.
Things didn't go well for Indy's defense at first in that game -- unfortunately for them, Maurice Jones-Drew had another one of his "I'm going to carry this entire $%^&* team on my #^@*&!$% back" revelations, and it lasted through most of the first half. But Session impressed me right away. He plays bigger than you'd expect from a power standpoint, and I like the way he adjusts to misdirection or change of direction. On Jacksonville's second play of the game, Jones-Drew went around right end only to find Session waiting for him there. Fullback Montell Owens filled the gap and blocked Session, but the linebacker bounced off the block and was the first of many to bring Pocket Hercules down for no gain.
From a speed perspective, Session is decent in zone drops, although he was as flummoxed as you'd expect by the receiver matchups Jacksonville would try in response to obvious pass defense looks. Where he was better was in reading and defending screens -- he stopped a quick pass to Jones-Drew with 13:22 left in the first quarter for no gain because he was patient and didn't bite on the play fake to Drew out of an offset-I formation. When you see quick linebackers get lost on that stuff, you appreciate the defenders who wait for plays to unfold and let their speed do the work.
The Colts' defense is not nearly as risk-averse as it used to be -- you'll see actual blitzes these days under new coordinator Larry Coyer, and it's because of the short-area recovery quickness and gap awareness of guys like Session that the team can blitz and still get decent run contain. On first-and-10 from the Colts' 49 with 11:36 left in the first quarter, Session was at the line in what I might call a "Bear Blitz" look, because it reminded me of how Chicago used to stack their outside linebackers a step out from the line and in the outside gaps. This particular alignment allows the linebackers to play with more run/pass flexibility, which is Session's game. At the snap, he read run from his weak side position, and stayed in his area as the motioning tight end downblocked. Drew cut back to his left, and Session was right where he needed to be because he read the direction and the play. As Drew buzzed outside left tackle, Session pushed away from the tight end and put first contact on Jones-Drew. An earlier whiff by end Raheem Brock behind the line set Pocket Hercules up for a seven-yard gain, but I was impressed again by Session.
After watching him in this game, and having him catch my eye on several others, I want to do a three-game, single-study piece on Session in the future. While he didn't amass the enormous tackle totals he has in other games, he played the role of defensive instigator in this one. Over and over, he would set the tone for a stop by being there on first contact, allowing others to zero in. He's a very fast defender, but he's equally aware, and that's an impressive combination.
Perhaps this is a common trait of the underrated defender -- he's the one who sets others up for success. His coaches and teammates love him for it, and those who watch with a careful eye appreciate the effort. But it's the guy making a beeline for the ballcarrier who gets the recognition when the unheralded player is the one who bears watching -- he's the one setting up play after play for himself and others. This is true of Session, and also of our next defender.
In his fourth NFL season, Eagles tackle Mike Patterson isn't within shouting distance of the "Baby Sapp" nickname he used to carry at USC. Now, he's more about the physical battle inside than the marquee moments he had in college. When I asked Mike Tanier for the name of an underrated Philadelphia defender, Patterson's was the first that came through my Inbox. Mike said that Patterson had played at a near-Pro Bowl level all season, so I thought it was time to break out the microscope and get to work. Adam Caplan of Scout.com and SIRIUS NFL Radio classified Patterson as "a wide-bodied player who has become more of a physical run defender on Philadelphia's front-four. He'll never be classified as an impact player, but he's been very consistent on running downs. He's a durable defensive lineman who should have many solid years to come."
The Eagles will ask Patterson and fellow starting tackle Brodrick Bunkley (who impressed me more than Patterson last season during the Eagles' playoff run) to man up against different linemen -- there's less of the static "0/1-tech/3-tech" packages you see with some other 4-3 fronts. The first thing I noticed about Patterson was his ability to shake off a double team and get back in the play. He first did this on a six-yard Frank Gore run with 10:28 left in the first quarter. Right guard Chilo Rachal and right tackle Adam Snyder pinched inside to blow Patterson out of the A-gap and give Gore room to run. But Patterson sifted through the blocks and helped take Gore down. He seems to have a better ability to deal with man-on-man power situations than Bunkley, who was frequently overwhelmed by center Eric Heitmann when Bunkley was lined up over the ball. On the next play, it was the focus on Patterson, and Vernon Davis' release against an over front (strong-side alignment) that allowed end Juqua Parker to blast through, unobstructed, and bat Alex Smith's pass down.
The Eagles adapted to the 49ers' frequent shotgun snaps with wide fronts and different pressure concepts. Parker's deflection left San Francisco with third-and-4 at the Philly 33. Now, Patterson stunted to the right at the snap while Bunkley took the double-team up top, and got to Smith quickly enough to cause an early throw and end the drive.
Later in the first quarter, Patterson finally got to have some fun. After a 12-yard Gore run with 5:45 left (this was another double on Patterson -- the 49ers were countering Philly's wider defensive line splits with blocking schemes designed to move a tackle one way, and the accompanying linebacker the other), there was a double-team inside, so Gore took it outside and was tackled by Parker for a one-yard gain. On the next play, Patterson found himself in the moment every interior lineman lives for after all that extra attention: On second-and-9 from the San Francisco 40, the Niners tried Gore up the middle and Rachal single-blocking Patterson. Not a good idea, as Patterson simply wedged his way inside, pulled off Rachal, and stopped the play for no gain.
The first part of being impressed by constant double-teams on a tackle is the constant double-team concept itself. The second part is watching what happens in single-blocking situations. I learned this when I wrote about Ndamukong Suh two weeks ago, and I pitied the poor quarterback whenever some joker called for a scheme that didn't have anywhere from two to eight people directly on Suh at all times.
Patterson started the second half with a bang, displaying his ability to mess things up at the point for any rushing attack. With first-and-10 at the Eagles' 43, he simply blew through the Rachal/Snyder double-team and stopped Gore for a loss of one yard. On Gore's next run, he peeled off Rachal again and limited Gore to a two-yard gain. Both Bunkley and Patterson seem most effective as gap-fill tackles as opposed to the kind who will take a head-on approach and either bull through or slide off a block (Shaun Rogers' specialty in Cleveland). In this game, Patterson found more and more success filling the right B-gap and either splitting the double or shading the guard and exploiting the mismatch. If they take double-teams straight on, it's more likely to be one way, intentional or not, to gum up blockers and get other defenders involved.
If Clint Session impresses with his physical play for his size, Starks -- now a key cog in Miami's defense in his second season with the Dolphins after four unspectacular years with the Titans -- stands out equally with surprising pursuit speed. On the Titans' second play from scrimmage, Chris Johnson headed outside left and was trapped near the sideline by Joey Porter. As Johnson cut back inside to find a seam, Starks disengaged from left tackle Michael Roos and set after Johnson in a hurry, catching him for no gain. Cornerback Vontae Davis ended that first drive with a volleyball interception on a ball thrown to tight end Bo Scaife. Starks was lost on the play by Roos' great fan-blocking -- he just rode Starks out of the pocket.
Johnson started Tennessee's next drive by bounding outside at his own 19-yard line, but Starks again slid off Roos and got the first hand on the speedster, and Jason Taylor came up and made the tackle. Another no-gainer for the most explosive running back in the game, and Starks wasn't facing a scrub -- Roos is one of the NFL's best power blockers. We saw this two plays later, when Roos simply bulled a charging Starks out of the play as Johnson flew up the middle for 11 yards. But Roos had much more trouble through this game when Johnson ran outside left and Starks was able to show off his lateral speed. It's definitely one of his best traits.
Starks excels when bringing pass pressure as a 3-4 right end and as a 4-3 penetrating tackle. He nearly got to Vince Young in back-to-back plays, in both formations, on that second drive. On second-and-6 from the Miami 34 with 8:33 left in the first quarter, Starks got off the snap with great speed and was putting swim moves on Roos before Roos could even set his feet. He was pushed back and almost aside, and Starks was about a foot away from Young when the incompletion was thrown. On the next play, he shaded inside and took center Kevin Mawae straight on. Mawae is a feisty old pro, but he doesn't handle physical play very well, and Young had to scramble for seven yards on an unplanned run before Starks blew up the play.
Here, you can see why he's getting to the quarterback so often this season -- his physical attributes fit perfectly in a defensive scheme where he's asked to do different things in conjunction with other talented players. Whether tracking outside rushers with Porter or Taylor, or getting nasty inside with an angry pass-blocker, Starks has raised his game to a level that deserves more notice.
21 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2009, 8:59am by greybeard