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?
30 Dec 2009
by Doug Farrar
From Fred Merkle to Scott Norwood, there are those unfortunate souls whose careers are defined by one ignominious play or one horrible game. No matter what happened before or after, there are those sporting moments so painful that they are forever burned in the minds of the fanbase. Eagles tackle Winston Justice has had a game like this, and it was his first NFL start. In a 16-3 loss to the Giants on September 30, 2007, Justice gave up five sacks to Osi Umenyiora. Donovan McNabb took 12 total sacks, tying the NFL single-game record, and Justice didn't get another NFL start for two years.
Former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas was one of many who questioned Justice's effort and heart on that always-delightful communications phenomenon that is Philly talk radio, and the only thing Justice had to say in response was that "it would be stupid to talk back to him. Talk is nothing. The only thing I can do is prove it. I think that's the best thing to do." It took Justice a long time, but in an unexpected and underreported turn, he's making believers out of those who are paying attention.
Before the season, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg talked about the steps his maligned tackle had taken. "He's striking people and he's playing a physical manner. It sounds crazy, but he really is a good pass protector now. I've been impressed with Winston. There's no question he has dramatically improved his game. Sometimes it takes guys until their fourth or fifth year before it clicks for them. I think it has clicked for Winston."
I joined the bandwagon after watching him against the Broncos last Sunday.
Justice had a tight end outside right on Philadelphia's first two plays from scrimmage, a McNabb overthrow to DeSean Jackson and a three-yard run by Leonard Weaver. On third-and-7 from their own 39, the Eagles went three-wide, shotgun, single-back, with Elvis Dumervil slanted to Justice's right and ready to pounce. Justice took Dumervil's charge and fanned him out surprisingly well -- clearly, he's learned how to deflect that furious forward motion. By the time Dumervil escaped Justice's reach and came around to help sack McNabb, the protection had already broken down just about everywhere else. Denver stacked their linemen to the defensive right side, and I found the protection call to keep right guard Nick Cole in space, seemingly waiting for second-level defenders, to be very curious. A pull or slide would have helped the Eagles' line take away the advantage Denver was seeking. D.J. Williams blew through an open gap for the sack, but Brian Dawkins' illegal contact penalty prolonged the drive.
Two plays later, a four-yard Brian Westbrook run showed Philly's new commitment to power running. It was slide protection to the right, Justice chipping off Vonnie Holliday to hit the next level, and a second block on linebacker Mario Haggan as tight end Brent Celek stayed with Holliday. The space created by Justice's vertical drive gave Westbrook enough for a first down on second-and-2 from the Denver 48-yard line. I actually liked what I didn't see here -- Justice proved that he has the agility and technique to avoid just being a prototypical mauler. Your average to sub-average right tackle would have gotten lost in the swamp of players and allowed one of two defenders to close the gap.
The Eagles were using different protection schemes to deal with Dumervil -- on the next play, McNabb was back in shotgun with Celek in the backfield. Justice took a sloppy angle on a chop block, and if Celek hadn't been there to slow Dumervil up with a flying "Hong Kong Phooey" block, Dumervil would have beheaded McNabb. No. 5 got the ball off to Jackson on the left side for an 11-yard gain.
Justice is good with inside pinches and combos -- he doesn't get lost or pushed back. When he starts forward, it's pretty difficult to get him going in any other direction. He's not as adept at firing out through gaps and blocking linebackers, as he did on Westbrook's nine-yard run from the Denver 31-yard line with 10:36 left in the first quarter; it looked as if he had to get his bearings after a quick blast upfield before he could block Haggan again. He's better at chipping one defender and climbing to the next level; he has surprising agility and ability to shed defenders in those instances. I like his patience when asked to drop back in a zone in pass protection and wait for a defender to come to him -- he doesn't lurch out of step or drive out of position.
On the first play of Philly's second drive, a screen to LeSean McCoy, Justice handled end Ryan McBean's outside spin move very well, as Holliday came through unobstructed. Philly's clearout pattern left a wide open right flat, and McCoy motored for 39 yards.
I became more and more impressed with Justice as the second drive progressed. His hand-strike in pass protection is worth mentioning, and it became more evident that he can be a real force when he's blocking in tandem and blowing out a gap. His ability to fan out and take Dumervil through the rush was a real surprise. Perhaps the most impressive example came when McNabb hit Jason Avant over the middle for six yards down to the Denver 5-yard line with 5:36 left in the first quarter. With Cole moving to center and Max Jean-Gilles in at right guard, Justice took Dumervil outside one-on-one, hooked his right shoulder, and rode him out of the scene. Very impressive. Actually, given the fact that Dumervil and Holliday moved around a lot and from the results I saw, I'd be more concerned with Philly's left-side protection at this point.
Justice's game still needs improvement, though not as much as you might imagine if your sole memory is the Umenyiora beatdown. He's not a quick stepper -- once he gets locked on, he's very powerful, but his footwork isn't elite and defenders can get around him if they shoot out of the gate. He's in a good situation with the Eagles, who employ zone blocking about as often as I send "Job Well Done!" cards to Jim Mora. Justice fits the Eagles' blocking prototype, and though I didn't see him run any little tackle pulls or anything that would either show or expose his lateral movement, he isn't just a forward/backward player. The Eagles believed in Winston Justice, avoided quick-trigger blame for his early struggles, and the investment is starting to pay off.
Harrison has been extremely productive from a per-touch standpoint for two years, yet he has never carried the ball more than eight times in a game. That’s a little silly, particularly on a team that routinely gave Jamal Lewis 20 touches per game so he could grind out 66 yards. Harrison is small, but lots of 5-foot-9 running backs thrive in a 12- to 15-carry, four- to five-catch role. The new Browns staff may use Harrison the way they used Leon Washington in New York last season: as a passing down back in an offense where second-and-4 is considered a passing down. Harrison deserves the expanded role. If we’re right about Jamal Lewis collapsing, he'll get it.
That's Jerome Harrison's player comment in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009. While we've been Harrison advocates for a while now (I've been in his corner since I interviewed him here and here in early 2006, before the Browns took him in the fifth round of the draft and after he gained 1,900 yards and scored 16 touchdowns in his senior season), nobody expected the 284-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Kansas City Chiefs on December 20. What would Harrison do for an encore against the Raiders, a team with a much better front seven?
The Browns used a lot of fullback blocking and cutbacks out of the offset-I against the Chiefs, a plan that worked because Lawrence Vickers had a blocking day for the ages. Against the Raiders, Cleveland was forced to switch the play sheet. Now, it was less about quick upfield stuff against a defense that was easy to push back, and more about timing and synchronized blocking. Instead of running Vickers through a C-gap and having Harrison look for a hole, the Browns used draws and pulls, and some outstanding team blocking, to make things go.
|Figure 1: Harrison Touchdown|
Cleveland's second play from scrimmage was also a tie for Harrison's longest run of the day, a 17-yard touchdown with 13:38 left in the first quarter. (How did the Browns get the ball back so quickly when the Raiders had it first? Two words: Charlie Frye.) At the shotgun snap (Fig. 1), right guard Rex Hadnot pulled left and blocked right end Trevor Scott out of the play while tight end Robert Royal, operating out of a bunch right, pulled through the left B-gap and helped Hadnot with Scott as Scott tried to engage back inside and tackle Harrison. Left tackle Joe Thomas and left tackle Eric Steinbach doubled right defensive tackle Richard Seymour for a split second, and Thomas then chipped off to deal with middle linebacker Kirk Morrison. Four key blocks left Harrison with an opening, and he blew right through the gap with impressive quickness for the score.
Harrison started Cleveland's second drive with an eight-yard loss as he tried to reverse his field on a pitch left and had nowhere to go. He fared much better when Cleveland's surprisingly versatile line blasted stuff open for him in different ways. On second-and-10 from the Cleveland 42-yard line, Derek Anderson handed to Harrison, who bounced outside for nine yards behind right tackle Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, who correctly executed the kind of tackle pull I talked about in the Winston Justice section. During his time in Seattle, Womack was a Holmgren favorite because of his versatility, though injuries and a startling lack of agility doomed him in the end. From there, Steinbach and Hadnot started blasting holes open up the middle in conjunction with center Alex Mack, and Harrison would shoot through for gains upfield. Ten yards to the right, 12 yards to the left -- the Raiders defense had no answer for Harrison on those plays.
The third drive didn't start out so well, though -- tackle Tommy Kelly absolutely destroyed reserve right guard Hank Fraley and took halfback Chris Jennings down for a loss of five yards (Harrison had been dinged on the kickoff return). One aborted snap to Josh Cribbs for a loss of a yard and one Anderson sack later, it was pretty evident that the only thing the Browns had going offensively early on was Harrison's ability to make plays quickly against a front seven with the ability to pursue inside with venomous intent. The Browns tried power up the middle at the start of the second quarter to no avail. Sending Harrison behind Vickers on quick blast plays was fruitless, especially with Fraley at right guard. On the second play of the second quarter, Gerard Warren blasted through Fraley's area and dropped Harrison for a five-yard loss. Then, the Browns started up with the counters and drives that finally exploited that pursuit to a degree. That's how Harrison got his second 17-yard run of the day, with 1:36 left in the first half. He took the ball from Anderson on a delay out of shotgun, backed up at his own 6-yard line, and ran past the right side of a Raiders line that had taken the bait and already blasted through.
When I talked to Harrison, I was looking at him very much through a Seahawks lens. He's a shifty back with tremendous speed through the hole and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. He is a decent blocker for his size (5-foot-9, 205 pounds), and I thought he would be a great fit as a reserve in a Seattle backfield with the pre-flameout Shaun Alexander as the main man. With Mike Holmgren taking control in Cleveland, I'd expect Harrison's role to increase going forward, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of pieces the Browns already have in place for the kind of running game Holmgren hasn't had since 2005.
With all the talk about Devin Hester's development as a receiver, and Jay Cutler throwing passes at Earl Bennett's Pro Day, the receiver Cutler had been lobbying for all season was Devin Aromashodu, a bubble guy since Miami took him in the seventh round of the 2006 draft. Waived at different times in his career by the Dolphins, Colts, Redskins and Texans, the Auburn alum started the 2009 season just hoping to escape the Turk and avoid the practice squad. He led the Bears in preseason receptions and further impressed when he got a shot in prime time after Hester suffered a calf injury against the Rams in Week 13.
"He’s a different type of receiver for us, a little bit taller," Cutler said in November. "Still has the speed. He just presents a different target for me. If we can sprinkle him in, keep building his confidence ... we don't want to overload him but if we get him in there in some different situations, get him up the seams (with) some back shoulder stuff, yeah, that would be good."
Aromashodu was targeted nine times and caught seven passes for 150 yards and the game-winning touchdown, racking up the best DYAR among all receivers in Week 16. Cutler didn't throw to Aromashodu until there was 6:50 left in the first half, and the Bears had the ball at the Vikings' 28-yard line. Cutler, working out of a shotgun formation, had time, rolled a bit to his right, and hit Aromashodu on a deep in down to the 2-yard line. Cutler sailed the ball a bit, so Aromashodu didn't just have to get to the area where the ball was being thrown; he also had to jump for it.
On the first play of Chicago's next drive, Cutler went deep to Aromashodu out of play action. From the line, Aromashodu beat Antoine Winfield with a stutter-go route. Winfield took a slip step and lost the receiver. Only a great play by safety Tyrell Johnson, who barged in and broke up the pass, prevented a touchdown. Winfield's job was to keep Aromashodu inside for Johnson to cover at the next level, and that's just what happened. The zone worked, so it didn't matter that Winfield got beat. Still, the Vikings had been put on notice.
After a quick 12-yard out to Aromashodu with 56 seconds left in the first half, Cutler overthrew Johnny Knox downfield and went back to Aromashodu with a slant inside the seam of Minnesota's zone for a 24-yard gain. Perhaps his most impressive catch came with 10:58 left in the third quarter, though it was only a five-yard gain. Aromashodu came back to Cutler off a little comeback route with Winfield playing off the line, and as Winfield closed, Aromashodu adjusted to the ball as he was going to the ground. It was a play designed to beat the first steps of the zone, but it was also a badly-thrown ball (low and away) and a great recovery by the receiver.
On his next catch, Aromashodu showed impressive awareness. His original route was inside, but as Cutler's pocket collapsed and he had to roll right, Aromashodu broke off the slant and mirrored his quarterback's footsteps toward the right sideline. When Cutler got free, he hit Aromashodu for a gain of 11 underneath the zone, but full marks to the receiver for understanding the need to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and go with the flow. Had he not done that, Cutler would have suffered another sack, another pick, or an ugly incompletion. Ron Jaworski talked in this game about how many of Cutler's picks are directly on the quarterback, but this play illustrated what people are talking about when they say that a quarterback and his receiver have to be on the same page. It isn't just about "call it and go," even in an offense run by Ron Turner. Two plays later, Aromashodu took a deep outside route and was blocked out of the comeback on a Cutler underthrow. Winfield made a truly outstanding play, using his wingspan to guard the ball even as he was falling away from the target.
On Chicago's first overtime play, the Vikings stacked the box against the I-formation -- but for once, Cutler had time to throw downfield with extra defenders at the line. He hit Aromashodu pretty easily underneath the zone again; what was impressive was Aromashodu's ability after the catch. After the comeback left Winfield scrambling to recover, Aromashodu hit the middle of the field and picked up several more yards
The game-winning touchdown was somewhat similar -- one play after Adrian Peterson's fumble, the Vikings blitzed against an I-formation, and Aromashodu turned Winfield around on a straight go route on his way to the end zone.
Clearly, Chicago needs to feature Aromashodu in its offense going forward, and one wonders why a guy who was getting plugs from his own quarterback had to wait so long to get serious time on the field (though the brain trust does deserve credit for not getting knee-jerky on Aromashodu after a Week 15 performance in which three of the 10 passes thrown to him were intercepted). It will be interesting to see how the offense changes in the wake of Turner's expected departure, and who the featured players will be. In an enormously disappointing season for an offense seemingly built to feature the worst traits of each player, the Bears finally have someone who exhibits positive future potential.
8 comments, Last at 30 Dec 2009, 6:21pm by Jmagik