After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
14 Oct 2009
by Doug Farrar
In the last five years, I've done somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 draft prospect interviews between the Scouting Combine and the draft itself. It's the rare time when the NFL's future stars and scrubs are readily available for interviews with few exceptions to those writers without specific team access, and the last opportunity for those players to get their names out in the world before teams come calling. Between Pro Days and team visits, you'll see prospect interviews just about everywhere. I've talked to a lot of players who've impressed me -- Ben Grubbs' intelligence, Chad Henne's resolve, and Mark Sanchez's confidence stick in my mind specifically as traits attached to players that seemed to earmark them for success. You try and ask the right questions, get past the prefab answers as much as you can, and write good, objective stories for your "assigning entity."
Once in a great while, you struggle with objectivity. When I first did a phone interview with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, something about him got under my skin and stayed there. It was the passion in his voice, the determination to succeed, the love he expressed when he talked about his mother and the family circumstances that formed his otherworldly determination. Talking to him more about what he brought to the field at the NCAA level and what he wanted to do in the pros, I began to see what draft analysts like Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com were talking about when they ranked him as their best prospect overall for the 2009 season.
I saw highlights and game tape of a guy who was a sure-fire wrecking machine five yards in any direction -- who would get pulled in by misdirection and "eye discipline," but who could also cover the flats as well as he could go scud on a running back or rush a quarterback if need be. Linebackers who are as good in reverse as they are in fifth gear are very rare commodities, but I started to think that I was seeing just such a player -- a real one-off, whose size and speed might make him an unmatched defensive threat.
When I finally met Curry at Seattle's first minicamp of the 2009 season and saw him on the field, the size-speed thing really came into focus. At 6-1 and 256 pounds, he looked like a rangy defensive end, or a third-down pass-rushing defensive tackle, but had the speed of an average in-the-box safety. He was still learning the fundamentals, and the coverage stuff at the next level was going to be a process, but as he rounded into shape from a short contract holdout and a groin injury, the signs of excellence came out. I didn’t expect to write about Curry this soon, but there is something special happening here, and it popped off the screen as the Seahawks trounced the Jaguars at home. Curry ended the day with nine tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. I wanted to see what's behind the numbers before this kind of stat line becomes the norm every week.
On the Jaguars' first play of the day from their own 11, with 12:05 left in the first quarter, Jacksonville went with a two-tight end set and receiver Mike Thomas motioning eight to left. The Seahawks brought six to the line, with cornerback Ken Lucas following Thomas' motion and safety Jordan Babineaux filling the left edge as Lucas moved. Curry was lined up to the left of middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and took one step forward before dropping into coverage. He tackled Torry Holt after Holt caught the ball over the middle, but it looked to me that the Seahawks read run on the play, and Curry was playing catchup from a short middle zone. Jacksonville gained 13 on the slant.
The Jags followed that play with a three-and-out, but started with a bit more success on their second drive. Jacksonville started at their own 30 and drove down to the Seattle 10 with 3:02 left in the first quarter. One play after an inevitable Marcedes Lewis drop on second-and-9, David Garrard took the ball out of shotgun and threw a screen to Maurice Jones-Drew. Curry started from the middle of the defense as Pocket Hercules headed to the right. Jones-Drew tried to fake Curry out with an inside move, but Curry countered and followed him to the sideline for a gain of eight. On fourth-and-1 from the 2, Garrard got pressure in his face and had to throw the ball away. Curry, who sidestepped pulling guard Vince Manuwai to hit the edge, was one of the main men in Garrard's face.
Jacksonville started their third drive with 10 seconds left in the first quarter from their own 21. Garrard handed to Jones-Drew to the weak side. The Jags wanted the run to develop behind right tackle Eden Britton, who was pulling left, but Curry came across, sifted through the trash, escaped a Manuwai near-hold, and brought Jones-Drew down after he bounced off Tatupu for a one-yard gain. As was the case in his Wake Forest days, I am extremely impressed with Curry's speed in pursuit -- once he draws a bead on a running back, it's a problem for the opposing offense.
Curry shot off the left edge on the next play, second-and-9 from the Jacksonville 22. The Seahawks brought six to the line, and Curry blew right past Britton. He overshot the sack as Garrard stepped up in the pocket, but the result was a hurried throw and a wasted down. On the next play, Curry blitzed off the right edge and had a free lane as defensive end Darryl Tapp occupied left tackle Eugene Monroe. Garrard hurried another throw -- this time to tight end Zach Miller -- and the ball was almost intercepted by linebacker David Hawthorne. One of the few knocks on Curry in college was that people weren't sure he could be a consistent pass rusher. That had more to do with the Wake Forest scheme and what the coaching staff wanted him to do than any deficiency in that area. When Curry blitzed off of three- or four-man fronts at Wake, he showed the same speed and agility he displayed on this day.
The Tatupu/Jones-Drew battle was an interesting one -- Pocket Hercules would bounce off Lofa over and over and gain extra yards after contact. When he took on Curry, it was another matter. With 7:53 left in the first half, Garrard handed to Jones-Drew out of an I-formation, and Curry filled the hole off right guard, allowing a gain of one. Along with his edge speed, Curry brings estimable run-stopping power to the middle, and he's not shy at all about mixing it up with linemen to stop a power play. This was never more evident than in the play with 13:15 left in the game, with the Jags at their own 29. Backup running back Rashad Jennings headed to the right behind the pulling Manuwai, until Curry hit the line with such force, he knocked the 333-pound guard back into Jennings. The Jags gained four yards on the play, but Curry had made his point.
As the highest-drafted linebacker (fourth overall) since LaVar Arrington was selected second overall in 2000, Curry has a great many expectations tied to his future. The Seahawks didn't draft him that high, and pay him as much as they did, to have him fill out an already-adequate linebacker corps. They were shopping for a difference-maker of historic value. While it's ridiculous to conclude that he's reached that plateau already, there's enough about what's already there to have even the most seen-it-all Seahawks observers, like local players-turned-analysts Steve Raible and Brock Huard, struggling to find the right words to describe what they're seeing. My own impression after talking with and watching Curry was pretty simple: Both literally and figuratively, this guy is going to destroy anything that stands in the way of his dreams. It only sounds like hyperbole until you see him on the field.
Before last Sunday's face-off with the Arizona Cardinals, Gary Kubiak's Houston Texans had faced the Jets, Titans, Jaguars, and Raiders -- four teams with good-to-great talent at defensive tackle. But in a media conference call a few days before the game, Kubiak didn't hesitate to mention the best player, never mind defender, he's recently seen. "I tell you what, Dockett's the best player I've seen on film this year," Kubiak said. "You know as a coach, every year you start studying teams and preparing for teams and he's the best individual player I've seen." Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt recently remarked that more coaches and friends who watch his team ask first about Dockett more than any member of Arizona's vaunted offense. And the sixth-year tackle got a bit of love from Michael Strahan, who e-mailed him a priceless compliment -- Strahan and Howie Long, two pretty good fits on anyone's All-Time team, frequently discuss how well Docket does "without a lot of help". This after he grabbed a slice of Reggie White's Super Bowl sack record in under-the-radar fashion. Did he look "All-Time" in Arizona's Sunday win over the Texans?
The Cardinals would sometimes line Dockett up as an end in a four-man front, and then bring him inside as a penetrating defensive tackle. The Texans countered his forays off the edge with backs and tight ends chipping single-blocks as they released in the flats, but I was surprised at how well they were able to handle Dockett inside without constantly committing an extra blocker. One thing I have noticed about the Arizona defense this year under new defensive coordinator Bill Davis is that the exotic schemes of Clancy Pendergast are but a memory. You won't see many line stunts or inside twists, and even when the Cardinals blitz, it's pretty much "get your regular personnel and go" -- very little in the way of delays or overloads. I think this might explain the team's increased efficiency against the run -- they're first in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards through five weeks -- but the ranking of 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate is a surprise until you go back to 2008 and realize that they ranked 23rd then, as well. Hmmm... maybe those crazy blitzes aren't all they're cracked up to be?
On the Texans' last drive, which started with 2:20 left in the game, Houston was trying to tie the game at 28 after staging a furious second-half comeback from a 21-0 deficit. In a greater defensive sense, this drive illustrated why the Cards rank first in overall Defensive DVOAagainst the run, and 23rd against the pass. After Andre Davis' 63-yard kickoff return brought the ball 40 yards from the end zone, Arizona set up with a four-man front, and Dockett lined up as the wide 3-technique off right guard Mike Brisiel. Dockett tried to bull rush, but Brisiel held the point, and Schaub got a quick pass off to tight end Owen Daniels for a seven-yard gain. Dockett got some push forward on Brisiel on the next play from the 33, but it wasn't enough, and Schaub got a quick pass off across his body to receiver David Anderson for another 11 yards. Then, from the 22, another successful single block on Dockett from Brisiel, and Schaub hit Daniels over the middle for 16 yards. The Texans had first-and-goal from the Arizona 6, and everything pointed to a tied ballgame.
Another four-man front from the Cardinals, and this time Dockett took a weakside double-team from Brisiel and center Chris Myers to free up the middle in Houston's shotgun, three-wide, single-back set. The play was a quick underhanded shovel pass to running back Steve Slaton, which Dockett saved from becoming a touchdown by peeling off Myers and tackling Slaton at the 1. Dockett showed great pursuit speed, and a nice little spin move to get out of the block and into the ballcarrier.
On second-and-goal, the Texans subbed out Slaton for Chris Brown. Dockett had the right A-gap, and that's just where Brown went, getting a decent push but falling short of the plane. On third down, the Texans went with a three-tight end formation, telegraphing a power run with a zone slide right. But Matt Schaub rolled out to the left, had tight end Joel Dreessen wide open in the back of the end zone ... and simply overthrew him. The ball was too high and Dreessen came down out of bounds. On fourth down from inside the 1, the Texans went back to power. Dockett lined up in that right A-gap again, and Houston pushed him back with a double-team. The Problem was, that allowed nose tackle Gabe Watson to walk Myers right back in to the path of the run. Watson twisted the block to his right, and the second level of Cardinals defenders plugged the hole. Arizona's goal-line stand was complete.
Speaking of first-round picks and top-rated lines, there was the matter of Michael Oher, starting at left tackle for the first time in his NFL career after Jared Gaither's Week 4 neck injury. Would Oher face Bengals defensive end and NFL co-sack leader Antwan Odom head-on, and would he be the reason that Odom conducted an invisibility seminar on the first drive?
On first-and-10 from the Baltimore 23 and 7:56 left in the first quarter, Oher blocked inside and the Ravens let Odom through on a trap, where he was blocked by pulling right guard Chris Chester and chipped by fullback Le'Ron McClain. This allowed Joe Flacco to roll right and hit tight end Todd Heap for an eight-yard gain. Second-and-2 from the 31 saw the Ravens line up in what I refer to in my own vernacular as the Panther formation -- since Carolina does it as well and as often as any team -- two tight ends outside the tackle, ready to run-block. Again, Oher blocked inside on tackle Pat Sims while tight end L.J. Smith blocked Odom (no, Mr. Tanier, that's not a typo) while Heap pulled right to block left end Robert Geathers. Ray Rice went up the middle for a four-yard gain.
The Ravens again went with two tight ends on the left edge on the next play, but this time Heap chipped Odom before releasing into the left flat. The chip brought Odom halfway to the ground, and since the Bengals brought four and dropped seven, Oher's containment of Odom was more custodial than anything. Flacco couldn't find an open man and rambled to the right for a nine-yard gain. Now, with first-and-10 from their own 45, the Ravens went Panther left again. However, Heap motioned from left to right, and linebacker Rey Maualuga came up with a blitz look to the right, taking Smith out of the extra inside protection. Odom got around Oher outside, and as McClain bounced to the left after hitting a wall up the middle, Odom helped wrap up. This was where you saw the wisdom of extra blocking help for Oher -- he is going to have problems with speed rushers early on.
I really liked Oher's pass-blocking on the next play, however. With only Heap to his left. Oher dropped back to take Odom straight-on, pushed him out of the pocket, and then settled in to help left guard Ben Grubbs with Sims, who put a swim move on Grubbs to penetrate. Oher handed Odom off to center Matt Birk and smoothly switched to Sims. Nice move there, and it showed that Oher doesn't have the kind of tunnel vision you'll sometimes see with young offensive linemen. He sees around him and is able to disengage to help. This gave Flacco the time needed for a little dump-off to Ray Rice for a six-yard gain.
The Ravens then went with their first overloaded line of the day (and I was surprised it took them this long to do it) with guard Marshal Yanda outside Oher. Yanda took Odom head-on while Oher hung back, fanning from right to left, to see if Sims or Odom would slip their blocks. Flacco hit Heap for a five-yard pass to the left, and the Ravens had first down at the Bengals' 44. He then chipped Odom and headed to the second level, helping to block a nine-yard McClain screen. Mmaybe "helping" is too strong a word -- Oher blocked a defender into McClain and was slow getting upfield -- and screen blocking might be a teaching point this week.
There are no issues with his straight-up run blocking, though. On second-and-1 from the Cincinnati 35, the Ravens went Panther left again, and Oher just bulled Odom over as Rice hit the left edge for a 21-yard gain. As Heap pulled right, Smith blocked Maualuga back, allowing Rice to scoot around. From the 14, the Ravens sent Oher back to the right side for an overload, and he pushed Dhani Jones back as Maualuga shot through and dropped Rice for a one-yard loss. Baltimore then put Yanda outside left again, as Flacco rolled right and tried an option pass to Rice. No go, and the Ravens faced third-and-11 from the Bengals' 15. Oher and Grubbs finished the drive by doubling Odom as Flacco threw a pick to Johnathan Joseph at the right front pylon.
Teams can overcome key line injuries with positional depth, what I would call "scheme anonymity" (where a system breeds success), and formation diversity. In building their line for emergency situations, the Ravens benefit from the understanding and implementation of all three concepts. If Oher's back at left tackle this upcoming Sunday, he'll need all the help he can get -- his primary assignment will be that noted Minnesota sackmaster and Rhinestone Cowboy, Jared Allen.
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