Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Dec 2010

Cover-2: Rise of the Underrated

by Doug Farrar

When the playoffs start, the playbook focus will narrow. So, as I did last year when the regular season wound down, I'd like to acknowledge some under-the-radar players who deserve more recognition.

It's funny how some of these names come up -- given the Packers' recent (and well-documented) issues with offensive line play, I didn't expect to hear the name of a Green Bay lineman to rank highly with the best rookie defensive tackle I've seen in a decade. But when I traveled to Dallas last week to attend an equipment summit at Cowboys stadium, I got a chance to talk with Ndamukong Suh, whose exploits I've been detailing through various articles this season.

When my friend Claude Clayborne from 6 Magazine Online (Claude played defensive tackle at Oklahoma in a rotation with Tommie Harris) asked Suh what his best individual NFL matchup was to date, he didn't hesitate.

"I would say the guy I respect the most that I've gone against on the offensive line is Josh Sitton, Green Bay's right guard," Suh said. "He's one that is very patient, and he understands the kinds of moves that you may want to do against him. I've found ways to beat him, just as he's found ways to catch me -- in my rushes and so forth -- to stop me. He's one of those guys that I definitely respect. He understands the game, and he's a young guy at that. I think he's only on his fourth or fifth year in the NFL [his third, actually; Sitton was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 draft out of Central Florida]. I'm excited to go against him, and I'm looking forward to going against him in the years to come."

A quick look at Sitton's Stats, Inc. page at the Washington Post shows two false starts, one hold, and zero sacks allowed in 14 games. Between Suh's words and Sitton's own numbers, I figured it was time to see what was going on in the right guard department.

Green Bay Packers Guard Josh Sitton
Week 4
Detroit Lions 26 at Green Bay Packers 28

On the second play of the Packers' first drive, Suh lined up outside Sitton's right shoulder and blasted through the gap. Had it been a pass play, Aaron Rodgers would have been a very unhappy fellow. However, the call was for fullback John Kuhn to hit off left guard instead. I liked Sitton's upper-body strength on the next play, when running back Brandon Jackson went to the right off a pitch behind a bunch formation and Sitton handled Suh well inside. Suh moved from the three-tech off Sitton's right shoulder to his left shoulder at the snap, and Sitton used Suh's own force off the line to drive him inside.

Green Bay's next play was a 29-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver, and Sitton just managed to fend off Suh's furious charge. I can imagine that it's pretty tough to deal with Suh when you're backpedaling in pass blocking and you're dealing with this force pushing you back at the same time, but Sitton exhibited good technique and power, maintaining his stance even as Suh started bending him back.

A.J. Hawk's interception of a Shaun Hill pass gave the Packers another drive starting at the 6:59 mark of the first quarter. As Rodgers unleashed an array of quick passes, Sitton fended Suh off with quick hand strikes. More and more, I was impressed with Sitton's resilience -- even when you move him off point, he recovers very quickly and stays with the block. He also showed the ability to pull outside in short spaces, as he did with a great seal block on linebacker Zack Follett. This was the first time I saw him move off the line, and he's pretty agile for his size.

Suh started trying to get creative, looping around Sitton and using his quickness to get into the backfield, but the back would head the other way and Suh's work would be for nothing. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sitton's play against the big rookie was that it took until Green Bay's third drive before I saw center Scott Wells move over for a double team.

Suh was still working on some of the moves that have made him a dominant pass disruptor in the second half of the season, but it's very impressive for any guard to shut him out that long with one-on-one matchups. Suh ended that game with three tackles and one sack. The quarterback takedown happened late in the third quarter when Suh pushed off Sitton and went around center to find Rodgers on the other side. Tackle Corey Williams slid over to occupy Sitton as Suh zipped in on the other side.

Week 14
Green Bay Packers 3 at Detroit Lions 7

This time, Sitton and Wells double-teamed Suh on the Packers' first play, but Sitton seemed more than capable of holding his own after that. On Rodgers' frequent shorter passes, Sitton started to get nice first strikes with strong hand punches (one of his most effective moves; he's really good at pushing defenders off their base). He also put up what I thought was his most impressive play against Suh on an extended pass block.

As end Turk McBride beat left tackle Chad Clifton and Corey Williams took the double-team of Wells and left guard Jason Spitz to a decision, Sitton held Suh in check as he dropped back, then pushed him forward and out of the play while McBride got the takedown.

It was clear to see why Suh admires Sitton's play so much -- he's tailor-made to go up against a player of Suh's specific talents. No matter how quick Suh is to one side of the other, Sitton has the wide base and quickness from side to side that can negate even the quickest speed rusher.

Combine his ability to push defenders out of his area with quick strikes and a clear knowledge of how to use momentum to his advantage, and you have a lineman who looks great on film. Factor in Green Bay's Adjusted Line Yards numbers in the Mid/Guard area compared to the left side and the edges, and it becomes more clear where the rising talent is on the Green Bay line.

Buffalo Bills Receiver Steve Johnson

He may be best known for calling out God after dropping five passes in a close loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Steve Johnson has quietly become one of the league's most productive and efficient receivers in the NFL. He ranks eighth in DYAR and 15th in DVOA, and he's on track to break Bill Brooks' single-season franchise receiving touchdown record. Not bad for a guy who didn't play high school football until his junior year because his high school didn't have a football program until then.

After two years in junior college, he went to Kentucky because he liked their basketball program, blew up in his final season at the major college level with more touchdowns (13) than he had catches (12) the year before. Selected in the seventh round by the Bills in the 2008 draft, Johnson sat for the most part in his first two NFL seasons until new head coach Chan Gailey came in with a more effective offensive game plan and a proven ability to spot undervalued talent.

I talked to Johnson on Tuesday about his multi-year overnight success, and now he's handling his new-found focus.

"Well, it's crazy going from 12 to 60 or 70 catches, but this is all an opportunity," he said. "We had some voids, and I felt like I've been here a couple years, but I really haven't had the chance to show Buffalo what I can do. Losing Josh (Reed) and Terrell (Owens) opened things up for me, and that was pretty much it -- I had my opportunity to play, and I'm just trying to show it.

Having watched Johnson through multiple games, the thing that stood out most to me was not his size or speed -- he's 6-foot 2 and ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine. What popped off the tape was his suddenness in short areas, and his penchant for slipping into tight spaces. Johnson told me that his instincts for route placement around defensive obstacles came from a case of grade-school multitasking.

"I developed that as a young kid, playing Pop Warner," he said. "I went through a lot of different positions -- from running back to cornerback ... I never played receiver at all until I got to college. Playing safety, corner, linebacker (before), I feel like after I catch the ball, I know where the defenders will be, and I just go off of instincts."

Johnson's touchdown catch

One of the best examples of those instincts came last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, when Johnson beat cornerback Sean Smith for a 15-yard touchdown in a 17-14 win.

"It was a deep post, and we actually worked that all week in practice -- working in the post to see if we could get a (cornerback) to flip his hips," Johnson saod. "Sean Smith, he really didn't flip his hips, but I kind of lulled him to sleep with my route. I kind of straightened him up and used a little speed, decelerated and accelerated again at the top of the route. He was lost a little bit, and that gave me enough space for Ryan to put the ball in. I made the play and came down with it."

The touchdown happened with 6:20 left in the third quarter, and Johnson was wide left in a two-receiver set. He got the outside release on Smith and showed outstanding burst to get back in the picture.

I like a lot of what I'm seeing from the Bills this season. I think they're starting to build something worth watching, and they may have as many underrated/undervalued players as any team in the league. The secret will soon be out on Johnson, and for far more than whatever comes out of his Twitter account.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 22 Dec 2010

25 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2010, 1:17pm by ammek

Comments

1
by nuclearbdgr :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 3:51pm

Sitton and Tramon Williams are two young reasonably unsung bright spots for the Packers

2
by Jamie (not verified) :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 4:14pm

I thought this article was going to be about the Eagles "undersized" Defensive line.

Cole, Patterson, Bunkley, Laws, and Dixon. they've been dominant all year long.

3
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 5:27pm

I'm not sure how unsung Sitton is anymore he was the leading Pro Bowl vote getter for NFC Guards, and since Pro Bowl offensive linemen tend to be name recognition over talent in a lot of cases, he's made some waves somewhere.

4
by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 7:04pm

True, and yet at the same time if you had to name a Packers guard you'd probably forget his name.

20
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 2:02pm

Isn't that true for ANY guard on any team that doesn't happen to be one you are a fan of (or who is a rival of the team you are a fan of)?

5
by Dr. Mooch :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 8:58pm

Oh my god, several paragraphs about the Bills. It's a sign of the apocalypse.

6
by tuluse :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 9:07pm

I'm surprised Steve Johnson isn't fast. He gets behind defenders all the time.

7
by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 12/22/2010 - 11:24pm

Thoguht Johsnon drafted 7th round was silly. Didn't understand that. Guy had 4th roudn value imho

Good to see he doign well

8
by RaiderBlow (not verified) :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 12:53am

You aren't funny.

9
by Counterfactual (not verified) :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 1:25am

He's not funny, he's just right.

10
by SFC B (not verified) :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 1:30am

He doesn't need to be. He's incredibly insightful and a great commenter who almost always knows what he's talking about.

18
by Eddo :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 11:24am

OH NO HE DIDN'T!

Seriously, Raiderjoe, despite his semi-comical misspellings, is extremely knowledgeable. Next time there's a thread about a weird occurrence, watch for him to chime in with a specific game in which the same thing happened in the 70's.

11
by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 1:46am

tom Brady spamming football otuiiders now?

12
by ammek :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 8:53am

That's a very interesting breakdown of Sitton's skillset. It's worth adding that the right tackle position has been a miasma of flux and suck since Sitton entered the line-up last year (he missed the whole of 2008 through injury). Already four different players have started outside him: two rookies, a washed-up Mark Tauscher and the infamous Allen Barbre. In the light of this, and the article's focus on Sitton vs Suh, I wondered if you'd noticed any of Sitton's strengths and weaknesses outside. The reputation of the Packer o-line mostly stems from the ineptitude of its right side in pass protection: is Sitton a part of that? Does the scheme encourage him to help out the tackle? If so, how well does he do?

A further thought while on the subject of scheme. Sitton's emergence in 2009 permitted the Packers to de-emphasize, at last, the pin-and-pull zone-blocking scheme that they had executed so ineptly ever since Mike McCarthy became head coach. This season, they've started to re-emphasize it again. I think Sitton (and new right tackle Bryan Bulaga) are a big reason for that: their unusual combination of size and quickness allow them to alternate between power-based and zone-based blocking schemes. Unfortunately, it's hard to know how successful they've been because the Packers don't have a running back who can take advantage.

The Packers' biggest problem in run blocking is downfield blocking: the tight ends aren't much cop (which is a major hindrance in a scheme that prioritizes the outside zone: Green Bay runs about 30% of the time off end, among the highest in the league); and the linemen have difficulty getting to the second level. I've noticed Scott Wells' troubles in this aspect of the game; does Sitton struggle too? The skills highlighted in the article are mostly defensive or stationary skills, but how well does Sitton (after 30 starts) get into space, blow up defenders on the second level, improvise? I'm thinking the template for this sort of guard would be Mark Schlereth: how do they compare? The Packers run very few RB screens, but this year with Brandon Jackson as the feature back they've finally broken a few for substantial gains — is the line finally learning how to block them?

Thanks for another good feature, and props to Ndamukong for pointing you in Sitton's direction!

14
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 9:59am

I didn't see enough of him working outside. It's pretty clear that as the season goes on, Detroit's opponents are focusing their efforts inside to deal with the obvious instrument of destruction, and that's where he was going to be anyway, head-up or off-shoulder on Suh as he was most of the time. But he's very string when he's asked to do pass pro in short areas -- he can get bulled back (at least by Suh), but he does a really good job of maintaining his balance and strength. To me, the best indicator of the quality of his pass blocking is that Suh had to hit the other side to get a sack. Sitton is remarkably consistent, run and pass, against a guy who has flat-out embarrassed a lot of guards this season.

That's my overall impression of him in the two Lions games. Is there a game you'd recommend watching where he was helping outside more often as a matter of necessity?

25
by ammek :: Sun, 12/26/2010 - 1:17pm

I can't think of one from this season — last year with Allen Barbre's struggles Sitton was more consistently used as the double-team extra. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this evening versus Justin Tuck we get a look. I'll keep my eyes open.

13
by Theo :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 9:51am

"He may be best known for calling out God after dropping five passes in a close loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers"
Did I miss something? What does that mean?

15
by Spielman :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 10:52am

He tweeted the following after his performance against the Steelers, including the drop in the endzone in OT that would have won the game: "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO..."

16
by witless chum :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 11:04am

Stevie Johnson is funnier than Jesus.

21
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 2:45pm

Hey, I hear Jesus killed at the Friars Club back in the day. And he never worked "blue" like the kids today!

17
by Theo :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 11:09am

"I made the QB throw it right in your hands and called the perfect defense for that play! What else do you want from me? Just catch the damn ball, stupid." tweeted god back.

19
by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 12:41pm

:)

22
by KB (not verified) :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 5:23pm

Is Sitton leading pro bowl votes at Guard in the NFC? I was reading an article about packers that are leading and I didn't see his name come up. 3 GB players I would like to see make the Pro Bowl is Tramon Williams, Josh Sitton, and Greg Jennings. I haven't heard anything about any of them but I feel they are 3 of the most deserving players GB has along with Matthews, Rodgers, Woodson(those 3 are automatic). I also would love to see Nick Collins get a bid. He is a top safety in this league who like woodson comes up at big times. I also heard Clifton was leading the NFC in votes for LT. Umm what????

23
by Arkaein :: Thu, 12/23/2010 - 6:29pm

Clifton, Sitton, Matthews and Woodson are all leading NFC voting at their positions. Not sure what the non-leading votes are, so I don't know where Williams, Rodgers, Jennings, or Collins rank.

I'm not as sure that Collins is as deserving this year, as he hasn't put up the interception numbers he has the last two years. On the other hand GB rarely gives up big plays, so he's been steady in coverage.

Jennings is the guy I'm really hoping gets in. He's been on the cusp a few times now but not quite gotten over the hump. I'd also like to see Williams, but since Pro Bowl voting usually lags actual performance I think he stands a good chance to get in over the next couple years.

Here's the position leaders in Pro Bowl voting:

http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2010/12/22/1891798/pro-bowl-voting-tom-brady...

Amazingly, Clifton is the lowest voted leader at any O-line position. How often do centers and guards get voted higher than tackles?

24
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Fri, 12/24/2010 - 12:32am

Rodgers was 3rd among NFC QB's and 7th overall.

http://blog.packers.com/2010/12/22/four-packers-win-pro-bowl-fan-voting/

Top 10 overall for fan votes were

1. Tom Brady (QB)
2. Michael Vick (QB)
3. Peyton Manning (QB)
4. Philip Rivers (QB)
5. Drew Brees (QB)
6. Adrian Peterson (RB)
7. Aaron Rodgers (QB)
8. Arian Foster (RB)
9. Maurice Jones-Drew (RB)
10. Matt Ryan (QB)

I've not been able to find where Williams ranks in fans votes, but I know he has gotten some love on a couple of ESPN podcasts and articles (I guess Sitton did too, which might have helped him). Collins was mentioned a couple of times but much like you say, he's not quite as good this year but he has made the Pro Bowl before so he has that going for him. But I guess Ross Tucker and Matt Williamson both said Tramon is playing better than Woodson this year and both called Sitton a beast. So there are a couple of the ESPN folks talking them up. I would guess that what ESPN says will influence stuff like Pro Bowl voting, deserving or not.

In this case though I think they are right. Tramon I think is one of the top 5 shutdown corners in the league. Sitton may not be the best guard in the NFC, but he is likely top 3 (I don't know the AFC lineman at all).