You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
22 Dec 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
25 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2010, 1:17pm by ammek