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?
26 Aug 2010
by Doug Farrar
In outside linebacker Tamba Hali, the Chiefs have a pass rusher just waiting to get the recognition — and perhaps the traditional statistics — his level of play deserves. Compare Hali to another player who moved to 3-4 outside linebacker for the first time in 2009: division rival Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos … Dumervil had a huge lead in sacks and six more defeats … Hali made a higher percentage of his team’s plays than Dumervil did, despite the fact that teams ran at Dumervil like it was going out of style. He had more quarterback hits that didn’t result in sacks than Dumervil did, with several more hurries. Adding up their sacks, hits, and hurries yields a total of 41 quarterback “incidents” for Dumervil — and 41.5 for Hali. Furthermore, five of Hali’s 8.5 sacks resulted in a forced fumble or a safety; only three of Dumervil’s 17 sacks did the same.
-- Kansas City chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2010
After a lot of offseason barking about his financial circumstances, Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn signed a six-year, $43-million contract in late July. That's a lot of scratch for a team that ranked next to last in Adjusted Line Yards in 2009, though the ranking of 11th in Adjusted Sack Rate and sixth in ALY to runs around left tackle (dead last up the middle) would seem to indicate that Penn wasn't the main problem. Film tells me that right guard Davin Joseph is the team's best offensive lineman, but I'm generally in favor of the big uglies getting paid. That said, Penn's preseason hasn't been one of highlights and rainbows. In the Bucs' preseason win over the Chiefs, Penn was somewhat flummoxed by end Tamba Hali.
"I didn't play very well," Penn told the St. Petersburg Times. "I need to go watch film and see my mistakes and fix them and see what (Hali) saw that made him play different. He played different than he did against Atlanta (in the preseason opener). I need to make sure I'm not setting up wrong. It wasn't a matter of him manhandling me. But I do need to work on some things. It's good, I think. This is what the preseason is for. And Tamba Hali, he's a good defensive end. It's not like he's some slouch. But I need to get all this out of me in the preseason so this doesn't happen again."
Penn didn't give up a sack to Hali, who had one solo tackle and one pass defensed in the game. But it was Hali's hurry on Josh Freeman that cost the Bucs their starting quarterback for the rest of the preseason when Freeman broke the tip of his right thumb on Hali's helmet. I was intrigued by Penn's critical self-evaluation, and the notion that Hali played differently against the Falcons. This also presented a good excuse to talk Hali up as perhaps the most underrated quarterback disruptor in the NFL.
Against the Falcons, Hali was much more hesitant about charging into the backfield -- he was in read-and-react mode all the way. On the fourth play of the game, he put a nice little club move on Tony Gonzalez, who blocked him at the line, but he immediately read Michael Turner with the ball. It was clear to me that the Chiefs were concerned about leaving short-to-intermediate passing options open with their pass rush. On first-and-10 from the Kansas City 35 with 12:20 left in the first quarter, Hali actually started the pre-snap read out in space and only moved back to the line after receiver Roddy White motioned to the right side. The play was a handoff to Jason Snelling, and Hali waited out the handoff before making a move.
The first time Hali did line up in an obvious pass-rush situation -- second and seven from the Chiefs' 32 with 11:38 left in the first quarter -- he was too quick off the snap and got busted with an offsides call. On the next play, Hali dropped into coverage on a second-and-2, and the ball went to Snelling on a lead draw the other way for a gain of eight yards. In fact, the only pass play on the Falcons' first drive was a short pass to Turner for six yards on the third play of the game. On that play, Hali held back while left outside linebacker Mike Vrabel took an inside spin move and almost beat right tackle Tyson Clabo for a sack.
On the next play, first-and-10 from the Kansas City 19, he didn't even show a waist bend in his two-point stance. He was playing upright like a strong-side linebacker and helped tackle Snelling on a run around left tackle. I liked his ability to hand-check and sift through trash to get to the ball on this play. It wasn't until the next snap -- the eighth play of this drive -- that I saw Hali clearly line up in a position where you knew he was going to pin his ears back. He was boxed out by fullback Ovie Mughelli from an offset-I, and Turner took the ball inside that block for a three-yard gain. When Snelling ran right off a bunch right formation on the last play of the drive, Hali again dropped and read the play. Matt Bryant ended that drive with a 30-yard field goal.
As Penn said, Hali looked like a completely different player on the Buccaneers' first drive -- from the first defensive play with 14:11 left in the first quarter on the Kansas City 41, he was looking to get into the backfield. Penn pushed him back on a two-yard run by Cadillac Williams, and Hali got past Penn outside only to be blocked out by Williams on a quick slant to tight end (you'll pardon the expression) Jerramy Stevens. That five-yard gain later, Freeman called a time out in the face of a right-side overload blitz.
On the next play, Hali got in from a four-man front, only to see Freeman dump it off to receiver Mike Williams in the flat. That play went for 18 yards, down to the Chiefs' 18-yard line. On that play, Penn gave Hali brief resistance before heading upfield -- the Bucs wanted Hali to vacate his lane, leave the receiver screen as an open option, and allow Penn to block downfield. Two plays later, from the Kansas City 13, Penn took a deep drop back, leaving a good two-yard gap that Hali flew through. This was the play where Freeman suffered the injury, and it was a pretty good example of the benefits that occur when the Chiefs balance the positives and negatives of an aggressive pass rush.
Hali played those two games very differently. Perhaps it was a case of a vanilla defense early in the preseason, and it may have had something to do with the fact that Matt Ryan commands a bit more respect than Josh Freeman at this point. What is indisputable is that, if you're looking for the NFL's next great pass-rusher, Tamba Hali is a pretty good bet.
The question is how the Chiefs will use him – hopefully, he’ll be directed to the quarterback as much as possible. In 2009, Hali ranked ninth in adjusted quarterback hurries with 26 (between LaMarr Woodley and John Abraham), but first in team percentage of hurries. Kansas City’s suspect defense managed 80 team hurries overall, which gave Hali 32.5 percent. Only the Buccaneers, Chargers, Titans, and Bills had lower team hurry rates than Kansas City’s 14.5 percent. Hali isn’t just the Chiefs’ best pass-rush option – he may be their only one.
The early NFL story of former Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel was a familiar one -- his stats were hyper-inflated by college offenses, and Daniel was an undrafted afterthought who quickly fell from prominence. A spread quarterback in high school and college, Daniel obviously had limited familiarity with pro-style offense concepts, and while the pre-Shanahan Redskins gave him a shot (along with Hawaii's Colt Brennan) in 2009, they didn't adjust their concepts or have the level of coaching necessary for a transition to success. Daniel didn't make final cuts in Washington, and the Saints signed him to their practice squad last September.
This move made sense to me when I read the NFLDraftScout.com scouting report on the 6-foot-0, 218-pound Daniel:
Gutty, competitive field general … A virtual coach on the field … Reads defenses well and checks down effectively … Good accuracy to all levels … Can buy time in and out of the pocket and shows good accuracy on the move … May be too short for the NFL … Scouts believe his success in this system is greatly tied to throwing out of the shotgun -- and thereby the open passing lanes and middle underneath passes of the scheme.
This reminded me of a scouting report I unearthed on another vertically impaired spread quarterback (6-foot-0, 220) from 2001, by a guy (Dave-Te' Thomas) who has written for NFLDS for years:
Touch passer with the ability to read and diagnose defensive coverages ... Confident leader who knows how to take command in the huddle ... Very tough and mobile moving around in the pocket... Has a quick setup and is very effective throwing on the move ... Puts good zip behind the short and mid-range passes … Plays in the spread offense, taking the bulk of his snaps from the shotgun... Tends to side-arm his passes going deep... Lacks accuracy and touch on his long throws … Does not possess the ideal height you look for in a pro passer.
You guessed it -- that Drew Brees guy from Purdue. I remembered that Brees didn't just break the bias against short quarterbacks, he also sidestepped the spread offense knock with two different NFL teams. He did so with a surprisingly good arm that seemed to get stronger with NFL experience. Nobody questions the ability to make the downfield stick throws into tight windows that separate the starters from the perpetually inactive in the NFL. Saints head coach Sean Payton knows a thing or three about quarterback development himself, and given Daniel's impressive preseason performance against the Texans, I wanted to know if Daniel attained characteristics that might make him another outlier in the long run.
Daniel replaced Brees at the start of the second quarter and took a good percentage of his early snaps against first-stringers, which answered Question No. 1. Right away, I was impressed with his feel for play-action, which I didn't see too often on his college film -- whether that was a mechanical or systemic issue, I don't know. But the almost abruptly upright passing stance and hitchy throwing motion (going deep in college, he looked as if he was pushing the ball) was replaced by a surer set of mechanics and a quicker release. He still has that upright style -- sometimes he seems as if he's walking on eggshells when he scrambles -- but it works, and he's functional when he calms down and he's in the middle of the offense. That wasn't the case early on, as he threw a couple of floaters and ran a bit early out of pressure.
Daniel is predisposed to rolling out, but that works in this offense. Payton loves to send Brees out of the pocket right off the snap to accentuate his mobility and ensure that his height isn't a liability when he needs to see his targets. Daniel seemed conversant with two styles of Saints play action. First, there was the quick fake to rollout or dropback, and then there was an elongated play action that seemed effective off a typical zone stretch run like the Colts so often use. He also made two very impressive longer throws.
The first came with 8:40 in the second quarter with the Saints facing third and 14 at their own 45. Daniel took the snap from underneath center, went with the quick play-action, waited for Marques Colston to run a deep square-in between four zone defenders, and hit him right on target, 20 yards downfield. It wasn't the definition of a tight window, as Colston had yardage on each corner of coverage, but I can think of at least two Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks who would have hosed that play up something fierce last Monday.
The second throw came on the Saints' next drive, from their own 21 on second and 6 with 2:57 left in the first half. More play-action out of an I-back set (a little bit "stretchier" this time), and Daniel threw deep downfield to receiver Adrian Arrington, who had beaten safety Eugene Wilson. It was a professional throw -- great trajectory, excellent timing, and the ball hit Arrington in stride. It was about here that I starting thinking of Daniel as potentially more than just another NFL washout.
Sean Payton didn't make Drew Brees what he is today -- Brees was something special before he signed with the Saints in 2006. And there's absolutely no way I'm comparing Daniel to Brees, except to match up those early scouting reports. Brees is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and Daniel's just trying to find a roster. I think this may be the one. He has an interesting collection of skills that are transferable at the NFL level, and there aren't too many situations more advantageous to a young quarterback in need of an education than what's going on in New Orleans. Is Payton gathering up guys with specific measurables in hopes of breaking the spread quarterback conversion code once and for all?
Let's be honest -- everybody knew that the Chicago Bears' pass protection would be a big bag of suck this season. And when Oakland Raiders end Kamerion Wimbley picked up four sacks against the Bears last Saturday, it seemed to confirm the worst fears people had about the combination of a Mike Martz offense (always good for a huge upswing in sacks), and a Bears line that helped Jay Cutler get sacked a career-high 35 times and lead the league with 26 interceptions.
Well, here's an interesting factoid going forward -- in practice, frequently going up against defensive end Julius Peppers, left tackle Chris Williams does not have protection help. And apparently, the Bears don't want to reveal offensive line coach Mike Tice's array of magical protections before their time. Thus, Williams was doomed to be a man alone through the preseason.
"You have to carry a lot of protections," Tice told ESPNChicago.com, "because you really think you know what the other guys are going to do, but sometimes you don't know what they are going to do. You have to have ways to adjust to that. It could be you throw a protection out on a certain day and say let's not do that, even though that was one of the ones you worked on and it was a major one in your plan. Sometimes you need to go to protections to help other players that might be having an off night. [You may say] let's major in this protection so we can keep the tight end in. All of those things come into play, so you need to carry that many protections."
But if the Bears don't use them in practice, and Martz revealed that they're not using advanced protections in the preseason either, what's the point in having them? Just because you have a tight end reinforcing your left tackle against a dominant pass rush doesn't mean that the offense will run seamlessly. More does not equal better, unless it's aimed in the right direction. A tackle and a tight end still need to coordinate their blocking. And on the four Wimbley sacks that Williams was either partially or completely responsible for, he never had outside help -- and Chris Williams just isn't good enough at this point in his career to maintain that.
Wimbley got under him, around him, and caught him looking inside as left guard Roberto Garza let a defender through. It was just ugly. We know that Martz prefers to let it all hang out from a formation perspective, and that's one of many reasons that his offenses feature high sack totals as well as gaudy offensive numbers. But Jay Cutler isn't Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger. He isn't a passable quarterback when he's hurried. Last season, he put up a DVOA of -35% when he was pressured, and he was pressured more often (141 times) than any other quarterback in the NFL.
The Bears face the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, and the Cardinals like to use versatile fronts with pass rushers who will line up in different positions. Williams might face Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, and Joey Porter one-on-one in the first half alone. It might be time for Martz and Tice to ramp up those protection concepts.
32 comments, Last at 28 Aug 2010, 11:56am by Basilicus