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?
02 Sep 2010
by Doug Farrar
Undrafted Saints rookie running back Chris Ivory may have come to the NFL from Tiffin University, but he wasn't a small-school find along the lines of Marques Colston (Hofstra), Jermon Bushrod (Towson), and Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg). Ivory spent three years at Washington State before he was booted off the roster for a violation of team rules, and he landed at the FCS (formerly Division-II) school in Ohio through head coach Dave Walkosky, who served as Washington State's special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach in 2007. Ivory played in four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Despite concerns about Ivory on and off the field, Walkosky wound up with a host of business cards from NFL teams on his desk. Ivory was not drafted, but the Saints gave him a chance to be the second player in Tiffin history to make the NFL. Titans receiver Nate Washington, who played all his college football there, was the first.
As with most low-pick and undrafted players, Ivory got his preseason shot because of depth-chart issues. In his case, injuries to backs Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill prompted the Saints to give Ivory more time and bring in veteran big backs Ladell Betts and DeShawn Wynn. Judging from what I saw when the Saints took on the Chargers last Saturday, Ivory's working hard to climb to the top of that depth chart no matter who might be in the way.
Despite their well-deserved reputation as a supreme passing team, the Saints won the Super Bowl just as much on the run. Pierre Thomas ranked first in DVOA among running backs in 2009, and Mike Bell combined low DVOA and high Success Rate in a way that generally indicates a short-yardage back who makes required gains consistently and doesn't do much more. Bell has taken that show to Philadelphia, which precipitated the need for another big guy in the first place. Sean Payton likes two-back sets (New Orleans set up with two running backs 61 percent of the time, 11th in the league), will move his guards in space, and uses tight end David Thomas very effectively as an H-back/blocking option. It's a good setup for any power back.
Ivory got his first carry against the Chargers with 10:44 left in the third quarter, though he was playing with, and against, first teams. After Drew Brees hit Colston for eight yards out of twins left and threw an incompletion on second down, the Saints faced third-and-2 from their own 27-yard line. The Saints brought an I-formation set against San Diego's 5-2 nickel, with Ivory bulling up the middle for the first down. Two plays later, Ivory took the ball out of single-back max protect, went downhill, tried to bounce the play outside left, and lost a yard. That was the last play with the first team, and Patrick Ramsey replaced Brees after an incompletion to Lance Moore.
New Orleans' next drive started with 6:42 left in the third quarter, with Ramsey overthrowing Courtney Roby on a deep seam route from the Saints' 20. (Bonus shot of Brees dropping an "F" bomb on the sideline after that one). On the next play, Ivory hit the middle of the line out of another I-formation and took to the left side after an outstanding block to the right by fullback Zak Keasey moved linebacker Kevin Burnett. Ivory showed a nice stutter-step for a big guy, but that play was made by the blocking.
The Saints were subbing Ivory out in obvious passing situations, so I didn't get the kinds of looks at his pass blocking that I would have preferred at the start. This told me how they may see Ivory working in their offense, but I was hoping to see a bit more. There was 5:28 left in the third quarter when I saw Ivory put up a solid block on outside linebacker Antwan Applewhite as Ramsey threw a short pass to tight end Tory Humphrey. Given the importance the Saints put on blocking (seriously -- if you think they're a dinky spread offense team just because they have so much formation diversity and Brees is so productive, give them another look), that's the kind of thing that will help Ivory get real reps when the regular season starts.
|Figure 1: Swing Pass to Ivory|
Of course, the Ivory play that got people talking in this game was his 76-yard touchdown catch-and-run with 7:36 left in the game (Figure 1). The Saints had first-and-10 at the 24 and lined up in another I-formation. Ivory headed left, took a quick swing pass from Ramsey, juked Applewhite inside as he tried to come down from read-and-react, bulled safety Steve Gregory, and outran everyone else until safety Darrel Stuckey tried to bring him down near the end zone ... and that wasn't happening. I liked the way Ramsey originally sold this as a pass play to the right, and two receivers cleared out the coverage from that side. That kept San Diego's defense from overloading to the first target.
Teams who find under-the-radar players like Ivory usually have strong systems in place. Much has been made of Sean Payton's playcalling acumen, and Payton deserves every bit of that praise. But the Saints also have an inherent and well-developed ability to tailor talent to scheme that allows them to rise above the middle- and bottom-of-the-pack teams who simply throw a bunch of athletes at a problem.
"(Ivory) did some good things," Payton told reporters after the Chargers game. "There are some things he has to work on in regard to landmarks. I thought he ran hard and had good effort. He has good balance and finishes his runs well, which has been pretty exciting to see. There are a ton of things he's working on like any rookie would be but specifically a running back. He's making progress and it was good to get him work with the ones the other night."
Ivory should get a lot of reps against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. If he keeps performing at this level, he'll be seeing more time with the ones soon enough.
Geno Atkins has recorded at least one sack in each of the Bengals' preseason games, so it makes perfect sense that the one big knock on him coming out of Georgia related to his lack of consistency. In 2007, he started just seven games and still put up 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, leading NFLDraftScout.com to call him "a bowling ball of butcher knives." At 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds, the description fit. But he recorded no sacks in 2008 and just 3.5 in 2009. His senior year had to be the most frustrating for those who believed that Atkins would return to form -- he started just three games in 2009 because the coaching staff was concerned about his overall effort. He did have 28 quarterback pressures (again, per NFLDS), so perhaps that was a precursor to what he would do in his first NFL preseason.
Atkins reversed course at the Senior Bowl and the Combine. On the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, he ran a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash, ranked first in shuttle time among defensive tackles, and finished fourth in the three-cone drill behind Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Jared Odrick. Atkins was right in the Bengals' wheelhouse -- a dramatically talented player with some real question marks. Did they get a major steal picking Atkins in the fourth round?
The Bengals started Buffalo's first offensive drive with Pat Sims and Domata Peko as the tackles, and Atkins got his first rep when the Bills had third-and-15 from their own 38. Cincinnati ran a straight "40" front, with Atkins and Jonathan Fanene aligned over the guards as opposed to the 1-gap and 3-gap designations frequently seen in 4-3 alignments. When defending that kind of front, the center has to pick a side, and Bills center Geoff Hangartner went to his right and helped right guard Eric Wood deal with Atkins. This was also an interesting alignment because Fanene is listed as the starting defensive end in the game book, and Michael Johnson (who had success against the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game as a tackle) was the left end on that play and helped Fanene with the sack. But that sack was made possible to a degree by the decision to double-team Atkins.
Atkins' sack came with 12:16 left in the fourth quarter, and the Bills with third-and-16 (this is the Bills; get used to it) at the Cincinnati 44. That he ended up with the quarterback takedown was a case of right place, right time. Ryan Fitzpatrick took the ball out of shotgun, rolled right as his protection predictably exploded, eluded tackled attempts by Sims and Johnson, and rolled back up the middle, where Atkins was waiting for him. But the thing that impressed me here was that once again, the Bills gave Atkins the double-team. Atkins looped out of the blocks and kept running to the middle of the field -- he didn't give up just because the play went the other way.
I talked to Rob Rang of NFLDS specifically about Atkins, because I'm always uneasy about questioning a player's effort unless it's pretty obvious that there's a problem. Rob told me that while Atkins definitely had a reputation for turning it off and on when he was on the field at Georgia, Atkins' preseason performance hasn't surprised him at all. At his best, Atkins has the kind of disruptive ability you don't often see from a defensive tackle. And so far, his best is what the Bengals have seen.
Speaking of ideal fits, there's the case of the Green Bay Packers taking Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett in the third round. The Packers like bigger, athletic defensive backs who can either play man coverage already or have outstanding attributes for man over time. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Burnett has displayed the "hip-flip" and trail speed needed to succeed in a defensive system that focuses on quarterback pressure and will leave cornerbacks and safeties on islands. Burnett left school after picking off four passes in his senior season (he amassed seven interceptions in 2007), and Packers GM Ted Thompson was all him. Thompson, who rarely moves up in the draft, traded up to get Burnett with the 71st overall pick.
|Figure 2: Burnett's Route Jump|
"We had these slot charts in each round, and on my slot chart (in the third), we were way down here and the pick was way up there and I wanted to move up there because I didn't think he would get there," he told reporters after the pick. "If I was a better gambler or poker player, maybe I could have waited out, but we felt strongly that he would be a good addition to our team."
It wasn't just Burnett's talent that factored in -- while the kid was learning the playbook, strong safety Atari Bigby was holding out and refusing to sign his RFA tender. Bigby finally signed in late July, but the Packers put him on the Reserve/PUP list three days later so that Bigby could have surgery on a chronically bothersome left ankle. Burnett took this time to start running with the first-teamers in Bigby's place. In his first three preseason games, Burnett racked up the most passes defensed of any rookie (seven) and picked off two passes. His toughest test to date would be the umpire-adjusted version of Peyton Manning and the Colts.
On Indy's first play, Joseph Addai blasted through Green Bay's nickel 4-2 for a 49-yard gain on the ground, and Burnett was playing deep while free safety Nick Collins cheated up. Burnett got lost in the weakside zone run as Addai cut from left to right, and it was cornerback Tramon Williams who eventually caught up to make the tackle. Manning hit Pierre Garcon for an 18-yard touchdown pass on the very next play (away from Burnett's area), and that was that drive.
Indy's next drive started with a long pass to Garcon from the Colts' 22-yard line, and here you got to see the range that made the Packers so interested in Burnett (Figure 2). He was near the middle of the field when Manning let the ball go, and by the time it came down in Garcon's area at the Green Bay 36-yard line, Burnett was there to break on the throw and almost pick it off. On the play, the Colts went with an unusual (for them) two-tight end set left.
As Reggie Wayne took Charles Woodson inside, Garcon ran the deep route with Brandon Underwood trailing along. This was another nickel defense (I'd be shocked if the Colts don't face the most nickel in the NFL). Manning seemed both surprised that Burnett got over there and distressed that a flaw in his own internal mechanism had allowed a misfire.
|Figure 3: Burnett's Interception|
Burnett got his interception with 3:12 left in the first half and the Colts with the ball at their own 26-yard line. The Packers lined up in a 4-2 nickel, two-deep defense, but Burnett saw something that made him cheat up to linebacker depth pre-snap. Burnett handed Anthony Gonzalez inside to the zone, and jumped Garcon's route just as he turned inside from wide right.
The Packers had a zone drop going on their right side, Woodson blitzing from their left, and Burnett just ate up the easy read. In perhaps the ultimate compliment to a rookie pass defender, the camera showed Manning walking off the field, looking up at the Lambeau Field Jumbotron, and wondering, "Where did this guy come from?"
Very soon, Packers fans may be wondering who that Atari Bigby guy was. Burnett is in a great situation, and he's making the most of his opportunities in a defense that sets smart, athletic players up for optimal success.
10 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2010, 8:28pm by Sam P