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?
20 Aug 2010
by Doug Farrar
Whatever percentage of pre-preseason coverage that wasn't taken up by the endlessly predicable Brett Favre saga and Darrelle Revis' holdout seemed to be centered around the idea that Albert Haynesworth, just one year after signing a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins, accepted a $21 million roster bonus while planning to blow off minicamps as a measure of his dissatisfaction with the 3-4 defense implemented by new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Fearing that he'd be stuck at nose tackle, plugging blockers so that everyone else could benefit, Haynesworth waited until training camp to report and then spent several days failing the conditioning test that would allow him to practice. He finally practiced as the second-string nose tackle on August 9, which gave him less than a week of work with the new scheme before the team's opener against the Bills.
Even before Haynesworth took the field in the second quarter, it was clear that the defense Haslett was installing was not the kind of vanilla 3-4 that would force players into singular roles. As if to prove a point, Haslett brought many different looks onto the field. There were 5-2 fronts with Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo as the endbackers and Ma'ake Kemoeatu in the middle, 4-man lines with Kedric Golston and Adam Carriker inside and the Carter/Orakpo combo on the edges (this was a primary front against the pass), and my pre-Haynesworth favorite, the zone blitz that led to an interception of a Trent Edwards pass near the end of the first quarter.
|Figure 1: Redskins' zone blitz|
With just 43 seconds left in that quarter, the Bills had second and 10 at their own 38. They lined up in a shotgun set (Fig. 1), and the Redskins countered with the kind of 3-4 inside linebacker blitz that wouldn't look out of place in one of Dick LeBeau's playbooks. At the snap, Carter (99) backed off to cover the mid-zone, while linebacker Rocky McIntosh (52) led the charge between the tackles. At this point, a number of things happened in quick sequential order, and none of them were good for the Bills. Receiver Roscoe Parrish tried to cross over from the left slot, but he was obstructed from Edwards' view by Carter. Right tackle Kirk Chambers blocked inside, leaving rookie running back C.J. Spiller to block Carriker. There are many things that Spiller does well, but blocking isn't high on the list just yet. Carriker easily flushed Edwards out of the pocket, at which point Carter hemmed back in. Edwards rolled right, but missed the fact that cornerback DeAngelo Hall had inside position on receiver Lee Evans. When Edwards threw the ball, Evans didn't work his way back, Hall jumped the route, and returned the pick to the Buffalo 12-yard line.
It was a great call and a well-executed play, even coming as it did against the second-worst quarterback when hurried in 2009 (only St. Louis rookie Keith Null had a lower DVOA under pressure than Edwards' -97.2%) and the third-worst shotgun quarterback in the game (-47.2% DVOA; only Kyle Boller and Matthew Stafford were worse among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts). You got to see why those two stats are indicative of Edwards' abilities, but you also got a sneak peek at a versatile defense that could do some damage.
Haynesworth finally got in the game with 8:10 left in the first half, lining up first at one-gap nose in a 5-2 with his head lined up against the center's left shoulder. After a Bills' false start, he went with the same role, moved over the center's left shoulder at the snap, and took the right guard out of the play, allowing rookie linebacker Perry Riley to shoot through the middle and force another hurried attempt. That was an example of Haynesworth working in tandem with other linemen, using his quickness off the snap, and dismantling the Bills' already sketchy blocking concepts with movement off the ball and the ability to occupy a double team. On second and 15, he lined up over the center's right shoulder and easily split the center-right guard double team. On third and 15, Haynesworth lined up as a three-technique tackle in a four-man front, with Vonnie Holliday also in the middle. This time, Haynesworth took left guard Andy Levitre one-on-one, and pushed Levitre back into Edwards, almost deflecting a pass that was completed for 14 yards to receiver Steve Johnson. That play was less about scheme and more about Haynesworth's ability to use his power to demolish an offensive lineman on the track.
I was less impressed with Haynesworth as a 4-3 end in a play that came with 3:35 left in the first half. The Bills had second and 15 from their own 7-yard line with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback (seriously ... I like Chan Gailey as a coach and I just feel bad for him). The Bills went three-wide with a single back (what we should probably call the "Colts Formation" from now on), and Haynesworth was playing right end. He shot inside on a counter to rookie back Joique Bell, but Bell headed outside for a 17-yard gain. I have to think that this is just down to coaching points and what Haynesworth is used to. When he was in Tennessee, the Titans would line him up as a right end in their 4-3 at times, but it was generally to loop back inside around Kyle Vanden Bosch, who would then take the edge. This was just a weird look that did the Redskins no good.
However, considering all the attendant drama and Haynesworth's late start in this defense, I was impressed with his performance, and far more intrigued by what Haslett is putting together in D.C. Haynesworth's objection to the new scheme may have made the Redskins look like one of those teams that implement the 3-4 as a cure-all before they have the personnel to run it (not unlike the team they played last Friday), but there seems to be a plan here, and Haynesworth could be a key man in the recovery of a team that has managed to live below expectations for most of the last decade.
In the ninth grade, Dallas Cowboys starting left tackle Doug Free almost quit football to work at a dairy farm. "I was 15 years old, the job paid well and I loved what I was doing," he said in an interview shortly before he was drafted in 2007. "I kind of had to be talked back to football. And it all worked out."
Well, eventually. Selected in the fourth round by the Cowboys that year, Free was Dallas' swing tackle in 2009, subbing out for Marc Colombo and Flozell Adams when injuries made that a necessity. Those outside the Cowboys fan base didn't really get a Doug Free name check until the Cowboys were destroyed by the Minnesota Vikings in last year's divisional round. In that 34-3 whipping, Free replaced Flozell Adams at left tackle in the second quarter, tried to deal with Jared Allen, gave up a sack and a fumble early, and became Exhibit 1A (along with Colombo, who was beaten even worse by Ray Edwards) of the team's offensive line woes. Cowboys coaches were relatively unconcerned about Free's future -- when Adams was released and Free was named the starting left tackle in the offseason, they were remembering the guy who repeatedly graded out higher than any other Cowboys linemen late in the season.
Free looked strong in the Hall of Fame game against the Bengals (especially in comparison to Alex Barron), and showed his willingness and ability to stand up at the point in run blocking on the Cowboys' first play from scrimmage. From their own 31 and with tackle/tight end Pat McQuistan outside Free in a six-man front, Free engaged end Marcus Dixon as Marion Barber tried to bounce outside to the left. Dixon was able to wriggle free and help bring Barber down. Free has a tendency to play high in run-blocking at times, and you'd generally like a guy to get under a defender's pads for more push. This is where Free has more strength that he's sometimes given credit for, and it doesn't always show.
Free was more impressive on second down, when Tony Romo hit Jason Witten on an 18-yard cross. He showed great pass-blocking form against end Matt Shaughnessy, fanning out wide, closing off any inside angle, and pushing Shaughnessy back repeatedly. On the next play, first and 10 from the 50-yard line, Oakland's coverage kept Romo waiting for an open man, and Colombo gave up a sack to rookie end Lamarr Houston (another guy to watch this preseason). Free stayed strong against Shaughnessy even with the time elapsed -- Shaughnessy tried to come back upfield after penetrating about four yards in the pocket, but Free kept him at bay with some really nice hand movement. When you watch Free play, keep an eye on how he uses his hands to keep defenders where he wants them. It's one of his most valuable traits.
I like what I've seen from Doug Free so far. The pass blocking is encouraging, and he shouldn't be hit for too long with the debit that comes from getting blown up by Jared Allen -- there are few tackles in the league who can survive Allen for 60 minutes. He's good in space and doesn't fall all over himself when he's asked to get quick and be somewhere in a hurry. What I'd like to see more of (and according to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, this was a ding on Free going back to college) is a guy who can explode into the defender and push back. He doesn't exhibit the "violence" that I think is common to all the best at his position, but for a player with only seven NFL starts, Free is on the right track and should be able to live up to expectations.
The more things change, the more they stay the same ... David Carr still has no pocket presence.
What do you do if you're an undersized but extremely productive linebacker in need of a system that will allow you to flash your undersold abilities? You start by hoping you're drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, who have developed quite the cottage industry around guys with specific skills hidden by unattractive measurables. Four years ago, the Colts picked up the 6-foot, 235 pound Clint Session out of Pitt in the fourth round, and spotted 5-foot-11, 235-pound undrafted Gary Brackett in 2003. Last season, Session and Brackett were two cornerstones in what might have been the NFL's fastest defense. Iowa's Pat Angerer, another smaller (6-foot, 235 pounds) speed demon, was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft and has been backing up Brackett in camp. In 2009 with Iowa, Angerer racked up 135 tackles (47 solo), a sack, five pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. He was similarly productive in his first NFL game, preseason though it may have been: eight tackles (five solo), two sacks, two quarterback hits, and another tackle for loss. I wanted to look at the sacks, which came in a three-play sequence against the 49ers.
|Figure 2: Indy's zone blitz|
With 2 minutes remaining in the first half, San Francisco lined up three-wide at the Indianapolis 23-yard line, and the Colts countered with what looked like one of their seemingly endless vanilla Cover-2 defenses. But those who were paying attention last season will remember that under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, Indy put a bit of color on the canvas, blitzing with a bit more regularity and shaking things up with their fronts. On this play (Fig. 2), the line slid left, the left end backed into coverage, and the 49ers' offensive line responded with slide protection, leaving an open lane for Angerer to come through. Linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka (yet another 6-foot, 230-pound guy) blitzed from the nickel edge, which took the halfback out of the play. Meanwhile, David Carr was a big bunch of "Yikes!" in the pocket. He looked to his right, looked to his left, ran a little play fake, did his taxes and watched the latest episode of Pillars of the Earth back there – seriously. If Carr crossed busy streets with the same awareness he has in the pocket, he'd have gone "splat" years ago.
After an Anthony Dixon 17-yard run (Angerer got lost in the middle on that one -- on the downside, that's another way he fits with this linebacker group), Angerer got his second sack by shooting through a five-man front, beating right guard Chilo Rachal (who did not enjoy film review, I'm sure), and taking Carr down again. Carr was sacked again on the next play (this time by Fili Moala), and you had to start wondering whether the poor guy should have been benched for his own safety.
Preseason and quarterback caveats aside, Angerer's a guy to watch. With cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey in 2009, the Colts proved that they have no problem putting young defensive players in starting roles and asking them to make a difference. That their personnel modus operandi is so in tune with their on-field needs -- well, that's why Bill Polian gets the big bucks. I want to see more of Angerer dropping into zones and filling gaps consistently, and that next chance comes against the Bills on Thursday night. Based on what Buffalo showed against Washington's defense, Angerer will get more chances to impress.
21 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2010, 10:33am by c_f