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?
03 Nov 2010
by Doug Farrar
It's been just over a month since I last examined Detroit Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's on-field efforts. It's unusual for this column to double back so soon, but enough has happened in that time to make revisiting a necessity. The Suh I profiled in late September was still struggling a bit with larger offensive linemen -- the types of players he couldn't just push around as he so often did to the unfortunate individuals he lined up against in college. Suh brought an estimable sense of technique to the NFL; he's not just a brawler. But against the Eagles' bigger and less mobile interior offensive line, he had to come up with some alternate ideas to be effective. He held his own, but he wasn't yet a dominant force at the NFL level. Certainly an understandable adjustment.
However, in the last month, Suh has taken that adjustment to light speed and his game to an entirely different level. In his last four games, Suh has picked up 4.5 of his 6.5 sacks on the season, and has everybody talking. He's on pace to have one of those Keith Millard/Warren Sapp seasons; any 10-plus seasonal sack total from a defensive tackle is always worth a closer look as it's happening. With that in mind, I wanted to see what he was up to against the Washington Redskins last Sunday.
Two things I noticed right off the bat: The double teams on Suh were immediate, from the first play of the game, and Suh would occasionally line up at a slight angle that looked a lot like the "Stunt 4-3" Joe Greene invented. In the stunt, Greene would slant his body to as much as a 45-degree angle at the line. This was and is a great way to get a jump on blocks, especially for a man of his burst and quickness (Minnesota's Pat Williams used it in the season opener against the Saints). Greg Cosell and I talked about it in last week's podcast, and I mentioned before the season started that Suh and the Stunt 4-3 could be a lethal combination.
On that first play, the Redskins showed that their plan of attack was to use Suh's furious momentum against him and slide him out of pressure. This worked early on, when right guard Artis Hicks and right tackle Stephon Heyer managed to negate Suh's angle by going in the same direction.
On the second play from scrimmage, the Lions did something with Suh that I really liked, and something I wanted to see him do more at Nebraska -- they went with a three-man rush, with Suh at right end and Corey Williams at the nose. Suh played it in a flex position, a little bit off the line, and was actually triple-teamed on this play. Rabach slipped off Williams to help left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and left tackle Trent Williams with Suh after initially taking Corey Williams' charge. It was absolutely obvious that Suh, a rookie playing in his seventh regular-season game, was the Redskins' focus.
On the third play, Suh made a key stop with his freakish open-field pursuit speed. This was something I noticed in the Eagles game and in the Big 12 Championship game against Texas. In this case, he tracked down running back Keiland Williams on a screen with two blockers downfield. Williams may have had some space downfield on third-and-19, but that didn't matter. Suh is excellent when he has to catch up with runners trying to make plays. He's surprisingly smooth in his turns, and he gets up to top speed very quickly for a man his size.
And then, the topper -- the three-play sequence in the second quarter in which Suh got to McNabb twice. Tied 7-7 with eight minutes left in the first half, the Redskins had first-and-10 at their own 24. As Rabach and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger double-teamed Williams from a one-technique position, Suh was left with Hicks one-on-one. You can probably guess how that went. Hicks got his arms out to pass-protect, and Suh put Hicks' arms out of the way with a quick rip move and darted into the backfield to take McNabb down. The best move on this play, though, was the little head-fake to the left that Suh gave Hicks before moving inside. It was a great example of how his technique is meeting his strength, speed, and raw ability, bit by bit.
|Figure 1: Suh Sack|
Then, on third-and 13 with 6:44 left in the half, the Lions lined up in a more interesting formation (Fig. 1): Suh at right defensive end, Williams right over center, Cliff Avril (92) at left end, and Kyle Vanden Bosch (93) flexed a yard back in what almost looked like a blitzing linebacker setup. In addition, Suh had his hand off the ground. At the snap, Suh ripped through the blocking efforts of left tackle Trent Williams and running back Keiland Williams and took McNabb down again from a shotgun set. There was another nifty move here -- pre-snap, Suh moved from outside Williams' left shoulder to the gap between Williams and Lichtensteiger. When Lichtensteiger down-blocked to help Rabach with Corey Williams, Suh had his opening. The X-factor on this play -- the amazing aspect of the success -- was Suh's speed. When he's blasting through a gap outside, you forget that he's 310 pounds; he doesn't look all that different than a bigger defensive end, or a Justin Tuck-style hybrid player designed for speed rushes who weighs 30 pounds fewer.
The Lions have learned that setting Suh to disrupt quarterbacks by any means necessary makes a great deal of sense. Through Week 8, Suh leads all defensive linemen in the league in Pass Plays (15) and Pass Defeats (11). He's tied with Titans end David Ball with 13 Pass Successes, also tops in the league. This is a guy who's been a full-time difference maker from Day 1 -- no rotational stuff here. Suh has been involved in 28 Plays, which ranks sixth at his position. Suh has more sacks in his last four games than any other defensive tackle has on the entire season -- Idonije has 4.5, but from right end. The last defensive tackle to grab this many sacks in October was Warren Sapp in 2005, and the last rookie to do it was John Henderson in 2002.
It's easy enough to see Suh's play as a series of highlights. His superlative play lends itself easily to that. But the real value is emerging. In different formations and situations, Suh has become that rare do-it-all player with no discernible weakness. Hyperbole from me? Not a bit. Here's what Vanden Bosch had to say after the game: "I hate to use superlatives, but he's one of the best in the game. It's hard to argue that. Suh continues to make big play after big play after big play every week. Sometimes a defensive tackle will have a really good week and then disappear, but Suh continues to be a big-time playmaker for this defense. He's only going to get better, so the sky's the limit with him."
Since you'll often find his testimonials on the back of our Almanacs, we'll let head coach Jim Schwartz tell you too.
"We're doing a lot more with him in pass rush, moving him around. It's something that you grow into," Schwartz said at his Tuesday press conference. "You don't really have all those things at your disposal in the first game of the year, but every game you put in a little bit more and you're seeing us move him around a little bit more. Second play of the game, we had him moved out playing defensive end. I think that he's good against the run, he's good against the pass. I think the one thing that might be -- I don't want to say unrealistic -- because he can play very well, but his sack numbers are incredible for a defensive tackle.
"I think that the one thing we need to be careful of, he may play just as well over the next seven games and not have the same sack production. It doesn't mean he's not playing well. I think sometimes we make a little too much ... sacks are really important, but sometimes when a quarterback's either getting rid of the ball or something else has happened, it doesn't always translate to sacks. For him it has and it did in college also."
It is entirely possible that Suh's sack numbers will drop next Sunday, but that's because he'll be facing the New York Jets' outstanding line. From there, it's Buffalo (ouch), Dallas (oy vay), New England (an actual challenge!), and Chicago (you've got to be kidding me). By then, we'll probably be dealing with a double-digit sack season, which will be a great excuse to check in on him once again. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Suh. What he's doing so early in his career is something you don't often see.
With 4:56 left in the first half of the Miami Dolphins' Week 2 14-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings, defensive end Jared Allen took on the double team of left tackle Jake Long and running back Ronnie Brown as Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne looked for open receivers out of a shotgun, two-back set. As Henne moved up in the pocket (flushed out by end Ray Edwards), Allen disengaged from Long and brought Henne down with one arm. It was an impressive play that showed Allen's quickness and strength, as well as the value of the Allen-Edwards duo.
It was also the last time Jared Allen, who has started every game the Vikings have played this season, picked up a quarterback sack. From the second half of the Vikings' September 19 game until now, the man who finished second to Denver's Elvis Dumervil with 14.5 quarterback takedowns has seen his totals drop off to a worrisome degree. Theories abound. Allen is getting too old too fast. Pat Williams' decreasing effectiveness makes Allen an easier and more appealing target for double teams. And the most popular theory: When Allen snipped off his mullet in May to appease his future wife, he lost the source of his power -- the thing which showed the world that Allen always partied with two "R's" and accepted extra mayonnaise when it was offered to him.
I'm a sucker for wacky concepts like that, but the hole in the Mullet Theory is that no Vikings defender has put up a sack since October 11 against the Jets -- a franchise-high three-game stretch. Unless Allen's departed mullet somehow put a Bambino-like curse over the entire defense (cue the inevitable Dan Shaughnessy book), there are other issues to deal with. The same Jared Allen who harassed the offensive lines of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in 2009 could do nothing against those teams this October. What's the problem? Last Sunday's Vikings game against the New England Patriots, as overrun as it was by stories of Brett Favre and Randy Moss, revealed a few answers.
First of all, teams still respect Allen's pass rush enough to set a back or tight end frequently as extra protection to his side, but the ease with which left tackle Matt Light was able to guide Allen out and away from the pocket was new to this season -- and something I'd seen in other Vikings games this year. Last year, Jared Allen had a wide array of moves to deal with his blockers, but the two moves that impressed me most in previous years, his bull-rush and the slide inside, are absolutely muted this season. When the Vikings bring linebackers up to blitz in the gap between Allen and Williams, the confusion you'd think would happen doesn't happen. It is generally distressingly easy for backs and tight ends, not to mention tackles singled up on Allen, to keep him outside the pocket.
"In the third quarter, I had a chance to sack (Tom Brady), but I went to strip the ball and I just missed," Allen recently told ESPN Twin Cities Radio. "Those plays, last year, we were making. I would have gotten a sack-strip-fumble. You never know what's going to happen. So, it starts with me, and all I can do is try and get better and see if we can't get some momentum."
That's all well and good, but I'm not seeing Allen as a "missed it by that much" defender at this point. Some guys do have terrible luck when it comes to sacks, but that trend doesn't generally last this long. More often, Allen is getting lost in the scrum and recovering more slowly from effective blocks than he did in the past. I don't want to close the door on a guy who's had three straight 14-plus sack seasons, and I'm well aware that sacks aren't the only indicator of effective lineman performance, but the concern over Allen's 2010 performance is longstanding -- and legitimate.
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