Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
10 Nov 2005
by Michael David Smith
Nick Saban has a reputation as a defensive mastermind, and when he took the job as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, we heard throughout the off-season that he would change Miami's defense, using a sophisticated hybrid of the 4-3 and the 3-4. But as I watched the Dolphins front seven on every play of their 17-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, I found that it's not the scheme that works for Saban, it's the execution.
Discussing defensive formations in simple terms of whether they use four linemen and three linebackers or three linemen and four linebackers makes convenient shorthand for sportswriters, but it is really a false dichotomy. For the most part, the main difference between Miami's 4-3 base front and the 3-4 it occasionally uses is simply whether or not Jason Taylor felt like getting into a three-point stance as a defensive end or standing up as a linebacker.
I didn't see any complex schemes that make Saban's defense different from any other team's. I did see fundamental form tackling, defensive linemen maintaining gap responsibility, and a nice mixture of young talent and rejuvenated veterans.
Let's start with one of those rejuvenated veterans. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Cincinnati's defensive line badly needs more bulk in the middle. I had in mind players like Keith Traylor, the defensive tackle Saban signed as a free agent from New England. He had a great game on Sunday.
On Atlanta's first play from scrimmage, with Traylor lined up at nose tackle, Warrick Dunn took a handoff and tried to run between center Todd McClure and right guard Kynan Forney, but Traylor clogged the middle of the line and stopped Dunn for no gain. On Atlanta's second play, Traylor collapsed the pocket, and as Michael Vick tried to run, Traylor sacked him for a loss of two yards.
Traylor is 36 years old, weighs 337 pounds, and it was 80 degrees in Miami on Sunday, so you might expect that he'd have a strong first quarter and then trail off as the game went on. But he played even better in the fourth quarter than he did in the first. He tackled Dunn three times in the fourth quarter, twice after short gains on second-and-10, and once for a loss of four on fourth-and-1.
My favorite play by Traylor came on one of those second-and-10 fourth-quarter plays, when McClure and Falcons left guard Matt Lehr double-teamed him. Atlanta's offensive line needed to move Traylor out of the way for a power run right at him. Usually, the best the defense can hope for on a play like that is for the double-teamed lineman to free up space for a linebacker to make the tackle. On this play, Traylor did it himself: he overpowered both McClure and Lehr and tackled Dunn for just a two yard gain. Although I usually reserve my praise for every-down players, and Miami gave Traylor quite a few breathers, I would still have to say that Traylor had the best game I've seen so far this year from a defensive tackle. He deserves All-Pro consideration.
I didn't think highly of Vonnie Holliday or Jeff Zgonina, the two tackles who rotated with Traylor. On a third-and-1, Lehr had a one-on-one block on Holliday, pushed and shoved him right out of the play, and Dunn followed him for a gain of five yards. McClure dominated Zgonina, a small tackle who doesn't stand his ground at the point of attack and would therefore fit in nicely in Cincinnati.
Jason Taylor is 31 years old but still one of the better defensive ends in football. On a second-and-2 on Atlanta's first possession, Taylor lined up at right end, and with Dunn taking a handoff and running in the opposite direction, the Falcons thought they could get away with leaving Taylor unblocked. They thought wrong. Taylor recognized the play immediately, ran through Atlanta's backfield, and stopped Dunn for no gain.
Taylor sacked Vick on a fourth-quarter play when two Falcons had a shot at him. He lined up at left end and used a spin move to get past right tackle Todd Weiner, then used an arm rip to avoid Dunn's attempt to chip him. It was a sweet pass rush, but we don't see that quite as often from Taylor as we used to.
I've just mentioned two of Taylor's three tackles on the game. Three tackles don't sound like a lot for a defensive end, but I frequently saw Taylor impact a play in a way that allowed a teammate to make the tackle. On a first-and-10 run, Fred McCrary lined up as a fullback in front of halfback Justin Griffith. Taylor stood McCrary up at the line of scrimmage, filling the hole Griffith wanted to run through. That forced Griffith to hesitate, and linebacker Channing Crowder made the tackle for no gain. That looks like a good play by Crowder in the stat sheet, but Taylor deserves most of the credit.
Taylor did have one mistake, a big one: On third-and-6 with Miami trailing and 2:28 remaining, Miami desperately needed a stop to get the ball back and have one more attempt to score. But Taylor lined up at right end, dropped into pass coverage, and got sucked inside as Dunn beat him to the outside. Dunn's eight-yard run sealed the game on a surprisingly bad play for Taylor, a smart veteran. (Also note that Holliday, playing tackle next to Taylor, just kind of halfheartedly jogged toward Dunn on the play.)
Kevin Carter, the starter at right defensive end, got pressure on Vick several times, but he didn't do much against the run. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Dunn ran behind right tackle Todd Weiner, who overpowered Carter as Dunn gained nine yards. Carter gave up on the play after he failed to win the initial push with Weiner.
I think Miami should take Carter out on running downs more often because I liked what I saw of his backups, David Bowens and especially rookie Matt Roth. On a second-and-7 in the third quarter, Roth lined up at right end and Atlanta left tackle Kevin Shaffer dove at his legs, taking him to the ground. But Roth got back up and assisted on the tackle, holding Dunn to three yards.
Roth started his career at Iowa as a linebacker, and when Saban drafted him many observers assumed he would move to outside linebacker in a 3-4. But on the basis of Sunday's game, I'd say 4-3 end is the right place for him. On a second-and-10 on the last play of the third quarter, Roth lined up at end opposite tight end Alge Crumpler and didn't budge as Crumpler tried to block him, forcing Griffith to run inside, where safety Lance Schulters was there to tackle him for a gain of a yard. Roth is very strong against the run, and although he doesn't have a sack yet in his NFL career, he was known at Iowa as a fierce pass rusher. As a sophomore and junior he had double-digit sacks, and although he faced more double teams in his senior season he still finished fourth in the Big Ten with eight sacks. Miami made a good choice taking him in the second round.
Another good choice, even though he made some mistakes Sunday, was the third rounder, weakside linebacker Channing Crowder. First, those mistakes: on one Vick run, Crowder got completely turned around, following Dunn when Vick faked a handoff to him to the right long after everyone else realized Vick had kept the ball and was running to the left. On another run, fullback Fred McCrary buried Crowder. And Crowder was also flagged for a personal foul.
So what do I like about Crowder? Toughness and athleticism. He laid a rough hit on Atlanta's Justin Griffith, forcing a fumble, and throughout the game he looked a lot faster than most of the other players on the field. Crowder is a 21-year-old rookie starting alongside Zach Thomas and Junior Seau, and I can't think of a better pair of linebackers for a young player to learn from. He should develop into a very good player.
Do the 32-year-old Thomas and the 36-year-old Seau still have anything left? Thomas definitely does. On a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, he lined up two yards deep in the end zone and exploded toward the middle of the line at the snap, nailing Dunn for a loss of one and knocking Dunn's helmet off in the process. As long as he can run, he'll be tough enough to play in the NFL.
I'm not so sure about Seau. He's still a smart player, but I just didn't see the power and explosion he showed throughout the '90s. This might be his last season, so if you're a Seau fan, pencil in August of 2011 for your trip to Canton for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Even if the Dolphins' future doesn't include Seau, it will include Saban, Roth, Crowder, and at least another year or two from most of the other veterans. Saban still has a lot of work to do in Miami, but for a defensive coach who wants to build the defense first, he's off to a good start.
One final note: Every Play Counts now has progeny. If you are an NBA fan, check out Kevin Pelton's Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant at 82games.com.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
57 comments, Last at 14 Nov 2005, 12:15pm by CaffeineMan