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22 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
Tiki Barber and Larry Johnson got all the headlines, but the most interesting matchup in Saturday's Giants-Chiefs game was the battle for the ages at the line of scrimmage: New York right defensive end Osi Umenyiora entered Saturday's game against the Chiefs as one of the best young players in the league, a 25-year-old with 12.5 sacks, good for second in the NFL. On nearly every snap, he lined up against Kansas City left tackle Willie Roaf, a future Hall of Famer but also a 35-year-old with a bad hamstring. Surely the younger and quicker Umenyiora would use his considerable speed advantage to blow past Roaf and make Trent Green's life miserable, right?
Not a chance. Roaf didn't just hold Umenyiora without a sack; for most of the game Umenyiora didn't even look like he was in the same zip code as Green. When Umenyiora hit Green late in the fourth quarter, drawing a roughing the passer penalty, it was probably the first time Green realized Umenyiora was in the game at all. An examination of Umenyiora on every play of the Giants' 27-17 victory over the Chiefs showed that Umenyiora's pass rush had nothing to do with New York's victory.
For some odd reason, Umenyiora generally tried to beat Roaf with power moves, even though Umenyiora's clear advantage over Roaf is his speed. Umenyiora ran directly into Roaf on most pass plays, trying to bull-rush him, and Roaf stoned him at the line repeatedly. It was an especially odd strategy considering that Roaf's season-long struggle with a hamstring injury has limited his ability to take quick steps to the outside to stop speed rushes.
On a second-and-10 pass on Kansas City's first possession, Umenyiora rushed to the inside, while tackle Fred Robbins stunted to the outside. Roaf did an excellent job of bottling Umenyiora up and preventing him from getting close to Green. Roaf knew he was only responsible for Umenyiora; because Green was taking a short drop, Robbins essentially took himself out of the play when he looped to the outside.
Later on that first possession, on third-and-6, Umenyiora set up for a speed rush, lined up as wide as I've ever seen any defensive end line upâ€”closer to receiver Samie Parker than to Roaf. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see if he could have pulled it off because there was a false start on the play. Umenyiora never lined up that wide again and never pulled off much of a speed rush at all.
When Umenyiora did have an impact on the Chiefs passing game, it was because he sometimes drew double teams. On third-and-11 after that false start penalty, guard Brian Waters and Roaf doubled Umenyiora. That left a hole in the middle of the line for tackle Kenderick Allen, who sacked Green. When the pocket collapses like it did on that play, there is invariably a defensive player who occupied two blockers, and invariably the TV announcers ignore that player and mention only the one who got the sack. So give Umenyiora his due on that play. However, remember that Green threw 28 passes and that this was the only play when Umenyiora made a major impact on the pass rush. (Roaf and Waters also doubled Umenyiora on Green's first pass of the second half, a deep route to Samie Parker, but on that play none of Umenyiora's teammates were able to take advantage of the extra attention to Umenyiora.)
Allen's sack was an atypical play for the Giants; no team gets more of its pass rush from its starting defensive ends than New York with Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. The Giants aren't that unusual in having their two defensive ends first and second on the team in sacks. 12 teams that run a 4-3 fit that description, and four 3-4 teams have outside linebackers as their top two sackers. But the Giants are unique in that hardly anyone else ever sacks the quarterback. Of the seven linebackers on the Giants' roster, only one, Antonio Pierce, has recorded a single sack all season. In fact, after Umenyiora and Strahan, strong safety Gibril Wilson is third on the team with three sacks.
The Giants are eighth in the league in total sacks with 37, but they're 26th in the league in adjusted sack rate. The reason is that the Giants have had more opportunities to sack the quarterback: opponents have thrown 513 passes against the Giants, the second-highest total in the NFL.
(Ed. note: Actually, the Giants are now 20th, but I have not had a chance to update the defensive line numbers on the website this week. The point is the same, however.)
In the second quarter on Saturday, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, calling the game on CBS, pointed out that they hadn't mentioned Umenyiora's name yet, but they never focused in on how well Roaf was stopping Umenyiora's power moves, and they never questioned why Umenyiora wasn't trying to use speed rushes on the slower Roaf.
On the Chiefs' second and third possessions, Roaf was back to taking on Umenyiora one on one, and he won just about every battle. On a third-and-11, Umenyiora ran directly into Roaf and got nowhere, with Roaf stalemating him at the line of scrimmage and giving Green plenty of time to throw deep to Tony Gonzalez. The Chiefs threw deep to Gonzalez several times, in large part because Green had time to set up in the pocket and wait for Gonzalez to get downfield.
Umenyiora occasionally stands up like a linebacker rather than getting into a three-point stance. He looks less effective when he does that, although maybe the point is to trick the opposing quarterback into thinking he's going to drop into coverage as part of a zone blitz scheme. It didn't seem to serve much purpose against the Chiefs, although it would be interesting to consider Umenyiora as a 3-4 outside linebacker, especially because at his previous job with the Steelers, Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis ran a 3-4 defense that featured plenty of blitzing from linebackers.
Although he's known mostly as a pass rusher, on Saturday Umenyiora made more impact plays against the run than he did against the pass. On the second play from scrimmage Johnson wanted to kick it to the outside, and Umenyiora did a nice job of containing him and forcing him back inside. Unfortunately, none of his teammates were there for help, and Umenyiora couldn't bring Johnson down until he had picked up four yards. But on a first-and-10 later during that possession, Umenyiora crashed the middle of the line and took Johnson down for no gain.
Umenyiora finished the day with four tackles, all of them on Johnson after short carries. But the tackle statistics don't show how many times Johnson simply used pure speed to get outside Umenyiora, which he did often. Johnson ran around the left end of the line 13 times for 85 yards, almost half his carries and more than half his yards.
On two straight Johnson runs, for 18 yards and six yards, he ran directly at Umenyiora behind Roaf blocks. The Chiefs then tried it on a third consecutive play, and Roaf beat Umenyiora again, but this time linebacker Chase Blackburn made a nice play to stop Johnson for a gain of two.
Roaf at times looked like the aging veteran he is, taking a breather on some plays when the ball was going away from him. When Johnson ran to the right, such as his great 28-yard run on the first play after an interception gave the Chiefs the ball at their own 2-yard line, Roaf gave Umenyiora a halfhearted shove then stood and watched the rest of the play. Umenyiora is quick enough that he got close to Johnson on a couple of runs to the right, but he never actually made a backside tackle.
In the first half Umenyiora played just about every down, but in the second half he started to look winded and stood on the sideline on some plays, including a second-and-9 when the Giants really needed a pass rush. Almost every team rotates its defensive linemen, but if Umenyiora is really, as some have suggested, the best defensive end in football, he needs to be an every-down player.
One disappointing game doesn't negate the fine season Umenyiora has had, and one great game doesn't mean Roaf is back to his late-1990s form as the best lineman in football. But on this Saturday afternoon, even though the youngster's team won the game, Roaf walked off the field having won the individual battle against an opponent a decade his junior.
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.
20 comments, Last at 24 Dec 2005, 2:08am by JasonK