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25 Oct 2006
by Michael David Smith
The Indianapolis Colts traded next year's second-round draft pick to acquire defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it didn't take long for him to make an impact. McFarland was in the starting lineup against the Washington Redskins Sunday, and on his first play in a Colts uniform, he stopped Redskins running back Clinton Portis for no gain at the line of scrimmage.
That was the play everyone talked about the next day, but a review of McFarland on every play of the Colts' 36-22 victory shows that he can be an active player, that he understands the role of the nose tackle in Tony Dungy's Tampa-2 defense, and that against the run he's a major upgrade over anyone the Colts had on their roster before they acquired him.
Indianapolis originally intended to ease him into the lineup, but McFarland was on the field for most of the Colts' defensive plays after starting defensive tackle Montae Reagor was injured in a car accident on the day of the game. McFarland looked like he was playing to prove the Bucs were wrong to give up on him, getting that stop on the first play and then disrupting the middle of the Redskins' line on the second play, making room for linebacker Gilbert Gardner to tackle Portis for a loss of three yards.
McFarland played nose tackle for Dungy when both were in Tampa Bay, and on a third-and-1 on Washington's second drive, he showed that he understands the nose tackle's role on short-yardage plays, penetrating across the line of scrimmage and keeping the offensive linemen from opening a hole. At the snap McFarland submarined Washington center Casey Rabach and left guard Derrick Dockery and took them both out. Portis still picked up the first down by running to the other side of the line, but McFarland showed the kind of aggressiveness we haven't seen enough of from the Colts' defensive line this season.
McFarland is strong at the point of attack but slow in pursuit. On a first-and-10 Portis run around the right end on the Redskins' second possession, the Redskins didn't even bother to block McFarland because they knew he wouldn't be quick enough to make an impact on an outside run. You might say that's the case for all defensive tackles, but the best tackles in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme that Indianapolis employs don't just tie up blockers and let the middle linebacker make the plays, the way tackles operate in the Marvin Lewis defense. Tampa-2 tackles like Chicago's Tommie Harris and Ian Scott are quick enough to make plays even when the running back isn't heading in their direction. McFarland won't do much of that.
However, it's important to remember that Dungy is asking McFarland to play the nose tackle position that he played when Dungy was McFarland's coach in Tampa Bay from 1999 to 2001. McFarland excelled there, but when Warren Sapp left Tampa for Oakland in 2004, McFarland switched to the three-technique tackle, and he wasn't as effective a player. Now he's back to playing the nose, and that's where he's best suited. The difference is that the three-technique tackle, also known as the under tackle, lines up farther from the center and is expected to cover more of the field, while the nose tackle lines up closer to the center and is responsible mostly for what is directly in front of him.
On a first-and-10 handoff to Portis in the second quarter, Washington's play called for Rabach to pull to the outside and block linebacker Cato June. But McFarland ran directly into Rabach at the snap and held on, keeping him from pulling. That's exactly what the Colts need McFarland to do -- win his individual battles with the linemen in front of him. Technically, McFarland probably should have been called for defensive holding, although the officials hardly ever enforce that penalty to the letter of the rule.
Rabach got called for holding McFarland once, on a second-and-10 in the second quarter, when Portis ran up the middle and Rabach wrapped his arm around McFarland in an attempt to force him to the outside. Rabach is a good center, but he had trouble with McFarland and held him regularly.
McFarland's best play came on a first-and-10, when Betts took a handoff off the right tackle and McFarland fought through a double-team of Rabach and guard Randy Thomas. He squeezed between Rabach and Thomas using a textbook arm rip -- the kind of play high school defensive line coaches should show their players to teach good technique -- and tackled Betts after a gain of just two yards.
Those run-stopping plays are what the Colts need from McFarland because he isn't much of a pass rusher, having recorded only 20 sacks in his eight-year career. When he rushed Mark Brunell on Sunday he looked like he was hustling, but he didn't quite have the agility to get around the linemen in front of him. On a first-and-15, McFarland tried a Dwight Freeney-style spin move, and it got him exactly nowhere against Thomas. If I never see McFarland try a spin move again, I'll be happy. I suspect Dungy feels the same way.
McFarland wasn't totally useless on passing plays, though. On second-and-10 in the fourth quarter, Rabach and Dockery doubled McFarland, and when Freeney chased Brunell outside the pocket, it was McFarland's continuing pressure that forced Brunell to throw the ball away. On a previous first-and-10, McFarland stunted to the outside while Freeney rushed to the inside. McFarland never got close to Brunell as both Dockery and Clinton Portis blocked him, but he did show a good first step and got to the outside quickly. Having McFarland around should help Freeney, who has yet to record a sack and has been one of this season's biggest disappointments. (Indianapolis's next opponent, Denver, should also help Freeney because the Broncos will be without starting left tackle Matt Lepsis. One of the NFL's most underappreciated players, Lepsis tore his ACL Sunday.)
Still, McFarland's lack of mobility can be a problem. On a Ladell Betts run over the right tackle, Thomas had no trouble sealing McFarland off in the middle of the line. A more active defensive lineman might have been able to get around Thomas and make the tackle. But the Colts are adequate against runs to the outside because of fast linebackers like Cato June, who played a very big part in holding Portis in check on Sunday. The way teams have succeeded against the Colts is running up the middle. That's where McFarland helps.
So was McFarland worth the price the Colts paid for him? For a typical team, trading a second-round pick for McFarland would be unwise. He's probably a better player than a typical second-round pick, but he's 28 years old and makes more than $5 million a year, whereas a typical second-round pick is 22 years old and makes about $1 million a year. But the Colts aren't a typical team. They're a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and one glaring weakness, the run defense. A team in that situation should do what it can to shore up that weakness, and the Colts have done just that.
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.
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