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 Sep 2006
by Michael David Smith
Early in the 2005 season the Washington Redskins did something that just a year earlier would have seemed unthinkable: They put three-time Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington on their inactive list. Arrington was healthy and ready to play, but the Redskins' coaching staff explained that whenever they put him on the field, he did his own thing rather than play within the defensive system, and his refusal to follow the game plan hurt the team.
Arrington made it back into the starting lineup later in the year, but he wasn't happy in Washington, and his coaches weren't happy with him. During the off-season both parties agreed to go their separate ways, and Arrington signed a contract with the division rival New York Giants.
So now that Arrington is in a new environment, is he able to play within the confines of the defense? Watching Arrington on every play of the Giants' victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday showed that he doesn't seem to know what he's doing in pass coverage, has lost the blend of speed and power that once made him a terror as a pass rusher, and generally looks washed up at the age of 28.
In the scheme run by Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, linebackers have to read the offense and react, rather than simply attack as soon as the ball is snapped. Although a read-and-react defense by definition forces linebackers to see what the offense is doing before they can pursue the play, it's surprising how passive Arrington looked against Philadelphia. On one first-and-10 swing pass to running back Brian Westbrook along the left sideline, Arrington was closing in and could have taken a shot at Westbrook, but when he saw that his teammate, cornerback Sam Madison, was about to make the tackle, he slowed down and watched. Sure, Madison tackled Westbrook and it didn't hurt the Giants that Arrington didn't get there to help out, but what if Madison had missed? Arrington should have followed up the play in case Westbrook had broken Madison's tackle, but he seemed content to leave the work to someone else.
Early in his career, Arrington was at his best when he lined up on the line of scrimmage and blitzed. That's what he did in 2002, when Marvin Lewis was his coordinator and he led all NFL linebackers with 11 sacks. But in the Giants' defense he just as often lines up four yards off the line of scrimmage and has coverage responsibilities on short passes in the flat. He struggles with that job.
On a first-and-10 late in the first half Sunday, Arrington got completely turned around in coverage, following tight end L.J. Smith deeper than he needed to (he had a defensive back behind him), opening up a huge area of real estate that Westbrook entered to catch a seven-yard pass. Arrington did make the tackle on that play, but if he had been in the correct position he would have stopped the pass from being completed in the first place.
That was far from the only time Arrington gave too much of a cushion to a Philadelphia running back. On a third-and-3, Donovan McNabb passed to running back Thomas Tapeh, with Arrington in coverage. Arrington backed up far enough that he allowed Tapeh to run past the first-down marker and turn around with plenty of space. Tapeh dropped McNabb's pass, but if he hadn't it would have been a first down.
Arrington also had trouble tackling. On a nine-yard completion to Correll Buckhalter late in the first half, Arrington was in coverage and should have tackled Buckhalter for a short gain, but Buckhalter ran through Arrington's arms and picked up five extra yards before Carlos Emmons tackled him. The Eagles obviously noticed Arrington struggling. After that missed tackle they threw three consecutive passes into the left flat, exactly where Arrington was in coverage. Those coverage problems are why Arrington comes out in the nickel package.
If he looked incompetent against the pass, Arrington looked uninterested against the run. On a third-and-2 run by Correll Buckhalter, Arrington lined up on the line of scrimmage outside the left tackle, but when Buckhalter went up the middle, Arrington just stood there and watched. Two plays later he did it again: If you see a replay of Brian Westbrook's 12-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, keep an eye on Arrington. He lined up outside Philadelphia's left tackle and Westbrook ran outside the right tackle, so no one would expect Arrington to make the play. But everyone would expect Arrington to try to get into the vicinity in case Westbrook cut back in the other direction, and he didn't. As soon as he saw Westbrook turn the corner, he slowed his pursuit to a jog. There's just no excuse for loafing the way Arrington did on that play.
Even when Arrington was in position to make tackles, he didn't fight off the Eagles' blocks. On the first play of the second half, when Westbrook ran in Arrington's direction and gained 13 yards, Arrington got abused by Eagles tight end L.J. Smith. Arrington tried to get into the backfield around Smith's outside shoulder, but Smith drove him about 10 yards back.
Perhaps most troubling was Arrington's performance on Westbrook's crucial fourth-quarter fumble. When the ball came loose, Arrington just stood there and watched as his teammates and the Eagles scrambled for it. Four minutes remained in the game and the Giants trailed by 10. That turnover fueled their dramatic comeback victory. You'd think Arrington would be doing everything he could to get to the ball, but he just didn't look too interested.
Is Arrington lazy? That would certainly be a reasonable conclusion, although it's also possible that his knee is hurting him so much that he doesn't want to go full speed unless it's absolutely necessary. Since undergoing multiple surgeries for a 2004 knee injury, Arrington has often talked of the pain he feels. Whatever the reason for Arrington's going in slow motion on so many plays, it's going to hurt the Giants' defense.
Saying he has slowed down because of his knee isn't a question of Arrington's toughness, though. On the first play of the second quarter, Arrington ran head-first into Westbrook and went down with a pinched nerve in his neck, appearing to be in a lot of pain. He sat out only two plays before returning to the game.
But that knee is most likely why blitzing, which was once Arrington's forte, is now an exercise in futility. Arrington did blitz a few times, but he was never successful. Both of the Eagles' tackles were able to keep him in check, and even Westbrook, a running back who weighs 203 pounds to Arrington's 257, had no trouble blocking Arrington, stopping him on multiple plays before he even got close to McNabb. On one third-and-2 early in the third quarter, Arrington blitzed and Westbrook took him out low. The old Arrington would have jumped over a running back who dove at his legs, but this version of Arrington went straight down to the ground as McNabb completed a pass for a first down. Arrington looks nothing like the Penn State player who famously leaped over the offensive line to drill a fullback the instant he received a handoff. He has now played in 18 games since he last had a sack.
Arrington was benched in Washington because he couldn't play within the schemes of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Now he seems unable or unwilling to play within Giants coordinator Tim Lewis's schemes. But what's fascinating is that Lewis and Williams run very different defenses. Williams, a Buddy Ryan protÃ©gÃ©, likes his linebackers to attack and run as fast as they can to the ball on every play. Lewis likes his linebackers to read the offense, stay in coverage, and make sure they're always in the proper position. It makes sense that a linebacker would have trouble moving from one of those systems to the other, but a linebacker who can't fit into either has a problem.
Arrington says he just wants to line up and drill someone, which would seem to make him a perfect fit as a special teams gunner. But the best special teams players are the ones who never stop hustling, and Arrington doesn't fit in that mold. There just isn't a place on a football team for a player who played the way Arrington did on Sunday.
On the FOX broadcast of the game, commentator Troy Aikman said, "LaVar has not shown the same intensity that I was used to seeing of him when he first came into the league." Aikman would know. It was a tough hit by Arrington that gave Aikman the concussion that ended his career. But Arrington didn't deliver any tough hits on Sunday. Arrington's contract was described in the media as a seven-year, $49 million deal, but the contract was so back-loaded that the Giants can get out of it whenever they want without too big a hit on their cap. Unless he improves dramatically as this season wears on, he shouldn't be back with the Giants next year.
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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