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?
24 Oct 2007
by Michael David Smith
Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware belongs somewhere near the top of the list of the world's most freakish athletes, the people who can do things that no human being is supposed to be able to do.
I had that thought several times as I watched Ware in the Cowboys' 24-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, even though it actually wasn't one of Ware's best games.
Ware is 6-4, 252 pounds, and he runs like a gazelle. He's so fast that he's a threat to make a tackle from just about anywhere on the field, no matter how out of position he appears to be. Take the first-and-10 from the Vikings' 43-yard line early in Sunday's game. Tarvaris Jackson threw a short pass to Adrian Peterson. Peterson was at the line of scrimmage when he caught the ball, and Ware, who had tried an outside pass rush against Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, was eight yards behind the line. Peterson turned upfield and ran, and Ware gave chase.
So Peterson had an eight-yard head start on Ware. How many linebackers in the NFL do you think can bring Peterson down after giving up an eight-yard head start? Ware did it, diving at Peterson's feet after a gain of 12 yards that could have been a lot longer. Yes, it's true that Peterson had to slow down to dodge another Cowboy, so it's not as simple as saying "DeMarcus Ware ran 20 yards in the same time it took Adrian Peterson to run 12," but still: Ware gave one of the fastest running backs in the NFL a head start and still caught him. (Note that the official scorekeeper credited Ware's teammate, Bradie James, with the tackle. Maybe he just couldn't believe what he saw.)
Ware also ran down Peterson on a first-and-10 run in the second quarter. Peterson took the handoff and tried to run off the right tackle, but Ware, lined up as the outside linebacker on the opposite side of the field, sprinted behind the line of scrimmage and put Peterson in a bear hug just as he turned the corner to tackle him for a gain of just a yard. No one blocked Ware on the play because typically an offensive coordinator figures when he draws up a running play that he doesn't need to account for the backside outside linebacker -- but he does if that backside outside linebacker is Ware.
Ware is best known for his pass-rushing skills, and in addition to accounting for Ware on all running plays, here's another piece of advice for opposing coaches everywhere: Plays that require a running back to block Ware one-on-one are a bad idea. Early in the third quarter the Vikings had first-and-10 from their own seven-yard line. Jackson dropped back to pass, and Chester Taylor's job was to block the first man to rush from the left side. That man was Ware, who was only slowed down for an instant when Taylor tried to take him out low. After Ware dispatched Taylor he got to Jackson, who threw the ball away just as Ware had him wrapped up. Jackson was flagged for intentional grounding. Taylor is supposedly a better pass blocker than Peterson, but still, it was foolish for the Vikings to call a play that would have Taylor as the only person standing between Ware and Jackson. That was a huge mismatch.
Ware finished the game without a sack Sunday after having at least one sack in each of his four previous games, but he got close to sacking Jackson several times. That intentional grounding call was one of three times that Ware hit Jackson just as Jackson released his pass.
But despite Ware's impact on the Vikings' passing game, I thought Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie had a pretty good game against him in pass protection. On a third-and-7 in the first quarter, Ware put his hand on the ground and played more like a 4-3 defensive end than his usual 3-4 outside linebacker. He got a great first step against McKinnie, but McKinnie reacted quickly and managed to push Ware past Jackson, who scrambled for a seven-yard gain. McKinnie has quick enough feet that he can keep up with a speed rusher like Ware.
Sometimes guys like Ware who rely so heavily on their speed around the edge can be beaten with reverses and end-arounds. Ware doesn't strike me as particularly susceptible to that kind of play, though, because he's a disciplined player who doesn't lose outside contain. One of my favorite plays Ware made against the Vikings came on a handoff to Taylor. Ware was unblocked on the play and could have just run directly at Taylor, but he showed enough patience to first get into position to prevent Taylor from bouncing the run to the outside. Once Ware had the outside walled off, he pursued Taylor and tackled him for a loss of a yard. The whole thing probably took less than a second, but it was a second in which Ware showed that he's a smart and fundamentally sound player.
Another such play was on first-and-10 in the third quarter. Ware was lined up at left outside linebacker, and his job was to jam tight end Visanthe Shiancoe at the line of scrimmage to slow down his route and then rush Jackson. He executed it to perfection, first slowing Shiancoe down a step, then running toward Jackson, jumping into the air when Jackson passed to Shiancoe and knocking the ball down. The Vikings' play might have worked against a less athletic linebacker than Ware -- Shiancoe was wide-open when Jackson threw the ball to him - but Ware is 6-4 and has long arms and a great vertical leap, and it's not a good idea to try to throw the ball over him.
So if you can't beat Ware by running outside him or throwing the ball over him, how can you beat him? Put a good run-blocking tight end on him. Vikings tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser did a nice job on Ware on running plays. Most notably, on Peterson's 20-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Kleinsasser was matched up one-on-one with Ware and pancaked him, blocking him straight onto his back. Kleinsasser is one of the best run-blockers of his generation, and he had a good day Sunday.
I looked at the Cowboys' front seven last year and was blown away by Ware. I'm plenty impressed with him this year, although maybe slightly less so now than I was then. Maybe this is the best way to sum up how good Ware is: On Sunday he had all of those big plays I describe above, and after the game, I still came away feeling a little unsatisfied. I think Ware needs to get better against the run, and I think he needs to develop a few more pass-rushing moves to help him rely less on pure speed. I think he'll do that, and I think the best of Ware is yet to come.
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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