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31 Oct 2007

Every Play Counts: The Twilight of Warren Sapp

By Michael David Smith

Let's just come right out and say it: Warren Sapp is horrible against the run.

Notice I didn't just say "bad" or "struggling" or anything like that to describe the 34-year-old Raiders defensive tackle. I said "horrible." I don't know who the worst offensive lineman in the NFL is, but my guess is that if you could identify that worst lineman and line him up against Sapp one-on-one on a power running play, the worst offensive lineman in the league would get the better of the match-up.

That's my conclusion after watching Sapp on every play of the Raiders' 13-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. He gets overpowered on running plays and often looks like he's not even trying out there.

And yet he's not a totally useless player, because he's actually above average as a pass-rushing defensive tackle. The biggest problem might be that the Raiders are using him incorrectly: They still think he's an every-down player, when in reality he's a situational pass rusher.

Usually as athletes get older they lose a bit of quickness, but the ones who last into their 30s do so because they compensate by that loss of quickness by getting bigger and stronger. That's the case not just in football but in most sports, from baseball to boxing.

Sapp has not aged that way. He still has most of the quickness that made him one of the best defensive tackles in football when he was in his 20s, but he is smaller now, and he can't hold his ground against bigger offensive linemen. Sapp is definitely lighter than he used to be, and there were reports that he lost 50 pounds during the off-season. But he actually still has a gut, and he looks like some of the weight he dropped came from losing muscle as well as losing fat.

This lighter version of Sapp just does not look strong enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL. It's not often that I am embarrassed for an NFL player, but I was when I watched Sapp on a six-yard LenDale White run on second-and-2 in the third quarter. Titans right tackle David Stewart blocked down on Sapp and pushed him and shoved him and drove him back about 15 yards. By the end of the play, Stewart had driven Sapp so far back that Sapp was the farthest player on the field from the line of scrimmage, farther from the line than even any of the Raiders' defensive backs.

Two plays later, White ran 21 yards on a play in which Sapp got a good first step across the line of scrimmage but was then just shoved aside (and didn't really fight back) by Benji Olson. A younger, stronger Sapp might have taken White down in the backfield, but the 2007 version of Sapp isn't going to do that.

Often, Sapp seems to be compensating for the fact that he knows he can not overpower opposing offensive linemen anymore by trying to run around them. On the first play of the game, White ran directly to where Sapp should have been and picked up a pretty easy six yards because Sapp had run around Titans left guard Jacob Bell, rather than taking him head-on. Trying to run around a block allows defensive tackles to make the occasional big play behind the line of scrimmage, but it also takes them hopelessly out of the play if the offense runs in their direction. It also gives the opposing offensive line a much easier time reaching the second level to block the linebackers, and I think one of the reasons the Raiders' linebackers are struggling against the run is that Sapp doesn't keep blockers off them.

Sapp also doesn't look as aggressive as he did when he was young. On a handoff to White that Raiders defensive end Tommy Kelly stopped for no gain, Sapp was close enough to the play that he could have jumped into the pile and given Kelly some help. Instead he just stood there and watched. The younger version of Warren Sapp -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman who seriously injured Green Bay Packers tackle Chad Clifton by drilling him on a play when neither of them were anywhere near the action -- would have heaped scorn on a player who just stood there and watched his teammate make the tackle.

At this point you might be wondering why Sapp is still employed. The answer is that he really comes alive when he sees a quarterback with the ball in his hands. On a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, Sapp started the play charging to his left, but when Vince Young scrambled in the other direction, Sapp shifted gears and pursued, sprinting across the field to catch up to Young, ultimately drilling him just as he stepped out of bounds. Young picked up the first down, and Sapp easily could have been flagged for a late hit, so it's hard to call it a successful play on Sapp's part. But it did show closing speed that not many defensive tackles have.

Similarly, Sapp made a big play on a second-and-14 in the second quarter. Young dropped back to pass and Sapp was one-on-one with Olson. Sapp took a hard step to the inside with his right foot, did a swim maneuver on Olson with his right arm, and burst into the backfield to sack Young. It was a terrific play that showed Sapp has not lost his burst of speed. But it was also a play where he charged so hard upfield on the pass rush that you could just see the huge lane that would have been open if the Titans had called a handoff instead of a pass.

Sapp plays, basically, like the Raiders' defense as a whole. Oakland ranks fifth in the NFL in DVOA against the pass, but dead last -- by an enormous margin -- against the run. I have always been a fan of the way Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's players get after the quarterback, but that was because they were able to apply pressure while still being fundamentally sound against the run. That's not the case anymore. Sapp is the most obvious culprit, but in addition to Sapp, the Raiders' defensive backs have become one-dimensional. Last year the Raiders' secondary would play aggressively against the run and make big plays, often with a safety in the box. Now they'll line up with eight in the box and get run over. Safety Stuart Schweigert had a particularly bad effort trying to stop White Sunday.

In his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week, Peter King called White his offensive player of the week. But as Football Outsiders commenter Yaguar pointed out, you could almost always give the offensive player of the week award to a running back who plays against the Raiders. Sapp isn't the only reason for that, but he's such a liability against the run that he's hardly worth having on the field at all, except in obvious passing situations. That the Raiders are using Sapp as an every-down player explains why they are the worst run defense in the league.

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 31 Oct 2007

26 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2007, 1:05pm by Nathan

Comments

1
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 12:01pm

Good article.

Throughout Sapp's careers, he always seems like he's had his weight ups and downs. I remember several years sporadically when he reported to camp lighter and everyone was excited about how quick Warren Sapp would be - but those were always his worst years because he gets bullied by Olinemen. His best years have always come when he's playing with a lot more weight.

Sapp as he currently is is not an every down player, but last years version was. I'd usually say it's age slowing an older player down, but I don't even think it's that with Sapp - Even when he was in his 20s he had a couple seasons where he'd just get bullied. He just needs to realize at this point that he needs to stay big.

2
by Chris Owen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 12:11pm

Ditto on #1. It seemed like a preseason rite of passage to find a Sapp profile or a team preview mentioning the fact that Sapp had lost 40-50 pounds in the offseason. If those reports were true, then obviously Sapp was gaining that weight back each year. That just can't be a healthy cycle to keep going through, and as MDS suggests, it's likely that Sapp is losing some of that weight each year in the form of muscle.

3
by John Kim (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 12:13pm

I think it was a bit too harsh on Sapp. He's definitely not the same player that he was, and he may very well be a situational pass rusher, but it's not like the Titans' O-Line is some cream-puff O-Line that Sapp should've dominated.

Perhaps it's because I have yet to see other Raiders games this season (I mean... who would?), but I don't think Sapp is completely useless on rushing downs. The Titans' O-Line is very good, and the interior of that line (Mawae, Bell and Olson) are all pro-bowl calibre players.
The reason that they don't usually look good on run blocking is because of LenDale White. He's just too slow to hit the holes that the O-Line creates. And when you compare him with Chris Brown and Chris Henry, it's like night and day. They make their decisions quickly and hit the hole fast (and not to mention, neither gives up on the play).

Anyway,
I don't think this game should be an indicator of where Warren Sapp stands, at this point in his career.

4
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:07pm

If this is the case, then is it feasible to switch Sapp to DE in Passing situations? And what other options to the Raiders have at DT?

5
by Mike W (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:20pm

So what about moving him to DE?

6
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:23pm

Alan Page, a very smart man, deliberately began shedding weight later in his career, because he wanted to optimize his health later in life. It greatly affected his ability to play the run, especially as he dropped down below 220. Can't say I blamed him. I wish Sapp was being similarly wise, but it doesn't appear so.

7
by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:31pm

Is Kwame Harris still in the league?
If not; you might be right on the 'worst offensive lineman in the league' part.

8
by brick (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:38pm

MDS came to much the same conclusion that I did when broke down Sapp's performance against Miami.

The one thing that MDS didn't mention that I saw in the Miami game was on passing downs, if Warren's 1st move didn't work he gave up on the play.

As for moving Sapp to DE there are a couple of things working against this.

1 - Warren hates playing DE. One of the reasons that the Raiders switch to a 3-4 didn't work was Warren could not adjust to the position. Sure its different playing DE in a 3-4 vs. 4-3, but Warren plays better when he buys in to the system. And he doesn't seem to buy in unless he is playing 1 gap DT.

2 - The injuries on the Raider line.

Early in the season Sapp did see some time at DE on pass downs with Kelly and Gerard Warren manning the DT's. The injury to G. Warren and now Kelly will force the Raiders to keep Sapp on the inside and play him more than he should be played at this point in his career.

9
by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:44pm

Will,
Page dropped below 220 lbs? Insane! That was what, mid 70's? It's not like it was the 50s. There were 225 lb RBs back in the 70s. That is amazing. An associate of mine was a DE and captain of the D in college at about 225 lbs in 1969 or so, but that was Harvard and not the NFL. (He told me that Ed Marinaro (Cornell) stomped all over them because he was about 240 and heavier than everyone on the Harvard D at the time.)

Also, Raiders are last in run D? You know what that means: Raiderjoe better get his Super Bowl tickets now before the Christmas rush.

10
by Brian (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:56pm

I just like the fact that I haven't heard him or seen him in about 5 years.
And I was surprised at how much credit the article gives him. It seemed the consensus was that he is the most overrated defesive player of his time, but I'd be willing to concede to the Football Outsiders observation.

11
by B (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:57pm

The raiders were 16th in Run D last year, was Sapp playing better then? I guess if he lost 50 pounds of muscle in the off-season that would explain his sudden demise.

12
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 2:01pm

"The younger version of Warren Sapp — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman who seriously injured Green Bay Packers tackle Chad Clifton by drilling him on a play when neither of them were anywhere near the action"

I am obviously biased but I have different adjectives in mind than "aggressive" for what Sapp did to Clifton that day.

13
by TED F!@#ING GINN!? (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 2:20pm

Re 12:

Then put a jersey on!

14
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 2:26pm

Yeah, Badger, I'm pretty sure he was right at or below 220 in his last couple of years, around 1980. It was one of the reasons he and Bud Grant butted heads, and Page finished in Chicago. I think he and Grant have since reconciled; Grant really did manage to keep football in perspective, and I'm sure basically understood Page's stance, while wanting him to wait another year or two before adopting it.

Page was still a terrific pass rushing tackle at that weight, by the way. His last year with the Bears was quite productive. I think he now weighs less than 200 pounds. He is a remarkable example of someone who basically achieves whatever he sets his mind to, with the exception of four particular games. One of the reasons I think the biggest HOF travesty is that Keuchenberg is not in is because I know how great Page was in the early '70s, and what kind of game Keuchenberg had against him, along with many, many, others, of course.

15
by muddy waters (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 2:47pm

I'm pretty sure the consensus last year was that Sapp had his best season since leaving Tampa, meaning that he played OK. ESPN.com, FWIW, placed him on their 2006 All-Pro team, and Dr. Z had him graded out very high, although Z didn't choose him for his All-Pro team because of inconsistency (and, IIRC, an admitted bias against Sapp). He received 2 votes for the AP All-Pro team (out of a possible 50).

16
by dgriot (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 2:56pm

#7 - Yes, Kwame's still a backup at RT on the 49ers. Depending on how Staley does, he comes in anywhere from 0 to half the offensive snaps.

17
by Andy (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 3:39pm

I've been a TB fan for along time and I watched every game Sapp played as a Buc. He could arguably be considered the biggest culprit for why the Bucs were considered, "soft against the run," when they had that dominant defense for so long. Sapp has never been dominant against the run. The place the Bucs were always weak, even during their SB run, was right up the gut.

18
by Fisher (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 3:40pm

10 sacks last year - most among interior lineman across the NFL. No Pro-Bowl.

Regarding run-stoppage, the article is fairly dead-on. As with all things Raider over the last 5 years, there is insufficient depth and/or skill players to maximize player strengths/weaknesses per position.

19
by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 4:32pm

Re 12, I hope I didn't come across as though I approve of that play. I was just saying that back then Sapp seemed to relish contact and now he avoids it just as often as not. The hit on Clifton was a cheap shot.

20
by langsty (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 6:00pm

"Sapp as he currently is is not an every down player, but last years version was."

Yup, I would've liked to have seen this article last year. I vividly recall one of their games against the Chiefs where Sapp abused Brian Waters on just about every snap. It was a little shocking, considering where I thought he was in his career.

21
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 6:18pm

MDS:

Understood.

To me Sapp is no different than John Randle. Big mouths without the complete game to match. The Packers offensive line had more respect for Sapp than Randle but neither guy was "feared". Sapp didn't require the double-teaming of say today's Tommie Harris or Pat Williams. McFarland had a better all-around game when both were in TB.

But I write that knowing that some will just seem me a bitter Packer fan.

The truth is I never thought Sapp was all that and a bag of chips. Sapp has been doing the same thing since about 1999. Try for the big play and let someone else do the grunt work.

Though I have to raise my eyebrows at the notion of a Warren Sapp "relishing contact". That hasn't been the case in five years. Minimum.......

22
by Jeff Little (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 8:01pm

I'm a longtime Raider fan and I like Warren Sapp. The article is dead on point which is why I think it is necessary for the Raiders to acquire either Glenn Dorsey or Sedrick Ellis with thier #7 pick in the draft. Seeing as these are the two best DT in the draft; if both are gone before thier pick than the focus shifts to FS kenny Phillips so I no longer have to watch Stuart Schweighart constantly taking bad angles and in the chase position.

23
by Andy (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 9:25pm

Does anyone here think that EPC's should focus on players that matter? Warren Sapp is old, and many of us could have guessed that he is not the same player he once was. I want to know what the great players are doing right. What if we had a Mike Vrabel EPC? What about a Patriots offensive line EPC? I think MDS has great writing and analytical skills, but could put them to better uses that Warren Sapp.

24
by Duff Soviet Union (not verified) :: Wed, 10/31/2007 - 10:48pm

MDS, I'm a Raiders fan living in Australia who hasn't actually seen any Raiders games this year. Can you tell me anything about any of the other players? Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrisson seem to be getting good reviews but I don't know how accurate they are.

25
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Fri, 11/02/2007 - 12:35pm

I'm sure he's a shadow of what he once was, but Sapp was a member of the most ferocious pass-rushing defensive line in the DVOA era, and possibly beyond. That's something he can hang his hat on, at least.

26
by Nathan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/02/2007 - 1:05pm

With his quickness and marginal strength, do you think there is any possibility of him converting to a DE? Or is it that if you put him on an OT his quickenss will be nullified and he won't be able to set an edge?