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?
15 Sep 2012
by Matt Waldman
Six years ago, I met an athletic trainer for the University of Georgia football team. I joined a local gym and wanted to begin a weight training program. I was leery of the bells and whistles that "athletic clubs" have in their facilities and even more skeptical of the trainers who seem to be more about sales than fitness. I also wanted a workout that incorporated a lot of body weight exercises and the supervision of an experienced, educated, trainer. The gym management got my drift and recommended one guy.
The only appointment that this trainer had available in his schedule was 5:00 a.m. three times a week. The idea of studying a football game at 5:00 a.m. was one thing, an intense workout seemed like masochism. But as bleary-eyed as I was that first morning, I knew I'd made the right decision when this trainer walked us right past the the sea of Nautilus equipment and other gadgets.
"You see all of this here? This sells gym memberships. We’ll use maybe three of these machines. Let's do some real work."
And within two months, I lost 20 pounds and 10 percent body fat with a workout that consisted of free weights, sprints, jump rope, and medicine ball workouts.
I’m sharing this Jenny Craig moment for guys because, as I got to know my trainer, I learned a lot about the Georgia football team. My trainer wasn’t a 23-year-old whose career prior to graduate school was that of a glorified towel boy. Besides working as a professional trainer for a number of years in Major League Baseball, he came from a rich football background. He was a second-string safety at Florida State, and his grandfather was a former head coach and scout in the NFL
Among the several great nuggets of information that he eventually shared with me about Georgia football was the school's preference to recruit athletic linebacker types, make them add weight, and put them at defensive end. The Bulldogs have had their share of All-American linebackers and safeties in the past 10 years, including Boss Bailey, David Pollack, Sean Jones, Thomas Davis, Rennie Curran, and Justin Houston. The NFL has drafted eight linebackers and five safeties from the University of Georgia during the past 12 years.
While Georgia might be good at landing players with linebacker and safety builds, the trainer said it was a glaring weakness of the team’s philosophy for its 4-3 defense. Many of these former linebackers had NFL-caliber physical talent and potential if they remained at their natural position. But instead, one of two things happened to the Bulldogs defensive ends that earned a shot in the pros during this era: They switched back to linebacker and were behind the curve with the skills and concepts of the position, or they stayed at defensive end and weren’t athletic enough at the position to make a serious impact.
Pollack, Marcus Howard, and Quentin Moses are examples of players that were physically better fits at linebacker for the NFL level, but fit the need for defensive end at Georgia. Fit with the college scheme may be the more immediate priority, but don’t believe for a second that the NFL isn’t a major selling point for recruits. If high school stars begin to fear that a position switch could hurt their chances of making the transition to the pros, it can raise a red flag about the program.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs realized the error of their ways and hired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a 3-4 defensive mind who brought Georgia out of the world of the 4-3. So far, my former trainer’s criticism was prophetic. Georgia forced 26 takeaways in 2010, which more than doubled the Bulldogs’ 2009 output, and the team ranked 35th in total defense. Last year, Grantham’s scheme, coaching, and personnel helped the Bulldogs rank third nationally in total defense, seventh in pass defense, and second in the SEC in takeaways, tackles for loss, and sacks.
A significant reason is the team’s linebacker play –- namely the duo of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Jones and Ogletree are NFL Draft Scouts’ second-ranked prospects at their positions for the 2014 NFL Draft. There’s a good chance they will be top-five linebacker prospects if they declare for the 2013 proceedings.
Jones is the classic example of a prospect perceived as a natural fit at his position. He is also the better-known commodity because the outside linebacker is the team’s sack artist, accumulating 13.5 of them on his way to an All-American campaign in 2011.
In contrast to Jones, Ogletree is a player who experienced a position conversion. The inside linebacker was recruited to Georgia as a high school All-American strong safety from Newnan, Georgia. As a freshman, he made the All-SEC Freshman team as a defensive back.
However it’s clear that the Grantham regime looked at Ogletree, who stands at nearly 6-foot-3 and has the long arms and frame to support enough weight to produce at linebacker, and decided the young man should make the switch as a sophomore. Ogletree started eight games last year in his debut as an inside linebacker, and he was good enough to be second on the team with 52 tackles (7.5 TFL), and added three forced fumbles and six quarterback pressures.
Ogletree’s 13-tackle, 1-sack performance against Michigan State in last year’s Outback Bowl was a good example of where his skills as a former safety both help him and hurt him as he continues to develop as a linebacker.
Strong safeties are often the quarterback’s primary reads at the line of scrimmage. The location of this safety spells the difference between man and zone, Cover 2 and Cover 3, and blitzes or a conventional pass rush. Likewise, a strong safety learns to read formations and the quarterback’s actions in conjunction with the routes of the play.
Ogletree displays numerous examples of good field awareness in this game, including a sack on third-and-16 with 3:57 in the first quarter. Michigan State begins the play from a 10 personnel pistol set, with receivers 2x2. But, before the snap, quarterback Kirk Cousins shifts the tight end from slot right to the backfield to create a 20 personnel look.
Ogletree drops to account for the middle of the field after the snap, which is his coverage assignment. The two possible players Ogletree will cover are both in the backfield as Cousins takes his drop.
Once the quarterback finishes his drop and Ogletree sees the tight end engaged in pass protection and the running back still behind the line of scrimmage and looking for a lineman to assist, the Georgia linebacker realizes this is an opportunity to execute a "green dog," or "key blitz." This blitz occurs when a defender has a key player and/or situation that indicate when he should rush the passer. In this situation, Ogletree’s key is the running back staying the pocket to block.
As soon as Ogletree reads this key, he makes his move to the pocket. Cousins is trying to escape good pressure from Jones working against the left tackle when Ogletree accelerates to the middle of the pocket. As Cousins tries to break the pocket, Ogletree meets him six yards behind the line of scrimmage for the easy sack.
One of the areas were Ogletree will need to get better is rushing off the edge. He’s too upright with his technique when he has to work through the contact of a tackle on an edge rush, and this negates his explosive advantage over bigger, slower players. As an inside linebacker, Ogletree rarely has this type of pass-rushing responsibility. But there were two plays in the final overtime of this contest where Todd Grantham dialed up a blitz with his inside linebacker coming off the edge, and Kirk Cousins did an excellent job finding open space in the middle of the field to make plays that put Michigan State in position to score.
Although Georgia’s defensive coordinator blitzed Ogletree mostly because Jarvis Jones aggravated an MCL sprain in the second half of this game and was no longer dominating off the edge, the inside linebacker has the potential to develop a more versatile game that could let NFL teams use him both inside and outside. Rarely do we see a safety have to work against a tackle off the edge, so this is an obvious facet of the conversion to linebacker that Ogletree has to address.
Another example of Ogletree’s skills as a defensive back having a beneficial use at linebacker happens in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. The linebacker anticipates a quarterback’s throw off a play-action fake and tips the ball twice, eventually allowing defensive tackle John Jenkins to make an interception. Michigan State’s offense begins this third-and-2 play from a 22 personnel, I-formation set.
This is generally a running down and clearly a running set.
However, this power personnel set is used to disguise a play-action pass. Ogletree keys on a potential exchange between the quarterback and running back, but does a good job of maintaining depth at the first-down marker. His position after the snap demonstrates a balanced awareness of dual responsibilities. He’s guarding the middle for a pass, but he is still close enough to shoot a gap if the play is a rush attempt.
Once Cousins retracts the ball to his chest, Ogletree’s feet stop moving forward and he’s still no further than the first-down marker as the tight end passes him on a hook. The linebacker knows he has safety help behind him, but he continues to follow Cousins' eyes as he drops into coverage, positioning himself between the quarterback and the receiver.
When Cousins releases the ball, Ogletree does a fantastic job of timing his leap, high-pointing the football like a defensive back and keeping the ball in play with a second tip that leads to the interception. With 2:35 left in the half, Ogletree nearly intercepted a pass by jumping in front of flat route, making a similarly good drop and reading the quarterback’s eyes.
Ogletree’s recognition of routes and depth will have to continue to improve in order for him to become a good NFL linebacker, but these plays demonstrate that he’s off to a good start.
One skill Ogletree displays that reveals he’s making a good transition to linebacker is how he takes on pulling linemen. This second-and-10 play with 12:15 in the fourth quarter is a good illustration. This is a 22-personnel, I-formation counter to right tackle, behind the pulling left guard.
Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell could have done a better job taking a step towards the strong side to sell the counter, because this was a key Ogletree was seeking at the snap. However, once Bell fails to sell the play, the Georgia inside linebacker is decisive with his reaction and gets to the open gap where the play is designed to take the runner.
Once Ogletree reaches the gap, his job is to shed the oncoming guard pulling across the formation and make the tackle. The inside linebacker knows he has help in the middle, so he sets outside the guard’s sideline shoulder. This is, once again, good awareness of how his responsibilities work within the scope of his teammates. He also did a good job of not giving the lineman a full target to hit.
Because of Ogletree’s position on the pulling guard, he’s able to get lower than the oncoming blocker and duck under most of the contact while maintaining a downhill angle on Bell that blocks the running back’s path to the outside. Bell will either have to take on Ogletree or cut inside and deal with fellow Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson.
Ogletree also demonstrated the strength to take a lineman head-on, push him aside, and make a play on the ball carrier. A good example of this happened with 5:14 in the fourth quarter, Michigan State ran a power play from a weak side trips shotgun formation.
The left guard executes a clean pull to the second level and gets a good initial hit and position on Ogletree.
But for a former safety, the inside linebacker does a solid job of anchoring with his hips and knees at the point of attack, holding his ground just long enough to extend his arms and redirect the guard outside as the running back tries to work to his inside. This is a good exhibit of strength and leverage for a player who is, physically, an overgrown NFL strong safety with rangy size and long arms.
A split-second later, the linebacker slips inside the guard, wraps the running back at the waist, and drives through the ball carrier to bring him down. This aspect of tackling is something that Ogletree needs to continue improving. He’s capable of thunderous hits and working through stiff arms. He illustrated that well against Bell, one of the biggest, strongest, and best wielders of a stiff arm in college football today. However, the tendency to take a step or two in the wrong direction often means that Ogletree has to recover fast to get into position for a tackle, and he ends up "catching" the ball carrier rather than approaching him with a downfield force of his own.
In contrast to linebackers, safeties have more room to react and make plays. This means that a step or two in the wrong direction doesn’t result in a critical error on the field as frequently as it does for a linebacker. In this sense, Ogletree still sometimes looks like a safety playing linebacker. However, there’s enough on tape to illustrate the Georgia linebacker making a fast transition during his first year playing the position. Ogletree is sitting out the beginning of the season due to a team rules violation. As long as he returns without any additional drama, his athleticism and versatility should make the 2013 NFL Draft a viable question for his consideration.