Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
29 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
At least the typical Jacksonville Jaguars story angles are starting to abate. The team’s well-documented problems with ticket and luxury-box sales actually began fading away a few years ago. When Wayne Weaver sold the Jaguars to bumper manufacturing tycoon Shahid Khan for $760 million last November, the people of Duval County stopped worrying about their team moving to Los Angeles and started worrying about the long-term outlook of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. In Jacksonville, that counts as renewed enthusiasm.
Khan, who so far has been more of a public figure than Weaver was, has trumpeted his commitment to a continually invest in his club. He’s willing to spend the team’s salary cap space and has plans for upgrading locker rooms and practice facilities.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. New cultures take time to develop -– if they ever develop at all. Khan’s first major decision, which he made alongside general manager Gene Smith, was hiring Mike Mularkey to be the head coach. If the new owner was hoping to make a splash with fans, he completely missed the pool. Mularkey is a long-time offensive coordinator with two uneventful years of head coaching experience in Buffalo. He may be a fine football mind, but he's not going to makes Jags fans forget Tom Coughlin.
The optimistic perspective on the Mularkey hiring says it’s reassuring to know that while Khan is eager to energize the fan base, he won’t make brash football decisions in order to do so. He could have rolled the dice and found a hot, young head coach, but odds are he’d have gotten the next Josh McDaniels or Raheem Morris, not the next Mike Tomlin. And forget about reeling in a Bill Cowher or a Jon Gruden –- even nice weather and a few nontaxable extra million aren’t enough to lure a marquee name to the bottom of the NFL’s totem poll.
Khan and his football staff made another major decision in March: to not offer too much in a trade for Tim Tebow. Yes, the local savior would have brought a tidal wave of publicity, but ultimately, he would have also given the Jags the kind of offense that produces more 5-11 seasons. Khan seems to be working under the assumption that winning will take care of all this team’s peripheral business issues. That’s the safest bet he can make, though as the first owner learned, winning is easier said than done.
Mike Mularkey subscribes to a traditional base personnel, power-run oriented system that is boring if not outdated. That’s the system that gives Jacksonville the best chance to win right now. Or, at least it will if running back Maurice Jones-Drew reports to work. There’s a long discussion to be had about the ethics behind Jones-Drew’s holdout. The case for the three-time Pro Bowler: being a 27-year-old bowling ball type workhorse, he probably has two or three quality years left in him. If he gets hurt tomorrow and loses his burst, the Jags would cut him in a heartbeat even though Jones-Drew has outperformed his contract. The business side of football is a two-way street. The case against Jones-Drew: he signed a five-year, $30.95 million contract in 2009; he should have negotiated for better 2012 and 2013 salaries back then.
No matter what side you fall on, what’s not debatable is that the Jaguars have no prayer without Jones-Drew. Fill-in running back Rashad Jennings, who was on IR last season with a minor knee injury, is not particularly explosive. Backup Montell Owens touched the ball a total of 12 times in 13 games last year. Combine Jennings’s and Owens’s best attributes and you still wouldn’t have a fraction of what Jones-Drew offers.
Jones-Drew is an elite all-around back, but the reason he’s so valuable is that the rest of this Jaguars offense is, at best "unproven” and at worst "awful." Technically, the jury is still out on quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but the evidence thus far is overwhelmingly unfavorable for the 2011 first-round pick. Gabbert clearly has an NFL-caliber arm; his velocity is terrific, particularly when throwing between the numbers. He’s a fine all-around athlete. What’s concerning though, is that he shows absolutely no poise or toughness in the pocket. He’s so worried about being hit by defenders that, when he’s not staring at the pass rush, he’s often stepping right into the teeth of it. Many experts believe that poor pocket presence is, unlike poor footwork (which Gabbert also has), an incurable weakness. If that’s the case, history will soon lump Gabbert with the likes of Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and JaMarcus Russell.
Even though the new owner and coaching staff weren’t the people who drafted Gabbert, it’s still way too early to write off the 22-year-old’s chances in Jacksonville. (For what it’s worth, every Jags fan is thrilled with how he’s looked in the preseason.) The new regime did sign quarterback Chad Henne –- another high-drafted player who was written off early by another Florida team -– but all observers have agreed that Henne hasn’t given Gabbert any sort of a competition. Unfortunately, this may say more about Henne. He has always had a strong enough arm and a willingness to stand tall in the pocket, but his decision-making and accuracy waiver too much.
In fairness to Gabbert, he had no help from his receivers last season. Jaguars general manager Gene Smith recognized this by signing free agent Laurent Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million contract in March and trading up to draft Justin Blackmon fifth overall in April's NFL Draft. Both players are expected to start in Week 1, though both are far from surefire stars. Robinson, a fluid, willowy, athlete, was phenomenal in Dallas last season. Before that, though, he'd been a classic underachiever for his first four years in the league ... one that spent a lot of time on the shelf as well. Blackmon, whose playing style has been compared to Brandon Marshall’s, showed oodles of talent at Oklahoma State. But, like Marshall, there are major concerns about his maturity after he was arrested for a second DUI charge in June.
Smith probably wished he’d been more skeptical last October before signing receiver Mike Thomas to a three-year, $18 million contract. After a promising first two years in the league, Thomas disappeared in 2011, catching a team-high 44 balls for 415 yards. Optimists might describe Thomas as a "stockier version of Hines Ward." Pessimists would describe him as an undersized guy with inconsistent football speed. It’s looking like Thomas could lose his slot receiver job to Cecil Shorts, a 2011 fourth-round pick who didn't look comfortable with the tempo of the pro game last season.
The questionable talent at wide receiver could be debilitating given that Mularkey’s scheme uses, almost exclusively, isolation routes. In other words: none of the receivers’ routes will combine to work off one another. Everything is separate and easy for defenses to identify. New offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski had a similar type of passing game in Cincinnati. This rudimentary approach can work when you have high-powered receivers like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens. It can be constricting when you don’t.
Mularkey’s system makes great use of the tight ends, which can at least alleviate the pressure on Jacksonville’s wideouts. The system will demand aptitude in blocking and receiving from both Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller. Lewis, the starter, is the better blocker, but he also has the flexibility to split into the slot as a receiver. Last season was a disaster for him though -- he has a lot to prove this season.
Lewis will figure prominently in the run game, as will voracious fullback Greg Jones. As a former running back, the undersized but stout Jones has an innate sense for identifying angles and defenders as a lead-blocker. With the offensive line expected to play a mostly straight-line, downhill brand of power football, Jones will be the run-blocking’s primary source of movement and deception.
As for that line, injuries have hindered its development the past few years. Even if healthy, it’s still something of a hit-or-miss group. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is athletic but must get stronger (think of him as a poor man’s D’Brickashaw Ferguson). Left guard Will Rackley also needs more strength, particularly in his lower body. Refining his technique might do the trick. He missed most of training camp with a high-ankle sprain though, so if Rackley continues to be unavailable, oft-injured ex-Packer Jason Spitz will get a look.
At center, Brad Meester is sagacious but no longer explosive. He can still be adequate as part of a unit, which makes it all the more important for improving road-grader Uche Nwaneri to play well at right guard. At right tackle, injuries have kept Eben Britton out of all but seven games the past two years. The 2009 second-round pick has spent some time at guard, but given how feeble backup Guy Whimper was at tackle last season and how inexperienced undrafted second-year man Cameron Bradfield is, the hope is Britton can remain the starter outside.
With Jack Del Rio now gone, fourth-year defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, whom players greatly respected as the interim head coach after Del Rio was fired last November, has full control over Jacksonville’s defense. He led it to its first top-10 ranking in five years last season, and working for an offensive head coach -– as opposed to a former linebacker/defensive assistant –- Tucker has close to unchecked authority again this year.
Even more than Del Rio was, Tucker is a 4-3 zone acolyte who believes in simplicity and execution over versatility and disguise. He wants his players reacting, not thinking. This formula worked for the Jaguars last season, though teams that have success with it year in and year out generally have a potent four-man pass-rush. Jacksonville’s pass-rush appears looks very average heading into 2012.
The Jags have prioritized the construction of their defensive line over the years but have had some big swings-and-misses, like trading up to draft Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves in 2008, and signing Aaron Kampman in 2010. Tyson Alualu, the 10th overall pick in 2010, has looked decent his first two seasons and shows hints of promise as a one-gap penetrator. His skill set is not quite elite, but he moves well and plays with tenacity on every down.
The man lining up next to Alualu, Terrance Knighton, has been intriguing when healthy. Though built like a two-gap plugger, Knighton is capable of breaking up blocking schemes through lateral movement and penetration. He’s someone offenses have to at least consider double-teaming. Because of Alualu’s relentless style and Knighton’s heavy build, depth at defensive tackle is important. Veteran C.J. Mosley is a solid block-shedder when playing in an ancillary role that keeps him fresh. The hope is that his load can finally be shared with 2010 third-round pick D’Anthony Smith, who has yet to play an NFL down thanks to Achilles and foot injuries.
Continuing to invest in the defensive line, Gene Smith spent a second-round pick this past April on Andre Branch. The Clemson product is not touted for his explosiveness off the snap, and, at 259 pounds, he’s too small to be an anchor against the run. However, Branch is said to be the type who looks better on film than paper. He’s a natural all-around athlete with a good foundation of fundamentals. John Chick, a backup edge-rusher and occasional stand-up linebacker who has flashed in sub-packages, is still recovering from knee surgery. Third-year backup Austen Lane has sat out most of training camp with a foot injury. Branch will likely play heavy starter’s snaps in Week 1.
Opposite Branch will be Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville’s best all-around lineman and one of the better-kept secrets in football. Mincey recorded a team-high eight sacks in 2011 and consistently made use of his athleticism in run defense. With Branch and Mincey on the edges, running backs could have some trouble turning the corner against this defense.
Of course, the run defense will primarily hinge on the play of the linebackers –- especially considering the Jaguars won’t frequently bring an eighth defender into the box. The hope is Clint Session can eventually get healthy and be a raucous-if-not-barbaric force on the outside. He has the toughness and burst, but concussions kept him out the final seven games last season, and lingering symptoms currently have him on the PUP list. If Session is unavailable, downhill-attacking utility backup Russell Allen will fill in.
Rounding out the linebacking corps, steady outside veteran Daryl Smith is proficient in traffic and still runs well enough to patrol the flats. He is capable of lining up in the Mike role, though that will only happen if injuries strike Paul Posluszny like they used to in Buffalo. Posluszny piled up the tackle stats while playing all 16 games in his Jags debut last season. He’s a strong, instinctive thumper between the hash-marks, but he doesn’t quite have the range and athleticism to be a playmaker going sideline-to-sideline. Generally, players like Posluszny are vulnerable in coverage. However, the sixth-year pro is very astute at identifying route designs –- especially when the action is at the intermediate level inside. His contributions in pass defense are all the more important given the mediocrity of Jacksonville’s secondary.
Rashean Mathis was once a quasi-Pro Bowl caliber cornerback, but injuries -– including an torn ACL last season -– have cost him 17 games over the last four years. The 32-year-old is now playing on a one-year, $2 million "prove it" contract. Mathis’ chance at a roster spot would be tenuous if the Jags had better depth at his position. The closest thing this cornerbacking unit has to a proven commodity is 2009 third-rounder Derek Cox, who has been up-and-down and injury-prone himself.
Lanky ex-Giant Aaron Ross, who was signed to fill the nickel slot position, can push for a starting job outside if need be, but, like Cox, he tends to go through phases where he struggles with technique. Ross will get more leeway here than he got in New York, as fourth corner William Middleton has overachieved at times but doesn’t have great quickness. Undrafted second-year pro Kevin Rutland could push for his job. Also in the mix is respectable journeyman Leigh Torrence and sixth-round rookie Mike Harris.
On the bright side, all of Jacksonville’s corners have had encouraging moments at some point in their careers, and it helps that they play in a simpler zone scheme. Same goes for the safeties. At strong safety, Dawan Landry is a solid tackler in space and at the second level. He’s not natural in coverage, though. In centerfield, Dwight Lowery lacks range but is a safer option than Courtney Greene.
Kicker Josh Scobee has been amongst the best in the business for several years, which is why he got a new four-year, $13.8 million contract this past offseason. Rookie Bryan Anger had better be the greatest punter in history, as Jaguar fans were furious that Gene Smith used a third-round pick on him. Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts are competing for punt return duties, while Thomas is expected to handle kicks. No Jaguars player had a return longer than 35 yards last season.
There’s simply not enough talent here for Mike Mularkey to turn things around right away. The offense is at least two years (and probably six or seven players) away from mediocrity, and it’s doubtful the defense can overachieve like it did in 2011.
2 comments, Last at 08 Sep 2012, 5:08pm by Larry Ward