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?
21 Jun 2012
Guest Column by Kyle Winslow
After ending the Peyton Manning era, there are many questions about the Indianapolis Colts heading into 2012. Most of them center around the potential of first overall pick Andrew Luck. The other major topic of conversation this offseason is the team's conversion to new head coach Chuck Pagano's defense.
The media has frequently pointed out that one of the keys to success next season is how well Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney adapt to the new scheme. It's common to see the question "How will Mathis and Freeney will fare playing outside linebacker?" without the writer actually taking on the question. The only useful attempt at answering that question that I've seen was from ESPN blogger Paul Kuharsky who, when posed the question in a chat, said, "They are good players who will be used smartly and will still be good players."
That's a very simple answer, but probably a pretty intelligent prediction. Can it be that simple? In order to take a deeper look, I wanted to investigate what outside linebackers will actually be doing in the new hybrid 3-4 scheme.
Since Pagano was Baltimore's defensive coordinator last season, I analyzed every clip of the Ravens defense available on NFL.com in three games: one game against a run-oriented offense, one game against a balanced offense, and one versus a pass-heavy offense. (These were the clips available free, not the entire games via Game Rewind.)
Houston ran 52 percent of the time according to Football Outsiders, the second-highest number in the league. They played the Ravens in Week 6. The Pittsburgh Steelers were fairly balanced, running 41 percent of the time, which placed them 16th in the league. The Patriots are obviously a pass-heavy offense and faced Baltimore in the AFC Championship game.
In total I looked at 22 plays, noting the alignment, personnel, and post-snap activity of the defensive line. Since Pagano has stated that Freeney will play a similar role to Terrell Suggs in the new scheme, I payed particular attention to his role in Baltimore's defense.
Three of the plays were goal-line situations, and one play was a Hail Mary at the end of a game. I did not include the goal-line and prevent defenses in the statistics I use for discussion below, but rather focused on the other 18 plays for the purposes of this article.
One of the first things that jumped out at me after reviewing these plays is the versatility of Pagano's defense. Unlike the rigid and predictable Tampa-2 scheme, which was totally dependent on execution, this scheme can attack the quarterback from any direction, through any gap, at any time.
The Ravens' version in 2011 was a gambling man's defense and, at times, Pagano gambled wrong. Yet, the team finished with the best passing defense in the league by DVOA. Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky might not have the same risk-taking leeway with the Colts though, at least until the team has more experience and more talent.
If Freeney is designated as the Suggs of the Colts' defense, then his transition shouldn't be extremely difficult. Rushing the passer is Freeney's expertise. Suggs rushed the passer in 17 of the 18 plays that I reviewed, and 13 of those 18 times it was from the right defensive end position, which is Freeney's natural position.
Moving him away from the right side on occasion will be an option for Pagano. The Ravens didn't have an elite pass rusher playing opposite Suggs. Rather, they rotated between Paul Kruger and Jarret Johnson, and moved their standout pass rusher around to target weaknesses in opposing offensive lines. That may be unnecessary for Indianapolis since they have an additional Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher in Mathis.
Suggs lined up on the line of scrimmage in every play. It is doubtful that Freeney will be roaming around and actually "backing" the line. He will probably only be asked to drop back into coverage after feigning a pass rush, as Suggs did in the only play I reviewed where he didn't rush the quarterback.
Both endbackers (for lack of a better term) pass-rushed simultaneously 75 percent of the time in the plays I reviewed. When either endbacker in the Ravens defense was asked to cover a tight end, they did so by jamming them at the line of scrimmage. This was highly successful in the plays I analyzed because they were aided by surprise. Usually this resulted in the tight end getting thrown way off his route and, thus, he was much easier to cover. In one play, Kruger took Owen Daniels completely out of the play with a jam. Daniels is a very good tight end, and Freeney is much more athletic than Kruger.
The one significant change for Freeney may be his stance. Suggs was in a three-point stance for half the snaps in my analysis, and he was upright for the other half. When an endbacker is in a three-point stance, it tips the offense that he is going to be rushing the quarterback. Even though Suggs ended up rushing 94 percent of the time, the possibility that he could drop into coverage is one way this defensive scheme keeps quarterbacks guessing. However, almost all of these plays had one of the Ravens' endbackers in a three-point stance at the snap. If Freeney isn't comfortable rushing from a two-point stance, the Colts will have to lean on Mathis to line up standing more often.
The Ravens were in a nickel defense 72 percent of these plays. The NFL is definitely a passing league, and I can understand why the Colts have been rumored to be looking at players like Mike Jenkins to bolster the secondary.
The good news for Freeney and Mathis is that when this scheme used five defensive backs last year, one of the three defensive linemen (the nose or one of the five-technique ends) leaves the field. The outside linebackers essentially become defensive ends, leaving a more traditional front four, the same thing the Colts defenders are used to from the past. The gap assignments are often different in Pagano's defense, but the outside pass rush is the same. Freeney will be able to use his patented spin move, and all the other moves he's developed over the years, when the Colts are in the nickel defense.
It is this component of the defense that puts the "hybrid" in hybrid 3-4. Other 3-4 defenses, such as those utilized by the Cowboys and Steelers, frequently keep a true three-man front with a player lined up at nose-tackle when deploying a nickel package. The defense Chuck Pagano is installing will not require Freeney to line up as a five-technique end or come off the field in passing situations.
The glaring missing piece for the Colts is Haloti Ngata. Ngata was double-teamed on most of these plays, but managed plenty of penetration anyway. Ngata is listed as a nose tackle, but didn't actually spend much time there last season. When the Ravens used their base defense, Terrence Cody or Brandon McKinney played over center and Ngata played five-technique defensive end. Occasionally, Cody would show up in the nickel package as well.
Ngata was on the line for every snap, wreaking havoc. McKinney joined the Colts in the offseason, as did Cory Redding, but Redding is more an edge-setting type of defensive end at this point in his career. He's not going to be penetrating into the backfield on every snap.
The Colts might not have that kind of player on the roster. Drake Nevis and Fili Moala likely won't replicate Ngata's penetration. If they can't, that position might be the first piece to address in next year's draft, even before addressing the secondary.
Kyle Winslow is a fiction novelist and former featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KyleWinslow. If you have a unique perspective on an NFL or college football story, feel free to submit your guest column idea or rough draft at mailbag-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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