Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Linebacker Clint Session
Indianapolis Colts 35 at Jacksonville Jaguars 31
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pitt linebacker Clint Session hit the NFL draft in 2007 measuring in at anywhere between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-0 (depending on who you believed) and 235 pounds. The Colts liked that he played in a defensive system similar to theirs, and drafted him in the fourth round despite the fact that Session didn't receive an invitation to the Scouting Combine. He forced five fumbles as a senior, and saw NFL action sooner than expected. Freddy Keiaho suffered a concussion and Session graduated from the backup role. Session really put his name on the map in Week 10 of his rookie season, when he picked off two Philip Rivers passes in a close loss to the Chargers. Injuries stunted his progress early on, but Session would flash impact potential in certain plays, like when he broke Jamal Lewis' facemask in December of 2008.

"Clint has what my old coach in Pittsburgh, coach (Chuck) Noll, used to call 'a six-inch punch.' The Muhammad Ali punch that Sonny Liston never saw, that's what Clint has," Tony Dungy said of Session in 2008. "It's very quick, and it doesn't look like much. But he rocks people and he knocks people back." Session got a full-time starting spot in 2008 and he's only gotten better, adding consistency to the highlight-reel stuff. He's now become a linchpin of a Colts' defense that has held up through a series of tight wins, including last Thursday's against the Jaguars.

Things didn't go well for Indy's defense at first in that game -- unfortunately for them, Maurice Jones-Drew had another one of his "I'm going to carry this entire $%^&* team on my #^@*&!$% back" revelations, and it lasted through most of the first half. But Session impressed me right away. He plays bigger than you'd expect from a power standpoint, and I like the way he adjusts to misdirection or change of direction. On Jacksonville's second play of the game, Jones-Drew went around right end only to find Session waiting for him there. Fullback Montell Owens filled the gap and blocked Session, but the linebacker bounced off the block and was the first of many to bring Pocket Hercules down for no gain.

From a speed perspective, Session is decent in zone drops, although he was as flummoxed as you'd expect by the receiver matchups Jacksonville would try in response to obvious pass defense looks. Where he was better was in reading and defending screens -- he stopped a quick pass to Jones-Drew with 13:22 left in the first quarter for no gain because he was patient and didn't bite on the play fake to Drew out of an offset-I formation. When you see quick linebackers get lost on that stuff, you appreciate the defenders who wait for plays to unfold and let their speed do the work.

The Colts' defense is not nearly as risk-averse as it used to be -- you'll see actual blitzes these days under new coordinator Larry Coyer, and it's because of the short-area recovery quickness and gap awareness of guys like Session that the team can blitz and still get decent run contain. On first-and-10 from the Colts' 49 with 11:36 left in the first quarter, Session was at the line in what I might call a "Bear Blitz" look, because it reminded me of how Chicago used to stack their outside linebackers a step out from the line and in the outside gaps. This particular alignment allows the linebackers to play with more run/pass flexibility, which is Session's game. At the snap, he read run from his weak side position, and stayed in his area as the motioning tight end downblocked. Drew cut back to his left, and Session was right where he needed to be because he read the direction and the play. As Drew buzzed outside left tackle, Session pushed away from the tight end and put first contact on Jones-Drew. An earlier whiff by end Raheem Brock behind the line set Pocket Hercules up for a seven-yard gain, but I was impressed again by Session.

After watching him in this game, and having him catch my eye on several others, I want to do a three-game, single-study piece on Session in the future. While he didn't amass the enormous tackle totals he has in other games, he played the role of defensive instigator in this one. Over and over, he would set the tone for a stop by being there on first contact, allowing others to zero in. He's a very fast defender, but he's equally aware, and that's an impressive combination.

Perhaps this is a common trait of the underrated defender -- he's the one who sets others up for success. His coaches and teammates love him for it, and those who watch with a careful eye appreciate the effort. But it's the guy making a beeline for the ballcarrier who gets the recognition when the unheralded player is the one who bears watching -- he's the one setting up play after play for himself and others. This is true of Session, and also of our next defender.

Defensive Tackle Mike Patterson
San Francisco 49ers 13 at Philadelphia Eagles 27
Sunday, December 20, 2009

In his fourth NFL season, Eagles tackle Mike Patterson isn't within shouting distance of the "Baby Sapp" nickname he used to carry at USC. Now, he's more about the physical battle inside than the marquee moments he had in college. When I asked Mike Tanier for the name of an underrated Philadelphia defender, Patterson's was the first that came through my Inbox. Mike said that Patterson had played at a near-Pro Bowl level all season, so I thought it was time to break out the microscope and get to work. Adam Caplan of and SIRIUS NFL Radio classified Patterson as "a wide-bodied player who has become more of a physical run defender on Philadelphia's front-four. He'll never be classified as an impact player, but he's been very consistent on running downs. He's a durable defensive lineman who should have many solid years to come."

The Eagles will ask Patterson and fellow starting tackle Brodrick Bunkley (who impressed me more than Patterson last season during the Eagles' playoff run) to man up against different linemen -- there's less of the static "0/1-tech/3-tech" packages you see with some other 4-3 fronts. The first thing I noticed about Patterson was his ability to shake off a double team and get back in the play. He first did this on a six-yard Frank Gore run with 10:28 left in the first quarter. Right guard Chilo Rachal and right tackle Adam Snyder pinched inside to blow Patterson out of the A-gap and give Gore room to run. But Patterson sifted through the blocks and helped take Gore down. He seems to have a better ability to deal with man-on-man power situations than Bunkley, who was frequently overwhelmed by center Eric Heitmann when Bunkley was lined up over the ball. On the next play, it was the focus on Patterson, and Vernon Davis' release against an over front (strong-side alignment) that allowed end Juqua Parker to blast through, unobstructed, and bat Alex Smith's pass down.

The Eagles adapted to the 49ers' frequent shotgun snaps with wide fronts and different pressure concepts. Parker's deflection left San Francisco with third-and-4 at the Philly 33. Now, Patterson stunted to the right at the snap while Bunkley took the double-team up top, and got to Smith quickly enough to cause an early throw and end the drive.

Later in the first quarter, Patterson finally got to have some fun. After a 12-yard Gore run with 5:45 left (this was another double on Patterson -- the 49ers were countering Philly's wider defensive line splits with blocking schemes designed to move a tackle one way, and the accompanying linebacker the other), there was a double-team inside, so Gore took it outside and was tackled by Parker for a one-yard gain. On the next play, Patterson found himself in the moment every interior lineman lives for after all that extra attention: On second-and-9 from the San Francisco 40, the Niners tried Gore up the middle and Rachal single-blocking Patterson. Not a good idea, as Patterson simply wedged his way inside, pulled off Rachal, and stopped the play for no gain.

The first part of being impressed by constant double-teams on a tackle is the constant double-team concept itself. The second part is watching what happens in single-blocking situations. I learned this when I wrote about Ndamukong Suh two weeks ago, and I pitied the poor quarterback whenever some joker called for a scheme that didn't have anywhere from two to eight people directly on Suh at all times.

Patterson started the second half with a bang, displaying his ability to mess things up at the point for any rushing attack. With first-and-10 at the Eagles' 43, he simply blew through the Rachal/Snyder double-team and stopped Gore for a loss of one yard. On Gore's next run, he peeled off Rachal again and limited Gore to a two-yard gain. Both Bunkley and Patterson seem most effective as gap-fill tackles as opposed to the kind who will take a head-on approach and either bull through or slide off a block (Shaun Rogers' specialty in Cleveland). In this game, Patterson found more and more success filling the right B-gap and either splitting the double or shading the guard and exploiting the mismatch. If they take double-teams straight on, it's more likely to be one way, intentional or not, to gum up blockers and get other defenders involved.

Defensive Lineman Randy Starks
Miami Dolphins 24 at Tennessee Titans 27
Sunday, December20, 2009

If Clint Session impresses with his physical play for his size, Starks -- now a key cog in Miami's defense in his second season with the Dolphins after four unspectacular years with the Titans -- stands out equally with surprising pursuit speed. On the Titans' second play from scrimmage, Chris Johnson headed outside left and was trapped near the sideline by Joey Porter. As Johnson cut back inside to find a seam, Starks disengaged from left tackle Michael Roos and set after Johnson in a hurry, catching him for no gain. Cornerback Vontae Davis ended that first drive with a volleyball interception on a ball thrown to tight end Bo Scaife. Starks was lost on the play by Roos' great fan-blocking -- he just rode Starks out of the pocket.

Johnson started Tennessee's next drive by bounding outside at his own 19-yard line, but Starks again slid off Roos and got the first hand on the speedster, and Jason Taylor came up and made the tackle. Another no-gainer for the most explosive running back in the game, and Starks wasn't facing a scrub -- Roos is one of the NFL's best power blockers. We saw this two plays later, when Roos simply bulled a charging Starks out of the play as Johnson flew up the middle for 11 yards. But Roos had much more trouble through this game when Johnson ran outside left and Starks was able to show off his lateral speed. It's definitely one of his best traits.

Starks excels when bringing pass pressure as a 3-4 right end and as a 4-3 penetrating tackle. He nearly got to Vince Young in back-to-back plays, in both formations, on that second drive. On second-and-6 from the Miami 34 with 8:33 left in the first quarter, Starks got off the snap with great speed and was putting swim moves on Roos before Roos could even set his feet. He was pushed back and almost aside, and Starks was about a foot away from Young when the incompletion was thrown. On the next play, he shaded inside and took center Kevin Mawae straight on. Mawae is a feisty old pro, but he doesn't handle physical play very well, and Young had to scramble for seven yards on an unplanned run before Starks blew up the play.

Here, you can see why he's getting to the quarterback so often this season -- his physical attributes fit perfectly in a defensive scheme where he's asked to do different things in conjunction with other talented players. Whether tracking outside rushers with Porter or Taylor, or getting nasty inside with an angry pass-blocker, Starks has raised his game to a level that deserves more notice.


21 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2009, 7:59am

1 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

Good to see some recognition for Clint Session. It's a shame he'll be released after he makes the Pro Bowl. :)

18 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

Released? Peterson, Washington, June, Thornton were not released... but yeah, they'll run that no-good pro-bowler out of town tarred and feathered for good measure. How dare he change everyone's perceptions of the Colts D?!?!

I still ache for his first INT returned 98 yards from the endzone to the opponent's 5, but called back to the SD 20 due to an inadvertent whistle. grrrrrr. Not that I'm bitter....

2 Patterson in pass D

Let a more frequent Eagles-watcher correct me if I am wrong, but on rare occasions when you see a big Eagles Defensive Tackle chase the QB out of pocket, it's usually Bunkley. It seems that if there's no blitz, Eagles pass rush really comes from the DEs: Patterson might clog holes, get some push and on occasion collapse pocket from inside, but he (and Eagles DTs in general) are not the greatest rushers, while I distinctly remember Sapp (Tampa Bay version) continually getting after the QB. Bottom line, methinks that Patterson does not shoot the gap nearly as well as Sapp did.

The logical conclusion, with pass-rushing abilities of DTs a relative weakness, and secondary a relative strength, it is only natural for the Eagles to blitz as much as they do.

6 Re: Patterson in pass D

In reply to by Yuri (not verified)

but a lot of it depends on Scheme. Sapp was about as athletic as you will find a DT and has super quickness for a DT. He was encouraged to shoot the gaps because he was about as good a guy as you will find to do that. Plus by the nature of the cover 2 they want to get pressure with 4 guys. It's usually the DE's, but having a DT that can pressure like Sapp was a huge advantage.

A lot of defenses don't want their tackles to shoot gaps because it puts their LB's in bad position. Yeah, you might get an extra sack ever other game or so that you wouldn't get, but you also are more likely to have a guard plowing a middle linebacker backwards and give up rushing yards.

Especially in a 2 gap defense you won't see DT's shooting gaps. Interior D-Lineman don't like playing in 2 gap systems as much. You aren't being asked to penetrate, you are asked to control the guy in front of you, and watch your territory.

Playing in a 1 gap system or shooting gaps is a DT's dream. It's not as fun to occupy lineman, and stand pat on your turf.

It's hard to quantify good play by interior D-Lineman. How are you going to quantify a Ted Washington, Jamal Williams, Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton etc? Sacks? NO. Tackles? NO. Just getting doubled and holding your ground and causing problems is a job well done.

8 Re: Patterson in pass D

This is definitely the conventional wisdom, but I'm buying it less and less. As a pats fan, I get to see a lot of Vince Wilfork, and I'm not really impressed. The main problem is that the NFL is a passing league, and he gets virtually no pressure on pass plays. Maybe it is the scheme, but if so, it's a scheme that's costing the Pats dearly.

11 Re: Patterson in pass D

Wilfork has not played up to the level he has in the past, but he also hasn't been getting much in the way of help on that line. Ty Warren is the other actually good defensive lineman on that line, and he's good, but he's not that good. Mike Wright is OK, but not an impact player, Derrick Burgess has looked lost for most of the year, Jarvis Green is also just not a guy who offensive coordinators have to scheme for. When Warren isn't on the field, Wilfork is the only above average lineman out there.

The days of the Patriots defensive line being a strength of the team are pretty much gone. I'm pretty sure that if you put another Pro Bowl caliber 3-4 end outside Wilfork, a guy like, I dunno, Richard Seymour, all of a sudden Wilfork would look like a Pro Bowler again.

13 Re: Patterson in pass D

Well that's what the guys are asked to do. I think you are a little spoiled by good DT and good D-Line play with Wilfork & Seymour... trust me, they are good. If you are going to argue it's not a run/stop the run league I'll agree with you 100%.

7 Re: Patterson in pass D

In reply to by Yuri (not verified)

Yeah, I kinda mangled that sentence and just changed it -- Patterson is very much about taking double teams and altering protections. Not that he doesn't make plays -- he's not just a hole-plugger. As I watched Patterson's performance, I kept wishing that double-team stats were kept so we could compare the different great 4-3 and 3-4 guys based on that concept. Sapp was much more the penetrator, though he could also stay at the line and be as nasty as you wanted.

10 Re: Patterson in pass D

I agree. These are things coaches watch and all know about, but isn't tracked by anyone. Maybe this can be the next game charter type project, where every game is watched for the DL - double teams, stopping runs, disrupting the plays, etc are all essential part of their jobs, and we as fans have no way to tell how our guys stack up against others. I think Patterson is good, but how do I know? Since I don't watch other teams, I can't.

12 Re: Patterson in pass D

Sapp was just all around nasty, but I remember him being on one of those NFL lineman challenge shows ( remember like the QB challenge or RB run to daylight) shows and he was just nasty. I think Willie Roaf was the strongest guy bench wise along with La Roy Glover but Sapp was easily the most athletic guy. Fast, quick, catching punts 1 handed. He played D-Line, but he was an athlete.

The guy that reminds me of him the most is Tommy Harris, but I think Harris is stronger, and Sapp was quicker. Juston Tuck was very fast when he played DT for the Giants on passing downs to the point I almost wish HIM to play there, Kiwi and Osi to rush, and that's just nasty if Robbins can push up the middle as well and you put 7 men in pass coverage.

16 Re: Patterson in pass D

Tommie Harris pre-injury I think was a lot more similar to Sapp. Now he's just a shell of him former self (yet still the best d-lineman on the team).

4 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

I'm no fan of Bracket, I regard Session as the best LB on the Colts but that's just me. Bracket makes tackles ( as a MLB should), but it's not pretty IMO. Session is athletic and does pack a punch on his hits.

If you want an underrated Colt defender, Mike Tanier likes Jacob Lacey more than Jerraud Powers so I nominate Jerraud Powers.

20 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

The Colts system has always funnelled tackles to the WLB not Mike. (See Cato June, Freddie Kieaho, David Thornton, etc). If the MLB is making most of the tackles, he's over-performing his role and the Will is struggling. Brackett is a big favorite of mine for a lot of stuff that might not be visible on the field, but he is the captain, signal-caller, and the guy responsible for covering TEs. His value can be seen by his absense, such as late last year when Antonio Gates was the offensive X-factor for the Chargers.

Fast, very smart, solid, and focused. Session has really stepped it up this year, no doubt about it. But the Colts without Brackett do not go far in the playoffs. Without Session... maybe.

9 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

It's Chrismas Eve, and I'm stuck at work. But what do I find under my, uh, inside my monitor(?)... A write up about LINE PLAY! YES!

And only on a website like this will you find a comment like that meant with 100% sincerity.

Thank you, Doug, and happy holidays to all.

14 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

Seriously...what a great article.

I was just commenting to a co-worker that I'm completely tired of the Peter King's of the world writing about the same 5-6 QBs over and over again with the same trite and tired storylines.

And then I read this insightful piece about 3 well-deserved non-QBs.

Thanks have reaffirmed my faith in this excellent website!

21 Re: Cover-3: Rise of the Underrated, Part 1

The real Pocket Hercules is Naim Suleymanoglu.(üleymanoğlu). "he was nicknamed "The Pocket Hercules" due to his small stature (1.47 meters, approx. 4 feet 10 inches). He is the second of only seven lifters to clean and jerk three times their bodyweight." He lifted 190Kgs when he weighed 60 kgs. De-cleating Merriman is impressive but nowhere near as impressive as carrying three times one's own weight.