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Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Denver Broncos Left Tackle Ryan Clady

Denver Broncos 24 at Atlanta Falcons 20

Recruited as a virtually unknown defensive lineman out of high school, Boise State offensive tackle Ryan Clady headed to the pros after his junior year in college. He amassed a first-round grade despite a pectoral injury that prevented him from working out at the 2008 Scouting Combine (though he did well at his Pro Day). Clady was ranked by most analysts as the second best offensive lineman behind first overall pick Jake Long. The Broncos took him with the 12th overall pick and immediately set him up on the left side of what had been renowned for years as one of the NFL's best offensive lines. After preseason practice struggles with Mario Williams and DeMarcus Ware, Clady got the hang of the pro game, and hasn't looked back since. Denver currently ranks first in Adjusted Line Yards and fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate, and Clady has shown amazing abilities when flaring out against the run and directing defenders away from quarterback Jay Cutler.

Clady showed his mobility outside on Denver's second play from scrimmage against the Falcons, a four-yard run left by halfback Peyton Hillis from the Denver 42. At the snap, tight end Daniel Graham stayed inside to block end Jamaal Anderson, while Clady looped to Graham's left and took on linebacker Keith Brooking at the second level, sealing Brooking inside.

Clady had some neat moves for elite end John Abraham as well, On second-and-6 from the Atlanta 26 on that same first drive, Abraham tried to take Clady straight on. Clady just gave Abraham a sharp punch inside with both hands, sending Abraham back two yards and off his feet for a second. What we saw most of the time was Abraham on the left side, away from Clady. When Abraham did try his killer edge speed, low-to-the-ground moves, and forward power on the rookie, Clady simply tied him up at shoulder height and rode him out of the picture.

On the third play from scrimmage, the Falcons went to their nickel defense, and end Chauncey Davis tried to get around Clady to no avail. Davis simply didn't possess the kind of speed required to edge the rookie out. Clady basically laughed this attempt off; if the Falcons were going to get to Jay Cutler through Clady, they were going to have to bring their best. The Falcons had Davis on the right side for the rest of Denver's first touchdown drive, and he didn't get anywhere near a ballcarrier.

Staked to advantageous field position by return man Eddie Royal, the Broncos went back to work on the Atlanta defense with 12:33 left in the second quarter, and Clady went back to work on Davis. On second-and-10 from the Atlanta 38, he just immobilized Davis as Cutler threw a swing pass directly over his left tackle's head to Hillis for a seven-yard gain. On the next play, a short pass to Brandon Marshall batted away by Chris Houston, Davis tried all the speed and strength he had to get around and outside Clady. He appeared to have an advantage for a split second when he was side-by-side with Cutler, but then Clady dialed it back in and simply mauled Davis to the ground.

I've seen Clady show speed and agility in pass-blocking in other games, but this was a real primer in the physical nature he also brings to the position. He has tackle skills, but he thinks and plays like a guard. He wants to dominate.

The only Clady whiff I saw in the game came with 55 seconds left, and the Broncos at their own 15. Cutler threw a screen left to Brandon Stokley, and Clady shot past the line to the second level to block cornerback Chevis Jackson. He overshot Jackson at the 17, and Jackson was able to get a hand on Stokley to limit the gain to four yards. Clady had the speed to get up to Jackson's level, but his brakes may need some work.

I wanted to see if the Falcons would change their strategy on Clady in the second half. The matchup I hoped for -- Clady on Abraham -- didn't happen often enough early on, and Abraham left the game with what looked like a shoulder stinger on the first play of the second half. Clady was blocking Jamaal Anderson on that play, a four-yard Tatum Bell run, and Abraham got hurt while going for the tackle and tangling with tight end Nate Jackson. Cutler scrambled for a four-yard gain on the next play, and Davis was able to reverse field to help with the downfield tackle after a backfield battle with Clady left the tackle going backward. That was an impressive exhibition of agility by Davis; perhaps his frustration in being completely shut out by Clady was simmering.

On third-and 2 from the Denver 31, the Falcons sent Montana rookie Kroy Biermann after Clady, which led to Biermann getting completely abused on a five-yard screen to Hillis. Again, the strength is amazing. If you take Clady straight on, you're almost guaranteed a complete stop in forward progress. Davis replaced Biermann on the next play, an 18-yard completion to Royal, and all Clady had to do was to push Davis back three times at the line of scrimmage. Davis couldn't even pursue.

It was Groundhog Day for Davis through the third quarter, as the Falcons were limited by Abraham's absence. Time after time, Davis would try a move head-on -- time after time, he was turned back at the point. The only vulnerability I saw from Clady in this game was a tendency to keep slipping back behind the quarterback when pass-blocking, something that Davis exploited a couple of times for pressures by disengaging and using a surprising ability to change direction to get after Cutler. Otherwise, Davis was sunk and he knew it.

Jamaal Anderson wasn't any more effective when he tried Clady with 9:46 left in the game. Clady fanned Anderson out of Cutler's vicinity with textbook technique, and Cutler was able to get a pretty 47-yard pass off to Brandon Marshall on the drive that won the game for Denver. All Cutler had to do was to take one step up, and he had enough time to hit Marshall, who was his third read. Who was the end on the other side? None other than John Abraham, back in the game but a long way from Clady.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, we did finally see a few Clady/Abraham matchups. Abraham would try and slip inside on running plays going the other way, and Clary would just as assuredly slip in and stop him. At this point, Abraham was obviously favoring the stinger on more than one play, and even when he got off the snap with his amazing speed, Clady would once again drive him out of the play and set him on the turf.

I would have loved to see a healthy Abraham taking Clady one-on-one throughout the game, but I was impressed enough with what I saw to call Clady's performance a complete and total victory. Atlanta threw everything they had at him, and he kept just about everything out of his backfield and away from his quarterback.

When I wrote about Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas last year, that was as blown away with a rookie lineman as I have ever been. Truth be told, I like Clady even more. He doesn't have Thomas' smooth, refined pass-blocking technique, but he's much more physical in run-blocking situations. You'll see ends blowing Thomas back from time to time, but that's not going to happen with Clady. compares him to Chris Samuels, which I think is apt. Like Samuels in his prime, Clady will not blow you away with pure speed. He's an outstanding inline blocker who's quick enough outside, and in what may have been the single greatest draft for tackles in NFL history (SEVEN taken in the first round alone!), many early returns have Clady as the best overall.

New England Patriots Linebacker Jerod Mayo

New York Jets 34 at New England Patriots 31 (OT)

STATS, Inc., has been tracking tackles since 1994. From then until now, no New England defender ever registered 20 tackles in a single game. That changed when Jets and Patriots took the field on Thursday, November 13, and Jerod Mayo started making plays everywhere.

Ranked as one of the top two inside linebackers in the country in his final collegiate season (Dan Connor being the other), Mayo moved inside for his junior season and put up 140 total tackles in 2007, the most by any Tennessee defender since 1990. When he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, the only question was how high Mayo would go. The Patriots answered that question when they traded down from seventh overall to tenth, and picked Mayo as the new, faster, younger future pointman in a linebacker corps full of savvy but slower veterans.

Mayo is certainly quick enough in coverage, which he showed on the Jets' third play from scrimmage. With second-and-11 from the 50, Favre's offense lined up shotgun, empty backfield. Mayo read tight end Chris Baker from the right slot and tackled him immediately on a five-yard pass play over the middle.

Favre tried another shotgun, empty backfield pass to Baker on the first play of New York's second drive from the New York 36. This time, Mayo wasn’t just cleaning up after the fact; he backed off five yards from his initial position at the 40, jumped in the air to his right, and deflected the ball before Baker could catch it at the first down marker. Impressive play recognition there.

Two plays later, on third-and-6 from the Jets' 40, Favre zinged one over the middle to tight end Dustin Keller for 12 yards. Mayo was in pretty good position as he met Keller over the middle, but Favre had his best fastball going, and Keller brought it in. Mayo may have been delayed a split second by a play-fake as well.

On second-and-five from the New England 22, and 1:45 left in the first quarter, Mayo showed his lateral quickness and closing speed. Wideout Brad Smith took a direct shotgun snap and headed to the right sideline with fullback Tony Richardson running interference. Mayo was back at the 20, caught up with right guard Brandon Moore before he broke off the blocking, then ran Smith down from behind at the 5. The only defender in Smith’s way at that point was cornerback Deltha O’Neal, and O’Neal was being blocked by receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Mayo probably saved a touchdown there; the Jets kicked a field goal four plays later.

Mayo really started to shine in the second half. Through the fourth quarter and into overtime, he seemed to be in on every play. Twelve of his 16 solo tackles came after the first half was over. A few plays really highlighted his awareness and ability, as the Patriots started to come back from a 24-6 deficit. Favre threw another quick pass over the middle to Keller from a shotgun set with 14:20 left in the game, and once again, Mayo was right there for the tackle. He’s very good at making sure his coverage assignments don’t get away from him. Keller got a perfect outside throw from Favre on the next play to just eke out a first down and extend the drive, but Mayo proved once again that he’s diligent in coverage.

Mayo has tremendous instincts against the run. With 9:43 left in the game, Thomas Jones took a handoff from Favre on the Jets' 40 and headed around right tackle. Mayo, lined up on the other side, trailed Jones across the line, through all the traffic, hit the burners, and ran Jones down from behind at the New England 49. Again, his closing speed is really noteworthy. It's how he's able to compensate for a tendency to get tied up by bigger blockers in the middle.

Then, there was the little outlet pass that Favre threw left to Chansi Stuckey with five minutes remaining in regulation. Mayo blew Stuckey up after a three-yard gain, but the really impressive part of this play was that he didn’t bite on the fake to Leon Washington going the other way. He knew his assignment, he stuck with it, and he resisted the temptation to overpursue.

That’s something I was watching out for. When I saw Mayo in the famous Miami Week 3 Wildcat game, he looked out of place on several different plays, biting on misdirection and finding himself easily blocked out of inside tackles by pulling guard Justin Smiley. Half a season has done wonders for Mayo, who is now living up to the Defensive Rookie of the Year projections that followed him around when he was drafted.

Washington Redskins Safety Chris Horton

Dallas Cowboys 14 at Washington Redskins 10

Unlike Clady and Mayo, UCLA safety Chris Horton wasn't expected to go early in the draft at all. And he didn't, waiting through the 42nd pick in the seventh round -- three selections before Mr. Irrelevant -- until the Redskins called his name.

Why was he rated so low? To start, it's impressive when an inside linebacker like Mayo runs a 4.54 40 at the Combine. When a strong safety does it? Not quite as much. Horton was projected as more of an in-the-box player at the pro level due to his strength in tackling and relative lack of quickness in coverage, but he only put up 14 bench press reps in Indianapolis (compare that to Tyrell Johnson's 27). Horton also displayed average numbers in several agility drills.

Horton did lead the Bruins in tackles in his last two seasons, so the sparks were there. Still, his early-season numbers for the Redskins -- three interceptions in his first four games (one fewer than he had in his entire collegiate career), 10 solo tackles against the Rams, and 51 tackles through 10 games -- had to come as a surprise to just about everyone. Horton also tied for the team lead with nine tackles against the Cowboys last Sunday night.

Where did this guy come from, and how is he doing this?

First, on the tackle numbers: Yes, they're impressive, but keep in mind that Washington uses Horton in the box. A lot. He's pretty agile in space, and they sent him into coverage on at least one safety blitz, but this is not a guy who is zooming up ten yards for every tackle of a running back. If Washington brings a linebacker to the line for a blitz, odds are it's Horton filling his space.

Horton showed good side-to-side movement on a first-quarter tackle of Roy Williams, and quickness on a delayed blitz when Tony Romo was intercepted by DeAngelo Hall to end a long first-quarter drive. On the other hand, his nose for pursuit had him completely missing a tackle of Marion Barber in the second quarter. Right now, Horton appears to have one speed on the field -- all-out -- but that's only good if he hits what he's after. That Horton was blocked out of Barber’s two-yard touchdown run by Patrick Crayton late in the first half wasn't all that impressive, either.

Horton had mixed results in the fourth quarter. Playing deep on a draw to Barber with 5:58 left in the game, Horton flew to the play and made the tackle. Two plays later, Horton lined up between defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and defensive end Demetric Evans, shot the gap, blew up fullback Deon Anderson -- then completely missed the tackle as Barber rumbled for a first down.

Right now, that last play is my abiding visual image of Horton. This is a player with a lot of on-field awareness, more quickness than speed, the ability and desire to make some killer stops, and a tendency to blow himself out of even more plays with his aggressiveness. The word on Horton is that he's a complete film and gym rat, and I don’t doubt that he'll smooth out the rough spots and become a great asset to Washington’s defense in the long term. Right now, and as with most rookies, you can see where the work needs to be done.


11 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2008, 9:09am

1 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

I haven't given up on the Pats season yet, but I'm very optimistic about the future. Mayo looks like he could become a Pro Bowl player, and I'm encouraged by the development of Gary Guyton and Brandon Meriweather. I know the perception is that the Pats defense is old and slow, but they have some added some fast young players at LB and the secondary.

2 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

Mayo has been very, very impressive recently I must say. Once his mind gets tuned up to that of his veteran LB comPATRIOTS, he will outshine them mightily with his youthful talent and ability that the vets are lacking in recent times. The Pats really got a good one in him. I've yet to see a Broncos game, so I don't know about Clady, but I'll take your word on it. Horton seems to resemble Polamalu at times (hair may contribute to that), but other times he just misses on stuff, as you pointed out. As a Cowboys fan though, I am overall not very happy he will be facing my team twice a year for the next many years. I think he will get better in time and become a very good player.

Loved seeing Martellus Bennett get his 2nd career TD over Horton though. Hahaha. Good times.

3 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

In 2006, Marcus McNeil was the best rookie LT the league had ever seen... until Joe Thomas in 2007, who was the best rookie LT the league had ever seen... until Ryan Clady in 2008. I know it's just random chance that is causing this massive influx of young LT talent right now (sort of how Pace, Jones, and Ogden all came in together), but it's just incredible to see. I know one thing- between Clady, Thomas, McNeil, #1 overall pick Jake Long, and 2-3 other extremely young LTs... that pro bowl position in the AFC is going to be incredibly competitive for the next decade.

Also, as a Broncos fan, I look forward to many long years debating which was the more incredible draft class- 2006 (QB Cutler, WR Marshall, TE Scheffler, DE Dumervil, RG Chris Kuper), or 2008 (LT Clady, WR Royal, RB Torain, DB Williams, FB/LB Larson, FB Hillis). And even more to long years of debating whether they were the two best draft classes by any team of the entire decade.

5 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

You'll notice that the list of great draft picks for Denver from 2006 and 2008 includes a QB, 2 x WR, TE and LT and not much in the way of DT, ILB or SS. No-one is going to hold up the defense-heavy 2007 draft as anything special.

Could be a fun offseason coming up for the Broncos. Plenty of picks (9? 10?), some cap room and 8 or 9 defensive starter spots up for grabs.

7 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

yes, you'd think so. The problem is that the year between their two very good drafts consisted of 4 picks spent on defensive linemen that have not made much of an impact. That and the fact that they were a very old team two years ago combine to produce results that would not normally indicate such quality drafts. Where they go from here is anybody's guess. They're likely to focus on defense this offseason, but Shanahan's track record on that side of the ball has not been stellar, either in the draft or in free agent acquisition. On the other hand, they've got a boatload of draft picks, and if they can hit on a mere 30% of them, they could put an average defense on the field in 2009. And with an offense that good, they only need an average defense to become a very good football team.

9 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

Denver drafted 62 players between 1999 and 2005 (7 drafts). Of those players, THREE are still with the team (Ben Hamilton, D.J. Williams, and Tatum Bell, who would be out of football if Denver hadn't lost 4 RBs in the last two weeks). So when you look back at the last decade of Denver's drafts, you have two of the greatest drafts in recent memory, one draft that the jury is still out on (2007- Harris has been great, Thomas has been solid enough, but Moss and Crowder have both been disappointments), and seven drafts that essentially amounted to NOTHING. Denver has absolutely no veteran core. You can't build a competitive team without a veteran core.

2-3 years from now, the 2006 and 2008 drafts will provide Denver with one of the strongest veteran cores in the entire league, and you'll see Denver back as a perennial AFC powerhouse. In the meantime, they're just a team with a lot of young promising talent looking for some more talent to surround them with.

6 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

As someone who is not a Bronco's fan I think it's funny that you think people will be talking about debating which draft class is more incredible. You guys remind me of my beloved skins in your ability to draft multiple players at the same position while ignoring obvious needs.

8 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

The problem is the Broncos have drafted for need but most of the defensive picks have been disappointing. I almost wish they'd gone BPA in the last 3 years.

2006: grabbed Cutler as the QB of the future, Marshall and Scheffler to freshen up an aging receiving group (Rod Smith and not much) and Dumerville to help with a weak pass rush. All good but Dumerville turns out to be a situational rusher only. RB not a need, defense wasn't horrible in '05.
2007: the defense is falling apart so the need picks are to stock up on the DL. Not so good; the shotgun approach of Thomas, Moss and Crowder has not been a winner so far with the run D being atrocious. Other significant pick was Ryan Harris to bring some youth to an old O-line; that's turned out to be a great pick that was considered a reach at the time.
2008: with Lepsis gone/Nalen going OT becomes a major need and they hit it out of the park with Clady. Royal was drafted for the return game to try and beef up the Broncos chronically ugly special teams, turns out he can do other things as well. I like Larsen and Hillis but really there are a lot of late picks that can be great FBs and special teamers.

So, a three year history of need picks with success rate of around 2 out of 3 in the first three rounds. Pretty good but not having one significant success on the D side of the ball really hurts.

10 Re: Cover-3: Climbing the Rookie Wall

I realize you were pining for Abraham v Clady but you should get a few glimpses of Peppers v Clady in 2 1/2 weeks. Although Peppers bounces around all over the line, there should still be some plays where the two are matched up.