by Doug Farrar
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Middle Linebacker Barrett Ruud
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 at Carolina Panthers 38
How do you make franchise history on the ground against one of the best run defenses in the NFL? If you're the Carolina Panthers, you simply take your will and tattoo it all over your opponent. The Panthers came into this game as the NFL's under-the-radar top team, a 9-3 squad whose ESPN pregame montage was taken hostage by Dallas Cowboys news reports. What they had developed while nobody was watching was a brutally effective running game with a powerful offensive line and the halfback tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Setting a team record with 264 rushing yards against the Lions on November 16 was impressive in the same way that running up the score against a JV team might be, and the Panthers' five rushing touchdowns against Green Bay in Week 13 was a decent feat, though devalued by the status of the Packers' depleted front seven.
No, if the Panthers were to truly impress the nation and put themselves on the map, they'd have to do it against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense. Easier said than done. When these two teams met on Tampa Bay's home field in mid-October, that defense picked three Jake Delhomme interceptions and allowed 40 rushing yards on 20 attempts. The rematch, however, couldn't have been more different. The Panthers amazed a Monday Night Football audience by surpassing their single-game rushing record with a total of 301 yards. To put this performance in perspective, note that the Buccaneers defense fell from 14th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed 10 or more yards downfield to 28th ... in this game.
Carolina's evening started out on a bad note, though -- on their first play from scrimmage with 13:04 left in the first quarter from the Tampa Bay 46, the Panthers tried to run Power out of the Wildcat with a direct snap to DeAngelo Williams. They had many of the ingredients -- a pseudo-unbalanced line with tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario lined up to the right of right tackle Jeff Otah, a blocking fullback in an H-back look (Brad Hoover) and left guard Travelle Wharton pulling to the right. However, the Bucs countered with six at the line and saw the play coming inside all the way. Ruud helped stop Williams for no gain with end Kevin Carter after fighting off Wharton. Carter was seen walking back to the huddle with an "Awww ... isn't that a cute little formation?" grin on his face.
On the next play, Ruud was in the middle of a 4-3 with tight coverage on either side. The Panthers ran Williams out of I-formation, straight up the middle, and Ruud and Brooks collected him after a four-yard gain. Even here, you could see that Tampa Bay's linebackers were going to have trouble stopping the Panthers' backs right at first hit. Williams blew upfield for two yards with Ruud on him before Gaines Adams came in to stop the play.
It's well known that Jon Gruden likes to mess with presnap formations to create confusion among enemy defenses, but the Panthers brought a little of that to the table on their first pass play of the night. On third-and-six from the Tampa Bay 42, Delhomme started off under center in a single-back, three-wide formation.Then, Rosario motioned from right to left slot, and Mushin Muhammad moved in from wide left. On the right side, Dwayne Jarrett motioned inside and slightly behind Steve Smith. Williams moved up to meet Delhomme as Delhomme moved back five yards from center and took the snap. The Bucs adjusted by moving their corners seven yards off the line. Delhomme threw a bullet 12 yards downfield to Muhammad, who brought it in while covered by cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Jermaine Phillips, and a late-arriving Ruud, who was helping to cover Smith on a crossing route. The Bucs sniffed out the area, but Delhomme's throw and that route-running trickeration made the play happen.
A field goal ended Carolina's first drive, and the Panthers closed out the first quarter with a two-yard run by rookie Jonathan Stewart out of a full house backfield. They gained nine yards on four rushing attempts in the first quarter, but all hell was about to break loose.
First play of the second quarter. Second-and-eight from their own 32, and the Panthers started with Stewart up the middle for six out of an offset I. Ruud appeared to be reading pass on a pitch left, and he was washed out behind his own guys as the Panthers' left side blocked out the Tampa Bay defense. Free safety Tanard Jackson came up to make the stop, and this was one of the first of far too many plays in which defensive backs were making tackles for the Bucs.
Stewart got the ball two plays later at the Carolina 46, heading to the right behind Wharton, who was pulling again. Ruud read the play right down to the gap, but Wharton walled him off and Stewart got through for 5. What you started to see at this point was a distinct power advantage on the part of the Panthers. They re-tooled their line and blocking schemes in the offseason, going away from zone stuff with lighter linemen to more straight-up smashmouth with bigger guys. While this drive was ended a few plays later by a Delhomme interception (and one or two of the fifty bazillion passes Hoover dropped), things really started moving as the second quarter progressed.
Carolina got the ball back with 6:28 left in the first half, and put on a grinding drive straight out of the 1926 Frankford Yellow Jackets playbook. On first-and-10 from their own 27, the Panthers handed off to Williams for nine yards. Out of the I-formation, the Panthers influenced the Bucs' linebackers to move to their left by motioning King at the H-back. Ruud led the charge to the left at the snap, and Gaines Adams couldn't close off Williams' cutback lane. Ruud got back to the middle and tackled Williams after a seven-yard gain, getting dragged two more yards for his trouble. Ruud does have great recovery speed, but Tampa Bay's front four were losing the power battle upfront. This was exacerbated by the back seven's tendency to arm-tackle. That's not going to work against the Panthers. At all.
Two plays later, Williams took the ball out of single-back and shot up the middle behind a line that had pushed that Buccaneers wall back again. Williams bowled Tanard Jackson over near the line, and headed right for a 40-yard gain when Otah held Ruud up in the middle.
The Panthers subbed Stewart in for the next two plays, a one-yarder from the Tampa Bay 20, and a nice play by Ruud on a seven-yard gain. Ruud didn't head left or right, he just read the play and waited for Stewart to come to him. The Bucs gave a bit more resistance up front, but Brooks couldn't bring Williams down at the right edge on the next play, a third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 13. One bubble screen to Steve Smith later, the Panthers were at the Tampa Bay 2. Stewart headed right out of an I-formation, and Ruud had the play and the angle. But he was walled off by Otah for just a split second, and Stewart had too much momentum to stop when he hit the goal-line. Ruud just couldn't wrap up in time.
It was all downhill from there. Carolina's downhill running style prevailed, and the Buccaneers were pushed back down that mountain. I liked what I saw from Ruud when he was free to roam, but Tampa Bay's linebackers are very dependent in the ability of their front four to hold off initial push from opposing lines, and the Panthers just weren't going to allow that. The Carolina running game has morphed into a real beast, based on pure power, fundamentals, and formation advantage. It will be very interesting to see what the Falcons, who also fancy themselves a power running team, work up for the Bucs next Sunday, and how Ruud and his teammates respond. It will also be interesting to see if the Panthers roll their way to the NFC's top seed. If they win their last three games -- including a head-buster against the Giants in Week 16 -- it's a sure thing.
Seattle Seahawks Left Tackle Sean Locklear
New England Patriots 24 at Seattle Seahawks 21
Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones has built a future Hall of Fame career on an amazing combination of strength, speed, agility, and technique. He's also displayed astonishing durability; coming into this season, Jones had not missed a game due to injury since 1997, despite a kidney problem that keeps him from taking any pain reliever stronger than Tylenol. That was his rookie season, and he missed four weeks with an ankle injury. When he missed Seattle's Week 14 homer against the Patriots with a leg injury, it was major news, even for a team whose roster had been decimated through the season.
Despite the fact that his main offensive lineman is 34 years old, Mike Holmgren warned the media against writing Jones off. "If you look at Walter Jones that way, you're making a huge mistake," Holmgren recently told the media. "He has a little knee injury, but he was having a great year. I mean he graded out well. He was having a fine year, and his shoulder problems that he's had, they were fine. He had them fixed. He was on his way to the Pro Bowl again. He might still go to the Pro Bowl. I think around the league he is still recognized as one of the guys. But every team has to look at how they're going to fix things. And you don't want to get too many players too old, but I don't think he falls into that category. I think with Walter, as long as he's playing the way he's playing, you let him play as long as he wants to play."
Getting things fixed in the long term was ostensibly the reason behind the five-year, $32 million contract given to right tackle Sean Locklear in February of 2008. The fifth-year man from North Carolina State played well enough through his first contract to get a serious investment from the Seahawks, but the left tackle spot is now the elephant in the living room. At 2-11, Seattle will bag its first top-five draft pick in a very long time next April, and if the future great left tackle is needed, this may be the time to pounce. When Locklear moved from right to left to replace Jones against the Pats, it was a good way to see how he could lead a line. Not only would Locklear be going up against Richard Seymour, but left guard Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack and center Steve Vallos were also replacing injured veterans.
The Seahawks' first big play, a 15-yard run by fullback Leonard Weaver on third-and-2 from their own 21 with 11:24 left in the first quarter, had Locklear and Womack walling Seymour off to the right, and Weaver running right through that hole. Seattle went left with halfback Maurice Morris on the next two plays. A four-yard gain had Locklear and that left side running a slide with the help of tight end John Carlson, who had motioned from right to left. Then, Morris broke for 14 behind some nice teamwork up front. Locklear handed Seymour off to Womack and headed up to take on linebacker Gary Guyton. Meanwhile, Bobby Engram had Brandon Meriweather on the outside, creating the lane that Morris eased on through.
Seymour did show a power advantage on plays like Weaver's two-yard run on third-and-2 from the new England 26 with 7:29 left in the first quarter. Locklear engaged Seymour at the snap, only to have Seymour push him away and help to make the tackle. On the next play, Locklear showed the kind of pass-blocking that Seahawks fans should find encouraging. As quarterback Seneca Wallace dropped back, Womack and Vallos double-teamed Seymour, and Locklear took Jarvis Green's edge rush head-on, guiding him outside and behind the pocket as Wallace scrambled forward for 13 yards. Locklear showed a nice combination of power and fluidity on this play. When Wallace hit Deion Branch for a 14-yard touchdown with 5:32 left in the first quarter, Locklear took all of Green's hand-fighting in stride and kept him out of the picture. That ended a 13-play, 87-yard drive, the kind this team used to pull off all the time a few years back when it had a functional offense.
For Locklear, though, handling Seymour one-on-one was a different matter, as it would be for most any lineman. On the first play of their next drive, from the Seattle 26 with 43 seconds left in the first quarter, Wallace threw a little swing pass to Weaver. As the fullback moved out of the backfield, Seymour hesitated for a split second, just to see if Weaver had the ball and needed to be pursued. Once Seymour turned his attention to Wallace, Locklear could not stop him. He bulled past the tackle and hit Wallace just as he got the ball off. Seymour just overpowered Locklear outside.
There were also times when Locklear didn't seem to know where he was, assignment-wise, such as the 8-yard Morris run to the left with 14:54 left in the first half. Locklear and Womack pulled left, with Carlson taking Guydon inside, and Locklear sealing Tedy Bruschi at the second level. Carlson chipped off Guydon and engaged Seymour, leaving Guydon and Bruschi with a clear path to Morris as he turned the corner. Locklear gave Bruschi a perfunctory block and moved on, while Womack was stuck in the backwash. Only Morris' speed outside (and another great Engram block on Meriweather) kept that play from getting ugly.
Through the rest of the game, I was looking more for general impressions. Locklear isn't a fluid pass blocker, nor does he flash superior power in running situations. He had Carlson enough on his left side, and it was a lucky break for the Seahawks that Ty Warren was out on the other side. Seattle could place their outside focus on Seymour, where it belonged. I also saw some technical things that concerned me. Locklear will whiff right off the blocks more than I'd like, though I wouldn't call it an epidemic problem. He's also kind of stocky-blocky when he's moving around. He's good at getting an inside position and riding a defender outside (even Seymour), though he can be bulled outside by better players.
Would the Seahawks be alright with the Sean Locklear succession plan at left tackle? I'm not convinced. When I see a potential franchise tackle, I want to be blown away by something -- Joe Thomas' agility, Ryan Clady's initial first-step power, Jeff Otah's ability to just maul people into submission. Those players are all younger than Locklear, and I think they all have higher ceilings. A high ceiling is an absolute requirement for a left tackle like Thomas and Clady , and like Otah may someday be. I don't see that in Locklear, and if he is this team's primary lineman for any length of time, I think there's going to be trouble. He's good enough on the right side, but the Seahawks will have to look elsewhere for the next Walter Jones -- if such a being even exists.
Dallas Cowboys Running Back Tashard Choice
Dallas Cowboys 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers 20
"I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an Engineer
A Helluva, Helluva, Helluva, Helluva, Helluva Engineer
Like all the jolly good punishing backs, I make my intentions clear.
I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an Engineer.
"If I'm behind Marion Barber, sir, resplendent in blue and gray,
And that violent running style of his makes the ambulance take him away.
If Jerry Jones had drafted me, sir, I'll tell you what he'd say --
'Get that Tashard kid out there!' as I blow the defenders away!
"Oh, I wish I had a football in hand, and a depth chart that wasn't so packed
Behind these Jones and Barber guys, they might never see how I attack.
Over 3,000 collegiate yards, and now I'm supposed to say,
'I'm a Ramblin', Gamblin', HELL OF AN ENGI ... Special teams? Well, OK...'"
That was the player comment I wrote for Pro Football Prospectus 2008 on former Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice. And while it won't make anyone forget John Lennon (or "Weird Al" Yankovic, for that matter), the 12-liner above proved to be reasonably accurate down the stretch. Selected in the fourth round and backing up Marion Barber and fellow rookie Felix Jones on the depth chart, Choice looked to have an outside shot of a start as Dallas' main running back at best. It would take injuries to Jones and Barber, which happened for Jones by way of hamstring and turf toe issues that ended his season in November, and for Barber by way of calf and toe injuries that have him on a week-to-week basis.
The good news for Choice was that he'd get his first NFL start in Week 14. The bad news? That it would come against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their punishing run defense. Putting up 57 yards on 11 carries as he did on Thanksgiving Day against Seattle was one thing; this was quite another. The Cowboys lost the game, but they found a back that put up 88 yards on the ground, the most against Pittsburgh all year, and 166 total yards.
Choice got his first shot on the second play of the game, as the Cowboys lined up in an offset I from their own 29 and the Steelers loaded the box. Choice took off to the right behind fullback Deon Anderson and tight end Martellus Bennett, but Troy Polamalu simply waited for Choice to hit the line. As the blocking went to either side of Polamalu to handle the edge, the great safety made the tackle with perfect timing. Choice had a gain of three yards.
On the first play of their second drive, Dallas stacked it left with Bennett and Jason Witten outside left tackle. Choice was the single back. At the snap, right guard Leonard Davis pulled to the left A-gap, and Choice tried to make something happen inside. He got a bit of a cutback and showed power moving forward, gaining four yards. Through the first quarter, Dallas would test the Steelers' run defense with their rookie, and they discovered that the success rate of that approach isn't very high.
Tony Romo started the second quarter from the Pittsburgh 41 with a different approach. He sent Bennett from the right slot to the backfield, creating an offset-I and getting Pittsburgh thinking run. If the Steelers were fooled, it wasn't for long; they rushed four and dropped seven. Romo threw to Choice in the right flat, an oddly-thrown ball that Choice had to adjust to as he was going forward and Casey Hampton was closing in on him. (No, that's not a typo. Casey Hampton was closing in on a running back in the right flat.) If Choice had been able to catch the ball in stride, he had another five or ten yards downfield. That drive putzed out after two incompletions to T.O. With 13:03 left in the first half, Dallas had the ball back and Choice took the handoff left out of another offset-I. The Steelers played five up front, Anderson sealed James Farrior inside, and Leonard Davis pulled to deal with Larry Foote upfield. Choice hit the lane for seven before Polamalu took him down.
With 2:36 left in the first half, the Cowboys showed that they've been watching what their old head coach Chan Gailey (he was also Choice's head coach at Tech) has been doing with formations in Kansas City. They ran a draw out of the Pistol formation (actually, since Choice was at Romo's side and there wasn't a back behind the quarterback, maybe it was more a sawed-off shotgun?), and Flozell Adams (playing right guard) created the lane up the middle by pulling left and blocking end Aaron Smith while center Andre Gurode down-blocked linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Choice shot up the middle for a 10-yard gain.
Choice's biggest play of the day came with 5:19 left in the third quarter, and the ball at the Dallas 40. He was the single back, and Witten went in motion left to right. Choice just headed a few yards upfield, took a short pass underneath from Romo, headed right, and started eluding Steelers. He outran Farrior as he cut to the sideline, got past cornerback Ike Taylor (who was being blocked by Roy E. Williams) and Polamalu at the 45, and had a lot of nothing around him before safety Ryan Clark finally chased him down at the Pittsburgh 10. The only thing that kept Choice from the end zone was a short bobble with the sideline as he avoided going out of bounds at about the 35-yard line. That play required pure speed, and Choice had it.
Choice is not a guy who's known for biding his time -- he transferred from Oklahoma to Georgia Tech rather than wait behind Adrian Peterson -- and he made the most of his first real chance in the NFL. The Cowboys could benefit from his impatience.