Cover-3: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
by Doug Farrar
If you were to make a list of the many dumb things Matt Millen did during his tenure in Detroit, the trade of Shaun Rogers to the Cleveland Browns would rank right up near the top. What Millen said about Rogers after the trade was even dumber. That Millen could be right about what he said is a rare case of correct player evaluation by Detroit's former president, and that assessment managed to make him look dumber still.
That's how it is when you're Matt Millen. Even when you're right, you're wrong.
The Lions traded Rogers on February 29 for cornerback Leigh Bodden and a third-round pick used to acquire Florida State defensive tackle Andre Fluellen. While Bodden is now part of the league's worst secondary, struggling to make the transition from man to zone coverage, and Fluellen has seen little playing time, Rogers has experienced a professional rebirth in Cleveland. The weight issues, the rep for taking plays off, the inconsistency -- all gone. The Browns have acquired the best parts of his talent. The amazing first step, the scary short-area quickness, the brute strength and impressive agility -- this is the Shaun Rogers you'll see in 2008.
I asked long-suffering Lions fan and FO alum Michael David Smith about the difference in Rogers' play, why the trade was made, and why the fit wasn't right in Detroit.
"My basic problem with Rogers in Detroit is that they always wanted him to be something he isn't, namely a 295-pound penetrating tackle," MDS said. "He took his share of plays off, and he deserved criticism for that, but I thought a bigger problem was that he took himself out of plays because he just wasn't a good fit with Rod Marinelli's scheme.
"Matt Millen said after he traded Rogers that he expected Rogers to become the Defensive Player of the Year in Cleveland. Millen didn't think Rogers was motivated enough in Detroit, and I think the lack of motivation stemmed from knowing he was in the wrong scheme for his talents. Personally, I think if you've got a guy with the talent to be defensive player of the year, and he doesn't fit with what you're doing on defense, that means you need to change what you're doing on defense, not trade the player. Millen disagreed. Cleveland has benefited."
Though Rogers did have certain issues in Detroit, he also made two Pro Bowl rosters and amassed a career-high seven sacks last season. He's already put up 4.5 sacks this year in a switch from a 4-3 to (predominantly) a 3-4, in a line than currently ranks dead last in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards. Can a nose tackle actually have a DPOY-level season with that kind of line? After reviewing his performance in three straight games, I think he's as good as any defensive tackle in the game. It's obvious that he's going to suffer from the fact that opposing offenses can really make things happen if only they can get him out of the way. Not that it's easy - the way he's playing now, Shaun Rogers is one all-in, non-stop, hellacious problem for any offensive line.
In this three-game span, Rogers faced the lines of the Jaguars (currently 14th in Adjusted Line Yards and 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate), Ravens (sixth ALY/19th ASR) and Broncos (third ALY/sixth ASR).
(Note: Since inside battles are the focus of this article, there's a lot more about individual matchups and less about formations than in most Cover-3 articles.)
Game One: Sunday, October 26, 2008
Cleveland Browns 23 at Jacksonville Jaguars 17
Rogers showed nice speed, agility and power starting with the second play of the Jags game, a second-and-9 from the Jacksonville 12. He got momentum right at the snap and shoved center Brad Meester back about five yards, enough space to help the push of Jacksonville's offensive line into David Garrard's face as Garrard misfired on an out route to Matt Jones. This is where you see the amazing short-area speed for a guy his size.
The Jags started double-teaming Rogers three plays later with Meester and left guard Uche Nwaneri. As Garrard scrambled to his right, Rogers broke away from his dance partners, but didn't exactly shatter any land-speed records getting to Garrard.
Early on in this game, Meester was doing a good job of taking all Rogers had to offer. He was going to lose any bull-rush battles, but he was able to counter any spin moves. This was true even when Meester was asked to block one-on-one.
On first-and-10 from the Jacksonville 47 with 8:58 left in the first quarter, Rogers started to break through, almost getting past a Meester/Nwaneri double-team before Garrard got the ball away. Again, Rogers' forward motion was evident. It's amazing to see a big man get into an enemy pocket this quickly.
The Browns brought their first real blitz look on the first play of the second quarter, with linebacker D'Qwell Jackson up the middle between Rogers and Corey Williams. Cleveland mostly ran four- and five-man lines throughout the game with Willie McGinest and/or Kamerion Wimbley on either end. Garrard eluded Jackson in the backfield on this play, and the blitz left a huge hole in the middle of Cleveland's defense. With too many Browns defenders in coverage, Garrard blew past Williams, found a seam, and gained 24 yards.
On the next play, Rogers said "F this team defense stuff!" and blew up the play all on his own. The Browns had a three-man front, and Rogers blew past Meester so quickly, Meester couldn't even get his hands up in time. Moving with frightening speed, Rogers got to Garrard just as he threw a quick screen to Maurice Jones-Drew, almost deflecting the ball and certainly setting the pass off course for an incompletion. I cannot overemphasize how impressive Rogers' initial burst is. It is the one thing I think he absolutely has over Kris Jenkins and Albert Haynesworth, the two other defensive tackles you must include in any discussion of "who's the best in 2008?".
Through the second quarter, the Jaguars double-teamed Rogers more often; he was obviously the focus of that offensive line. The object was to get two guys on him, push one way, and send the play the other. The Browns currently rank 32nd in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards despite Rogers' presence. That's a pretty good indicator that if you stop him, you stop the line.
One advantage the Jaguars had against the Browns was a quarterback in Garrard who could make things happen out of broken plays, On first-and-10 from the Cleveland 46 with 5:19 left in the first half, Rogers bulled Meester back -- again combining speed and power in amazing fashion -- but Meester managed to deflect him to the left of Garrard, who sensed the pressure and scrambled right for an eight-yard gain. It was through the second quarter that Rogers' ability to wreak havoc in the pocket became more and more remarkable. I was impressed that Meester was able to counter the furious charge at all.
The next play indicated a recurring theme: If you frustrate Rogers on one play, God help you on the next one. Here, he sifted past Meester to his right, laughed off a chip from Fred Taylor, and kept going after Garrard like a bat out of hell despite the fact that Nwaneri was pulling his jersey from behind, trying to hold him back. After cornerback Eric Wright whiffed on Garrard on a blitz, Rogers and Wimbley took Garrard down just as he let fly with an incompletion in the vicinity of Matt Jones. This was a "man among boys" level of quality on Rogers' part.
On third and fourth down from the Cleveland 38 and 37 with about 4 minutes left in the first half, the Jaguars tried running up the gut, but Rogers was the pointman in making sure they didn't succeed. Here is where he played more like a traditional nose tackle, holding up multiple blockers at the point and allowing other defenders to flow through and make plays. Before this, the Browns' line had looked a little short of power on running plays.
As a pure pass rusher, Rogers seems to flourish in three-man fronts, as he did for a sack with 1:23 left in the first half. With Garrard in shotgun and Jacksonville running a four-receiver set, Rogers was double-teamed by Meester and Nwaneri. Wimbley, playing right end on the three-man line, tried an inside spin move on left tackle Khalif Barnes. Wimbley's move allowed him to close off Meester, Rogers tore off to the right away from the blocking, and Garrard never had a chance.
In the second half, Rogers got better at using hand movement to sort through blockers and traffic to get to ballcarriers. I was impressed with his ability to do this; he proved that he's not just a big guy with a good move who can get in the backfield. He's also expert at bouncing off blocks to make plays outside, and he can soak up blockers at the line.
With 12:57 left in the game, and one play after firing through the line and dropping Pocket Hercules for no gain on third-and-3, Rogers lined up over the middle for a 39-yard Josh Scobee field goal attempt, destroyed long snapper Joe Zelenka and guard Tutan Reyes. Rogers got a hand up for the block and recovered the ball. No play better indicated Rogers' pure dominance in this game. The Jaguars have been running a skeleton crew in the middle all season, but this was a bravura performance against any opponent. Rogers ended the game with eight solo tackles, one sack, and a lot of quarterback pressure.
The question, of course, was whether he could keep it up against tougher foes.
Game Two: Sunday, November 2, 2008
Baltimore Ravens 37 at Cleveland Browns 27
A Ray Rice one-yard loss early in the first quarter reminded me that with all his speed, Rogers is also one very, VERY strong 350-pound man. At the snap, he blew past center Jason Brown and just demolished left guard Ben Grubbs, wrapping Rice up with Wimbley's assistance. I have never seen anyone ride Grubbs out of an area like that.
Three plays later, Rogers stood Grubbs up at the snap and got past him for a stop of fullback Le'Ron McClain. Those two one-yard losses showed that a different Shaun Rogers arrived for this game. With Baltimore's increased focus on the run (Joe Flacco threw 29 passes to Garrard's 42, and the Ravens ran the ball 41 times to Jacksonville's 29), Rogers went more with power moves and side-to-side pursuit instead of the straight-upfield quarterback bombing so evident against the Jaguars. This was bad news for Grubbs.
On Flacco's 47-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton with 5:28 left in the first quarter, Rogers broke through the Brown/Grubbs double-team, but couldn't get to Flacco in time. Josh Cribbs ran the kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown, Baltimore got the ball back, and Rogers went back to work against the run.
Rogers showed his lateral mobility with 4:40 left in the first, bouncing off Jones at the snap and catching up with Rice on a pitchout left after a three-yard gain. There wasn't nearly as much pass pressure from Rogers in this game, and while that may have been a product of his having to face a better offensive line than Jacksonville's, it looked to me that Rogers was asked to hang back and read plays when he wasn't plugging up the middle. He definitely stayed home more often in this game, and though Rice gained 154 yards on 21 carries, most of his big runs came as a result of the same tack Jacksonville took: Double-team Rogers, stand him up, try to push him out of the middle one way, and run the play the other way. Again, take Rogers out, take the line out.
This was absolutely the case on the 5- and 18-yard runs late in the third quarter that preceded the Ravens' touchdown that made it 27-20. It was also true on Rice's 60-yard run halfway through the fourth quarter, a play that put the Ravens at the Cleveland 2-yard line and set up Matt Stover's go-ahead field goal. While Rogers was walled off by his standard two blockers to the left, Rice saw a huge hole via the slide blocking of his line and Willie McGinest's overpursuit.
The Browns are vulnerable against the run, but I see no reason to blame Rogers for that. If anything, his dominance tends to highlight the inability of the players around him to take advantage of his accomplishments. Rogers matched his Jacksonville stat line -- eight solo tackles and a sack -- but he did it in a different way. That kind of versatility is incredibly valuable.
Rogers had made it a long way up the mountain in our three-game scenario, but the biggest challenge lay ahead, as the Browns took on the Denver Broncos and their top-notch offensive line.
Game Three: Thursday, November 6, 2008
Denver Broncos 34 at Cleveland Browns 30
Early in the game, with Rogers directly over center Casey Wiegmann in a 3-4, the Broncos used two strategies. On pass plays, they would counter his rush by double-chipping him, first with Wiegmann, then with left guard Chris Kuper. On running plays, the idea was once again to push Rogers one way (usually to his right) and get the ball going the other. As you observe him in 3-4 and 4-3 sets, it becomes easier to understand his frustration in Detroit. Rogers is much better in a 3-4, where it's harder to get a quick double-team on him and he can use his agility to get past the center. In a 4-3, and especially with less than stellar support around him, it's just too easy to put two blockers on him and force him off point. It doesn't always work, as Rogers has learned to break those double-teams, but it's harder for him to get through.
Denver also used straight center blocking on Rogers, and Wiegmann did this very well, with the addition of a quick chip from Kuper before Kuper headed off to block other defenders. The thought seemed to be that this would deflect Rogers' favorite move, which is to slide off the center to his left and get after the quarterback. This proved effective in 3-4 sets when Rogers was directly over Wiegmann.
The Broncos drove for a touchdown halfway through the first quarter, and Rogers was replaced by Ahtyba Robin on a few plays late in the drive. They seemed to be subbing him out a bit more, which led me to wonder how much the rib injury he was dealing with on a short week affected him. Through the end of the first quarter and into the second, Wiegmann would take Rogers head-on, and Kuper would wall him off on the side while the play went the other way. It worked repeatedly.
The Broncos knew that they didn't have anybody who could win the one-on-one, so they used smart schemes to keep Rogers in check. In 4-3 formations, he seemed to have much less power, especially lined up on the left. And as much as Denver impressed me in the way they worked Rogers inside, it was pretty clear that they were not taking on a guy anywhere near 100 percent.
The play in which Rogers suffered a stinger was pretty indicative of his frustration level. It was one of the few plays in which he was able to get through and make a tackle. Double-teamed again on first-and-10 from the Cleveland 15, Rogers broke through and brought fullback Peyton Hillis down after a five-yard gain. Somewhere between initial contact and when he brought Hillis to the ground, Rogers was hurt. He rolled around on the ground, holding his left wrist in obvious pain, and was helped to the sideline. He came back in for Denver's next offensive drive (which consisted of one 93-yard pass to Eddie Royal over toast-master Brandon McDonald) and through the end of the game. However, he wasn't too much of a factor, aside from the occasional pass pressure. At this point, Rogers was dealing with multiple injuries, and he just didn't have his usual skill set to throw at his opponents. His stat line (two solo tackles; no sacks) told the story.
The Rogers trade was obviously huge for the Browns. As was proven with Kris Jenkins' Carolina-to-New-York journey, there are times when a change of scenery is best for all involved, Of the three tackles seriously involved in Defensive Player of the Year arguments this season, I still believe that Albert Haynesworth has the most versatility in the way he can stop the run and rush the passer. Jenkins has an awesome selection of inside power moves (his club move should be registered as a lethal weapon), but less mobility. Rogers impresses me most going forward or side-to-side. He has a great swim move that he'll use to get by blockers, and once he's past a center, he's as fast as anyone on the field in a short area. He's very good -- probably the most adept of the three -- from side to side in bowling through trash and getting to ballcarriers.
Whatever his reputation for taking plays off in the past may have been, I certainly didn't see that here. Rogers was able to stay strong late in games, even getting some disruption at the line toward the end of the Denver game when he was obviously hurt. What Rogers needs now is more push and power from the linemen around him. It is far too easy to negate the Cleveland line if he is taken out of the play, and it makes his performance all the more impressive when he's obviously the focus of every front five he faces.
Shaun Rogers with a complementary line threat? Scary thought. For now, he'll just have to be content with his role as Cleveland's indispensable force.