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Cover-3: We Three SC

Cover-3: We Three SC
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

As much as quarterbacks and running backs have defined the USC tradition, it's been the Trojans' linebackers who have taken over the NFL in recent years. That was never more true than in the 2009 draft, when all three SC linebackers -- Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, and Rey Maualuga -- were projected to be selected in the first round. Head coach Pete Carroll and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. share credit for the development, though Rob Rang of puts the primary responsibility on the head man. According to Rang, the Trojans aren't done growing top defenders in the middle.

"Certainly the influence of Norton is a significant factor in USC's ability to churn out NFL-caliber linebackers, but the single greatest factor lies with Carroll and his ability to recruit elite athletes around the country," Rang said. "Case in point is Brian Cushing, who played his prep ball in the state of New Jersey, not exactly a typical hotbed for USC recruiting."

"This new crop of USC linebackers has already been impressive. Strongside linebacker Michael Morgan (taking over for Cushing) has been the biggest playmaker, with inside linebacker Chris Galippo the most consistent."

Houston Texans Linebacker Brian Cushing
San Francisco 49ers 21 at Houston Texans 24

Described by draft expert Mike Mayock as a "New Jersey Meathead" (but in a good way, Mayock was always quick to qualify!), Brian Cushing was destined to take Lofa Tatupu's place as the leader of the Trojans' defense. Cushing started his USC career in 2005 on the strong side and on special teams, moved to right defensive end in 2006, and came into his own in 2007 and 2008 after moving back to the strong side. It's a natural fit for Cushing, who's exceptionally quick for his 6-3, 243-pound size, uses his on-field intelligence to root out opportunities other players might miss, and is fearless when it comes to taking on the strongest blocker. Houston Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush had Cushing on his radar all the way, and Cushing was an easy selection with the 15th overall pick.

Although he missed the preseason with a knee injury, Cushing got off to a fast start. He's never had fewer than six total tackles (solo plus assists) in a game, and he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after Houston's 28-17 Week 6 win over the Bengals. In that game, Cushing recorded nine tackles, six solos, two forced fumbles, an interception and two passes defensed. The stats speak to his ability and versatility, as did his performance against the 49ers in Week 7. While I still believe that Aaron Curry has the best skill set of any linebacker in the 2009 draft class, I'm now convinced that Cushing isn't far behind. This is a special player.

Cushing got his first co-tackle of the day on San Francisco's second play from scrimmage, as he hit the middle where Frank Gore was running from a tight strong-side position and shook a half-block from Vernon Davis to take Gore down, in conjunction with Amobi Okoye, for a two-yard gain. The next play was a short incompletion to Davis to the right, while Cushing looked very fluid in pass coverage going up against San Francisco's slot receiver out of Houston's base nickel defense. He has a good backpedal, and he can flip his hips surprisingly well for a guy his size.

Cushing showed more of his skill at changing direction on the first play of San Francisco's second drive. As Isaac Bruce went in motion from left to right, Cushing moved up outside left end. At the snap, he read a swing pass to Gore as Bruce released outside, and ran Gore out of bounds for a six-yard gain. It's encouraging to see a rookie reading a play like that, and then having the physical ability to go where his eyes and mind tell him to. On the third play of the 49ers' second straight three-and-out, Cushing backed up into a short zone in third-and-3, and eased to his right to help cornerback Glover Quin with a short pass to Davis. Quin made a great play on the ball and deflected it away.

The 49ers started their third drive from their own 25 with 2:19 left in the first quarter, and Cushing read quarterback Shaun Hill very well on what turned out to be a one-yard gain by Gore. Hill first turned to his right with a slight pass look, but as he turned to his left to hand off, Cushing adjusted immediately from a straight standing coverage to a quick twist to the right and a downhill pursuit. Cushing and fellow linebacker Zac Diles killed Gore's left outside lane, so Gore tried to cut back inside. As Gore tried to hide to the right behind left tackle Joe Staley, Cushing turned inside and bottled him up as DeMeco Ryans met him in the middle. I liked how Cushing's first look took him slightly outside right, and Ryan's first move slightly outside left, and both players have the speed and agility to move down inside off of those reads and make key stops.

As good as Cushing is at read-and-react, he's perhaps best as a direct run-stopper, as he demonstrated with 3:49 left in the first half. The Niners had second-and-1 at their own 29, and handed the ball to rookie back Glen Coffee out of an offset-I. What I found interesting here was that in an obvious running situation (especially for this team), and with Coffee hitting it up the middle, Cushing avoided the temptation to overpursue and get lost in the sludge. He minded his gap, waited until he had a clean shot, and brought Coffee down for a gain of 2.

At the end of that final first-half drive, San Francisco faced fourth-and-2 at the Houston 38 with 1:36 remaining. Down 21-0, they had to go for it, and Hill went shotgun with 3-by-1 personnel. As defensive tackle Shaun Cody blew through his blocker and started to take Hill down, Hill threw a desperation pass up the middle to nobody in particular. Cushing, who had dropped back from the middle of a short zone, shot up the gap and almost intercepted the pass. Again, I was impressed with his ability to diagnose what was happening around him -- this is a very cerebral player who can still bring it with controlled abandon.

Cushing was less effective when the Texans brought him up to the line, which they seemed to do more often in the second half. This was evident on Gore's nine-yard run with 12:27 left in the third quarter. Cushing was set up on the left edge, and he got all the way across the field, running at an angle, to catch up to Gore and make the tackle. The thing that really stood out to me was Cushing's ability to cover receivers in the slot or flex positions. It's a huge benefit to a defense, especially a defense that plays as vanilla-flavored a set of schemes as you'll see in the NFL, when your strong-side linebacker can turn and run outside and not be embarrassed. But on Davis' first touchdown of the game, the 49ers threw away from Cushing to the left. On the second, Cushing either handed Davis off too early to safety Bernard Pollard, or Pollard was late to the party. On the third, Alex Smith threw down the middle to Davis as Cushing defended the flex. There are many reasons the Texans currently rank rank 27th in Pass Defense DVOA, but I wouldn't flag Cushing as one of them.

Green Bay Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews
Green Bay Packers 31 at Cleveland Browns 3

While Cushing was a high school superstar, Clay Matthews was a scout-team walk-on in 2004 and didn't earn a scholarship until 2006. Given his bloodlines, you'd think Matthews would be the stud -- his grandfather, father, and uncle all played in the NFL. Uncle Bruce played well enough to make the Hall of Fame in 2007, and father Clay should get more consideration than he does. Eventually, the 160-pound high school junior bulked up to 240 pounds and filled out SC's fearsome linebacker trio with perhaps the most impressive raw physical ability of the group. There were questions about his NFL readiness when the Packers took him with the 26th overall pick -- could he play beyond his 10 college starts, and was his inexperience masked by the talent around him? -- but Matthews' sheer physical talent was worth the short-time development investment. He picked up two sacks in his NFL debut as a starter against the Lions on October 18, as he recovered from the hamstring injury that hindered his early progress. However, sacks amassed against the Lions' offensive line are hardly conclusive; Matthews still had something to prove in his next start against the Browns.

The Packers lined Matthews up as a 3-4 edge rusher on Cleveland's first few offensive plays, and the results weren't all that exciting. He got washed out by fullback Lawrence Vickers on first-and-10 from the Cleveland 40 as Jamal Lewis rolled over right guard for three yards, and blocked pretty easily by left tackle Joe Thomas one-on-one on second down. Green Bay dropped eight onto coverage on third-and-17, and Matthews caught up to halfback Jerome Harrison on a swing pass for a nine-yard gain. Matthews is quick in space, but I was slightly disappointed at his lack of pursuit ability. Where Cushing analyzes blocking schemes and waits for things to pop open, Matthews seemed more passive in his role as an edge rusher, scraping against blockers and getting lost outside.

Things didn't get much better on Cleveland's second drive. On the third play, first-and-10 from the Cleveland 43, Thomas pulled outside left on a pitch to Lewis and absolutely walled Matthews off as Lewis cut back inside -- he just schooled him. A.J. Hawk and Aaron Kampman combined to make the tackle for a loss of 1, but I still hadn't seen anything from Matthews that showed me an ability to match up with a quality left tackle.

In theory, I liked what they did with him on the next play, on second-and-11 from the Cleveland 42 -- they dropped him into coverage on a zone blitz with safety Atari Bigby attacking from the left side. Matthews had the straight-line speed to keep up with receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, but as Al Harris rolled coverage to the middle of the field and Massaquoi slanted inside on a dig route, there was too much space between Matthews and Harris. Massaquoi caught the ball at the Green Bay 36 for a 22-yard gain, and Harris added fifteen yards with a face mask. I'm not sure if Matthews cut his coverage short or Harris just ran too deep and couldn't recover, but it wasn't pretty. Still, Matthews would seem to be an ideal dropback guy on various zone blitzes, due to his speed in space.

Cleveland ran a direct snap sweep to Josh Cribbs on the next play, and here Matthews looked much more fluid at the line. He was able to easily engage Massaquoi, shed him, and zero in on Cribbs for a one-yard gain.

With six minutes left in the first half, Matthews made the type of play I'd been waiting to see. The Browns had first-and-10 at their own 27, and Matthews played off the right edge as the Packers had a six-man front. He eluded lineman Hank Fraley, who was playing wide left on an unbalanced line, and tackled Lewis after a one-yard gain.

While he spent more than his fair share of time in opposing teams' backfields in college, Matthews strikes me as a better perimeter player at this point. He was far too easily washed out by solo blocks against a line that currently ranks 25th in Adjusted Line Yards (though they're third to left tackle, which tells you all you need to know about Joe Thomas). Until Matthews develops the kind of moves needed to contend with NFL blockers, he'll be at a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean he can't be useful; he can contribute in different ways, and new Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers possesses one of the most creative minds in the game. A zone blitz here and there, maybe a little "rover" action as well. Mix the pass rush in over time, and it will be an asset in the long run. Tie him to the line, and his raw but considerable talents could be minimized, if not outright wasted, in the short term.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga
Chicago Bears 10 at Cincinnati Bengals 45

Maualuga finished his three-year starting stint with the Trojans as the team's most decorated linebacker since Junior Seau. He finished each of those three seasons with All-American and All-Pac 10 Conference kudos, and finished his collegiate career with the Bednarik Award and recognition as the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Of the trio, he was expected to go first in the draft but didn't get selected until the sixth pick in the second round (38th overall). He had the biggest adjustment to make of all thee moving from inside to strong side with the Bengals, but he's taken to the challenge.

The Bears started their first offensive drive with a false start on tackle Chris Williams, and Matt Forte took the ball up the middle for a four-yard gain on first-and-fifteen. On the play, Maualuga took a violent block from fullback Jason McKie, shed it, and brought Forte down. On the next play, he moved out to defend the pass, covered the strongside inside receiver downfield, and came back to help Dhani Jones take tight end Greg Olsen down on a short pass after a five-yard gain. Three plays later, Maualuga showed his speed and quick tackling ability as Forte hit the right A-gap with abandon and Maualuga took him down. Of the three former SC 'backers, I'd say that Maualuga is the one who absolutely relishes contact most of all, sometimes to the point of overpursuit. He was noted as the most "menacing" of the three on the field, and you can see how that transfers to the pros, though I think that Cushing is making the biggest impression right now.

What surprised me, just as it did with Cushing, was Maualuga's ability to drop effectively into short area coverage. It was notable for all three players, and watching Tatupu as much as I have in Seattle, I can say that he's another former Trojans linebacker who can drop and cover despite his "brick outhouse" build. It's indicative of the work that Carroll and Norton do that these players come to the NFL with resumes that reflect quantity and quality.


5 comments, Last at 30 Oct 2009, 1:23pm

1 Re: Cover-3: We Three SC

I'm surprised by Cushing...dude looked so 'roided(and had boobs in that one shot) in most pics I'd seen of him, I thought he'd be a bust. Matthews seems dead on: lots of coverage and zone blitzes, but gets overpowered on the line. Rey is exactly what the Bengals need, someone physical and violent to help with the poor run D from last season.

2 Re: Cover-3: We Three SC

Maualuga is the only one of the three I've seen play at the pro level (twice), and I love what I see. I preferred him to either one of Denver's first round picks and would love to see him manning the strongside-inside position. Still, I'm pleasantly surprised by his ability in zone cover, and he's obviously physical enough to handle anything thrown at him on strong-side running plays. I think the Bengals have a winner with him, and it sounds like Houston fans should be happy as well. I was less high on Mathews, but I'd like to see him play a couple of times; in college, he struck me as a good enough athlete to be, at least, a contributor.

Thanks for the scout rep, Doug.

3 Re: Cover-3: We Three SC

Thanks. Maualuga was about as "violent" a tackler as I expected -- I think that's a very good word to describe what he does. With Matthews, I think that the raw physical ability so outweighs the experience, it's going to take a while for everything to fit. But watch out if/when it does. Cushing was the one who really surprised me.

4 Re: Cover-3: We Three SC

Cushing really has looked awesome, and has been a big part of the reason behind the turnaround in Houston's run defense (although he was partially at fault on the long MJD touchdown run in week 3, as detailed by Lance Zierlein in a column that was linked here as an XP). I'd go along with everything you say here, and add that Cushing's attitude is and will continue to be a major asset too. The two established good players in the Texans front 7 - Williams and Ryans - are both comparatively quiet guys. Cushing's a lot more vocal and demonstrative, the combination of his addition and Frank Bush's promotion seems to have resulted in more aggressive play from the whole unit. He's instantly become a huge fan favourite.

What I will say, though, is that I saw Cushing as clearly the #2 talent at the position coming out of college, but was in favour of drafting Matthews because of concerns over Cushing's ability to stay healthy. He missed almost all of preseason and has played several games hurt, so I do think there's some grounds to be a little worried going forward. As long as he can stay on the field, though, dude is awesome.

5 Re: Cover-3: We Three SC

But on Davis' first touchdown of the game, the 49ers threw away from Cushing to the left. On the second, Cushing either handed Davis off too early to safety Bernard Pollard, or Pollard was late to the party.

If his college career is any indication, I'd bet it was Pollard being late. He's a good run-stopper but was often lost in coverage.