By Michael David Smith
Let's just come right out and say it: Warren Sapp is horrible against the run.
Notice I didn't just say "bad" or "struggling" or anything like that to describe the 34-year-old Raiders defensive tackle. I said "horrible." I don't know who the worst offensive lineman in the NFL is, but my guess is that if you could identify that worst lineman and line him up against Sapp one-on-one on a power running play, the worst offensive lineman in the league would get the better of the match-up.
That's my conclusion after watching Sapp on every play of the Raiders' 13-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. He gets overpowered on running plays and often looks like he's not even trying out there.
And yet he's not a totally useless player, because he's actually above average as a pass-rushing defensive tackle. The biggest problem might be that the Raiders are using him incorrectly: They still think he's an every-down player, when in reality he's a situational pass rusher.
Usually as athletes get older they lose a bit of quickness, but the ones who last into their 30s do so because they compensate by that loss of quickness by getting bigger and stronger. That's the case not just in football but in most sports, from baseball to boxing.
Sapp has not aged that way. He still has most of the quickness that made him one of the best defensive tackles in football when he was in his 20s, but he is smaller now, and he can't hold his ground against bigger offensive linemen. Sapp is definitely lighter than he used to be, and there were reports that he lost 50 pounds during the off-season. But he actually still has a gut, and he looks like some of the weight he dropped came from losing muscle as well as losing fat.
This lighter version of Sapp just does not look strong enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL. It's not often that I am embarrassed for an NFL player, but I was when I watched Sapp on a six-yard LenDale White run on second-and-2 in the third quarter. Titans right tackle David Stewart blocked down on Sapp and pushed him and shoved him and drove him back about 15 yards. By the end of the play, Stewart had driven Sapp so far back that Sapp was the farthest player on the field from the line of scrimmage, farther from the line than even any of the Raiders' defensive backs.
Two plays later, White ran 21 yards on a play in which Sapp got a good first step across the line of scrimmage but was then just shoved aside (and didn't really fight back) by Benji Olson. A younger, stronger Sapp might have taken White down in the backfield, but the 2007 version of Sapp isn't going to do that.
Often, Sapp seems to be compensating for the fact that he knows he can not overpower opposing offensive linemen anymore by trying to run around them. On the first play of the game, White ran directly to where Sapp should have been and picked up a pretty easy six yards because Sapp had run around Titans left guard Jacob Bell, rather than taking him head-on. Trying to run around a block allows defensive tackles to make the occasional big play behind the line of scrimmage, but it also takes them hopelessly out of the play if the offense runs in their direction. It also gives the opposing offensive line a much easier time reaching the second level to block the linebackers, and I think one of the reasons the Raiders' linebackers are struggling against the run is that Sapp doesn't keep blockers off them.
Sapp also doesn't look as aggressive as he did when he was young. On a handoff to White that Raiders defensive end Tommy Kelly stopped for no gain, Sapp was close enough to the play that he could have jumped into the pile and given Kelly some help. Instead he just stood there and watched. The younger version of Warren Sapp -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman who seriously injured Green Bay Packers tackle Chad Clifton by drilling him on a play when neither of them were anywhere near the action -- would have heaped scorn on a player who just stood there and watched his teammate make the tackle.
At this point you might be wondering why Sapp is still employed. The answer is that he really comes alive when he sees a quarterback with the ball in his hands. On a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, Sapp started the play charging to his left, but when Vince Young scrambled in the other direction, Sapp shifted gears and pursued, sprinting across the field to catch up to Young, ultimately drilling him just as he stepped out of bounds. Young picked up the first down, and Sapp easily could have been flagged for a late hit, so it's hard to call it a successful play on Sapp's part. But it did show closing speed that not many defensive tackles have.
Similarly, Sapp made a big play on a second-and-14 in the second quarter. Young dropped back to pass and Sapp was one-on-one with Olson. Sapp took a hard step to the inside with his right foot, did a swim maneuver on Olson with his right arm, and burst into the backfield to sack Young. It was a terrific play that showed Sapp has not lost his burst of speed. But it was also a play where he charged so hard upfield on the pass rush that you could just see the huge lane that would have been open if the Titans had called a handoff instead of a pass.
Sapp plays, basically, like the Raiders' defense as a whole. Oakland ranks fifth in the NFL in DVOA against the pass, but dead last -- by an enormous margin -- against the run. I have always been a fan of the way Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's players get after the quarterback, but that was because they were able to apply pressure while still being fundamentally sound against the run. That's not the case anymore. Sapp is the most obvious culprit, but in addition to Sapp, the Raiders' defensive backs have become one-dimensional. Last year the Raiders' secondary would play aggressively against the run and make big plays, often with a safety in the box. Now they'll line up with eight in the box and get run over. Safety Stuart Schweigert had a particularly bad effort trying to stop White Sunday.
In his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week, Peter King called White his offensive player of the week. But as Football Outsiders commenter Yaguar pointed out, you could almost always give the offensive player of the week award to a running back who plays against the Raiders. Sapp isn't the only reason for that, but he's such a liability against the run that he's hardly worth having on the field at all, except in obvious passing situations. That the Raiders are using Sapp as an every-down player explains why they are the worst run defense in the league.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.