Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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Two NFC teams were hit hardest by injuries last year. One already set the AGL record in 2016, while the other has a coach with the worst AGL since 2002. Also: the Rams' incredible bill of health in L.A., and Tampa Bay's questionable injury reporting.

18 Nov 2009

Cover-3: America's Game

by Doug Farrar

They're baaaaaack ...

After a year-long hiatus, the Patriots and Colts are back on top. Back on top in DVOA (not to mention Weighted DVOA and Offensive DVOA) and back on top in the minds of the football media. Pats-Colts was once again the music that played over the season, superseding all of the enchanting sub-plots (plus, it gave us a break from that guy up in Minnesota). Once again, the game lived up to the hype; in fact, this one may have exceeded it. In appreciation of the kind of rivalry we don't often see over an extended period of time in a cap-driven league (enjoy it while you may), this week's Cover-3 stays in this game for the whole ride. We'll start with the unexpected success story of an increasingly valuable import.

Patriots Left Tackle Sebastian Vollmer

Kaarst, Germany's Sebastian Vollmer played his high school football at Quirinus Gymnasium and starred on a prep team that went 25-0 during his time there. When he arrived in America in 2004 to play in San Diego's Global Junior Championships, he barely spoke any English. Despite this, the Houston Cougars saw enough to make the 250-pound Vollmer a tight end and blocker in "jumbo" packages. As he filled out and got the hang of the college game, Vollmer became Houston's full-time left tackle in 2007, earning All-Conference USA mentions in his two final collegiate seasons. Measured at 6-8 and 312 at his Pro Day on March 27, Vollmer had enough power and lower-body "oomph" to register 55 knockdowns in 2007 and 69 in 2008. He allowed four sacks in those two seasons. Vollmer didn't receive an invitation to the 2009 Scouting Combine, but he was selected by the Patriots with the last of their four second-round picks (58th overall).

In the Patriots chapter of the Football Outsiders Almanac, I speculated that with Vollmer's height and 37.5-inch vertical leap, Bill Belichick might see an appealing Vrabel-esque end zone target in the rookie. But Vollmer was destined for more crucial duty when left tackle Matt Light suffered a right knee injury in New England's 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos in Week 5. Vollmer started the next game, a 59-0 snow-covered laugher against the Titans, and he's been protecting Tom Brady's blind side ever since. His challenge against the Colts would be to negate Dwight Freeney, the ubiquitous edge rusher who came into this game with 9.5 sacks.

On New England's first play from scrimmage, first-and-10 from their own 31 with 13:22 left in the first quarter, Vollmer showed excellent fundamentals. Out of a shotgun, single-back set with Wes Welker in motion from right to left and no chipping help, he took Freeney head-on with no difficulty. Freeney could get under Vollmer's pads, but it still looked like Bruce Lee fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death -- where do you start, and how do you get where you want to go? When he took the initial hit, Vollmer engaged with the instant thought of riding Freeney out of the play to the left, as opposed to standing upright and allowing the dreaded spin move to succeed. After a short pass to Randy Moss and a Laurence Maroney run up the middle, the Pats blew out on their first drive, looking a bit confused as the Colts ran a split 4-3 with the idea of Freeney looping inside around tackle Raheem Brock. Brady threw an errant quick out to tight end Benjamin Watson as Vollmer and left guard Logan Mankins doubled Brock. I'm assuming that if the play had developed, Vollmer would be stuck outside with Mathis as Freeney took Mankins inside.

Vollmer started New England's second drive almost startled by the speed with which Freeney came off the ball -- it took him a split second to adjust to the tempo and get his hands up on a handoff up the middle to Kevin Faulk. But he took Freeney's stutter/outside move pretty well, and caught up to the play. Second-and-4 was another handoff to Faulk, and this was about when it struck me -- the Pats weren't loading help over on Vollmer's side. They didn't have him chipping inside with an outside blocking tight end, as the Ravens frequently did when Michael Oher started at left tackle earlier this year for Jared Gaither. The confidence in Vollmer's pass-blocking ability was obvious.

The rookie validated that confidence on the next play, a deep throw to Moss over the middle for a total of 55 yards down to the Colts' six-yard line. Freeney charged off the snap, but Vollmer had taken a bucket step to the left and had his feet set to take the attack. With another side-step and then a half, Vollmer was "seated" in his stance, and Freeney had no edge. He couldn't take Vollmer inside with a rip move because his momentum was going outside, and Vollmer was too wide for Freeney to pursue at the end of Brady's dropback. Freeney tried to turn as Brady stepped up in the pocket (the "uh-oh" moment for any defense), but Vollmer pushed him to the ground. Again, no help -- Vollmer negated Freeney with a good hand-strike and buried him as the ball was released.

With his height and agility, it was encouraging to see that Vollmer had better size and power than I expected. On the Laurence Maroney touchdown run two plays after the long pass to Moss, Vollmer and Watson sealed the left edge and pushed it inside. But it was his pass-blocking that stuck with me; Vollmer's ability to keep engaging a defender without getting sucked in or passed up was exceptional. On the 63-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Moss (which went about 55 yards in the air) Vollmer backed up a step as Freeney went into the spin move, leaving Freeney right back where he started. He then turned to push Freeney outside in an excellent display of lateral agility, and gave him a drive block right out of the picture.

Remember that this is a play that takes time, up against a pass-rusher who is still pretty damned good. Mankins was pulling right, and Maroney was running play action to the right, so Vollmer was absolutely on an island. Any slip-up and Freeney would have had Brady for lunch.

Were the Colts able to adjust to Vollmer in the second half? On New England's first play of that half, Indy brought strong safety Melvin Bullitt from Freeney's right (yes, that's a Colts blitz, and yes, I rolled the play back to make sure I wasn't hallucinating). The Colts paid for it when a strong-side cutback lane was left open for Maroney to gain six, and Vollmer was at the second level, blocking linebacker Clint Session out of the way as tight end Chris Baker took Freeney inside and Watson dealt with Bullitt. Vollmer seemed to get a little more help in the second half, but I wasn't sure he needed it -- the Colts aren't a comfortable blitzing team: They led the NFL last year in four-man rushes, and were dead last in the number of times they brought five or six.

Vollmer impressed again with his run blocking when Faulk took the handoff outside for 15 yards on the fourth play of that drive. Vollmer got his hands inside Freeney's arms, got his feet set, and that was the ballgame. It's a trait you see in all the best tackles, and something I learned watching Walter Jones at his peak -- when the great ones put that second foot down, it's all over. He's obviously not at that level just yet, but the stats do not lie -- Freeney was denied a sack for the first time this season and didn't even register a tackle. Frankly, it wasn't even close. It's likely that I'll write about his performance this Sunday against the Jets, because I want to see how he reacts to multiple blitz looks and bigger ends that are much better against the run than Freeney. Going forward, and considering that right tackle Nick Kaczur got his butt handed to him by Freeney bookend Robert Mathis, I think it's a safe bet that Vollmer will be starting somewhere on that line even when Light returns.

Covering Dallas Clark

In the last four Pats-Colts contests before this one, the New England's strategy for preventing tight end Dallas Clark from ravaging their defense was pretty simple -- beat him up at the line, and put safety/professional hitman Rodney Harrison on him all day. Clark's numbers proved the worth of this strategy. When Harrison was out of the 2006 AFC Championship game, Clark caught six passes for 137 yards. In the three games with Harrison a factor, Clark totaled eight catches for 120. With Harrison now safely ensconced in the "Football Night in America" studios, the Pats turned to Brandon McGowan to shut Clark down a week after Clark caught 14 balls against the Texans. Houston bracketed their defensive backs against Indy's outside threats, leaving rookie linebacker Brian Cushing to deal with Clark. Cushing has impressed me all year, but this was too much to ask -- Clark just abused the rookie. The Patriots knew that they'd be leaving potentially dangerous targets open for Peyton Manning no matter what they did, but they wanted to find a way to at least limit his favorite receiver this season. It didn't work at first -- two of Manning's first six passes were to Clark for a total of 37 yards.

Figure 1: Dallas Clark Seam Route

Figure 1 shows the first pass, and how the Colts used Clark to release off the line against a two-deep man under look with blitz capability. At the shotgun snap, both outside receivers took straight upfield routes, allowing inside position to keep the corners away from the first read in the middle. Slot receiver Austin Collie (17) further stretched the coverage by taking nickel corner Darius Butler (28) and rolling his route to the right with a skinny rail route at the line. When Tully Banta-Cain (95) rushed inside off the snap, it gave Clark the free release he wanted, because Gary Guyton (59) was handing Clark off to ... nobody in particular. Clark ran a 13-yard seam route with no obstruction whatsoever, caught Manning's pass, eluded McGowan, and was finally brought down by Guyton at the 35. He got tied up on a crossing route with Collie two plays later, which sent Manning over to Pierre Garcon on the right side, then stayed in to block on a 25-yard sideline pass to Reggie Wayne. On the next play, first-and-10 from the Colts 49, Manning saw the same matchup he'd seen before, and exploited it the same way. Once again, New England went with eight up front, man under, two-deep. And once again, Manning hit Clark on that seam route. Clark released off the blitzing lineman and caught the ball over the middle for 12.

As the game progressed and New England went wider with their fronts (more four-man, still man coverage underneath, but not allowing Clark to just release in to the seam), Clark found himself trailed pretty well by McGowan. Clark finished with four catches for 65 yards as Manning found Reggie Wayne more and more when the Pats lurked Clark's way with their safety coverages. Clark caught only one pass each in the Colts' two 79-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but it's interesting to look at the second drive and what it may have told Bill Belichick about the prospects of a potential New England defensive stop on that fateful fourth-down call.

The Final 79

As Greg Cosell wrote in his indispensable FantasyGuru.com blog, Peyton Manning and the Colts were breaking down the New England defense late in the game as Manning became more and more comfortable with what he saw. Down 34-21 with 4:07 left on the clock, Manning started his penultimate drive at his own 21 with a 12-yard pass up the middle to Joseph Addai from a delayed release in the backfield. This was a great way to counteract New England's single-high/man under coverage. The Colts went no-huddle, leaving New England in the same type of coverage -- McGowan underneath, tailing Clark wherever he went. Manning simply hit Collie on a quick crossing route after Clark cleared McGowan out.

No-huddle again, and the Pats went tight with nine defenders at the line and two deep, practically begging Manning to hit Collie underneath again, which he did for a 17-yard gain. On the next play, Collie drew a 31-yard interference call on Butler, as one rookie beat another on a roaming slant-and-go. The Pats played off a bit more from their own 13, leaving the possibility for some zone coverage under a two-deep shell, but Butler had Clark from the left slot because McGowan was beating up fellow tight end Gijon Robinson underneath. The little up-down combo perfectly split New England's coverage, and Clark got down to the Pats' four-yard line. After an incomplete fade in the end zone to Wayne, Addai hit it to the right for the touchdown, and a 34-28 deficit.

As I see it, the no-huddle could adversely affect the deep playoff hopes of at least two contenders. The Patriots seemed overwhelmed by the tempo, and the Denver Broncos were powerless to stop the Steelers when they went to it two weeks ago. One of the main aspects of Denver's amazing defensive turnaround this year is the timely and intelligent use of substitution packages. A good no-huddle team can, of course, break that right up, as the Colts showed here.

The Colts have the advantage in cases like this because their success does not rely on formation diversity -- they run three-wide, single-back most of the time, every year, and it's the execution of the plays that makes it so hard to stop. That same lack of formation diversity killed New England's defense, and made Belichick's decision easier to understand. Manning was orchestrating his microwave offense at a level most quarterbacks would find inconceivable. I don't know if he's the MVP this year, but the end of this game brought me back to something I've felt all season -- as great as Manning's been in the past, he's never been quite at this level before.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 18 Nov 2009

52 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2009, 11:23am by bubqr


by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 3:33pm

Indy blitzes this year because Tony Dungy has left the building and taken his Tampa-grown excessive love for two-deep with him. Not that Dungy was wrong, but Indy does blitz this year relatively regularly and it is a change of scheme. The Colts are still a great team, but I wonder just how bad they're going to be in five years with Manning on his last legs, Freeney gone, Sanders almost certainly gone, Mathis maybe gone, and Wayne beginning to go the way of Marvin Harrison. All their great players are the same "football age", in that they're all likely to decline starting, well, right about now.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 4:33pm

Manning, like most soul-sellers, will not age. The contract will simply come due one day. I'm suspicious of this Vollmer character as well.

Anybody ever see Polian with his shoes off?

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 4:09pm

Manning is just a robot. I can't remember ever seeing him rattled at all. It seems that the few losses the last couple of years has been shootouts where the opposition (often SD) just had the ball last.

by Monkey Business (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 4:36pm

Not true. The three SD losses in the last four games were unbelievably flukey.

Regular Season, 2007 - Adam Vinatieri misses a chip shot field goal as time expires. Chargers score two special teams touchdowns and one offensive touchdown.

Playoffs, 2007 - Due to the earlier SD game, Dwight Freeney is out with a lisfranc fracture and the Colts have zero pass rush without him. After LT and Phillip Rivers go out with injuries, Billy Volek marches down the field, and Darren Sproles runs in for the score.

Regular Season, 2008 - Nothing weird here. Colts win.

Playoffs, 2008 - Due to seeding rules, the 12-4 Colts visit the 8-8 Chargers. Mike Scifres has probably one of the best statistical games by a punter in history, repeatedly pinning the Colts inside their own 10 and 5, forcing Manning to drive 90+ yards for scores. Even so, game ends in a tie. Chargers get the ball first and score on the opening possession.

As for Manning, well, he just makes it Wayne on 'dem hoes.

by starzero :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 4:51pm

Manning gets frustrated a lot. With himself, with the situation, with his receivers, whatever it is. He's pretty cool on the field, but when the drive stalls and he's back on the sideline he's fuming and trying to figure out what went wrong so it won't next time. I think sometimes this shows up in his game, and he'll have slumps where you can tell he's just not focused enough.

That said, he does have a laser rocket arm, so maybe he's at least an android.

by Led :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:18pm

I tend to agree, but he threw a couple of ugly ducks in this game though. So maybe not a true robot. Some sort of human/robot hybrid.

by Keith (1) (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:30pm
by Dave Bernreuther :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:26pm

I think he stopped getting rattled in 2005. That 2004 playoff game in NE was the last time he ever seemed really flustered and out game-planned. Since then, I can't remember even a single game that was truly poorly played. Even the 6 pick game in SD had some extenuating circumstances and could've been won if not for the missed kick. His off days still end up being roughly even DYAR. It's remarkable.

He still carried the choker/unclutch label unjustly for a few more years. The 2005 Steelers playoff loss, for instance, wasn't on him at all. In fact, they had a shot to win because of him (and the Polamalu call reversal) and they really had no business winning that game. It really seems like he took the leap that year, even after having already pocketed two MVPs. To me, he has been Cyborg-level since 05.

It's funny to watch that 11/30/03 game to see how different the two QBs are now. Aside from looking like kids, they both played significantly differently. Manning seemed roughly the same except he was a lot more antsy. Brady wasn't anywhere near the QB then that he is now. I can see why one of the criticisms against him was that he was a "system QB." An excellent QB for that system, for sure, but he wasn't being asked to make amazing plays then. The first time I really acknowledged him as a great QB was the Pittsburgh playoff game the following year, but I didn't know anywhere near as much about the game back then. When do other people think he truly took the leap? Was it that Panthers Super Bowl? Sometime sooner? Did he just have a bad 2nd half against Indy in November 03?

by Mutch (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 4:52pm

Manning got rattled a lot earlier in his career. Ask any Pats fan about Manning's happy feet. He still will on occasion but since maybe 2007 it isn't nearly as often. His mechanics are still about where they were when he was younger but his mental game has gotten Tiger Woods strong the last 2-3 seasons.

I was shocked watching the way Volmer handled Freeney. Usually Freeney feasts on rookies regardless of their size, agility, strength, whatever. Not only did Freeney not get a sack, he barely got any pressure. At the end of the game I think he did start getting closer but for the most part Seabas did an incredible job.

by Merr (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:06pm

Volmer did well but let's not prepare the bust for Canton just yet. He had a lot of help. Freeney was consistently chipped and/or had protection sliding in his direction, usually allowing Mathis more room to operate.

The happy feet argument doesn't fly. Manning always pistons his feet up and down at a much faster rate than other QBs. People notice it when he holds on to the ball longer than normal so they assume he's nervous.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:18pm

Not sure about "consistently chipped" -- I focused far more on pass-blocking against Freeney because he's not really a factor against the run, but I saw a lot of Vollmer taking Freeney outside one-on-one and winning those battles. Four or five times for every example of tight end help. As I mentioned in the article, this was a real departure from the Ravens' approach with Oher moving to the left side -- they'd keep Todd Heap in most of the time to block or chip outside. It will be very interesting to see how Vollmer does against the Jets.

by Merr (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:59pm

Thanks for pulling "consistently chipped" out and leaving out the "and/or sliding protection" part out. You sure they weren't sliding the protection on most of those plays where chips weren't used?

by Ven (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 5:21am

The Pats schemed a lot of plays away from him. Quick drops and throws the other way, etc. Sometimes wide recievers or tight ends or back chipped him. Some of those long pass plays Vollmer had him on the outside and a guard would've picked him up if he went inside, so it only looks like Vollmer had him 1-1.

There were a few plays Vollmer had him 1-1 but it's not like Freeney is going to get a sack every time he's 1-1 with someone. If Vollmer or whoever only has to block him straight up on 3 or 4 plays there's a decent chance Freeney might not get a sack.

No knock on Vollmer, he did exactly what the NE coaches asked of him to do.

Brady was about .2 seconds away from getting strip-sacked on that 4th and 2 play though. That's the reason his pass was early, before Faulk's break. Maybe the pass was a little off target (it was) but I also haven't heard anyone talk about how there is a reaction time for a receiver to pick up a ball. Faulk turns around and the ball is on him, it's not like he can stick his hands up and catch it without proper reaction time. The throw was early because the ILB and Freeney were about to crush Brady. Bullitt with the tackle, game over.

NE only scored 10 points after halftime. Colts defensive adjustments didn't get enough attention in this game, they actually played well from the middle of the 2nd quarter on.

NE possessions after 24-7:
1. Punt
2. Punt
3. Kneel down
4. INT
5. Fumble
6. TD (but really a punt return TD)
7. Punt
8. FG (defense basically scored here with a turnover)
9. 4 and OUT
10. End of game

Pretty amazing turnaround by the Colts defense.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:44am

I really don't think the Colts defense can take much credit for 3-5. As I remember (and I might not, since I've been trying to erase the game from my memory banks), those were well-executed drives until the turnover...you know, until the turnovers.

by Ven (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 11:52am

The INT was a deep pass into the endzone. NE was not in scoring range and yeah, the defense can take credit for fooling Brady on the play. On the fumble, someone had to hit Maroney and it sure wasn't the air. Let's say he doesn't fumble...maybe they have to settle for a FG and miss it. You never know what might happen, the point is they didn't score. Frustrating for Pats fans I'm sure, but that's why they keep score.

The Pats put up a lot of points in a hurry in the first 1.5 quarters. Give them credit. But from the middle of the 2nd quarter on, the Colts defense was the better unit on the field when NE had the ball. It wasn't because NE took it easy on them either, Indy was just better once they adjusted and got pissed off enough to do something about it.

by dryheat :: Fri, 11/20/2009 - 9:39am

2nd half New England possessions:

6 plays, 40 yard drive. Brady throws an interception on 1st and 10. If they got no more yards it would have been a 50 yard FG attempt indoors.

13 plays, 88 yard drive. Maroney fumbles while going into the end zone. The Patriots only faced two third downs on the drive.

2 play, 7 yard drive. Touchdown pass to Moss. You seem to be claiming this as a win for the Colts, for the fact that the Patriots only drove 7 yards. By that measure, the game winning TD for Manning was a win for the Patriots defense.

8 play, 25 yard drive, ending in a punt.

7 play, 13 yard drive, ending in a FG. Was this really a Colts win, or did the Patriots go conservative with the play calling, with three runs and three screen passes in order to kick the FG to make it a two-touchdown lead? Again, you seem to declare a win for the Colts D because the Patriots scored off a short field.

The the last four play drive and the one play drive at the end.

I have some serious questions about your analysis about the Colts defense being better than the Patriots offense in the second half when they forced the Patriots to punt exactly once. Maybe they should've twice. 191 yards in the half, despite playing on the short field twice doesn't really back up your argument. The turnovers happened, to the defenses credit, but unless the running back gets knocked cold, IMO every single fumble is a mistake on the ballcarrier. The fumble recovery was a 50/50 shot, Bethea made a good play on a Brady misfire. Those are great defensive plays, but I wouldn't call them indicative of how the game was played.

by Ven (not verified) :: Fri, 11/20/2009 - 8:40pm

I never said the short TD for NE was a win for the defense. All I said was it was basically a special teams TD. Hard to fault the defense when they step on the field and its 1st and goal at the 5.

The INT drive, you have to give the defense a ton of credit. They gave up what, 2 first downs on the drive and then got a pick on a long throw into the endzone. You think every successful defensive drive is a 3 and out?

Yeah, NE had one single good drive in the 2nd half, the one that ended with a fumble on the goal line. But like I said, that's why they keep score and don't decide the game on yards. Colts had to force the fumble. But you're right, still have to give credit to NE for a solid drive there. It's not surprising they had ONE good drive the last 2.5 quarters (which is all they had).

The FG they got was 7 plays, 13 yards. Huge stand by the defense to get the ball back quickly with time to score before the 2 minute warning.

The last series they forced a 4 and out. Colts bad run defense?
Faulk...no gain on 1st and 10.
Pass to Welker on 3rd and 2...incomple. Welker couldn't even get open.
Powers (outstanding rookie CB) nearly intercepts.
4th and 2 Colts defense gets the stop, great blitz, great tackle by Bullitt.

Like I said, the defense was awful until the mid-2nd quarter. But for the last 2.5 quarters, they gave up only one good drive, and held NE to only 10 points which were mostly the result of a punt return and a Manning INT. To say that NE's offense dominated them the entire game is incorrect. NE dominated them early, but the Indy defense was better than them the last 2.5 quarters and in particular on the last series when it mattered.

by dryheat :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 12:05pm

I would again, take your last paragraph, and use my previous post to once again debunk it. Giving up points, even on a short field =|= defense outplaying offense. Giving up a field goal, when the offense was clearly running time off the clock and playing for the field goal with three runs up the middle and three screen passes, =|= defense outplaying the offense. Besides the INT when Brady had a poor throw behind Moss, why do I have to credit the defense on that drive? Patriots got two quick first downs on five plays, and went for the jugular on their next first down...the Colts D certainly showed no indication of stopping the New England offense at that point. And I don't know how holding New England to 2 first downs on 4 plays is a good drive for the Colts D, as you claim. I agree with your last sentence, and the last two real drives of the first half, but I can't see any evidence that the "Indy defense was better than them the last 2.5 quarters." In the second half, both offenses consistently got the better of their defensive counterparts.

by Bobman :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 8:00pm

I love when people talk about happy feet. No truer sign of unquestioning bias and football ignorance. If he had happy feet as a 25 year-old, he still does today. In interviews he has previously explained it thusly: he doesn't want a devastating knee injury, so he never plants until the final throw. And even then, the past few years we've seen a lot of passes on the move where he does not plant. Since he has yet to master levitation, he hops a lot. It might look like Paul Reubens pantomiming walking across a hot beach, but it's part of his technique.

They may be happy, they may be sad, but they are not an indication of fear, concern, sillyness, inebriation, the looming mortgage crisis, confusion, eczema, worms, or a recent helium enema. Think back to your very first ever football drill--did it involve a coach yelling "get your knees up!"? He's just keeping his feet moving.

That said, he DOES get frustrated, but I don't think I have seen it since about 2005 in the first 20 minutes of any half. He's very patient and tends to figure out things after a few possessions. If he cannot by then, you might see some raised voice exchanges with OL, receivers, or Tom Moore. Three consecutive 3-and-outs to start a game might seem frustrating, but more and more I get the impression that to him, they're just pieces of a puzzle he's about to solve.

Old-time Colts fans can tell you about frustration. Bert Jones used to bend down and scoop up infield dirt from old Memorial Stadium and throw it he got so torqued. Playing ball in the street as a kid, one of my friends used to mimic that when he got ticked off. Pretty funny, seeing as we played on pavement.

by I am excellent at making love (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 1:26am

"It might look like Paul Reubens pantomiming walking across a hot beach, but it's part of his technique."

Zackly. There's another old gunslinger who when playing for the Packers would always seem to be more concerned with looking down at his feet post-throw than worrying about if the pass were actually completed. Like Manning, he's managed to string a couple of consecutive starts.

by MJK :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:02pm

As a Pats fan, I'm really excited about Vollmer. It's too early to say for sure, but he already seems to be outperforming Matt Light. I wonder if it's a coincidence that the Pats passing attack really started to improve after the Denver game, which, incidentally, is when Vollmer replaced Light. Of course, there were other factors, too (Brady shaking off the rust, Welker getting fully healthy, Galloway getting cut).

I think the Pats defensive collapse wasn't so much "Manning figuring out what the Pats were doing" as much as it was "the Pats defense getting tired and injured". In the first half, the Colts' O-line was getting overpowered, both on the ends and in the middle. Their running game was non-existent no matter who they had in, and Manning was feeling pressure and being hurried in his throws. And the Pats were doing it largely without blitzing. Manning actually did a very good job throughout the game of recognizing the Pats coverage, and anticipating the blitz and trying to hit his hot read. He just often didn't have time, or the hot read was covered because the Pats were winning the battle up front and so not needing to blitz with a ton of guys.

In the last couple of drives, this 4-man pressure vanished. Look at Wilfork on those last two drives...he was getting batted aside (granted, by double teams, but he regularly faces double teams and often beats them). The Pats' end rushers, who had been bracketing Manning all through the first half, suddenly vanished, possibly due to fatigue, and possibly due to the fact that two of them were injured on the sideline (Banta-Cain and Ninkovitch). Note, these two factors are probably related.

Manning is really, really good. Wayne and Clark are as well. And the other guys are adequate against single coverage. If you need more than a couple of seconds or more than four guys to get to Manning, he will pick you apart. In the first half of the game, the Pats were getting to him with four or at most five guys in a couple of seconds. In the second half, they were not.

by Nathan :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:33pm

Think you hit the nail on the head with the TBC injury. It was right around the time he left the game that NE's pressure dried up and the Colts started marching down the field. Until that point it looked like it was headed for a blowout.

by Bobman :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 8:06pm

MJK, If you are not quite 100% comfortable with Vollmer I can understand it. So I am offering to take him off your hands, no questions asked. You want a 1st rounder nest year? Plus I'll have Polian wash and wax your car ten times in 2010. Deal?

by Merr (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:16pm

Mike Mayock charted the game and counted somewhere around 85% of the plays included either a chip or slide protection from New England to help Volmer with Freeney.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:23pm

Well, slide protection would help with the inside moves (and it probably didn't do Nick Kaczur any favors), but I'm talking more about the edge rushes without a tight end chip. Especially when Mankins pulled right and Brady had to wait for Moss to get downfield.

by Merr (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:55pm

Slide protection also helps with outside moves because the blocker knows he has help on the inside. Look, I'm not saying he didn't make some good individual plays but according to Mayock he had a lot more help that your article would lead one to believe.

by Antique Furniture (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:21pm

I wonder if we are starting to see more offensive tackles come out of the college ranks who can handle the speed rushers- Houston ran a spread attack, so Vollmer would have plenty of experience in pass pro.

In the past, scouts have always said that pass pro is the toughest thing to teach young OL, mainly because the college schemes did so much running. Perhaps in the next few years we will start to see more OTs who struggle to run block, but have the pass pro down? I haven't seen much of D'Brickashaw play, but that was what I had heard about him.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:28pm

I think it's definitely trending that way, and has been for a few years. I wrote about Jason Smith earlier this year, and he looked so much better when the Rams went shotgun and he was able to employ a two-point stance. Vollmer's in an NFL system that probably matches up with his college skill set to a greater degree.

by Antique Furniture (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:52pm

It'll be interesting to see if NFL teams really diversify their attacks, or all stay fairly similar. At the moment, offensive linemen are either classified as small, Denver style (though not Denver any more) or big, road grading Philly types. At the moment there isn't really a large call for the undersized/agile pass protector, but maybe in the future we'll see more teams bite the bullet, and head towards more of an Air Raid attack.

In the last 10 years, 3-4 teams had their way with "tweener" picks, taking them at much lower draft positions than now days, due to the lack of competition. I'm guessing that we might see this with the agile, pass blocking OL- at the moment only a few teams are looking for this, but we could see the bidding war increase in the future.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:08pm

There were concerns about Loadholdt, coming out of Oklahoma last year, that he had spent so little time with his hand on the ground, that it was uncertain as to how well he would be able to run block. Mckinnie never has been a classically good run blocker, due to his weakness out of a three point stance.

by Antique Furniture (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 7:40pm

I didn't know that about McKinnie- I always thought he was one of the great underrated OTs.

I think Loadholt is a bit of an outlier, as he is so friggin massive, he can get away with certain things that OTs 3 inches shorter and 25+ pounds lighter can't do. Not to hijack the thread, but after watching Loadholt in college, I didn't think he'd be very effective in the pros, but he seems to be doing well. Are they using TEs to help him? I remember against WVU in the Fiesta Bowl a few years back he really struggled with an undersized speed end.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:31pm

Oh, he is getting some help, but not an undue amount for a rookie, especially as the season goes on.

Mckinnie IS underrated by a lot of people, including Vikings fans who don't appreciate the value of a tackle who can be mostly left on an island, and hardly ever be given help. Run blocking is where his greatest weakness lies, however, because he never became really good at firing off with his hand on the ground.

by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 5:32am

Jason Smith was looking mildly beasty at times on Sunday run blocking. Would be very interested to see an EPC on him again later in the year.

by alexbond :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:59pm

6'7", 42" vertical leap, and Voller's not playing basketball? Nice talent evaluation, U of Houston.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:09pm

One of the main aspects of Denver's amazing defensive turnaround this year is the timely and intelligent use of substitution packages.

Cool insight.

by Antique Furniture (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 7:44pm

I would love to have this sort of insight from commentators: with the tight angles we get on the televised view (plus constant cut aways to some random fan), we miss out on subtleties like these.

by Dave Bernreuther :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:29pm

Collinsworth is the only one who consistently notices details like this. I think he's head and shoulders above the rest of the announcers, even though many many people dislike him. But love him or hate him, nobody gives more information or provides it as quickly as he does.

by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 6:08am

I have been really really impressed with Trent Green on a couple of Rams games this year, particularly on Sunday. Before the first replay came up he'd be telling you what coverage they were in, what routes the offense was running and what to watch to show you why the play worked or didn't work. And then he was actually (and this is the amazing bit) proved right by the replay almost all of the time. And when he wasn't he'd actually admit it, rather than sticking to his guns when the replay is proving him wrong and making him look like a tool.

Gus Johnson + Trent Green would be a glorious B team.

by Dave Bernreuther :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 3:15pm

Sounds like they should start putting him on games people might actually watch.

Billick is coming along too, though he's still not as good as I had hoped.

Edit: this is timely (and horribly stupid). Sporting News Top 25 Football broadcasters

by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 3:46pm

4. Phil Simms, CBS What we like: Thirty years after the former quarterback was the Giants' first draft choice, he still watches the NFL with wonder.

Well, that's one way of putting it...

by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 4:35pm

Well he does watch the game with wonder... when he's watching games, it's with me wondering:

- What he's talking about.
- Whether he's watching the same game as me.
- When he'll get to the point.
- Whether he has done any research on the teams whatsoever.
- Why he's making a living as a NFL analyst and other people who provide better analysis aren't (I take the Scott Adams approach and blame his hair).
- Why he ALWAYS seems to be on the game SkySports is showing in the UK.
- Whether Jim Nantz + Phil Simms in the booth and Johnnie Mitchell + Kevin Cadle + Nick Halling as studio analysts is the worst NFL broadcast lineup ever.

by Kevin71 :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:46pm

Glad to see the Vollmer love. I remember seeing his sack total before the game(Zero, if you're wondering) and being amazed then excited to see him against Freeney and he proved not to be a fluke. I can see him taking Matt Light's job because there is nothing that seems to be saying he will collapse or go the way of most 1st year success LT's and fall from great to good the next season.

by _Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:07pm

Great article, Doug. Somehow I pay for the banal insights of Whomever via Sunday Ticket but I get this for no charge! FO Forever!

Vollmer played well, and he looks like the real deal. Matt Light is not terrible though many Pats fans seem to think so. This kind of reminds me of SB XXXVI when Light got hurt and another #76, Grant Williams, replaced him and played well. Williams was basically never heard from again - hardly the fate of Vollmer from this perspective.

Perhaps Vollmer goes to the right side, or maybe Light does, but Nick Kazur seems to be in an irreversible decline so Mr. Vollmer will be playing no matter what. Maybe if the Pats get to the conference championship game, and it's in Indy, the long-lost heavy package will re-appear and Light and Vollmer will line up on the left side. I can see it now - Vollmer reports tackle-eligible, chips Freeney, releases and catches a touchdown pass. He spikes the ball and it hits the video screen at Lucas Oil stadium ... Final score, Pats 63, Colts 5.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:11pm

The NFL Network is playing their 90-minute version of this game, and I happened to see the Vollmer block on the Brady bomb to Moss again -- the one that traveled 55 yards in the air. I ran it back and roughly timed it, and Brady had a clean pocket from the left side for just about five seconds. Mankins pulled right immediately at the snap, and again, there was nobody to chip. No guard slide, no help at all. Vollmer just shrugged off the Freeney spin and took him outside for all he was worth until Brady fired the ball downfield. It's the kind of play that makes you think more of the kid the more you see it.

Also, the Pats had Mark LeVoir as an extra right tackle on the play. They ran two doubles on the right side, pulled Mankins, and left Vollmer out there alone with Freeney. That's a pretty impressive amount of trust in a rookie.

by Nathan :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 12:12am

Re: next year, think about the personnel moves the Pats have made recently... I think there's a snowball's chance in hell Matt Light is the LT next year. In a perfect world I'd see him move to RT but maybe he gets traded. I say this not as someone who watched just this game but as a Pats fan who has been hearing good whispers about Vollmer since training camp, then seeing him gradually be worked into the lineup, pancaking people on run plays, noticing him down field on screens, coming in to play guard, right tackle, then finally Light getting hurt and him moving to left tackle and shutting Freeney out. Pats nerds have been hiding a secret boner for this guy for months. Edelman too.

by MJK :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 2:20am

If Vollmer is the real deal, then that makes the Pats O-line that much better. Light is decent in pass protection (I would rank him above average, but not really Pro-bowl level), and excellent at screens, but is poor in run blocking (there's a reason why you never seem to see the Pats running behind left tackle). The Pats are strong on the line inside, with Mankins (probably the only real Pro-bowl calibur talent on the line), Koppen (above average center as long as he's not blocking Justin Tuck), and Neal (above average when not injured). Right tackle is a bit of a problem, but maybe moving Light over or hoping LeVoir or Kaczur improves will help there.

Hypothetically, if either Tate works out (although the history of medium-high round Pats WR draft picks hasn't been impressive in recent years...Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson), or the Pats manage to shake a half decent Jabar Gaffney-ish WR loose from somewhere else, they could line up a 4 WR set with Edelman and Welker in the slots and Moss and some other servicable WR on the outside, with a pretty good offensive line protecting Tom Brady. That offense starts to look really scary to opposing defenses. The only missing piece would be an elite TE or RB...

by alexbond :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 5:31am

Ben Watson and Maroney aren't exactly scrubs. It seems like Maroney has so much potential, he's never quite living up to it. He's so fast and agile, but he has some super bone-headed runs that end up where he's tackled for a 3 yard loss by a guy who most RBs would have run right past.

by bubqr :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 6:11am

Alright I'll say it:

I'm pretty sure I've watched Vollmer play at the time when he was in the Germany Under 21 team, and while he was really good, mauling people everywhere(Germany are very run-orientated), he didn't look anything close to what he does right now. I'm a bit surprised by how his body changed so much so quickly.

by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:34am

Implying that he found the abandoned supply room from the East German Olypic team?

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 12:47pm

Ding, ding.

Thread winner.

by dryheat :: Fri, 11/20/2009 - 9:47am

Really? You question body changes from age 17 to age 22 with the benefit of a NCAA Div. 1 and NFL training regimen?

by bubqr :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 11:23am

Huu... Yeah. I'm pretty sure he wasn't 17 at the time, he was somewhere from 18 to 20 when I watched him (Global Junior Championship), and yeah, I'm intrigued. Good one Kevin !