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26 Oct 2004

Every Play Counts: Michael Strahan

By Michael David Smith

Much has been written about the play of Lions quarterback Joey Harrington in Detroit's 28-13 win against the New York Giants.

But no one who wrote or commented about the game seemed to notice that the fundamental strategy of the Lions' offense can be summarized in three words: Double Michael Strahan.

Strahan was frustrated after the game, and he told a reporter this:

"Strahan didn't get any pressure on the quarterback. He's overrated. He should retire. Write it. Write it all. If there's no pressure on the quarterback, it all ends up on my head, anyway. I didn't do it. I was horrible today. There you go."

Strahan, in fact, was not horrible. Good defensive linemen can help their teams by accomplishing two things:

1. Make tackles, knock down passes, force fumbles, etc.
2. Force the offense to devote multiple blockers to you, leaving your teammates available to make the plays.

Strahan didn't do much of No. 1 on Sunday. But No. 2 can be just as important to an effective defense, and Strahan did plenty of it.

The Lions double-teamed Strahan on nearly every play, and these weren't the typical double-teams, where an offensive tackle gets a little bit of help from a tight end or running back. This often involved both right tackle Stockar McDougle and right guard Damien Woody devoting all their attention to Strahan. On the third play from scrimmage, this worked exactly as the Giants would hope. McDougle and Woody doubled Strahan, leaving only three Lions offensive linemen for the rest of the Giants' rush, and the result was Norman Hand sacking Joey Harrington for a six-yard loss. Hand got the credit from the announcers and the recognition on the stat sheet, but Strahan's presence is what caused the sack.

On the first play of the second half it happened again. McDougle and Woody blocked Strahan, and no one blocked blitzing safety Gibril Wilson (who, by the way, looks like he might be the steal of the 2004 draft as a fifth-round pick out of Tennessee), who came in for the sack. On that play, with all the linemen occupied, the Lions relied on rookie running back Kevin Jones, who hasn't yet learned the art of the blitz pickup. Again, neither the announcers nor any of the game accounts I read mentioned the importance of Strahan to the Giants' pass rush, but without him the sack would not have happened.

But the Lions' offense succeeded Sunday because most of the time, Strahan's teammates didn't take advantage of the double teams. On nearly all of Harrington's completions he had plenty of time to pass because Strahan was doubled and no other Giant made a play.

Strahan's presence was clearly on Harrington's mind, most notably on one play when Strahan moved from the inside of the right tackle to the outside of the right tackle, and Harrington looked at Strahan and began barking instructions to the line. Harrington seemed most concerned about Strahan when he lined up far to the outside, including one play when Strahan lined up outside the tight end and rushed directly upfield, causing Harrington to move up in the pocket. But on that play no other Giants caused pressure up the middle, and Harrington completed his pass.

Strahan owns the all-time record for sacks in a season (although that record carries two rather large asterisks, seeing as sacks have only been recorded since 1982 and Brett Favre gift-wrapped that final sack for his fishing buddy), so it's no surprise that he was the Lions' primary focus in pass protection. But, surprisingly, even on running plays the Lions doubled Strahan more than they doubled any other Giant.

Sometimes the Lions' obsession with Strahan seemed silly. Did they really need two blockers on him even on Kevin Jones' 1-yard touchdown plunge, when Strahan lined up outside the right tackle and Jones ran up the middle?

But when the Lions didn't double Strahan, he made them pay for it. Strahan's best play of the game came on a third-and-one in the second quarter. Strahan manhandled McDougle (who is listed at 335 pounds to Strahan's 275), casting him aside and easily filling the hole, stopping Jones for no gain and forcing the Lions to punt.

Seeing that play got me to thinking about just how rare it is to see a pass rusher as good as Strahan who can also stop the run. League leaders in sacks are often lousy against the run -- Kevin Carter, John Randle, and Kevin Greene come to mind. Since 1982, by my count, only three players have led the league in sacks and also been top-echelon run-stoppers: Lawrence Taylor in 1986, Reggie White in 1987 and 1988, and Strahan in 2001 and 2003.

To me, a defensive end who can dominate both against the run and against the pass is so unique that I now would put Strahan in the Top 5 all-time defensive ends. Here's my five:

1. Deacon Jones
2. Bruce Smith
3. Reggie White
4. Gino Marchetti
5. Michael Strahan

Any arguments?

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. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 26 Oct 2004