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Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

10 Nov 2005

Every Play Counts: Nick Saban's Front Seven

by Michael David Smith

Nick Saban has a reputation as a defensive mastermind, and when he took the job as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, we heard throughout the off-season that he would change Miami's defense, using a sophisticated hybrid of the 4-3 and the 3-4. But as I watched the Dolphins front seven on every play of their 17-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, I found that it's not the scheme that works for Saban, it's the execution.

Discussing defensive formations in simple terms of whether they use four linemen and three linebackers or three linemen and four linebackers makes convenient shorthand for sportswriters, but it is really a false dichotomy. For the most part, the main difference between Miami's 4-3 base front and the 3-4 it occasionally uses is simply whether or not Jason Taylor felt like getting into a three-point stance as a defensive end or standing up as a linebacker.

I didn't see any complex schemes that make Saban's defense different from any other team's. I did see fundamental form tackling, defensive linemen maintaining gap responsibility, and a nice mixture of young talent and rejuvenated veterans.

Let's start with one of those rejuvenated veterans. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Cincinnati's defensive line badly needs more bulk in the middle. I had in mind players like Keith Traylor, the defensive tackle Saban signed as a free agent from New England. He had a great game on Sunday.

On Atlanta's first play from scrimmage, with Traylor lined up at nose tackle, Warrick Dunn took a handoff and tried to run between center Todd McClure and right guard Kynan Forney, but Traylor clogged the middle of the line and stopped Dunn for no gain. On Atlanta's second play, Traylor collapsed the pocket, and as Michael Vick tried to run, Traylor sacked him for a loss of two yards.

Traylor is 36 years old, weighs 337 pounds, and it was 80 degrees in Miami on Sunday, so you might expect that he'd have a strong first quarter and then trail off as the game went on. But he played even better in the fourth quarter than he did in the first. He tackled Dunn three times in the fourth quarter, twice after short gains on second-and-10, and once for a loss of four on fourth-and-1.

My favorite play by Traylor came on one of those second-and-10 fourth-quarter plays, when McClure and Falcons left guard Matt Lehr double-teamed him. Atlanta's offensive line needed to move Traylor out of the way for a power run right at him. Usually, the best the defense can hope for on a play like that is for the double-teamed lineman to free up space for a linebacker to make the tackle. On this play, Traylor did it himself: he overpowered both McClure and Lehr and tackled Dunn for just a two yard gain. Although I usually reserve my praise for every-down players, and Miami gave Traylor quite a few breathers, I would still have to say that Traylor had the best game I've seen so far this year from a defensive tackle. He deserves All-Pro consideration.

I didn't think highly of Vonnie Holliday or Jeff Zgonina, the two tackles who rotated with Traylor. On a third-and-1, Lehr had a one-on-one block on Holliday, pushed and shoved him right out of the play, and Dunn followed him for a gain of five yards. McClure dominated Zgonina, a small tackle who doesn't stand his ground at the point of attack and would therefore fit in nicely in Cincinnati.

Jason Taylor is 31 years old but still one of the better defensive ends in football. On a second-and-2 on Atlanta's first possession, Taylor lined up at right end, and with Dunn taking a handoff and running in the opposite direction, the Falcons thought they could get away with leaving Taylor unblocked. They thought wrong. Taylor recognized the play immediately, ran through Atlanta's backfield, and stopped Dunn for no gain.

Taylor sacked Vick on a fourth-quarter play when two Falcons had a shot at him. He lined up at left end and used a spin move to get past right tackle Todd Weiner, then used an arm rip to avoid Dunn's attempt to chip him. It was a sweet pass rush, but we don't see that quite as often from Taylor as we used to.

I've just mentioned two of Taylor's three tackles on the game. Three tackles don't sound like a lot for a defensive end, but I frequently saw Taylor impact a play in a way that allowed a teammate to make the tackle. On a first-and-10 run, Fred McCrary lined up as a fullback in front of halfback Justin Griffith. Taylor stood McCrary up at the line of scrimmage, filling the hole Griffith wanted to run through. That forced Griffith to hesitate, and linebacker Channing Crowder made the tackle for no gain. That looks like a good play by Crowder in the stat sheet, but Taylor deserves most of the credit.

Taylor did have one mistake, a big one: On third-and-6 with Miami trailing and 2:28 remaining, Miami desperately needed a stop to get the ball back and have one more attempt to score. But Taylor lined up at right end, dropped into pass coverage, and got sucked inside as Dunn beat him to the outside. Dunn's eight-yard run sealed the game on a surprisingly bad play for Taylor, a smart veteran. (Also note that Holliday, playing tackle next to Taylor, just kind of halfheartedly jogged toward Dunn on the play.)

Kevin Carter, the starter at right defensive end, got pressure on Vick several times, but he didn't do much against the run. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Dunn ran behind right tackle Todd Weiner, who overpowered Carter as Dunn gained nine yards. Carter gave up on the play after he failed to win the initial push with Weiner.

I think Miami should take Carter out on running downs more often because I liked what I saw of his backups, David Bowens and especially rookie Matt Roth. On a second-and-7 in the third quarter, Roth lined up at right end and Atlanta left tackle Kevin Shaffer dove at his legs, taking him to the ground. But Roth got back up and assisted on the tackle, holding Dunn to three yards.

Roth started his career at Iowa as a linebacker, and when Saban drafted him many observers assumed he would move to outside linebacker in a 3-4. But on the basis of Sunday's game, I'd say 4-3 end is the right place for him. On a second-and-10 on the last play of the third quarter, Roth lined up at end opposite tight end Alge Crumpler and didn't budge as Crumpler tried to block him, forcing Griffith to run inside, where safety Lance Schulters was there to tackle him for a gain of a yard. Roth is very strong against the run, and although he doesn't have a sack yet in his NFL career, he was known at Iowa as a fierce pass rusher. As a sophomore and junior he had double-digit sacks, and although he faced more double teams in his senior season he still finished fourth in the Big Ten with eight sacks. Miami made a good choice taking him in the second round.

Another good choice, even though he made some mistakes Sunday, was the third rounder, weakside linebacker Channing Crowder. First, those mistakes: on one Vick run, Crowder got completely turned around, following Dunn when Vick faked a handoff to him to the right long after everyone else realized Vick had kept the ball and was running to the left. On another run, fullback Fred McCrary buried Crowder. And Crowder was also flagged for a personal foul.

So what do I like about Crowder? Toughness and athleticism. He laid a rough hit on Atlanta's Justin Griffith, forcing a fumble, and throughout the game he looked a lot faster than most of the other players on the field. Crowder is a 21-year-old rookie starting alongside Zach Thomas and Junior Seau, and I can't think of a better pair of linebackers for a young player to learn from. He should develop into a very good player.

Do the 32-year-old Thomas and the 36-year-old Seau still have anything left? Thomas definitely does. On a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, he lined up two yards deep in the end zone and exploded toward the middle of the line at the snap, nailing Dunn for a loss of one and knocking Dunn's helmet off in the process. As long as he can run, he'll be tough enough to play in the NFL.

I'm not so sure about Seau. He's still a smart player, but I just didn't see the power and explosion he showed throughout the '90s. This might be his last season, so if you're a Seau fan, pencil in August of 2011 for your trip to Canton for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Even if the Dolphins' future doesn't include Seau, it will include Saban, Roth, Crowder, and at least another year or two from most of the other veterans. Saban still has a lot of work to do in Miami, but for a defensive coach who wants to build the defense first, he's off to a good start.

One final note: Every Play Counts now has progeny. If you are an NBA fan, check out Kevin Pelton's Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant at 82games.com.

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 10 Nov 2005

57 comments, Last at 14 Nov 2005, 12:15pm by CaffeineMan


by Just Another Falcons Fan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 1:10pm

Silly me. When this article was announced, I actually thought it might have something interesting to say about the offensive line of the Falcons. After all, it is a group of overachieving late-round draft picks that somehow have been involved with one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL. Additionally, the Falcon offensive line has drawn a lot of heat for its relatively poor pass protection and the effect this might have on Michael Vick. Finally, some people have stated that Kynan Forney is a very underrated OL, possibly meriting selection to the Pro Bowl.

Somehow I thought that the aforementioned points would make a more interesting topic for a FO article than tracking a Miami defense that has been solid for the past few seasons and is still solid today. What a disappointment.

by seven year lion (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 1:30pm

Yeah, you guys really aren't living up to your billing as Falcons Outsiders. Wait, what's that? The F in FO stands for Football? What kind of biased language would allow words other than Falcons to start with F?

by Teddy (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 1:36pm

Yeah, understanding football's not about understanding numbers OR analyzing specific plays. It's about doing the Dirty Bird and not going to Braves playoff games.


by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 1:37pm

MDS: That's really interesting. Even if he is a pro-bowl calibre player, though, isnt the line only as good as the average of him and his backups, though? It seems that since they're bad, the Dolphins have a weakness there because teams can plan around him and then audible or call plays at the tackles when his sitting. Plus, since when he's out they're in 4-3, that's one fewer LB for the TB to contend with.

#1: Get over yourself.

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 1:50pm

Fnor, I definitely think we'll see Miami's opponents running away from Traylor. I'd love to see a full-season breakdown of how well the Dolphins have done against runs up the middle with and without Traylor on the field. But I agree with you that defensive units can have one great player and still be a weak link if the other players aren't getting the job done.

by Chris Owen (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:05pm

Wouldn't we be better off taking the high road with JAFF?

I'll give it a stab. JAFF- you are not the first person whose initial response to an EPC article is to suggest that MDS look at something else. The article is titled "Nick Saban's Front Seven," so please don't be surprised that that is indeed what the article focuses on. It deals with something dear to you, the Atlanta line, but that's not the focus on the article. Sure, Miami has had a lot of defensive success over the years, but with a new coach, a new scheme, new players, and old players getting older, it's a fair question to see how they do this year.

I sense another flame war coming and I'd like to try to fend it off.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:08pm

Just Another Falcons Fan,

Please read the following, snipped from the end of the article: "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."

BTW, did someone go off on a falcons message board or something?

by Ray (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:21pm

[piling on]

RE:#1 "Silly me. When this article was announced, I actually thought it might have something interesting to say about the offensive line of the Falcons."

Uh, actually that is pretty silly. Why would an article called 'Nick Saban’s Front Seven' extoll the virtues of the Atlanta O-Line? I mean, then it would be called 'The Falcon's Offensive Line', wouldn't it?

[/piling on]

Nice article, MDS. Regarding "I found that it’s not the scheme that works for Saban, it’s the execution", is it your opinion that the scheme is not ideal for the talent for Miami? In other words, if it's not the scheme, then is the scheme a liability that the raw talent of the players is overcoming?

by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:35pm

Wow, do you suppose Belichick is regretting cutting Traylor now? The word in New England was that Traylor failed a conditioning test, I thought, and that the perception among the coaches was that he didn't keep himself in shape enough. But if he really is playing well for Miami, don't you think the Patriots would rather have him in their uniform next Sunday rather than in white and teal? Especially after how exhausted Vince Wilfork looked late in the Colts game, with no Traylor to rotate with?

Belichick has a history of knowing when to say goodbye to a player (Milloy, Antoine Smith, Ted Washington, etc.). But I thought Traylor had at least one or two more good years in him...

by Ken E (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:37pm

MDS: As a pats fan, I have to admit it pains me to hear about how great a year Traylor is having in Miami. My impression was that he was the weak link in the middle for the pats last year leading to the rookie Wilfork's taking the starting job. Now this year Wilfork is being maligned for his poor play, and Traylor's an all-pro? What gives?

BTW, I'm no expert, this just seems to be the consensus around here (in NE, not FO).

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:51pm

Ray, I don't know if I would go so far as to call the scheme a liability, it's just that I was kind of expecting to see some atypical fronts, and I didn't see that. I guess I came into the game thinking Saban is a good defensive coach because he draws up formations that will have his players in the right places, but I came away from it thinking Saban is a good defensive coach because he stresses the fundamentals like form tackling and keeping containment.

Regarding Traylor and the Patriots, I know Belichick is a big believer that everyone has to be in shape -- he has that conditioning test he subjects everyone to. Obviously, Belichick knows a lot more about building a team than I do, but I can't help but think he's a little too stringent with his defensive tackles if Traylor couldn't make the cut. If Traylor plays that well against the Patriots, I'm sure we'll hear a lot of people second-guessing Belichick. You'd think three Super Bowls in four years would give the guy some leeway, but we football fans are fickle creatures.

by Just Another Falcons Fan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:53pm

Let's see...what other words start with F?


how 'bout "fair", as in "fair and balanced"? After all, Michael and FO are working with, if not for, Fox these days.

Back on Monday, it was noted that Every Play Counts would look at the matchup between the front lines of Atlanta and Miami. In the past, Every Play Counts has given its readers in-depth examinations of both sides of a matchup, and that's what I expected this week as well. But no, this week, it's all Dolphins, all the time.

Putting labels aside, if you're not going to do a balanced treatment of the matchup, which do you think would be a more interesting article?

Team A's offensive line, where the talent level doesn't appear to match the results with respect to the running game and whose relative ineffectiveness in the passing game may have an impact on the development of the most-hyped player in the league?


Team B's defensive front 7, which were pretty good with last year's coach and are still pretty good with this year's coach?

I've been coming to this site since it became the partner of Baseball Prospectus and in general, I've been impressed with the articles and the quality of discussion here. However, there seems to be a blind spot with regard to the Falcons. The authors at FO have at least tried to address the questions concerning the outlier status of the Falcons in DVOA and the singular status of Michael Vick, although perhaps not in a completely satisfactory manner. However, many of the commentators seem to believe that there is no such thing as an authentic Falcons fan. Coupled with the general disrespect that the Falcons franchise has received over the years from the media (not one member in football's swollen HOF, not Tommy Nobis or Jeff Van Note or Mike Kenn), and you might see how one might get a bit ticked off when one thinks the Falcons have been dissed again.

Ah, well, at least we're not the Saints.

by noahpoah (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:58pm


Check out the original week 10 DVOA discussion thread to see the origin of the Falcons furor. It's a strangely compelling read.

w.r.t. this column, I'm curious how coaches decide who starts/stays in/subs and when. In particular, I'm curious if games like this one are typical of Carter's performance, and if so, why he is in as often as he (apparently) is. Surely one of the many film coaches sees this stuff and tries to correct it and/or lobby for bad players' removal from (or at least reduced role in) the line up. Maybe loyalty (a la Vermeil and Holmes) keeps these guys in?

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:59pm

Michael, since JT tore his plantar fascia they haven't been running the 3-4 really because Jason can't drop back in coverage, plant and change directions, etc...

Since he's playing through the injury, they've reverted to the old scheme of allowing him to do what he does best: line up at the end and rush the pass on every down.

That's why you weren't seeing the different schemes.

Also, I saw several mistakes from Taylor. Or rather, I don't think he should have been doing what he does best. Taylor frequently rushes up the end so fast he's a couple of yards behind the QB at the point of the play... With Vick, this is suicide! The Jets did a nice job rushing their ends up the flat (to a point where Vick might roll out to) rather than to the QB. I wanted to see that. I saw several times where Vick only had to step up in the pocket a little bit or roll out to evade the pressure from JT.

Yes, in normal games, this pressure from JT is always an asset, forcing the QB to move and occupying the one of the best O-lineman. But when playing Vick, Taylor should have been rushing in more of a contain fashion, looking to get to where he could put himself in play once Vick started to move.

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:09pm

Also, Roth has been a big disappointment. That is: yes, he has the physical assets, but Saban expected more of him. He makes lots of mistakes and he seems to lack drive at times (he left training camp/practice in tears a fe times). That's not to say that he is not progressing and will not fulfill Saban's expectations eventually. I just think that he is still not ready to be a starting DE on rushing plays.

Bowens has always been fantastic though. A quiet, unrecognized guy who battles whenever he's in.

And Roth at LB? I don't think I've eve seen a LB as fat (I mean stocky) as Roth. He's listed at 272 and that's conservative. Don't know where you heard that one. He's definitely slated as one of Saban's DEs / down linemen.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:12pm

Re: Traylor

Here's my recollections on Traylor with the Pats. He was originally a one-gap DT with Chicago, I think. He went to 3-4 NT with the Pats, so his style had to change from "get into the backfield as fast as possible" to more gap control. Traylor commented that it was a difficult transition. I thought he was OK at it last year, but not great and Wilfork was better and took over as starter. So I'm guessing it wasn't just the conditioning thing, it was also a mismatch on the expected role that lead to his release. Sounds like he's got a much better match to his role in Miami, although still showing signs of lack of containment, as 10K mentioned.

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:16pm

"Team B’s defensive front 7, which were pretty good with last year’s coach and are still pretty good with this year’s coach?"

Don't ruin this article. If you hadn't noticed the front 3 of Miami's D line is completely different. TimBo is gone. We know have a completely new line with Traylor, Holliday, and Carter. In the LB corps, we have a new FA (Spragan), a developing player who's been with the squad a couple of years but we haven't seen much (Pope), an amazing young stud who every other team was afraid to take but everyone wants to see how he develops (Crowder), and 2 old pros. We lost 2 other LBs from last year.

That leaves 3 remaining starters (Thomas, Seau, and Taylor) and 2 role players (Zgonina and Bowens).

We have a new head coach, a new D coach, and new schemes.

If anything, we should be complaining that Michael didn't cover everyone in the front seven, that he mostly mentions 2-3 plays from the players we've all known about for years.

But, no, the Falcon fans need to ruin 2 discussions? Please stop.

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:34pm

noahpoah, I would say it was an atypical performance from Carter. I haven't seen all the games, and we were pretty thoroughly dominated by Buffalo and Tampa Bay so it was tough to read the performance of individual D-linemen (they were all pretty poor and mangled by the opposing O-lines in those 2 games), but I've been more impressed with Carter than Holliday.

We came into this season with little depth on the line. TimBo (the long time anchor) retired and we lost a few players to FA. Saban brought in 3 FAs and they've been much better than expected.

Zgonina was brought in a year or two ago and has started, but he's more a backup, rotational player. I don't see anyone else to take Carter's spot at this point.

Yes, Atlanta gashed the middle of our D through most of the game, but I didn't think it was a bad performance. What was horrible were the soft zones (frequently, a LB or CB would have to run several yards to get to a receiver downfield) or the complete and total lack of coverage or even a containment player in the flat-- Crumpler or Dunn were wide open in the flat all day long. They'd run from the backfield or line of scrimmage for 10-15 yards before being touched. That was horrible. How do you give Vick the wide open outlet to Crumpler? I didn't get that. That was the biggest disappointment of the Miami D.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:41pm

There's mention that the main difference between Miami's 4-3 and 3-4 is whether or not Jason Taylor had his hand on the ground.

Is there any indication that one can predict his role on the play based on his stance? (eg. when he's standing up he's more likely to drop into coverage, three point stance means more likely to rush)

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:42pm

Oops, I apologize to Matt Roth. I forgot: it's Manny Wright that's been the crybaby.

But both Roth and Wright have been Saban's projects. Roth has been known to wear down in practice and give up, but I think he'll eventually be a huge compliment to Jason Taylor in his waning years.

Manny Wright is another question. He too has lots of potential and physical assets, but he's coming along very slowly.

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:46pm

Ryan Mc, I had the same thought, but I couldn't see any evidence that Taylor tips his hand based on his stance. For instance, I thought maybe when he was going to drop into coverage, he'd line up as a linebacker, but that didn't seem to be the case. As I mentioned, on the play when he allowed the run to get outside him, he was a DE, not an OLB.

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:48pm

Ryan, I haven't noticed it. I don't think we saw too much of the 3-4 last Sunday. From other games, I would say the differentiation between the schemes is not his stance, but whether or not he drops back into coverage or slides back to act as a LB. But, of course, that differentiation, would define the difference between the 3-4 and 4-3, wouldn't it?

JT goes into different stances depending on how wide he is or who he's facing or whether Miami is anticipating run or pass... At least, that's what I assume. Sometimes it's hard to see him and see any trends from limited TV viewing.

But I've definitely seen him go from the 3-pt stance to coverage or back into a LB role. Saban, when he's playing his full D, moves him around alot. (Sometimes I fear too much... With our players, I'm not sure we're strong enough that surprise matters so why move him all over the field on every play?... whereas even if you know what JT is doing on every down, he's going to beat you or pressure you a fair number of tries.)

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:07pm


I noticed that thread, and I'm just wondering if someone was on a falcons board on Monday firing these people up.

At least you guys don't have to occupy the same city with Falcons fans...

by Richie (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:31pm

Sure, Miami has had a lot of defensive success over the years, but with a new coach, a new scheme, new players, and old players getting older, it’s a fair question to see how they do this year.

Aside from being a Dolphins fan, I think it's a great topic.

The Dolphins defense has been solid for quite a few years. Last year the whole team sucked. There's a new defensive coach, and the defense seems to be playing fairly well again this year. It is interesting to find out if players like Taylor and Thomas are still playing well, or just relying on reputation.

by noahpoah (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:45pm


Just after I posted in response to your earlier post, it occurred to me that you probably already knew about the thread and that you were wondering about possible causes for Falcon fan ire in both threads. Alas, by then it was too late to not post.

I used to live in Marietta, GA, and I'm glad I don't anymore. I feel for you if you're stuck down thereabouts and you don't want to be.

by Soulless Merchant of Fear (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:47pm

As a Buffalo fan, I'd just like to say:

Damn you, Nick Saban! Couldn't come to western New York, could you? Oh nooooooo, you had to take the Miami gig. Between you and Belichick, the AFC East is a freakin' horror show. Thanks a lot, pal.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, the defense discovers the joys of sucking.


by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 5:56pm

It's a brave man that can watch very play of a Dolphin game. It seems to me the Dolphins are too many years away from getting good young quaterback play to expect these old timers on defense to still be around.

by William (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 6:07pm

Didn't the Falcons gash the Fins for about 6 or 7 drives of over 60 yards? Seems like an odd time to heap praise on the Mi. front 7, don't you think?

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 6:23pm

Uh, no, the Falcons didn't gash the Fins for about 6 or 7 (or five, for that matter) drives of over 60 yards. Atlanta had four sustained drives, one of which, as I mentioned, was ended on a great play by a linebacker causing a fumble. As for the three drives Atlanta did have that were successful, I'd blame Miami's secondary a lot more than the front seven. The No. 1 receiver, Brian Finneran, had his second-highest yardage total of the season. The No. 2 receiver, Roddy White, had his highest yardage total of the season. If you want to blame that on the front seven, well, you watched a different game than I did.

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 6:25pm

What are you reading, William? He likes that Traylor has new life -- no one can argue that. He likes Taylor -- no one can argue that. He likes Bowens. He's unimpressed with Holliday, Zgonina, and really disappointed with Carter. He says Zach still has it -- he does. He says Seau's too old -- maybe true. He says Roth and Crowder were good drafts with future potential.

You can analyze a team that isn't the best. Doesn't mean the act of analysis is "heaping praise."

By the way, yes, Atlanta ran at will much of the game, but the front 7 DID perform well. A lot of the breakdown of the Miami D must be attributed to the weak secondary. After all, according to Vivk, he proved he's a great pocket passer this week and we should shut up. So... Vick doesn't want us talking about him... so why not talk about the team he was playing?

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 6:55pm

Re #1: Alright, alright, I'll throw you a bone and say something about Atlanta's offensive line. First, the reason why they're performing so well despite being late-round picks is the same reason why Denver's line performs well despite being a collection of late-round picks, and the same reason why Pittsburgh always turns up all-pro LBs late in the draft. It's a scheme thing. Atlanta and Denver run a blocking scheme dissimilar from every other blocking scheme in the entire NFL (much like Pittsburgh used to run a very dissimilar defensive scheme from the rest of the league, although the 3-4 is now back in the vogue). As a result, the two most important characteristics of a Denver/Atlanta lineman are quickness, and intelligence. The rest of the NFL, meanwhile, is looking for "prototypical" blockers- huge and strong. The smaller, quicker linemen are not highly regarded around the rest of the league, so no one else jumps on them and drafts them early, but they're perfect for the Alex Gibbs blocking scheme, so Denver and Atlanta pick them up late and use their talents to run the blocking. So no, these late-round draft choices aren't "overachieving". If the rest of the league favored smaller, quicker linemen, then Denver and Atlanta would start drafting them higher, but the reason why they go so late is because Denver and Atlanta CAN wait so long to grab them.

I've long believed that this was the true strength of Denver's blocking scheme- it was cheap, since the ideal lineman in Denver is a castoff anywhere else. The O-line, despite all of its acclaim, is extremely cheap in terms of salary cap and draft choices, and all of its members are very replaceable (except Nalen, who is a HoFer), because there are so many "perfect" Denver linemen getting cut or going undrafted. The one drawback is that it's a complex scheme, so you have to be in it for at least a year, usually two, before you can actually perform in it.

Now, you noticed that Atlanta is not great in pass protection. That's the other side of the coin, and one of the reasons why every team in the league isn't switching to an Alex Gibbs style blocking scheme. The scheme calls for undersized linemen, and creates lots of holes in run-blocking, but there's no fancy way to run pass-blocking schemes. Pass blocking in Atlanta, just like in every other NFL city, requires the linemen to go 1-on-1 or sometimes 2-on-1 and simply beat their man. Which is a problem, because as I've mentioned, the scheme favors smaller linemen who tend to get pushed around a lot more easily. It's not just Atlanta's problem, Denver has always been mediocre to bad in pass protection. Just look at the sack numbers with Griese under center. Now, you may ask why Denver is right up with Indy and GB for the lowest sack rate in the NFL since Plummer came to town. The answer is simple. Plummer is a MUCH better QB than Atlanta's QB. He is superb at feeling pressure (something Elway also excelled in), looks to pass first rather than making plays with his feet first, and isn't afraid to unload the ball when under pressure. He has great awareness and poise, two skills that Vick is lacking in the extreme. So Vick gets sacked, and Plummer does not. It's a testament to the awareness of the QBs rather than some evidence that Denver is better at passblocking than Atlanta. They're not.

Re #9: Bellichick has a history of knowing when to say goodbye to a player? Maybe, maybe not. I seriously don't think that Lawyer Milloy can be used as an example of this "gift", though, since he's played consistantly great-to-outstanding since he joined Buffalo. How much do you want to bet that Bellichick really really wishes he still had Lawyer Milloy around right now?

Re #12: Hey, if you want to talk hall of fame bias, I'm more than willing to go there. I mean, I root for a team that has been to more superbowls than any other team in NFL history except Dallas, and has ONE hall of famer to show for it. And until 2 years ago, we didn't even have that. I'm all for getting some Falcons in the HoF, but as far as I'm concerned, Randy Gradisher, Floyd Little, and Gary Zimmerman should be next on the list.

Re #28: Not if that was all the back 4's fault.

by Blah Blah Blah (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 6:58pm

I think a bunch of people are knocking this article cause it sounds like broadcaster fluff ("this guy looks pretty good") instead of the objective analysis a lot of us come to the site for.

We've got an Atlanta rushing offense that only made 160 yards instead of their usual 180-some. They had four successful drives, four stops, and a fumble. The Miami front seven has 20+ pro bowls between them.

Why is this significant? Was Atlanta's rushing DVOA worse than usual? Maybe the fact that Miami was hitting 5+ yards a carry, but couldn't make single third down conversion is a better story?

by 10K (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 7:13pm

"I think a bunch of people are knocking this article cause it sounds like broadcaster fluff (�this guy looks pretty good�) instead of the objective analysis a lot of us come to the site for."

No, I think people are knowcking ti because they're whiny Atlanta fans. There are plenty of teams underrepresented at this site. I don't see them whining. I don't see Jets, Buffalo, Dolphins fans whining about their Pats slant. Etc...

You guys sound like Vick, i.e. PATHETIC!

by admin :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 7:21pm

OK, people play nice. This column is tape analysis. It is not stat analysis. It is always tape analysis. Mike writes about what he thinks is interesting and does not have anything against the teams he does not write about. Please don't make us have to start cleaning up every thread here. We depend on the participants to keep things civil. Don't call each other pathetic, but also don't whine about how much you hate this column, or this website. Just discuss the Dolphins, that's all. Thanks.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 7:58pm

Kibbles(#31) said:

Re #9: Bellichick has a history of knowing when to say goodbye to a player? Maybe, maybe not. I seriously don’t think that Lawyer Milloy can be used as an example of this “gift�, though, since he’s played consistantly great-to-outstanding since he joined Buffalo. How much do you want to bet that Bellichick really really wishes he still had Lawyer Milloy around right now?

Belichick released Milloy because Harrison was working out well and Milloy was too expensive for his level of performance with the Pats, not because he couldn't play in the NFL any longer. The context for his decision is always the Pats, not the entire NFL, so taking it out of context like you did doesn't demonstrate anything. I think the decision process on Milloy was still sound, given the context, and a change of context down the road (Harrison's injury) doesn't invalidate that previously sound decision process.

And whatever small amount of time Belichick spends wishing that something about the Pats defensive backfield had turned out differently, I'm sure it's spent wishing that Harrison hadn't been injured. I'm certain you'd lose your bet.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 9:02pm

"the two most important characteristics of a Denver/Atlanta lineman are quickness, and intelligence."

I think strength is also very important for them. It takes a very strong man to hold a defensive lineman in place long enough to let another o-lineman dive into the side of his knee. Oh yeah, they also need to be agile enough to dive into someone's knee.

MDS, you are clearly an idiot. Your lack of ejaculatory praise for Atlanta (in an article about Miami, no less) makes me angry. Angry and tired. Next thing you know, you'll refer to a Pittsburgh player as 'underrated' or something. Jerk.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 10:33pm

Trogdor, that's chop blocking, not cut blocking. Chop blocking is illegal and gets penalized. Cut blocking is not. Chop blocking is what happened to end Paul Spicer's season last year (although the league ruled that it was unintentional- Droughns and Lepsis both saw that Spicer was going into the backfield unblocked and both went to block him at the same time- and therefore did not issue a fine). Cut blocking is what happened to end the season of the Cincinatti DE last year (I forget his name).

There's a pretty big difference. What is that difference? Well, for one, Denver's line doesn't chop block. I can't recall ever seeing a single chop blocking penalty ever called against Denver, and I've watched a lot of Denver football. If they were really chop blocking, then when the officials reviewed game film, they'd see it, and they'd make it a point of emphasis to call Denver's line play more strictly next time. I refuse to believe that Denver chop blocks, and has chop blocked for all this time, and they haven't had a single chop blocking penalty called against them. Holding, absolute. False start, of course. Chop block, no.

As for cut blocking... there isn't a SINGLE TEAM in the entire NFL that doesn't cut block. Denver just does it more. A lot more, as a matter of fact. But still, coaches aren't in a position to complain about it because THEY DO IT TOO. It'd be like complaining about the methods of Indy's D-line. "Oh, they teach their guys to take a shot on the QB whenever they can, as long as it's legal. I mean, we teach our guys the exact same thing, but they do it more frequently than we do! Boo hoo hoo!"

Show me the team that has eliminated cut blocking from its offensive playbook, and I'll show you the coaches/players/fans who have a moral leg to stand on when they whine about Denver's methods.

by McNasty (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 11:22pm

Why are you writing about the Dolphins when they didn't even play on Sunday? The Dolphins had the bye week. It was the Browns who played the Falcons. The front seven played badly, though, as T.J. Duckett had a big game.

The above statement is stupid, but no more stupid than some of the other comments here. William, why would you make a post like #28? What purpose does it serve? If you know so little about what happened in the game, why not just leave the discussion to those of us who have something intelligent to say?

My only real comment is, I'm looking forward to watching Keith Traylor against the Patriots. Paul Zimmerman wrote that he thinks the middle three of the Patriots' line all deserve all-pro consideration. If that's true and the statements here about Traylor are true, it should make for a great matchup. Traylor has played for a lot of different teams. Has anyone ever studied whether the teams he joins get better at run defense? That would add a nice statistical element to the above column. Bill Belichick and Nick Saban both know a lot about football. Belichick didn't think Traylor was worth having around, but Saban did. That they disagreed on this particular player doesn't mean either one is ignorant of football. So why is it that on these boards if you disagree with someone, you act like he's ignorant? Isn't it OK for two people to watch the same game and disagree about which players played well?

I haven't posted here before, and I doubt I will again, but I wanted to put in my two cents because I didn't think the discussion here was worthy of the column.

by Shadow (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 11:39pm

It is so hard to tell who's being sarcastic and who's actually insane in these comments.

by Sergio (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 3:31am

I'm just so glad my Dolphins are discussed here...

Well, back to insanity...

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 9:00am

Another great EPC.

In the UK we've got NE @ Miami this week. I haven't seen much of the Pats this year, but among there other troubles their running games appears to be fairly average due to injuries (Dillon, Pass and the O-linemen).
From what you've seen, can Miami's front 7 generate enough pressure on Brady to protect their secondary? If the 'Fins can't get to Brady he'll torch them, and I don't think the Miami O can score 28+ points.

by Michael David Smith :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 9:44am

I expect the Patriots' passing attack to have a big game. I don't see the Patriots having much success running, but even if Taylor gets a good pass rush, I think Deion Branch can get open pretty easily against that Miami secondary, and Brady can find him.

by Kaveman (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 11:14am

Slightly off-topic.

It may be premature to suggest this, but if the manners of the posting community continue to degrade, please let me propose to the FO staff that they introduce a registration system and restrict posts to registered folks only. This small inconvenience would be far preferable to having these intelligent and fun-to-read threads, one of the best things about FO, degenerate into the usual childish, mindless drivel on the major media website message boards.

by MJB (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:39pm

Re: 38

Kibbles, I think you have your terminology mixed up. A “Cut� block is any block made to the lower body (the legs) of a defender. A “Chop� block is defined as when one blocker is engaging a defender high and another blocker engages the defender low. A “Cut� block is not illegal because it is the preferred way of a smaller runningback to block a larger blitzing defender, and because a defender can protect himself from potential injury by taking on the block low himself (at least that was the way I was taught to defeat this blocking technique). While a “Chop� block is clearly illegal because when a defender is engaged up high he tends to stand-up exposing his lower body and can not protect himself from potential injury from the other blocker.

I do believe that the only method of “Cut� blocking that the NFL is trying to inhibit is engaging the block from behind, or from the side. Because of high injury rates that might be caused by doing this, since a defender may not see the potential blocker and protect himself accordingly.

I only bring this up because George Foster’s block on Tony Williams (then with Cincinnati) last year was a clear “Chop� block, and was flagged as such. While I never saw the block on Paul Spicer I can not say if that was a “Cut� or “Chop� block.

Lastly, every player from Pop Warner to the NFL should be taught how to “Cut� block. While the “Chop� block is a despicable practice that was rightfully made illegal by the NFL and should not even be regarded as an option for an Offensive Linemen. Too many promising Defensive Linemen had their careers cut short before this practice was made illegal in the NFL.


by William (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:40pm

#s 28,29,30, etc.:

Hope this is still relevant.

My post yesterday was hyperbolic, and I regret that, but it doesn't change what I thought was the bottom line. Atlanta converted about 65 percent of 3rd downs, ran for about 150 yards, and Vick passed for over 200 yards. Miami, against a porous pass-blocking o-line, only sacked Vick three times, and allowed Atlanta to keep the ball for 36 minutes. Not all of that can be placed on the Miami secondary. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a New England fan. I wanted the Pats to draft Roth, though I was not sold on Crowder, and I am worried that soon, if not this year, defenses like Miami's and the Jets' will surpass NE's as we continue to get older. I like what Saban is doing. I just don't think this was the game that most properly reflected that. And I hope next week's won't be, either.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:42pm

Hey Sergio, I tried discussing Traylor, but nobody bit, so I'll try again:

As far as other Dolphins fans can see, is Traylor playing 1-gap or 2-gap? Is he containing? Or rushing straight up the field through the first gap he finds? And is Jason Taylor going to make mincemeat of Nick Kaczur?

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:50pm

And of course, I always thought it went without saying, but maybe it doesn't in the current climate. Good article MDS, and a good topic.

Off topic again: And to those that want to limit the comments on this board by registration, what y'all should REALLY do is set up an independent message board, with registration by invitation only, like the "Sons of Sam Horn" Red Sox board. My apologies for using a Red Sox example, it's all I could think of at the moment. But that way, FO doesn't bear the burden of moderating a message board and the people that care MOST about the conversational content have control over it. So who's got a server and some bandwidth?

by admin :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:58pm

Before this gets any further:

1) I would really, really, really prefer that people not do that. We have ideas about how to handle this and we ask the more established readership to please give us the courtesy of patience.

2) This isn't the place to discuss it anyway, ok? No more off-topic hijack -- people who want to say something about the tone of the threads can e-mail us.

by Michael David Smith :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 2:42pm

William, I'm going to assume from the tone of your second comment that you genuinely want to address the play of Miami's front seven, so I'll reply in kind.

Atlanta had 41 carries for 162 yards. But let's break that down a little. Vick had three kneel-downs for -3 yards, so he really finished the day with five carries for 41 yards. Roddy White took an end-around for 16 yards. That leaves the two running backs, Warrick Dunn and Justin Griffith, who totaled 32 carries for 108 yards. So the stats indicate that the Dolphins did a pretty good job on the running backs, (holding Dunn to less than four yards a carry doesn't happen often) but not so good stopping Vick or the end-around.

I think if you read what I wrote, you'll find that that's pretty much what I had to say. Stopping running backs is more about the middle of the defense, and I praised defensive tackle Keith Traylor and Zach Thomas for their ability to stop the running backs. Stopping quarterback and receiver runs is more about the outside, and I said I didn't see much from outside linebacker Junior Seau, said outside linebacker Channing Crowder showed promise but also made mistakes, and praised Jason Taylor while noting that on one run to the outside, he got sucked inside.

I think my analysis is fairly well reinforced by an examination of the statistics.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 6:54pm

Re #44: No, I'm not mixed up on my terminology. I'm very clear on the difference between a cut block and a chop block. Read my post again. I said what chop blocking was, that it was illegal, and that the Broncos don't do it, and then I said that EVERYONE cut blocks, the Broncos just do it more often.

Also, the block that ended Tony Williams season was MOST DEFINITELY NOT a chop block. No penalty was called during the game, and the NFL never fined George Foster after film review. No one was even near Williams except Foster. It was a cut block. Click on my name to go to the play-by-play from the game. I'll quote the relevant play here:

1-10-DEN30 (2:38) J.Plummer pass incomplete to R.Smith. T.Williams (CIN#94) injured on the play, came off the field on a cart.
2-10-DEN30 (2:30) J.Plummer pass to R.Droughns to DEN 39 for 9 yards (J.Smith; C.Miller).

See? No penalty called, no yardage assessed.

I have no problem with people who say that Denver's line cut-blocks. Denver's line DOES cut-block. A lot. So does every other team in the entire NFL. Like you said, every kid who ever played Pop Warner was probably taught to cut block. That doesn't mean that every kid who ever played Pop Warner is a "dirty" player, any more than it means that Denver's O-line is "dirty".

I have a problem with people who say that Denver's line chop-blocks. They don't. End of story. Like I said, there's only one instance I can remember where Denver's line was involved in a chop block, and the NFL actually reviewed the play, ruled that it was entirely unintentional, and didn't issue a single fine.

by thad (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 7:48pm

I have not seen Miami all year. Mostly I just liked reading about players not named Terrell.

by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 11/13/2005 - 5:37pm

RE: 9

Antowain Smith has been better for the US Saints than he ever was for New England.
Also, Milloy was NOT done when BB cut him. BB simply decided that he wasn't worth the cap number.

by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 11/13/2005 - 7:30pm

Falcons fans are officially the worst fans in football. And it's not just what they've done at FO. Denver fans did the same thing, and I've forgiven them.

by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 1:09am

Sid (#52 )--

Antowain Smith had 1157 yards on 287 carries, over 16 games for New England in 2001. He may be runnning for more yards per attempt in Baton San Orleans, but he has about half as many carries per game so far.

Considering what most teams want from a running back (lots of carries per game for decent yardage), Smith was better for New England in 2001. Even 2002 was better for Smith than he projects this year, in both yards and carries.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 4:03am

Re #53: I'd disagree and call Miami fans the worst fans in football. They got spoiled bad by constant trips to the playoffs (they didn't miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for something ridiculous like 20 years). Then, in 2001, they get a home playoff game against the defending world champion Baltimore Ravens, and they couldn't even sell it out. The fans were too spoiled, and as a result, the football Gods punished Miami with a drought. Not that kind of drought. A playoff drought. They missed the playoffs in back to back (to back, and working on another to back) seasons. They posted their first losing record in who knows how long. I guarantee you that if they make the playoffs next season, they'll sell it out. They aren't taking things for granted anymore.

Still, I think that's unexcusable. Arizona doesn't sell out games, sure, but Arizona sucks. All they do is lose and lose and lose some more. Miami had a very good team that year. They were in the playoffs, hosting a home playoff game. If your fans can't sell out a home playoff game, then they're terrible fans, in my book. Spoiled. It's simply inexcusable.

That said, every team has its clunker fans. Just check out the CBS Sportsline discussion threads, sometime.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 11:38am

No, Falcons "fans" are the worst. In fact, Atlanta may be second only to Los Angeles in bad (read: bandwagon) fans. Let's recall that because so many people in Atlanta are transplants, many of us (like me) have allegiances elsewhere. Those who can change their allegiance are generally not good fans.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 12:15pm

OK, anyone see the Miami game yesterday? I know the Pats won and saw highlights, but haven't watched the game (yet). How did the Front 7 do? Specifically, how did Traylor do?