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22 Dec 2005

Every Play Counts: Osi Umenyiora and Willie Roaf

by Michael David Smith

Tiki Barber and Larry Johnson got all the headlines, but the most interesting matchup in Saturday's Giants-Chiefs game was the battle for the ages at the line of scrimmage: New York right defensive end Osi Umenyiora entered Saturday's game against the Chiefs as one of the best young players in the league, a 25-year-old with 12.5 sacks, good for second in the NFL. On nearly every snap, he lined up against Kansas City left tackle Willie Roaf, a future Hall of Famer but also a 35-year-old with a bad hamstring. Surely the younger and quicker Umenyiora would use his considerable speed advantage to blow past Roaf and make Trent Green's life miserable, right?

Not a chance. Roaf didn't just hold Umenyiora without a sack; for most of the game Umenyiora didn't even look like he was in the same zip code as Green. When Umenyiora hit Green late in the fourth quarter, drawing a roughing the passer penalty, it was probably the first time Green realized Umenyiora was in the game at all. An examination of Umenyiora on every play of the Giants' 27-17 victory over the Chiefs showed that Umenyiora's pass rush had nothing to do with New York's victory.

For some odd reason, Umenyiora generally tried to beat Roaf with power moves, even though Umenyiora's clear advantage over Roaf is his speed. Umenyiora ran directly into Roaf on most pass plays, trying to bull-rush him, and Roaf stoned him at the line repeatedly. It was an especially odd strategy considering that Roaf's season-long struggle with a hamstring injury has limited his ability to take quick steps to the outside to stop speed rushes.

On a second-and-10 pass on Kansas City's first possession, Umenyiora rushed to the inside, while tackle Fred Robbins stunted to the outside. Roaf did an excellent job of bottling Umenyiora up and preventing him from getting close to Green. Roaf knew he was only responsible for Umenyiora; because Green was taking a short drop, Robbins essentially took himself out of the play when he looped to the outside.

Later on that first possession, on third-and-6, Umenyiora set up for a speed rush, lined up as wide as I've ever seen any defensive end line up—closer to receiver Samie Parker than to Roaf. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see if he could have pulled it off because there was a false start on the play. Umenyiora never lined up that wide again and never pulled off much of a speed rush at all.

When Umenyiora did have an impact on the Chiefs passing game, it was because he sometimes drew double teams. On third-and-11 after that false start penalty, guard Brian Waters and Roaf doubled Umenyiora. That left a hole in the middle of the line for tackle Kenderick Allen, who sacked Green. When the pocket collapses like it did on that play, there is invariably a defensive player who occupied two blockers, and invariably the TV announcers ignore that player and mention only the one who got the sack. So give Umenyiora his due on that play. However, remember that Green threw 28 passes and that this was the only play when Umenyiora made a major impact on the pass rush. (Roaf and Waters also doubled Umenyiora on Green's first pass of the second half, a deep route to Samie Parker, but on that play none of Umenyiora's teammates were able to take advantage of the extra attention to Umenyiora.)

Allen's sack was an atypical play for the Giants; no team gets more of its pass rush from its starting defensive ends than New York with Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. The Giants aren't that unusual in having their two defensive ends first and second on the team in sacks. 12 teams that run a 4-3 fit that description, and four 3-4 teams have outside linebackers as their top two sackers. But the Giants are unique in that hardly anyone else ever sacks the quarterback. Of the seven linebackers on the Giants' roster, only one, Antonio Pierce, has recorded a single sack all season. In fact, after Umenyiora and Strahan, strong safety Gibril Wilson is third on the team with three sacks.

The Giants are eighth in the league in total sacks with 37, but they're 26th in the league in adjusted sack rate. The reason is that the Giants have had more opportunities to sack the quarterback: opponents have thrown 513 passes against the Giants, the second-highest total in the NFL.

(Ed. note: Actually, the Giants are now 20th, but I have not had a chance to update the defensive line numbers on the website this week. The point is the same, however.)

In the second quarter on Saturday, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, calling the game on CBS, pointed out that they hadn't mentioned Umenyiora's name yet, but they never focused in on how well Roaf was stopping Umenyiora's power moves, and they never questioned why Umenyiora wasn't trying to use speed rushes on the slower Roaf.

On the Chiefs' second and third possessions, Roaf was back to taking on Umenyiora one on one, and he won just about every battle. On a third-and-11, Umenyiora ran directly into Roaf and got nowhere, with Roaf stalemating him at the line of scrimmage and giving Green plenty of time to throw deep to Tony Gonzalez. The Chiefs threw deep to Gonzalez several times, in large part because Green had time to set up in the pocket and wait for Gonzalez to get downfield.

Umenyiora occasionally stands up like a linebacker rather than getting into a three-point stance. He looks less effective when he does that, although maybe the point is to trick the opposing quarterback into thinking he's going to drop into coverage as part of a zone blitz scheme. It didn't seem to serve much purpose against the Chiefs, although it would be interesting to consider Umenyiora as a 3-4 outside linebacker, especially because at his previous job with the Steelers, Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis ran a 3-4 defense that featured plenty of blitzing from linebackers.

Although he's known mostly as a pass rusher, on Saturday Umenyiora made more impact plays against the run than he did against the pass. On the second play from scrimmage Johnson wanted to kick it to the outside, and Umenyiora did a nice job of containing him and forcing him back inside. Unfortunately, none of his teammates were there for help, and Umenyiora couldn't bring Johnson down until he had picked up four yards. But on a first-and-10 later during that possession, Umenyiora crashed the middle of the line and took Johnson down for no gain.

Umenyiora finished the day with four tackles, all of them on Johnson after short carries. But the tackle statistics don't show how many times Johnson simply used pure speed to get outside Umenyiora, which he did often. Johnson ran around the left end of the line 13 times for 85 yards, almost half his carries and more than half his yards.

On two straight Johnson runs, for 18 yards and six yards, he ran directly at Umenyiora behind Roaf blocks. The Chiefs then tried it on a third consecutive play, and Roaf beat Umenyiora again, but this time linebacker Chase Blackburn made a nice play to stop Johnson for a gain of two.

Roaf at times looked like the aging veteran he is, taking a breather on some plays when the ball was going away from him. When Johnson ran to the right, such as his great 28-yard run on the first play after an interception gave the Chiefs the ball at their own 2-yard line, Roaf gave Umenyiora a halfhearted shove then stood and watched the rest of the play. Umenyiora is quick enough that he got close to Johnson on a couple of runs to the right, but he never actually made a backside tackle.

In the first half Umenyiora played just about every down, but in the second half he started to look winded and stood on the sideline on some plays, including a second-and-9 when the Giants really needed a pass rush. Almost every team rotates its defensive linemen, but if Umenyiora is really, as some have suggested, the best defensive end in football, he needs to be an every-down player.

One disappointing game doesn't negate the fine season Umenyiora has had, and one great game doesn't mean Roaf is back to his late-1990s form as the best lineman in football. But on this Saturday afternoon, even though the youngster's team won the game, Roaf walked off the field having won the individual battle against an opponent a decade his junior.

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 22 Dec 2005

20 comments, Last at 24 Dec 2005, 2:08am by JasonK


by JasonK (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 1:08pm

Nice article. I watched that game and also noticed that Roaf was having a fine day.

I wonder, though, if the lack of real speed rushes was schemed by the Giants. I think they they were more afraid of runs than passes, and lining up as wide as I've seen the Giants go this year pretty much gives the OT a free shot directly at a linebacker.

by Ken (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 1:44pm

Awesome analysis! I wish that the CBS crew mentioned at least a quarter of the things that you just wrote.

by Richard (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 2:06pm

Another great read MDS. Thanks.

by ABW (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 2:55pm

EPC is consistently the best football analysis article I read, and this was no exception. The NFL Matchup of the Internet.

by Tim L (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 3:48pm

I second the motion. It's changed the way I watch football games. I've always checked the offensive and defensive formations at the line of scrimmage, but fell into the trap of watching the ball every play. Now I'll occasionally try to spot an interesting matchup on the line prior to the snap, and watch it instead. It's eye-opening to see what actually happens there, and how it afffects the play.

by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 4:39pm

Think if we all started a petition to the networks, we could get Aaron, Michael David Smith, and the rest of the outsiders a job as football announcers? Or at least training football announcers? Some actual football insight would be welcome compared to the often inaccurate drivel that passes for "color commentary" these days.

by VarlosZ (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 5:12pm

There's no denying that Roaf dominated Umenyiora, but, in fairness, Umenyiora dominated Walter Jones in the Seattle game. This leads me to believe that Willie Roaf was/is ridiculously good.

by scott (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 5:48pm

RE #7

He beat Jones in that game by using speed rushes, not power moves that he was trying against Roaf. If he were to use the same moves against Jones that he used against Roaf, I think Walter would have no problem with him.

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 6:10pm

I don't think Umenyiora dominated Walter Jones. I know most people do.

I have told people, that I have only seen anyone give Walter Jones a lick of trouble in the past 3 years. Longer, actually, but the 3 instances have been one each year. The first 2 were both Bertrand Berry. Once Walter had a strained calf, and left the game, and the other time, it was just Berry. A bit of a bullrush, with great balance, starting the play by pushing both his and Walter's momentum to the outside, then jumping to the inside. It's still the most effective performance I've seen against Walter Jones.

But Umenyiora came close. His was the third, and most consistent trouble that I've seen Jones face, only Berry was more effective (despite the stats, the 2 sacks Umenyiora had). The most impressive thing was, though, that Walter adjusted against Berry and later took him out of the game, but not so with Umenyiora, who continued to keep good pressure and keep plays from getting long.

Of course, the biggest reason was because Holmgren had made adjustments, and was calling much quicker passes on shorter routes, and Hasselbeck was actually taking 9-step drops, so that neutralized Umenyiora's effectiveness. But he did beat Walter Jones a handful of times. He didn't dominate; he did get a couple sacks, and they were straight up on Walter, no coverage sacks or anything like that. He beat Walter probably 2 or 3 more times than the sacks. But at the end of the day, he was still contained most of the game.

But I do give him a lot of credit, and think he did deserve the Pro Bowl spot. I was most surprised that his spin move was so effective on Walter. I have the game on tape, and I watched over and over, and it didn't look anything special. I still can't understand why that particular move isn't effective for other ends, but was for Osi. His strength must lie in an ability to shift his weight quicker than others, or disguise where he's holding his weight. I've seen Walter Jones beat an end with just a quick one-handed shove to the shoulder, at times, at precisely the right moment. Walter does a lot based on where/how the end's weight is balanced.

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 6:12pm

#8: Yeah, I think you're right, but it wasn't quite speed moves that Umenyiora used effectively, but quick changes of momentum/direction.

by B (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 6:33pm

#9: I think a DE beating a tackle 4-5 times in a game is considered domination. A tackle needs to be almost perfect to win the battle.

by Richard (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 7:00pm

re: #11

Agreed. If every rusher beat their man 4-5 times a game, that's 16-20 times the a game that the protection is breaking down.

by Theo (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 7:47pm

On names like these you should add a prounounciation thingy:
Umenyiora ~ U-men-yo-rah

(I'm serious)

by bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 7:54pm

First and foremost, EPC rocks!

This reminds me of the two installments of Freeney v. Ogden (your honor, I refer to the precedent of Freeney v. Ogden and move that it be entered into evidence as Exhibit A). Yes, to win this battle, an OT must be nearly perfect. Pitching a shutout on 58 snaps and letting up two sacks is not good enough. Man, that's a high standard.

Odd, that Osi did not use his speed, unless he's hampered somehow (hammie?) too? Once you use the outside speed rush, it either sets up a double team or an outside-stutter-step followed by an inside spin. Sure use your primary advantage (in this case speed) more than most other options, but these guys have to mix up their pitches to keep the OT guessing. 90% of it is all mental, or something like that.

by bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 8:06pm

This time of year we can just call him "menorah." I am sure the FOers can work in a thousand and one puns based on the festival of lights. "Menorah really lit his opponents up," "he has an unquenchable flame burning to get to the QB"... generate even more anti-Semitic email for Aaron.

maybe I shouldn't quit my day job.

by Theo (not verified) :: Thu, 12/22/2005 - 11:48pm

aside from the anti-seminism (man, that is so 1940's.)

His name is prounounced U-men-yo-rah right? Right?!

Funny thing is that I saw an ESPN broadcast, with the Packers playing.
And the guy called Favre Fav-ruh. ALL THE TIME. I was hit by a flashback: "positive things of the NFL for women: you know how to pronounce the name Favre"

I was in shock that the ESPN guy said Fav-ruh when HOF Favre got the ball.
Tell me they aren't THAT stupid.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2005 - 11:05am

I also find it odd that Umenyiora would rely so much on power moves. I can see breaking out the occasional bullrush or inside move to keep the tackle honest, such as Freeney's devastating bullrushes against tackles who cheat too far outside. But if you use it too much, it kind of loses its effectiveness as a surprise tactic. When your cross-em'-up move becomes your primary move, you've probably over-analyzed the matchup, and out-thought yourself.

That is a good thought about the Giants wanting Osi to maintain run support discipline. If that's the case, it sounds like he was pretty well owned on that front. It also begs the question, did his rush tactics change on obvious passing downs, i.e. did he do more 'power' rushes on 1-10 and 2-6, and more speed on 3-9? If he did change tactics like that, it could mean he was on run support priority.

Excellent work as always, MDS.

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2005 - 6:49pm

Another fine EPC. In fact, I can't remember an EPC I didn't like.

I didn't see this game but for Roaf to dominate the way he did suprises me a little. Roaf is a tremendous LT, but during Giants @ Seahawks game, Umenyiora gave Walter Jones all he could handle. For Roaf to make him a non-factor is very impressive.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2005 - 8:14pm

I have a theory about Umi's different techniques vs KC then Seattle. Against Seattle, it looked to me like he was using spin/speed moves to get past Jones, and then would engage Shaun Alexander. I think it was because Alexander's tendancy to stutterstep and wait for his blocks to develop gave Umi time to get to him. Whereas vs Larry Johnson, a speed-move would take too long to reach him.

by JasonK (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 2:08am

Looks like the Giants weren't deterred by this one weak showing. They just gave Osi a contract extension with $15 million in guarantees (see link to Pasquarelli).

And as to the difficulty in pronouncing his name, I still remember the rather befuddled look on Jim Fassel's face when he appeared on air during the draft to discuss the Giants' 2nd round pick on Umenyiora, together with their 3rd round pick, TE Visanthe Shiancoe.