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24 Oct 2007

Every Play Counts: DeMarcus Ware

by Michael David Smith

Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware belongs somewhere near the top of the list of the world's most freakish athletes, the people who can do things that no human being is supposed to be able to do.

I had that thought several times as I watched Ware in the Cowboys' 24-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, even though it actually wasn't one of Ware's best games.

Ware is 6-4, 252 pounds, and he runs like a gazelle. He's so fast that he's a threat to make a tackle from just about anywhere on the field, no matter how out of position he appears to be. Take the first-and-10 from the Vikings' 43-yard line early in Sunday's game. Tarvaris Jackson threw a short pass to Adrian Peterson. Peterson was at the line of scrimmage when he caught the ball, and Ware, who had tried an outside pass rush against Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, was eight yards behind the line. Peterson turned upfield and ran, and Ware gave chase.

So Peterson had an eight-yard head start on Ware. How many linebackers in the NFL do you think can bring Peterson down after giving up an eight-yard head start? Ware did it, diving at Peterson's feet after a gain of 12 yards that could have been a lot longer. Yes, it's true that Peterson had to slow down to dodge another Cowboy, so it's not as simple as saying "DeMarcus Ware ran 20 yards in the same time it took Adrian Peterson to run 12," but still: Ware gave one of the fastest running backs in the NFL a head start and still caught him. (Note that the official scorekeeper credited Ware's teammate, Bradie James, with the tackle. Maybe he just couldn't believe what he saw.)

Ware also ran down Peterson on a first-and-10 run in the second quarter. Peterson took the handoff and tried to run off the right tackle, but Ware, lined up as the outside linebacker on the opposite side of the field, sprinted behind the line of scrimmage and put Peterson in a bear hug just as he turned the corner to tackle him for a gain of just a yard. No one blocked Ware on the play because typically an offensive coordinator figures when he draws up a running play that he doesn't need to account for the backside outside linebacker -- but he does if that backside outside linebacker is Ware.

Ware is best known for his pass-rushing skills, and in addition to accounting for Ware on all running plays, here's another piece of advice for opposing coaches everywhere: Plays that require a running back to block Ware one-on-one are a bad idea. Early in the third quarter the Vikings had first-and-10 from their own seven-yard line. Jackson dropped back to pass, and Chester Taylor's job was to block the first man to rush from the left side. That man was Ware, who was only slowed down for an instant when Taylor tried to take him out low. After Ware dispatched Taylor he got to Jackson, who threw the ball away just as Ware had him wrapped up. Jackson was flagged for intentional grounding. Taylor is supposedly a better pass blocker than Peterson, but still, it was foolish for the Vikings to call a play that would have Taylor as the only person standing between Ware and Jackson. That was a huge mismatch.

Ware finished the game without a sack Sunday after having at least one sack in each of his four previous games, but he got close to sacking Jackson several times. That intentional grounding call was one of three times that Ware hit Jackson just as Jackson released his pass.

But despite Ware's impact on the Vikings' passing game, I thought Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie had a pretty good game against him in pass protection. On a third-and-7 in the first quarter, Ware put his hand on the ground and played more like a 4-3 defensive end than his usual 3-4 outside linebacker. He got a great first step against McKinnie, but McKinnie reacted quickly and managed to push Ware past Jackson, who scrambled for a seven-yard gain. McKinnie has quick enough feet that he can keep up with a speed rusher like Ware.

Sometimes guys like Ware who rely so heavily on their speed around the edge can be beaten with reverses and end-arounds. Ware doesn't strike me as particularly susceptible to that kind of play, though, because he's a disciplined player who doesn't lose outside contain. One of my favorite plays Ware made against the Vikings came on a handoff to Taylor. Ware was unblocked on the play and could have just run directly at Taylor, but he showed enough patience to first get into position to prevent Taylor from bouncing the run to the outside. Once Ware had the outside walled off, he pursued Taylor and tackled him for a loss of a yard. The whole thing probably took less than a second, but it was a second in which Ware showed that he's a smart and fundamentally sound player.

Another such play was on first-and-10 in the third quarter. Ware was lined up at left outside linebacker, and his job was to jam tight end Visanthe Shiancoe at the line of scrimmage to slow down his route and then rush Jackson. He executed it to perfection, first slowing Shiancoe down a step, then running toward Jackson, jumping into the air when Jackson passed to Shiancoe and knocking the ball down. The Vikings' play might have worked against a less athletic linebacker than Ware -- Shiancoe was wide-open when Jackson threw the ball to him - but Ware is 6-4 and has long arms and a great vertical leap, and it's not a good idea to try to throw the ball over him.

So if you can't beat Ware by running outside him or throwing the ball over him, how can you beat him? Put a good run-blocking tight end on him. Vikings tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser did a nice job on Ware on running plays. Most notably, on Peterson's 20-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Kleinsasser was matched up one-on-one with Ware and pancaked him, blocking him straight onto his back. Kleinsasser is one of the best run-blockers of his generation, and he had a good day Sunday.

I looked at the Cowboys' front seven last year and was blown away by Ware. I'm plenty impressed with him this year, although maybe slightly less so now than I was then. Maybe this is the best way to sum up how good Ware is: On Sunday he had all of those big plays I describe above, and after the game, I still came away feeling a little unsatisfied. I think Ware needs to get better against the run, and I think he needs to develop a few more pass-rushing moves to help him rely less on pure speed. I think he'll do that, and I think the best of Ware is yet to come.

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 24 Oct 2007

36 comments, Last at 19 Jun 2008, 2:21am by YouGuysAreIDiots


by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 10:55am

Ware (...) was eight yards behind the line. Peterson turned upfield and ran, and Ware gave chase.
Says a lot about his determination and hussle.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 11:13am

A few points...

It regularly frustrates me to think that the Vikings drafted Troy Williamson instead of DeMarcus Ware in 2005.

Mckinnie gets a lot of grief, especially since getting a new contract, but he is a good player. Jared Allen having a good day in Arrowhead, or KGB having a good day when Mckinnie is suffering from food poisoning, and puking into a garbage can for most of the game, does not mean Mckinnie isn't worth the cap space. In the past two weeks Mckinnie has done well against Ware in Dallas, and abused Mark Anderson in Chicago. There are only a few teams that would not start Mckinnie, and not be happy to pay him what he is currently getting paid.

Watching Kleinsasser run block for the past several years has been a lot of fun.

by Cam (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 11:33am

I'm always interested in comparisons between Ware and Merriman because of their similar situations. It seems to me Ware is beginning to justify being drafted in front.

by Isaiah C (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:12pm

I'm sensing a man crush. :)

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:21pm

3. Merriman is probably a better pure pass rusher than Ware, but Ware is (and always has been) a better player in all other facets of the game. Hes better against the run, better in coverage, etc.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:22pm

Hows Ware in coverage? I assume the Cowboys blitz him a lot, but he is still nominally a linebacker, so he should be able to cover a little to be a really really elite player.

by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:44pm

re: Merriman vs. Ware

I'm a Chargers fan, and before this year I would have said that no way would I rather have Ware over Merriman. Now, however, I think that the two players are much closer and I even give Ware a slight edge. Merriman is more like an athletic 4-3 DE that will drop back into coverage to surprise you (like Jason Taylor). I think he does well against the run; he often tackles the running back behind the line of scrimmage because he is able to quickly change his directional focus from the quarterback to the running back. I think it is in pass coverage that Ware far outstrips Merriman, and this makes him a far more versatile player.

Merriman has gotten a lot of attention because he usually makes the sack when given the opportunity. However, Ware seems to provide more consistent pressure, even if he isn't always converting those opportunities into sacks. The hurries/sacks data over the last couple of years should support this, but I'm too lazy to go looking for it.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:44pm

Re: 4

I was thinking the same thing. The least MDS could have done was buy him dinner first. ;-)

by MikeJ (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 12:58pm

Re #6: I don't feel qualified to give an opinion of his run of the mill pass coverage, but I do know that he's very good at sniffing out screens and blowing them up.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 1:20pm

#4, #8 or breakfast afterwards....

New NFL rule change proposal: defense is credited with a sack (sort of like the safety rule) when a QB nearly in the grasp receives a grounding penalty.

Hell, they dish out two very significant points for this (which can effect the outcome of a game), throw the poor guys a meaningless bone to pad their stats (which have a much less significant effect on teams but might be enough to send a guy to Hawaii, get more money on the next contract, and more accurately reflects the results of his efforts--a 15 yard loss!).

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 1:49pm

Yeah, bobman, the problem is that sometimes the credit shouldn't go to the pass rusher. On that particular play, it was a three step drop where Jackson still had the ball in his hand after four seconds. The pass blocking was good, and either the dbs deserve credit, or our intrepid friend Tavaris does.

Not for the first time, I'm left to suspect that unless you are charting pass rushes, stopwatch in hand, you really don't have an accurate idea of how well offensive and defensive linemen are performing.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 1:54pm

Re: 11

True, but the same thing can be said for a good number of actual sacks too (ie. the proverbial "coverage sack").

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:19pm

Exactly, wanker79, which is why I find so many stats designed to quantify line play, even advanced stats, so inadequate.

by Cosmos (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:25pm

For several years the Dallas media has watched Merriman and Demarcus closely and compared , stat for stat, on everything and there were some who thought Tuna missed the boat but that is quickly changing.

I remember a Bill blurb a season or so ago when a Dallas reporter tried to needle Bill about Merrimans progress and all his sacks and Bill quipped "Everybody is try to make Demarcus a sack master and I'm trying to make him a linebacker". Classic Tuna...

Anyways, as far as his coverage skills there are a few times that come to mind. Once in his first preseason game against the Seahawks, Ware was chasing several steps behind a Seahawk WR who was dragging across the field and as soon as Hasselbeck threw the ball, DeMarcus dove several feet across the front of the WR and intercepted the ball. It was simply amazing. Another was when a QB tried to throw deep down field and over DeMarcus who plucked the high ball out of the air and returned it for a TD. In man to man he can stay with most any WR down field (and has). It might sound crazy (and stupid) but I thought the Cowboys could have covered Moss one on one deep with him. He is that athletic.

by Costa (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:36pm

"It might sound crazy (and stupid) but I thought the Cowboys could have covered Moss one on one deep with him."

I'm big big Ware fan, but whoa there! :) Then again, maybe you were talking about Sinorice. =P

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:39pm

Ware is good in coverage for a 3-4 OLB with pass rushing capability. Put it this way, before the season started I figured Ware would be rushing the QB almost all of the time like Phillips did with Merriman and while Ware is rushing more, he still drops back quite a bit. Why? Because he may not be Adalius Thomas in coverage, but he's still good to be effective in coverage.

The strange thing is that Ware's run defense has gone down from the past two years. He was solid in 2005 and excellent on run defense in 2006. But this year he seems to allow a few good runs slip in there here and there. I figure its due to going from the Mike Zimmer 2 gap scheme to the Phillips 1 gap scheme.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:44pm

There's two plays that I think about Ware. One was in his rookie year in the last week of the season against the Rams. He bull rushed Alex Barron and completely plowed him over. Ware almost fell down by the shear momentum, then regained his balance and chased down Jamie Martin for a sack. You can see the play here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYrn5v34cjI

The other play probably makes me the only person who saw it. Week 2 of 2006 versus the Redskins. The Cowboys were up 27-10 with about 5 minutes left in the game. Ware rushes Chris Samuels and with *one* arm lifts Samuels up in the air a tad and then chucks him 5 yards backwards.

by Cosmos (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 2:45pm

I know, I know....but name one player you've seen that could leap like Moss? If linebackers were Dinosaurs DeMarcus is a Pterodactyl. I'm just saying....it would be intriguing to see.

by pumpkin pie (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 3:02pm

the first two plays that come to mind when i think of dware: the one-on-one tackle of brandon jacobs on 4th-and-1 last season, and his interception of michael vick, also from last season.

by Andy (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 3:05pm

From what I have read, you guys like Demarcus Ware alot, almost as much as Merriman(some more). However, whereas Merriman is a big part of each opposing offenses game plan, and is doubled on most plays, Minnesota is blocking Ware with a blocking back? If he is as good as you say he is, NFL teams apparently havent caught on.

by jimm (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 3:33pm

Measuring line play by sacks and hurries is helpful but the QB, play calls 3 step vs 5 or 7, have so much to do. Observation is crucial. But of course observation is subjective.

It would be nice to see some charting similar to zone ratings in baseball. Charters could observe if the drop was 3,5,7 or if it was a rollout, etc. How long until the QB released the ball or had to maneuver from the chosen spot to pass. I think such a study would provide some interesting findings and start to split up the effect of the line vs the QB in avoiding sacks.

by Jim (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 3:34pm

Re: 20

ESPN.com ran a piece on "scheme-busters" recently that suggested that teams felt they had to scheme around Ware MORE than around Merriman.



by Ridgelake (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 3:56pm

Ware is an absolute physical beast who is still learning to play.

Two plays in the same game were absolutely unbelieveable. The New Orleans pre-season game last year. First play was a flair pass to Reggie Bush in the flat. Ware disengaged from the blocker and moved out into the flat when the ball was thrown. Reggie catches it and turns upfield to see Ware. He does his best juke, side-step with a burst of speed to the corner. Ware, with no one else close by, flattened Reggie.

The second play came on a blitz. 320 pound OT Jammal Brown moved out to pick him up. They hit. Ware proceeds to bull rush Brown right into Brees' lap causing a rushed throw.

How many people in this world have the speed/quickness to tackle Reggie Bush in the open field and the strength to bull rush an above-average OT? Absolutely sick.

With all of these physical skills, he is still learning the finer points of being an OLB. His strength/speed combo makes him a very good pass-rusher. But he's only utilizing a few moves. He is regularly working the Greg Ellis as well as the coaches to improve his hand fighting and develop counter moves. Watch out QBs when he starts incorporating these moves into his repetoire.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 4:06pm

"However, whereas Merriman is a big part of each opposing offenses game plan, and is doubled on most plays"

I'm not sure I agree with that. I haven't seen a ton of him playing (and most of it was against NE) but he doesn't seem to need all that much game planning to deal with. He had 2 sacks against NE the last game, but NE didn't feel the need to put a 2nd guy on him. Light handled him fine, but O'Callahan and Kazcur had a little trouble with him. I'm pretty sure that Sammy Morris was blocking on one of the sacks though... The playoff game last year, Light manhandled Merriman, and they moved him to the other side at about the half.

Ware is a whole different animal. Comparing the two is like comparing a healthy Julius Peppers to a healthy Dwight Freeney. One is a better pass rusher, but the other has a much more complete skillset.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2007 - 7:00pm

#10: Sacks can be awarded to the team as well, which is what it should be for intentional grounding. Regardless of the reason, intentional grounding is a rule designed to prevent players from avoiding sacks. Credit the defense, at least, for a sack each time they cause one. A team sack for each intentional grounding seems like a fair compromise (and it would've put Philly just behind those who played Oakland last year).

by Cam (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 12:36am

whoa whoa, supposedly Bill was against drafting Ware because he wanted to make sure he got Marcus Spears at 11 and get Ware later at 20. That would have been great.

by Cam (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 12:40am

re 26
sorry that was supposed to say "re 14"

by Staubach12 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 5:35am

Re 26: But they did get Spears and Ware, just in a different order.

by charlie (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 11:57am

as far as physical specimens go how do you think ware stands in the nfl? who is comparable?

his stats made me think of brandon jacobs - same size and plays runningback so presumably must have similar speed etc?

by temo (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 12:17pm

Even as a cowboys fan, I would have said before last season that they should have taken Merriman over Ware.

Then Merriman tested positive for steroids. Go figure.

by crack (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 1:29pm

Has there been an EPC on Kleinsasser? He needs one, that pancake of Ware was great.

by andrew b. lee (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 6:15pm

i do remember kleinsasser pancacking ware on that play. made ware look foolish. so i guess in that sense he does have some improving to do. i know that merriman is very good at disengaging from run blocks.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2007 - 8:46pm

Merriman gets more than his fair share of one-on-one's and blocks by a tailback. On the play that Chester Taylor was blocking, it was a 3 step drop and Jackson didn't like his first look and held onto the ball.

In fact, I could easily make a case for Ware getting doubled far more than Merriman ever did since one of the key parts of the Wade Phillips scheme is that he usually has the OLB's switch sides in regards to where the TE lines up. For instance, in Zimmer's scheme he'd keep Ware at the ROLB 99% of the time. So teams would just motion a TE over Ware's way and that would give him a double team or send him into coverage. In Phillips' scheme he wants his best pass rusher to mostly get one-on-one situations. So when a TE motiones over to Merriman (and now Ware), the OLB's switch spots so Merriman (and now Ware) can get one-on-one's with the opposite offensive tackle and the LOLB (was Phillips, now Spencer/Ellis) get the TE. And let's not even get into Zimmer's lame blitz packages over Phillips' creative blitz packages.

Merriman had that for 2 years counting. Ware has just got this system for 7 games.

by wolfmanrob (not verified) :: Fri, 10/26/2007 - 3:19am

A sincere question, (slightly OT and perhaps obsolete): Why is the Dallas defense thriving(-11.7%/#7 Dvoa), despite the loss of NT Ferguson in week 1?
#16 Yakuza mentioned a change to 1-gap scheme under Phillips, but I assumed Wade was running a 2-gap 3-4 scheme with cloggers Ted Washington and Jamad Williams, in Buff and SD respectively. By listed weight, 298 lb Ratliff seems very dissimilar.
I work weekends, lack Tivo, and don't get to see many/any games, so feel free to enlighten me with observed opinions.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Sun, 10/28/2007 - 1:39pm

Wolfmanrob -- I know SD used a 1 gap scheme under Phillips, even with the monsterous Williams at the NT spot. I'm not sure what they used in Buffalo under Phillips. Jay Ratliff is a pretty solid player, but I think the 1 gap scheme makes it so he can play the starting NT spot. However, given how the fronts are still with a 3-4 scheme, I can see why Phillips would prefer a large guy to play the NT spot.

by YouGuysAreIDiots (not verified) :: Thu, 06/19/2008 - 2:21am

You guys are complete idiots--Kleinsasser only "pancaked Ware" because Ware was trying to get to Peterson on that run by moving backwards and lost his footing.