Many thanks to KaloPhoenix for tracking this all season. Great work! -Joel
After all the end-of-the-year analysis has semi-wrapped up, and amidst the excitement of our new coordinators, I thought I'd (finally) sit down and finish out my end-of-the-year grades. I've gone back and watched a good portion of the games a second, and sometimes third, time to give an accurate analysis of what we're doing out there. For those who may not know, this has been a continually updating analysis, with the last one occurring during our bye week.
I'll go through each player that clocked significant minutes (that is still on the team), how they fulfilled their roles, strengths and weaknesses, and which other player benefited the most from their play. At the end of this, I'll give them a grade, as well as the previous grades I gave them as the year went along.
WARNING: This will be long, and it may be boring. I suggest you grab an extra cup of coffee or a Red Bull before you start. =)
As usual, with these rankings, I'm not comparing our guys to the elites of the league. Tamba's a C- player at best if I compare him to Dumervil or Jared Allen, and most (if not all) of our LB's would have a failing grade by comparing them to the league's best. These grades are relative to their counterparts and the grades I gave them in my earlier posts.
Ron Edwards: As the (essentially) only Nose Tackle, Ron had quite the billing to live up to. The NT is the heart of the 3-4 defense, and what literally everyone else keys off of to do their job correctly. He sends ripples all over the defense, both good and bad, with whatever he does...and unfortunately, most of it was bad. 29 tackles (24 solo) and 3 PBU's. Sure, no NT's stats are going to be gaudy, but he was how he got shoved around that really hurt our defense. Here is a guy that weighs 315-320 and all he really needs to do is to take up blockers. As the 0-tech, depending on the playcall, it's his job to either shoot the strongside or weakside A-gap (between the guard and center). As I wrote with my very first 3-4 analysis:
His one and only job is to plug the center of the line and make sure nobody can get through. This is the heart of the defense. If the NT cannot hold his ground, the offense will run roughshod over the center of a 3-4 defense.
Unfortunately, that circumstance happened. Ron was routinely shoved out of the middle of the play by ONE player. As it was his job to take up two of the opposition's offensive linemen, that left a guard with the ability to get to the second level, and then a fullback/blocking back with the ability to stymie the other linebacker.
Strengths: Ron impacted the game the most when he lined up a little offset from how he should be, as a 1-tech. With a single gap to man, he would occasionally get a little penetration and could disrupt the play. He was also pretty good at getting his hands up while a pass was coming out.
Weaknesses: Getting shoved out of the heart of the defense and not taking up multiple blockers. As a NT, it's simply unacceptable. He has to be stronger and more of a rock in the middle if he wants to continue to be a starter under Crennel.
Players who benefited: Very few. It would have to be one of our ILB's on those occasions where he did hold his ground.
Final Grade: F. Simply unacceptable at the crucial part of our defense. (Prior grade: D)
Glenn Dorsey: Glenn was one of the three players I claimed in the beginning that I thought would struggle the most to succeed in the 3-4. His forte was more of a penetrating pass rusher in college, so I expected that using him as a blocker-eating widebody would fail miserably. 54 tackles (41 solo), 1 sack, and 2 PBU's later, I'll fully admit I was wrong. He routinely held up two blockers and caused the LT on several occasions to block down, leaving Tamba with an open path. He only netted 1 sack, but had countless others slip from his grasp. Some of my favorite moments from this front 7 were when he's beat his guard with the first step, make the tackle reach for him, letting Tamba go by, and leaving Glenn and Tamba running directly at the QB, essentially untouched. He really stepped up and showed us his worth in this defense.
Strengths: Strong at the point of attack. The Buffalo and Cleveland games in which he wasn't playing really showed how much we miss him. Does a great job of making the guard respect him and making the center/tackle think twice about moving on with their blocking assignments. When the NT took up two blockers, he showed the ability to use his penetrating first step, even in a defense that typically doesn't use him like that. Very good about forcing the RB back inside by creating a seal in the off-tackle spot, making it easier for the ILB to step up and lay the wood.
Weaknesses: Recognizing the gap responsibilities earlier. One of the problems with Dorsey is recognizing the blocking scheme as it's developing. He gets by with his talent more often than not, and can recover to the point of attack, but many times (usually on big runs towards him) he looked lost as the play developed. The times that he recognizes it early on are the ones that lead to a big stop. This could be because of the inconsistent play at NT or developing instincts. Fixing it, though, could make him an elite player at DE.
Players who benefited: Tamba Hali and Belcher/Mays. He helped make Tamba's switch to OLB incredibly easy, and will continue to help him towards higher sack totals as the years progress. Made nice, large holes for the ILB's behind him to fill...there was usually little doubt about where they should be.
Final Grade: B+. Crucial building block who made the transformation quickly. Buffalo and Cleveland would agree. (Prior Grade: B)
Tyson Jackson: TJ had quite the expectations to live up to this season. He wasn't the guy most wanted us to pick and has had a spotlight shone on him all season. Most will look at the numbers and say that he failed. However, 38 tackles (27 solo) and 2 PBU's isn't half bad for a 3-4 DE, especially considering he had 5 tackles halfway through. Most importantly, as the year went along, he really started to grasp where he needed to be in the run game. The passing downs weren't his forte, as he typically had both the guard and tackle to deal with, as Vrabel was dropping into TE/RB coverage. As the year went along, DeMorrio Williams and DJ seemed to be making more and more stops...in no small part to TJ's ability to tie up blockers. The naysayers really do have to remember that on most plays, TJ WAS the double teamed member of our front line. Dorsey was 1-uped more often than TJ, and Edwards was only holding one blocker. Vrabel was usually on pass coverage duty or was fighting through a blocking TE in the run game. Due to Edwards' inability to hold another blocker (which is usually the strongside guard), TJ inherited that guard on top of the tackle. That's an awful big feat for a rookie to handle, but he really showed he could towards the end of the year.
Strengths: Eating blockers. By far the best we had at staying put in the last half, holding two guys to himself, and allowing the ILBs and OLBs around him an easier path to the ballcarrier. He's not going to hang the gaudy stats, but he's not in the position to do so. He did his job in the last half of the season and made everyone else's easier.
Weaknesses: Does not move to the outside well. On those occasions he gets 1-uped against a tackle, he prefers to go inside, relying on Vrabel for the outside contain. Numerous occasions have seen this backfire. When he does move outside, he seems to lose some of that strength and ability to hold his own. On passing downs, we've seen many QB scrambles up the middle because he's working the outside path.
Players who benefited: Vrabel/Studebaker and Williams/DJ. You better believe those guys loved not having o-linemen all over them.
Final Grade: B-. Solid rookie campaign, whether it's recognized or not. The last half of the year really seemed to click, and with a little more help in the middle, I think we'll really see him shine. (Prior Grade: C-)
Wallace Gilberry: Our very definition of a "situational" pass rusher, Wallace compiled 22 tackles (20 solo) and a hefty 4.5 sacks. A lighter, leaner DE build allowed him to use the quickness of an OLB against a guard that had been tired out by Dorsey. When he's in the game, we tend to run a LOT of stunts involving him and Tamba. He'll wait for Tamba to take the inside route, then switch up the LT by going around/behind Tamba, leaving him free. He's also got a nice repertoire of pass rush moves, and he catches the inside linemen "off-guard" (pun-intended) with them. Lacks the strength and build to be an every down player, but the Tamba/Gilberry/TJ/MaGee lineup we saw on obvious passing downs gave opposing offenses an extra element to have to consider in gameday planning.
Strengths: Speed and rush moves. Sure, a good number of tackles would be able to handle him (and have), but matching him up against a guard gives him an upper hand.
Weaknesses: Run defense. On the flipside, when the guard's not waiting for Wallace to come to him, it's a disadvantage in our direction. He's just not quite big enough and tends to get steamrolled in the run game.
Players who benefited: Tamba Hali. As teams started to pick up on Wallace's skillset, it allowed Tamba a little more freedom. I recall a couple of the "stunt" plays where the LT moved towards Gilberry, offering an inside line at the QB for Tamba.
Final Grade: C+. Good speed rush backup, but a big liability in the run game. On obvious passing downs, he's a big asset. (Prior Grade: B-)
Alex Magee: Alex was a funny pick at the time, heating up the Dorsey trade talks for some weeks after the draft. A year in, 8 tackles (6 solo) and 2 sacks later, he's a bit of an enigma. He's really only been used on passing downs, which raises the question of his strength and ability to be a 3-4 DE. He seems quicker than TJ and Vrabel, and has a pretty good bullrush, which has led to his two sacks. While Dorsey was out, he technically got the start, but Dion Gales saw more time there than Alex. He's really led to more questions than answers this season, and we'll see how he fits in as the years go by.
Strengths: Bull rush. He's a good alternative to TJ when the o-linemen are tired of being pushed around laterally.
Weaknesses: Run game. We've barely seen him out there in those situations, so I think it's safe to say his ability to do that isn't up to par yet.
Players who benefited: TJ would be it. He'd offer a small relief for him.
Final Grade: INC. Like I said, he's an enigma. I really don't know where he fits yet.
Mike Vrabel: His tutelage alone should garner him a good grade, but his play on the field was at a high level too. 53 tackles (44 solo), 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 PBU's are good numbers for a mostly coverage linebacker. Mike did look a bit slow out there on some plays, but he used his intelligence and proper angles to make up for it. I've seen lots of people saying we need a strong pass rusher in this position, but I think his intelligence is more valuable. He very often has to make reads on the fly as to whether he can rush the passer, when to pass off to another coverage man, and when to hold the flat down...all while expected to be the outside contain. He struggled a bit getting around the tackle on plays that he did rush, and didn't seem to have the strength to drive the blocker back, even against some TE's. His passion for the game is still incredibly high though, and his "Mile-High Salute" was the high point of a low spot in the season. Any question about his allegience to the team was gone then and there.
Strengths: Short pass coverage and outside run contain. He has excelled against the short pass, and teams just don't run RB/WR screens to his side very often because of it. He, along with TJ, allowed DeMorrio Williams to rack up the tackles due to a free hole. Also, his ability to teach the other players around him (namely Studebaker) was invaluable. He's helped make several players much better than they would've been without him.
Weaknesses: Strength and speed. There were many times that Mike would be in the right place at the right time, but would fail to finish off the tackle. He also struggled getting around the bigger linemen on the occasions he got to rush the passer.
Players who benefited: Andy Studebaker, first and foremost. I know he's helped others, but watching Studebaker's growth this season under Mike's tutelage was nothing short of amazing.
Final Grade: B+. For all he's done on the field for us, he has made this transition that much easier on the team through leadership and teaching. You can knock his ability somewhat, but in my mind, he made up for it in other areas. (Prior Grade: B+)
Tamba Hali: The star of these front 7. Tamba was THE guy other teams had to gameplan around, and his 62 tackles (46 solo), 8.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 safety and 1 PBU show it. A career high in sacks while switching from crouched to standing is amazing, but the 62 tackles was what caught my eye as I watched games. Countless times he tracked back into the play to make a tackle from behind. Countless more he was the second guy on the scene in WR bubble screens. He got much better at sniffing out RB screens and learned to stay at home better than he has in years past. Also, one of my concerns, pass coverage, didn't turn out to be quite the liability that I predicted. Sure, they're not asking him to do it that much, but I can think of several occasions (SD's 2nd TD in the first game where Tamba shut down Gates, not the least) where he's done well enough. He's still letting quicker RB's get outside of him, and his outside contain would be far worse if it weren't for Dorsey. Harrison ran all over his side during the Cleveland game, proving that he needs to be stronger against the run when he's not getting Dorsey's help. His pass rush was solid all year long, and for whatever reason, referees didn't want to call repeated obvious holds against opposing LT's...namely Clady.
Strengths: Pass rush. Like there was a doubt about this one. Almost had the total number of sacks we had last year by himself, and probably would've without all the blatant holds. He seems to have Ryan Clady's number and knows how to knock the ball out of Orton's hands...which we should continue to see twice a year for many to come.
Weaknesses: Outside contain. While his run defense has beefed up a bit, he still lets change of pace backs get outside of him too often. Also did not pair well with Dorsey's backups, and didn't collapse to stop the run in the Cleveland games.
Players who benefited: Glenn Dorsey and Wallace Gilberry. Both were able to take advantage of other teams keying off of Tamba and make plays happen.
Final Grade: B+. Tamba showed well this season, and was defintely the biggest consistent playmaker on the field for this front 7. A little better job at his run defense and we'll have a special player. (Prior Grade: B)
Andy Studebaker: Is there any doubt who this guy is being groomed to take the place of? Mike Vrabel's "kid brother" played well enough in his limited appearances this season, mostly on special teams. His 28 tackles (24 solo), 2 INT's, and 3 PBU's in limited time show that he's similar to Vrabel in a pass coverage OLB role. He was a solid playmaker in the Pittsburgh game, then turned in a not-so-great performance against SD the next game. He's not very good at fighting through o-line blocks, but has shown his speed and ability to shed on special teams. Another intelligent football player who very well may have a long future with this team.
Strengths: Pass coverage. For an OLB, he reads the pass routes damn well. Very good at anticipating the QB's throw and jumped a couple routes against the Steelers.
Weaknesses: Run defense. He tends to not fight through blocks as well as some would like and gets a little "lost in the wash" on some plays. Needs to be more stout at the point of attack.
Players who benefited: DJ/Williams. Whomever was playing next to him as a coverage 'backer had their job made easier while he was on the field.
Final Grade: C+. A solid backup that has grown by leaps and bounds under Vrabel's tutelage. Still needs some polishing, but could be a diamond in the rough.
Demorrio Williams: A slight return to form from Demorrio this year with 117 tackles (95 solo) and 6 PBU's. He really benefited from the improved play of TJ and Vrabel towards the end of the year and racked up game after game of tackles. However, a good portion of those tackles are ones that have come TO him, rather than the other way around. While he patient and waits to watch the play develop rather than hitting the wrong hole, he tends to play back on his heels, and the transition to pursuit is slower than it could be. He played well in pass coverage, usually drawing the TE or short zone, but sometimes got burned by a crossing route due to a lack of safety help. The stats are a little inflated due to the nature of the 3-4 defense, but he typically chooses the right spot to be, even if it is a little farther down the field. Maybe a byproduct of our previous "bend but don't break" defenses? Still, definitely our most consistent linebacker.
Strengths: Pass coverage and play reads. Demorrio tends to make the correct decisions when presented with them, and usually doesn't give up the big play when it's coming at him.
Weaknesses: Speed reads and arm tackling. While he makes the right decisions, developing them a bit faster would result in more stops for little to no gain, rather than a 3-4 yard pickup. He also tries to arm tackle stronger TE's and RB's sometimes and lets them break free of his hold.
Final Grade: B-. Smart ILB that knew where to be, but not quite quick enough to the ball. (Prior Grade: C)
Derrick Johnson: The roller coaster, "love him, then hate him" guy of this LB squad. Really showed some moments of brilliance (he faked everyone in the stadium out with that blitz fake for his 2nd pick in the Donks game), but had just as many boneheaded misses. There's no doubt that when he's on, he's our best linebacker. He reads the pass well, as evidenced by his stats: 37 tackles (30 solo), 1 (ride 'em, cowboy!) sack, 1 forced fumble, 3 INTs, 2 TDs, 5 PBU's. However, he's quite the contrary from Demorrio. He rushes into the hole, letting his athleticism find the back, rather than sitting and waiting. While this is good in some instances, he does take a lot of wrong angles. He also struggles with shedding the FB when he hits the hole, one of the problems with him as an ILB. Also, nimble backs tend to catch him wrong-footed more often than not. Still, he's a great playmaker...that much can't be denied. Ed. Note: Props to Clancy during the Denver game. I've been calling for DJ and Demorrio to start together for awhile. It worked.
Strengths: Gamechanger. DJ has the ability to absolutely take over a game and shut down the opposing offense. While Denver was moving the ball all over us through the air in Week 17, DJ stepped up and ended all suspense. Twice. You just don't find impact players like that everywhere.
Weaknesses: Angles and consistency. DJ doesn't always take the best angle to the ball when in pursuit. As a matter of fact, several off-tackle runs that have broken into the second level were had due to DJ's poor pursuit. And yes, he's a "yo-yo" player, which led to him getting less time until the end of the year.
Players who benefited: Demorrio Williams. He had DJ breathing down his neck all year, pushing him to be a better player. Then when they finally shared some field time, it turned out to be a great success.
Final Grade: C+. When he's on, he's a B+/A- player. When he's off, he's a D+/C- player. I averaged them out. Valuable asset if he sees the field more and plays at a high level. (Prior Grade: C)
Corey Mays: Player of the preseason who ended up being more or less an average player in the regular season. Corey seems to struggle to find his way to the ball, but when he does, he can really lay the wood. He had 85 tackles (66 solo) and 2 PBU's. Not a very electrifying player overall, outside of his goalline stuff in the SD game, he really just quietly did his business. Very rarely does he hit an opposition's player too low, he does well to put his body on the RB/TE/WR and drive them to the ground. He was probably the biggest casualty of Ron Edwards' play this season, as he was the run-stuffing ILB...yet he constantly had an opposing guard or blocking back in his face. He does an okay job of fighting off blockers to get to the ball carrier, though. A big liability in pass coverage, he just looked lost at times, allowing teams to go over the middle at will.
Strengths: Strong, solid tackler. Corey doesn't miss a whole lot of tackles, and if he gets someone lined up, he can deliver quite the hit. Showed his athleticism on several plays to make some big stops.
Weaknesses: Angles and Pass Coverage. Corey hit the wrong hole a lot more than he should've this year, especially for our "enforcer" ILB. He also was routinely substituted in pass coverage because he struggled with it.
Players who benefited: Demorrio Williams and Mike Brown. By being the first one in, it allowed these two to get to the ballcarrier a bit more freely and make the tackle without a big guy steamrolling them.
Final Grade: C+. He did what he needed to do, and as I said, was the unfortunate victim of repeatedly free offensive linemen storming towards him. Paved the way for other players, but didn't consistently close the hole like he should've. Most interested to see how he would evolve with an NT upgrade. (Prior Grade: C)
Jovan Belcher: The UDFA who seemed like he was going to play a bigger role at the half way point, he ended up not getting the reps. Still, the rookie showed a good head on his shoulders and was a solid special teams player all year. 47 tackles (45 solo) and 1 PBU aren't great numbers, but he was more of a 3rd down pass coverage ILB. Unfortunately, he got burned several times across the middle by TE's for big yardage and touchdowns. He tries too hard to jump the routes sometimes, and really struggled with the ILB/Safety coverage switches in the middle of the year. Still, he did show some promise, especially for an undrafted rookie. The coaches obviously have faith in him as well, letting him wear the dot on the field.
Strengths: QB reads. Jovan tries to jump a lot of routes, but it's because he's pretty good as seeing where the QB is going to go with the ball. With a little more quickness and awareness of his receiver (and the coverage behind him), he could make for a really good coverage 'backer.
Weaknesses: Gambles. He's young, and it shows when he goes for the big play. Several times he's tried too hard to make something happen, and instead of making the stop, he'd miss the big play and allow for the opposition to get one of their own.
Players who benefited: Derrick Johnson. Primarily because Jovan ran the defense while the two of them were on the field, but also because DJ could usually count on him for adequate coverage.
Final Grade: C-. Too many gambles and too many big plays given up. Rookie mistakes that can be fixed, surely. What's funny is that if he would've picked off a couple of those gambles, we'd be talking about him completely differently. =) (Prior Grade: C)
I finished up my last post with this quote:
I hope when I revisit this at the end of the year that Jackson's become more consistent, DJ gets some more opportunities, Tamba's got a bunch more sacks, Dorsey's getting through on a regular basis, and Edwards holds his own better.
Well, TJ has become more consistent, DJ's gotten more opportunities, and Tamba stuck on 5.5 more sacks. Dorsey did get through a little better, but I wouldn't call it a "regular" occurance. And, well...Ron didn't really hold his own better. It's an interesting group we've got here, and an upgrade at the heart of it could change the entire dynamic of this front 7.
It's been fun putting these together for you guys, and I hope you all enjoyed 'em! Thanks!