How Do NFL Linemen Drop the Weight?

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Upon Initial Review, Week 2

The Falcons provide the blueprint on how to ground the Eagles, plus all the heroes and goats in Sunday's action

Sunday night was unbelievable. It’s not that the Eagles lost to the Falcons by four in Atlanta in a game that came down to a fourth-down drop. It’s that the Eagles — the franchise that spent and spent this offseason to build a team that could win shootouts — lost a 35-31 shootout to a Falcons team that’s uniquely struggled in that sort of game during the Matt Ryan era. The Falcons mortgaged their future to move up and draft wide receiver Julio Jones this offseason in an attempt to get better in battles with the likes of Green Bay, New Orleans, and Philly, but Jones had just two catches and was a bit part in this game. Instead, they got a little luck and established the blueprint for scoring points on this new-look Eagles defense. And we’re going to share the blueprint with you.

Keep the Eagles in their base 4-3 personnel set and attack their linebackers
The strength of the Eagles defense is obviously now at cornerback, thanks to the signing of Nnamdi Asomugha and the trade for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie is playing as the team’s third cornerback, so he comes onto the field in obvious passing situations or when the offense brings a third wide receiver into the game.

Meanwhile, the weak spot in the Philadelphia defense is at linebacker, where rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews is a struggling work in progress and outside backer Moise Fokou is a fully evolved mediocre player. When the Eagles go from a Nickel (five-defensive-back) alignment into their 4-3 base, they’re replacing a Pro Bowl cornerback with a below-average linebacker. That’s a huge positive for the opposing offense, and it might even outweigh the advantages of having the 11 best offensive players on the field at any one time.

That’s why Julio Jones was on the periphery of Sunday’s game. Atlanta recognized that it would create better matchups and control Philly’s defensive personnel by keeping fullback Ovie Mughelli on the field and going with sets that featured two tight ends and/or one lone wide receiver split out. While the other members of the Eagles’ Big Three each had a pick, Rodgers-Cromartie spent most of the game on the sideline. All of DRC’s athleticism is for naught when he’s fetching sports drinks or setting exercise-bike records.

Take advantage of their incessant desire to rush the passer
When the Eagles brought in legendary Titans coach Jim Washburn to tutor their defensive linemen this offseason, they also brought the “wide-nine” technique to Philadelphia on a full-time basis. The nine technique refers to the spot on the field where a defensive end is expected to line up. A zero technique is directly over the center, and the numbers fan out to either side; a one technique would be the lane between center and guard; a three technique between guard and tackle; and a five technique on the tackle’s outside shoulder. The nine technique is way the hell out past where the tight ends normally line up, which is where the “wide” comes from. Washburn’s system is built around getting undersized linemen out in the nine technique who can use their speed to sprint right by hulking tackles and meet each other at the end of a quarterback’s drop. With quick ends like Jason Babin and Trent Cole, the Eagles have the personnel to pull it off, too.

Cole and Babin each sacked Matt Ryan on Sunday night, but the Eagles had to pay for their wide-nine proclivity. The Falcons ran a seemingly endless stream of off-tackle runs and counter plays for Michael Turner that were designed to take advantage of the gaps left by those on-rushing ends and the space created by the nine technique. When Turner started off the game by running for 41 yards on his first seven carries, the Eagles’ pass rush was forced to take narrower routes to the quarterback, which limited their effectiveness. And when the nine-technique defensive ends sell out to try to get to the quarterback, they place a huge amount of pressure on the linebackers behind them to make plays against the run without having those two defensive ends occupying blockers. Attack the linebackers, remember?

Get passes to the tight ends
When teams do choose to throw the ball against the Eagles, they can bypass those elite cornerbacks by targeting the tight end. Of the Big Three, only Asomugha has the size to man up against someone like Tony Gonzalez, and the Eagles have mostly kept Asomugha outside against wideouts so far. The Eagles don’t have an effective cover linebacker, while starting safeties Jarrad Page and Kurt Coleman are still question marks in coverage. The future Hall of Fame tight end simply ate the Eagles up, as he caught seven of the nine passes thrown to him, producing five first downs and two touchdowns. The Giants don’t have a tight end who can really take advantage of this when they play the Eagles next week, but Philly has games against Vernon Davis, Fred Davis, and Jason Witten coming up. If the Eagles don’t adapt, those guys are going to have monster days like the one Gonzalez just enjoyed.

Convert in the red zone
If you’re going to win a shootout, field goals won’t cut it. It’s hard to get to 30 points with field goals. Fortunately, the Eagles have been very generous inside their own 20. Last year, teams scored on 78.3 percent of their possessions inside the Eagles’ 20, the highest rate in the league by more than 11 percentage points. A staggeringly bad performance like that is usually subject to severe regression back toward league average, but the Eagles allowed the Falcons to score five touchdowns on their five trips to the red zone. Teams aren’t going to go 5-for-5 on the Eagles every week, but if they could keep opposing teams to something in the 50 percent range, everyone in Philadelphia would be a lot happier.

The smart alecks in the crowd will rightly note that the Falcons were able to knock Michael Vick out of the game, something most opposing teams can’t exactly depend upon. They’re right and wrong. The Falcons certainly benefited from Vick’s absence, but they were also in the middle of a very competitive, creditable performance while Vick was still in the lineup. Removing Vick from the game was luck, but building an effective game plan on offense by creating mismatches against a weak group of linebackers is simply good planning.

Spending for Rainy Days

It was heartbreaking to see Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles tear his ACL while running out of bounds against the Lions on Sunday. Coming off a season in which he set the postmerger record for yards per carry, Charles should have been the one bright spot in what already appears to be a long season for Chiefs fans. Instead, he’s out for the rest of the season, and if he ever regains the elite burst that he exhibited last season, it probably won’t be until 2013, at which point Todd Haley might be running a high school team.

The weird thing, though, is that we can’t pin any blame for Charles’ injury on Haley. The Chiefs have been remarkably conservative about managing the workload of their star back, who has never carried the ball more than 25 times in any single game and touched the rock just 17.2 times a contest last year. Compare that to the speed-sapping workload of Michael Turner in 2008, when his 376-carry season featured eight games with 25 rushing attempts or more. Kansas City did its best to keep Charles healthy and he still suffered a season-ending injury. It’s depressing.

The question that has to come up now, though, is whether workload has anything to do with a player’s chances of getting hurt; in other words, should the Chiefs have just assumed that Charles would eventually get hurt, anyway, and given him 380 carries last year? The debate still rages in the statistical community, as Football Outsiders has identified a “Curse of 370” that seems to affect running backs who hit 370 carries in a season, while the Advanced NFL Stats site holds that the Curse of 370 is a myth. Even if the Chiefs had kept Charles away from 370, getting 80 more carries out of him in 2010 might have been enough to earn an extra win or two.

This all echoes the same arguments that swirled around protecting young pitchers in baseball during the first half of this decade, as pitch counts became essential parts of managing workloads at the minor and major league levels. The famous Baseball Prospectus slogan regarding the success rate of young pitchers is TINSTAAPP: “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect”. One of the tenets coming out of that philosophy is that teams should try to promote pitchers quickly and get as much out of them as possible before they suffer a likely inevitable arm injury. The Chiefs got great production out of Charles before they gave him a lucrative contract extension and promptly saw him blow out his knee. Teams evaluating the workloads and contract situations of talented, young running backs might see Charles’ injury as a time to start applying BP’s advice to football.

Timeout of the Week

One of the irregular features you’ll see in this space as the season goes along is our loving ode to that wonderful football moment: the timeout that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We might forget to spare a moment of praise for the befuddled quarterback or the overmatched coach in the midst of all the action on Sunday, but no more! We will give credit where credit is due.

Congratulations, then, go to the Miami Dolphins, who took a mystifying timeout in the fourth quarter of their 23-13 loss to the Texans. Facing a fourth-and-1 on their own 17-yard line with 8:13 left, three timeouts, and a 10-point deficit, coach Tony Sparano came to the reasonable (and correct) conclusion that the Dolphins should try to convert for a new set of downs. Sparano sent quarterback Chad Henne out to run a play, but when play clock ticked down under five seconds, Henne popped up from under center and called a timeout. When the Dolphins came back onto the field, they punted.

It’s likely the Dolphins sent Henne out there to try to draw the Texans offside, which seems like a naive decision: Henne was able to induce a defensive penalty1 before the snap just twice last season, the lowest figure for any starting quarterback in football. But even if Henne went out there with the sole idea of drawing a defensive penalty, there’s no possible explanation for taking a timeout as opposed to a delay of game. With eight minutes to go in a game in which you need to score twice, timeouts are incredibly valuable property. A delay of game would have meant that the Dolphins would have punted from the 12-yard line instead of the 17. It’s a negligible difference in their chances of winning the game, but giving away 40 seconds in the fourth quarter is enormous. No one in their right mind would trade a timeout for those five extra yards, but that’s exactly what the Dolphins and Henne did.

Five Up, Five Down

Finally, we take a tour around the league with a look at 10 players or situations that impressed or surprised us on Sunday. Since we’re all about the positives here at Grantland, let’s start with the five players who put on particularly impressive showings this weekend.

1. Matt Forte might become the poster boy for the “use ’em and lose ’em” philosophy espoused in the Jamaal Charles section of this piece, as the Bears have steadfastly refused to renegotiate his contract this year. They might be right to avoid paying Forte, but he has a few games each year in which he looks like the only functional member of their offense. Sunday was one of those games, as the Saints took away the deeper routes and Jay Cutler pumped checkdowns to Forte. He ended up catching 10 of his 14 targets, producing 117 yards to go along with the 49 he picked up on the ground. Eight of his 20 touches produced first downs, and they didn’t come easy, as Forte must have broken close to 15 tackles on the day. He single-handedly kept the Bears in the game during the first three quarters, and the Bears paid him only $37,500 for the privilege.

2. Kenny Britt took advantage of the injuries in the Ravens secondary to put up a monster day and lead the Titans to an unexpected win at home over Baltimore. Lining up all across the field and taking on everyone from Cary Williams to Ed Reed, Britt caught nine of the 13 targets in his direction, producing 135 yards, seven first downs, and a touchdown. His long catch of the day was a 37-yard bomb that would have been a 70-yard touchdown if Matt Hasselbeck had made a better throw. At his best, Britt is uncoverable in the same way that Calvin Johnson is. Sunday was one of those days.

3. Jared Allen does not appreciate that you’ve forgotten about him after a disappointing 2010 season. Allen had an interception and a half-sack in Week 1, but he simply abused Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn for most of the Buccaneers-Vikings tilt yesterday. Allen was a one-man wrecking crew, picking up a sack to go along with three quarterback knockdowns and a pass breakup. Unfortunately, he finished with a questionable roughing the passer penalty that set the Buccaneers up for a crucial touchdown pass to Arrelious Benn.

4. Tony Romo deserved a lot better than the flak he received after Week 1; he ripped apart the Jets pass defense on the road and had the Cowboys positioned to win in the Meadowlands before those now-famous foibles. He made up for it on Sunday, coming back into the game with two broken ribs and leading the Cowboys to a dramatic come-from-behind overtime win over the 49ers. On the crucial final three drives of the game, Romo was 11-of-14 for 195 yards. Critics will find some way to exclude this win when they bury Romo’s lack of clutch ability, but even beyond the cracked ribs, Romo was playing without Dez Bryant and with a gimpy top wideout (Miles Austin) and running back (Felix Jones). He manufactured a win while making throws to reality TV star Jesse Holley. Romo deserves your praise.

5. Denarius Moore is the rare case of the rookie training camp superstar who actually delivers a big game in the regular season.2 A fifth-round pick out of Tennessee who was the best player at any position in the Raiders’ camp at times this August, Moore got his chance to play on Sunday because the Raiders’ top three wideouts were all inactive thanks to injuries. So what did he do? Catch five passes for 146 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown catch that ranked as the sweetest play of the week. Moore also added another first down on a reverse. If you want to figure out whether the Raiders have a clue, pay attention to Moore’s status when Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy come back. Based on how he played on Sunday, Moore shouldn’t be behind anybody on the Raiders’ depth chart.

And with our compliments all used up, here are the five players who laid an egg on Sunday

1. Antonio Gates looked to have a great matchup against the Patriots, who allowed Gates 50 yards with a touchdown last season and were without linebacker Gary Guyton. Instead, the Patriots consistently double-covered Gates and assigned safeties Patrick Chung and Sergio Brown to make his life miserable. Gates was thrown only one pass and was held without a catch for just the second time since he became a starter in 2004. His attention opened up space for Vincent Jackson over the middle, though, and it compelled the Chargers to turn Mike Tolbert into the husky Ray Rice for three quarters.

2. Graham Gano hit a 34-yard field goal to win the game for the Redskins with 2:35 left, but that was required only after he failed to get any lift on a 30-yard field goal that the Cardinals blocked at the end of the first half. Gano then started the second half by kicking the ball out of bounds.

3. Mike Williams just didn’t have a great day for the Buccaneers. With four targets, he was able to produce just one catch for minus-4 yards. He was targeted on a Josh Freeman interception, but he did have a 17-yard touchdown catch at the end of the third quarter taken off the board by an illegal shift penalty. Williams had five inches and 30 pounds on his opposite number, Antoine Winfield, and he should have been able to use his body to make plays. The other Mike Williams could muster only one catch on three targets for nine yards, so it really wasn’t a good week for the Receiving Williamses.

4. Luke McCown showed why the Jaguars never should have cut David Garrard, even if Garrard would have needed to get around the field in an assisted mobility device. Playing against the Jets on the road is never fun for an inexperienced quarterback, but McCown made it look especially tough. Tipped interceptions are one thing, but McCown was hitting receivers in stride and finding the perfect spot to attack zones. The only problem is that the open receivers were wearing Jets uniforms. McCown was 6-of-19 for 59 yards with four picks and just two first downs before being benched for rookie Blaine Gabbert. If the threshold for moving on to Gabbert was so slim that it was worth cutting Garrard, why didn’t the team just give Gabbert the gig to start the season? And does coach Jack Del Rio really think that he will be around next year to reap the fruits of developing Gabbert this time around?

5. Nolan Carroll is the worst player in football through the first two weeks of the year. In all fairness, he’s been stretched into situations that don’t seem to make logical sense; why was he covering Andre Johnson on Johnson’s 23-yard touchdown catch that basically sealed the game for Houston? And when the Patriots spent most of the second half beating Carroll like a drum in Week 1, why was Benny Sapp waived after the game and Carroll kept around? Carroll is an effective special-teamer — remember that he was the Dolphins player tripped by Jets coach Sal Alosi while sprinting up the sideline last season — but he’s been badly exposed as a cornerback by the Patriots and Texans during the first two weeks of the year.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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