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Monday, July 30, 2012

Base Defense Usage Dwindling

To go with my thoughts on there not being a "base defense" anymore, and Carolina looking to stay with some 3-4 packages again this year, I figured I'd post this:

Suggests that base defense is, in fact, slipping in its usage.  The article suggests that "base" defense was used 45% of the time, in whatever form, if you assume base means 4 DB.  The league used nickel 40% of the time - obviously almost as much - and dime 12%, combining the two for an advantage over base.

Is the average strongside LB really that much greater of a starting force than your 3rd CB anymore?  Clearly not.

So let's not get too hung up on scheme, especially in this division.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Everyone’s Ready For Kuechly at MLB

...and I’m not.  At this point, what I believe for this situation is that Jon Beason is in the middle, and that rookie Luke Kuechly is playing weakside LB.   As of right now, the Observer depth chart and plenty of other ideas, opinions, and resources have Kuechly in his ‘rightful place’ inside.   And I don’t see it. 

For one, not the worst problem to have. Two players who can be above average in either capacity.

My want for Beason to remain inside comes from two parts – he’ll continue to make the defensive calls, and he’s better there.  Kuechly could be better inside, it’s hard to say – but based on 2010, I don’t see Beason as good outside, not as rangy there; I’d rather, of the two, continue to let Beason be a thumper inside.  Kuechly, the higher drafted athlete, is slightly better in coverage.  Since Beason is giving the calls for the entire defense, and Kuechly’s the cover guy – add in Rivera’s statement that the pair are much better communicators than anyone on the 2011 squad – and that leaves Kuechly the freedom to help ID coverage issues and communicate with the backs.   Coverage, and communication, were both major problems in 2011, where no linebacker’s QB rating in coverage was under 100.

Detractors – the ones who have logical reasons for Kuechly inside – do seem to assume that Kuechly will be better inside, and therefore that’s a primary concern.  That a guy like that should be able to flow to the ball – have the whole field.  Of course, our linebackers can pursue at any spot – it’s somewhat rare for a strongside linebacker to lead the team in tackles, for instance, but James Anderson reset the team tackle record last year from there.  I don’t think Kuechly will be limited at WLB.

I could see an alternate suggestion – it’s been stated that Beason, returning from a catastrophic injury, would be better at WLB because he’ll be possibly less athletic; that doesn’t hold up in my book.  While this isn’t the Tampa 2, and Beason isn’t Thomas Davis, the shielded WLB spot does still require an athlete.  That’s the coverage LB spot, if any, in most defenses.   It seems miscast for Beason, who is just fine in coverage, but where Kuechly could be somewhat special.

Disclaimer: in his rookie year, I felt Beason was a better fit outside.  Smaller, faster guy with range who fit at weakside.  When he inevitably did move inside, he was brilliant.   In 2010, moving outside, he wasn’t.   Maybe this ends up being over-reaction to having ended up wrong from his rookie season, but he just hasn’t been as impressive outside.  I believe that Beason inside, Kuechly outside creates a potentially brilliant pairing; the opposite merely features a rookie.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Charles Johnson: Minor Knee Issue

Defensive cornerstone Charles Johnson is having a minor knee issue, which may limit his time in camp and in preseason games.  There doesn’t appear to be any longterm worry about him.   He recently had a cleanup procedure that was said to go well, and the team continues to be cautiously optimistic about it.   But there’s no reason to beat him to death for a full month if it’s unnecessary.

What this will mean?   Certainly, let’s assume that Johnson will be ready for the season opener, without reason to suggest otherwise.   Hopefully, he will dress for at least the final two preseason games, and make an appearance. In the meantime, the time will go to the guys sorting out the other spots – Greg Hardy at LDE, and the others fighting for the 3rd spot, assumedly:
*Incumbent: Antwan Applewhite, last year’s designated rusher and 3-4 guy
*The Rookie: 4th round pick Frank Alexander
*The Scrapper: Thomas Keiser, an undrafted last year who came onboard midseason for 4 sacks

It gives the team the option of more reps to whoever of the above that earns it.  The team is rostering 5 worthy guys, and might have to let one go.  None of the above trio was in training camp last year – and really,  Hardy didn’t practice in camp either due to his accident.  It’s a whole new set of ends out there, if you hold Johnson a few weeks.   Who knows, maybe Eric Norwood might even come out of his shell.   You don’t want to see Johnson out, but it’s an opportunity to make some things happen behind him.

And it gives a different look than the regular season, where Johnson or Hardy may move inside, depending on the call; and when that does happen come September, that’s a new look.  With a 3rd end that would hopefully have earned his playing time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kicking Dan Henning's Cage

Keep in mind I've never been the biggest Dan Henning fan*, prior to Carolina, but I wanted to make a point using him and his words:

First off, credit to TBR's B Team on the link.   It's worth a read, though their statistics are a little in-depth and can honestly be a little self-important at times.   At any rate:

It suggests that the 1991 Washington Redskins - an offense-led Coryell team (like ours, with the exception that Joe Gibbs branched out with the famous H-back and switched to a man-blocking scheme), was potentially one of the best teams from that point on.  A top 5 overall

Then Henning, now in year 3 in San Diego (who inherited a Coryell team by way of Don himself, who gave way to Al Saunders - they really have run almost exclusively that offense, and certainly keep the lineage today), piloted one of the worst teams ever in close situations.

To quote:

San Diego was the opposite, somehow going 4-12 despite being an average team by DVOA with the league's lowest variance. The Chargers went a horrifying 2-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less. (They were 2-1 in games decided by eight points, but in 1991 that didn't count as a touchdown or less because there was no two-point conversion.) They didn't have particualrly bad luck on fumbles, and their schedule was ninth in the league, so it wasn't all about opponent strength. They just kept losing close games. Part of San Diego's problem was a significantly unbalanced offense, which ranked second in rushing DVOA and 19th in passing DVOA. That made it tough for them to come back from a deficit, and they just happened to end up with more fourth-quarter deficits that needed erasing than fourth-quarter leads that needed protecting.
When San Diego went 11-5 the next season, it wouldn't have been a big surprise to Football Outsiders readers, if there had been Football Outsiders readers in 1991. Or if there had been an Internet. Or if I had not still been in high school (my 20th reunion is this Saturday).
Which followed with this quote from a user:
If their 30-24 loss to the Rams was any indication, a good part of the blame for the Chargers' 2-8 record in games decided by 7 points or fewer belonged to their coach, Dan Henning. In that game, the Chargers:
1. Ran a play from their own 1 with one second left in the first half. Marion Butts was tackled for a safety.
"I felt the best thing to do was to take our No. 1 short yardage play, which generally covers every defense that we face," he said. "We ran it and they outdefensed us. (The Rams) either made a mistake or they're smarter than we are."
2. Called a draw on 4th-and-10 with 2:08 left. Ronnie Harmon gained 7 yards.
Henning still believes the draw was the best call.
"You ask anybody in this league . . . one of the most devasting plays in the game is a fourth down draw," he said. "They work as much or more than passes do under those conditions."
Reporters continued to press Henning on his play selection. Finally, he flatly was asked if he blew the draw call.  After I made that explanation and you continue to harp on it, what you should do is go back and join one of the staffs on the Senate Judiciary Committee and beat your (expletive) brain out all day."
Henning was fired a few games later.

        It's not fair to take Henning and compare him to his mentor, Gibbs; Henning was a very midly successful coordinator, much of which came under Gibbs, who won three titles.  But, it's the same playbook, and while personnel matters, it also matters how it's administered.  There's a time and a place to be conservative, but just defaulting to the most conservative is rarely the way to go.  I felt like the draw anecdote was worth sharing, but the greater lesson is still there to be learned. 

*Henning wasn't that good here, in my opinion, but before that there were legitimate rumors that Marv Levy fell on the sword so Henning wouldn't get fired; he succeeded Charlie Weis with the Jets, after being QBs coach, and the O turned into kinda rubbish.

Base Defense: No Such Thing

With the 3-4 coming up again in the media, it's time to pull out a bit about our defense and why it's not going to be a base 3-4.

I'd worked on this premise in the past, but it seems no less relevant now: there is no such thing as a base defense anymore.   The ideal of stopping the varied attacks in the pros - which still come from 4 offensive lineage, and no more - and certainly the much more wide variety in college means there just is no such thing as a base defense.  Defenses have become more specialized, and it's only going to grow.

For one, let's get rid of misconceptions - most pro playbooks have 3-man and 4-man fronts.  It's not new.  That most teams use a section that has fit into one front or another, with a hundred plus calls coming from it, isn't a revelation, either.  But even a Tampa 2, with its theoretical use of one coverage (Cover 2, with a deeper MLB) and front (4-3 under) has it all in there.  It's all there, ready for use.

More to the point, follow these links for what some innovators have been doing:
Belichick, always a multiple front guy, switched fronts and even line techniques mid-line last year, 
The Ravens are considered a 3-4, but they run a ton of 4-3 and act like it, and
The Packers are considered as much a 2-4-5 nickel team as they are a 3-4.

Some of that is bending to personnel, and some of it's a natural move toward a nickel defense, not unlike many college teams have used to counter the spread.  Which, along with the athletic TE, is making its way into the pro game more and more.  Teams are varying approaches so much more than they have in the past.

Ron Rivera is a different story, and I published as such as early as March 2011.  Carolina wouldn't put anything to the field for five more months, but it was clear Rivera was going to play around.  I don't think we've seen half of it yet, and it's tough to know for certain what will be new.  Will some of it look like a 3-4?  Sure.  Will some of it look like a 4-3?  Naturally.  As a 3-4 guy in San Diego, he was anything but - and a lot of times ran 2 DL like the Packers did.  It's just two LB standing, but clearly a 4-man type line.

But in the end, what matters is that Rivera will make a call based on these principles:
It's one gap, regardless of front (so no complaining that we don't have huge linemen).  It's going to pick its edge rushers, how many it's bringing, and where the other players are dropping.  The way it looks is just window dressing.  There is no base defense, may as well get used to that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cap Update - Otah v/s Murphy

Carolina, who apparently tried to trade away OT Jeff Otah, then found WR Louis Murphy available - you may be willing to assume they tried to trade evenly but Oakland wouldn't go for it - turns out to be around an even swap, as both were traded for conditional 7th round draft picks.

Capwise, it's not much different - Otah, who was to make $1.067 million this year, was in the final year of his deal, so he didn't cost anything extra against the cap - the team saves the entire amount.  On the back end, Murphy's salary is $1.2 million, so the team gained $100,000 worth of salary in the move.

Otah Traded Away; Gettis to PUP

In a pair of moves to go with the Murphy trade, Carolina has traded away former 2008 1st rounder Jeff Otah to the New York Jets.

Otah is clearly the most disappointing 1st rounder of the Marty Hurney era, with the 1st rounders from 2003-2007 still on roster (and had they had their way, the one from 2002 as well).  Unable to make it on the field for the last 28 of 32 games, Otah was just someone Carolina staffers had determined wasn't worth the time anymore.  The oversize tackle was a force in 2008, but struggled essentially since.

David Gettis, who had a solid 2010 as a rookie with 37 receptions for 508 yards and a team leading 3 TD receptions, was placed on the PUP list.  Gettis missed 2011 with a torn ACL, which happened near the onset of camp last year.  There's no word on how he's doing; some suggest it's procedural, but it's not the best sign that he's not going to start camp on the active roster.

Trade: WR Louis Murphy

Carolina has traded for former Oakland Raider WR Louis Murphy, the team announced Monday.  The traded pick appears to be a conditional 7th round pick. 
Murphy (6’2, 200) played collegiately for Florida, having won two SEC Championships and two National Championsips (and played with both Tim Tebow and Cam Newton).  He amassed 75 receptions for UF for 1203 yards and 12 TD (starting the final two years and being a senior captain.  He was a product of Lakeland (St. Petersburg) high, where he he was a quarterback and power forward, and anchored the 4x100 relay team that was Florida state champions. 
After running a 4.32 at combine, Murphy was a 4th round pick for Oakland in 2009, and in three years had 90 receptions for 1371 yards/6 TD, and 143 rushing yards for 1 TD on 13 attempts.  The best year was 2010, when he led the team with 41 receptions for 603 yards and two scores (the other four TD came as a rookie).  Those three years were under different coordinators, but were all Coryell based attacks, same as Carolina.  His 15.3 yard per catch average points to him being a long-ball WR, and his versatility carrying the ball and having a history throwing it, suggests he can be helpful as a trick play guy.  Oakland had some other guys who were flourishing a bit better in the new system, and that made him expendable. 
So, clearly, Carolina had a logjam of young WR already, and that’s not about to go away now.   Murphy tends to make sense to stay, with more experience than anyone but Steve Smith; where or how much he might play is less certain but he does appear to fall under an outside receiver, where they also tend to keep Brandon LaFell, but where they also lack depth.   They have Smith, who tends to stay outisde, and LaFell from last year; they have David Gettis, who fits a similar mold as Murphy, coming off ACL injury.  After that, you have seldom-used Charger alumnus Seji Ajorotutu, and practice squadder Darvin Adams, neither of which I’d expect to make the roster.
But by balancing the outside guys out, does that push out one of the slot guys (rookie Joe Adams, Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares)?  Honestly, I anticipated all of those three to make the roster this year.  There are, at most, 6 spots on the team for WR, and the team really only used 4-5 at most – three to play WR, and one each at the return spots. With Adams taking on at least punt returning, and hopefully kick returns as well, that likely puts Edwards out.   None of that trio has trade potential, since none have really played actual receiver spots.
Coach Ron Rivera wanted competition last year – and didn’t receive much of it – so clearly Murphy is a wrench thrown in to both improve and muddle the spots a bit more.
Hopefully, there haven’t been setbacks on Gettis’ knee – the team was looking toward him providing similar things to what Murphy would.  Having both would be ideal, but would mean dropping the consistently problematic Edwards. Either situation is less than ideal for the balance sheets, though definitely the team must press forward and continue to improve instead of worrying about making past moves look “better”. 
Still, this is why I was against dealing with yet more WR in Pilares and Adams. The team needed a player with some level of experience, which it now has; which forces out a young player who hasn’t had much time to show what he can do.

Friday, July 20, 2012

DT Neblett Suspended

        Andre Neblett, member of the 2010 and 2011 teams, was suspended for four games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.  Of course, the type of substance wasn’t released.
        The 6’0, 305 lb Neblett (a 45 game starter for Temple) was a rare undrafted Free Agent rookie to make a John Fox squad in 2010, and started getting playing time late in the year.  Neblett played in 19 games over that span, starting four  late in 2011.  Those four games bookended the end of Sione Fua’s season before getting hurt in the Buccaneers game himself.  A squatty run defender, Neblett plays primarily nose tackle but does have enough of a burst to shoot gaps occasionally.
        Neblett isn’t more than a reserve on this squad, and he’s not better than the average replacement.  He remained more or less even with Frank Kearse late in the year, the other late-season starter and the guy whom he’d have to fight for a job if Carolina does continue to invest time in both.  Either would fight for the 4th job at DT, while neither would play significant time – the 4th DT isn’t really even guaranteed to dress on game day.   A 5th DT is more or less based on merit – a 9th DL isn’t out of line for a team to keep, generally the best remaining player outside a two-deep depth chart – but that player rarely plays outside of injury or extreme need.
        What it does hurt, of course, is competitiveness.  Neblett and Kearse both did an admirable job as starters given that neither were intended to be, and and both were a part of the defenses that Ron Rivera cited were improving late in the year.
       Neblett would continue to get to fight for his job, with Kearse and not much else (the team has UCLA rookie Nate Chandler on roster as well, and that’s about it).  With about six weeks before the season starts (and his suspension would start), he’s got a long road to earn that position.   He may get some relief, as he wouldn’t be cut opening week if worthy (doesn’t count against the 53 man roster, until the suspension lifts at the start of week 5), but doesn’t get to interact with the team over that period.  If the team wants to reinstate him, they could hold him until week 5 and make that decision then.
        It doesn’t endear Neblett to the team to be caught doing whatever he did, and if he had the higher line to the team’s 4th DT job before, it’s probably more in peril than before.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Has Chud Installed?

This is a somewhat older article, but I had time invested in it, so here it is: 

What’s Chud installing?
Steve Smith’s comments about Rob Chudzinski putting in some fairly extreme new stuff in the playbook has me confused.   I know this offense fairly well at this point – at least, core plays and that most plays are within a fairly logical language.  So does Smith – it’s the second time he’s been in this O, and he’s going into his 12th year.    Nothing should really shock him at this point, right?
Two things I could think of: Limited play selection was offered last year, or he’s installing things outside the offense.
It’s possible that slot plays weren’t covered last year – in that, it’s been the harder part for me to understand.  A typical playcall for a pro set (from left to right, X receiver, line, Y receiver and then Z receiver) has three numbers that go left to right corresponding to routes.   But, for slot plays, where the X and Z are on the same side and the Y/Tight end is on the other, the play call starts from strongside.  The numbers start with a Y call, then the slot, then the X.  So you hear 940 in your playcall, if it’s a slot formation, it’s the Y running a go and the X running a drag behind the Z’s out route, not the X running a go and the Z dragging from strongside.  That may have been left out for simplicity’s sake – as I know that has confused me a good bit.  It’s counterintuitive to the logical format of the traditional playcall.
I remember more strongside slot (you just bust the Y out, or put a receiver at the F position – there are plenty of formations that give a strongside slot call, that don’t alter the XYZ progression) last year, and maybe when we saw it to the left, that was a Left formation instead (flipping the whole formation, instead of the Z being weakside).   It would explain there being a “new” part to the offense, which would have meant simply excluding that from last year’s limited preparation.
Other than that, it’s possible that Chud is installing something “new”.  There isn’t that much that’s actually “new” in the NFL, and borrowing from the WCO or any other system would be more or less unlikely.  The terminology is vastly different, where the current offense can easily adapt to what others do.   The offense itself is decades old, but adapted to enough circumstance over the last couple of decades to do anything.  I believe that of any offense, really, so there would be no reason to put in that much that’s “new” or different.  It should, mostly, be covered.
Or, as an “innovating” coach, Chud really is creating something different.  Hopefully it’s within the framework of the offense, more or less, but there could be some uncharted territory there, too.   This time last year, it wasn’t even determined that Cam Newton would be the quarterback, and nothing was really installed, much less specifically for him.  We didn’t see the option for the first few weeks of the season.  There could be some option type modifications, or passes off the option.  There could be new screens, which don’t fit in the normal scheme (I honestly don’t remember seeing screens in the last couple playbooks I saw, though none were Carolina’s and certainly, there is plenty of screen game in what they did last year).

A Little More Staff Tweaking

Looking over the team site, it's not just Steve Wilks that gets a title addition.

Ricky Proehl has gone from "Offensive Consultant" to "Assistant Receivers Coach", potentially just a tweak in responsibility but hopefully a sign that Proehl will be more involved in the day to day coaching tasks.

As a consultant, it appeared Proehl was more of a gameday and camp helper, an additional opinion in the room and a guy who could help out individual prospects at different times.  The team hasn't really determined what Proehl's role had been, or why it appeared he was somewhat part time.  I don't know if there was any conflict due to Proehlific Park and the lockout, or if Proehl was part time so he could get his affairs in order to help out more permanently.  It's impossible to say, outside of delving into his own business.  Unwilling to do so, I'll just rattle my gums about it here.

The move, in speculation, might mean more interaction day to day with players, and may also change the role of Offensive Assistant Scott Turner.  Since Turner had a background in receivers as well, and spends a lot of time with coordinator Rob Chudzinski, it's possible that Turner's more freed up to delve into the details.

Either way, Carolina has a wide array of young receivers in which they have investment, and a title change for Proehl likely adds permanency to his time at Mint Street.  You can't not like that.

Outside of Wilks' addition and the tweak of title, there aren't any staff changes outside of adding Richard Rodgers.  The Cal alum is the third assistant to come to Rivera's staff without any pro experience (he did intern with the Raiders in '96) but has 22 years experience in college.  The veteran special teams and DBs coach will likely help out both, but his title is Assistant Special Teams Coach.  Given last year's issues, you have to hope it will help - tackling was terrible, and the kicking game was no better, though only Jason Baker paid a price.  If the new coach can help milk a little value out of Olindo Mare, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Will They Play?

It's been a little over two months since the draft, and a few weeks remain before camp starts.  Without much in free agency guaranteed to impact, the draft stands to be the higher gain area for Carolina.

Ron Rivera likes to start rookies a good bit more than John Fox - 58 starts* were made by Panther cubs in 2011, and 3284 snaps were played by players without accrued years.  But, to start out playing instead of getting 15 snaps due to injury, you have to earn the part nonetheless.  Below I break down how the rookies will have to position themselves to play.

LB Luke Kuechly - Not worth discussion, Kuechly will not likely leave the field while Carolina has the ball from scrimmage; the only question remains where?

G Amini Silatolu - penciled in at LG, there's not much competition.  Silatolu's college film recalls Tarantino in its brutality, but his background suggests classroom issues.  What remains to be seen is whether reaction in the zone scheme will be up to task.  He can be told his assignment.   So, the job's his for the taking, but he could be supplanted if he makes mistakes.

LB Frank Alexander - Will not start initially, as Carolina has two starters of good quality.  The question will be whether Greg Hardy can remain effective at 300 lbs, and whether he and Charles Johnson stay healthy.  I would expect Alexander to take on about 300 snaps as a pass rusher (the defense used 684 snaps from backups, about 400 of which were rush snaps. 198 of those were Antwan Applewhite's).

WR Joe Adams - the top threat for the return jobs, Adams has receivers ahead of him.  There may not be much room here, the first three receivers gained 2447 snaps/159 receptions, and  the other four that played gained a total of 94 among them for one reception (4 yards, Ajirotutu).  His first year playing time will be up to luck and defense.

CB Josh Norman - the 25 year old rookie's age might offset his lack of big-school experience, and the
job is wide open for nickel back, if not greater.  The starters were intact most of the season in the secondary, but the top backup, Darius Butler, played 416 snaps, and both RJ Stanford and Jordan Pugh played 248.  Both Norman and Brandon Hogan are likely - and hopefully - be better than either, to start chipping away at the 828 snaps of Captain Munnerlyn.

P Brad Nortman - hard to say, and punters don't take scrimmage snaps.  But he's gotta beat veteran Nick Harris, too.

S DJ Campbell - with four veterans ahead of Campbell, it's hard to say what will happen.  If either veteran - Haruki Nakamura or Reggie Smith - win a starting job over the incumbents, I have a hard time seeing them cut either Sherrod Martin or Charles Godfrey.  But, if both incumbents win, one new vet will go.  Campbell would be a special teamer if so, and get a little time here and there.   Or, short answer, there's a chance he'll play major snaps only in future years.

Raw data:

*starts: 16 Newton, 12 Mcclain, 12 Bell, 11 Fua, 4 Kearse, 2 Brockel, 1 Nelson.  For what it's worth, has Newton's snaps played at 1061; Bell's at 831; Brockel at 126... other than that, the offense has only a pittance of rookie action, with Kealoha Pilares at 21 snaps, Lee Ziemba getting 15 snaps, and then Darvin Adams and Bryant Browning getting a snap each.  On defense, McClain dropped 481 snaps (197/283, run/pass and one in coverage), Fua at 408 (240/166, and two drops to coverage); Thomas Keiser 205 (77/122/6), Nelson 77, Brandon Hogan 57.