We don’t really run a 3-4 gentlemen; it’s more of a 5-2. I realize you’re probably very well aware of that, but I think an important aspect of that fact sometimes goes unrealized. Instead of having three or four linebackers at the second level, like in a 4-3 or a 3-4, we only have two. I know, I know, you’re thinking duh, right? Well it is pretty simple, but just think for a moment, about the limited margin of error you have when just two guys in the middle are responsible for so much.
Although most of you know that I’m all aboard the McClain Train, that’s absolutely not where I’m going with this write. I’ll wait on that puff-piece until after we know if we still need an ILB after free agency hits us in the mouth. So this post, here after the jump, will be limited to my thoughts on why we need an upgrade in the middle, wherever and however we can manage it. See you mobile users there!
Little-Five, Big-Two (5-2)
Just to quickly underline a point, in our 52-ish defense, the OLB’s are usually on, or up close to the line. It’s their job to funnel runs inside to the two guys in the middle. They also drop in coverage, pressure the QB, and do other things. They’re not exactly forbidden to tackle a running back, either. But make no mistake; we’ve got two men on this defense truly responsible for stopping the run and largely responsible for defending the second-level. Their responsibilities are magnified in a 5-2, as are their mistakes.
The weak link by default?
Would you be surprised to know that one of our inside linebackers is responsible for giving up more passing yards than both starting safeties combined, and nearly as much as each of our starting corners seperately? Know who? Well here's a hint, it’s not Andra Davis.
DJ Williams was thrown at 79 times last season, 2nd most of all ILB’s. Seventy-nine percent of those passes thrown at him were completed for 546 yards (also 2nd most in the league for any ILB). Now in fairness, DJ played 132 more snaps than Wesley Woodyard and Andra Davis combined. But that, in and of itself, doesn’t explain him giving up almost TWICE as many yards as the two of them combined.
Briefly back to a point there: To get an idea of how many passing yards Williams is responsible for, I took a quick look at our #1 and #2 corners. The total yards given up by Champ and Goodman last season are very similar, and each of them only gave up around 50 yards more than DJ, respectively. Now you can take anything you like from that, but one thing that shouldn’t be missed is that DJ Williams accounts for a lot of yards given up. (He also gives quarterbacks throwing at him a rating of 104.)
So why does he get thrown at so much and for so many yards? Well, the simple answer is that not all passes come on third-down. We can’t always substitute Wesley Woodyard in for Andra Davis, so we let QB’s pick on DJ rather than on Davis, whenever necessary and possible. Remember the QB rating though? DJ’s actually pretty good in coverage, and that number seems a bit misleading to me. But the point is, he could be better used than to be thrown at 79 times.
Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?
Let’s take a step back and get clear here; DJ Williams isn't the weak link, it's Andra Davis. He’s terrible in coverage. Out of 17 passes thrown at Andra last season, only three were incomplete (and only one of those was actually defended). Now seventeen passes thrown his way isn’t a lot, but that’s only because we break our backs to get DJ in coverage when the weak link is on the field.
Now let’s take a break from bagging on Andra Davis for a moment. I’ve got no problem with his run-stopping, as he’s neither elite nor a liability in that phase. He’s also got good character. He’s a leader in the locker room and on the field, and he’s got no problems in the streets. That said, there’s an anti-camouflaging ripple effect of having a situational player in the absolute center of your defense. And it’s not a good one.
Our defense is built around its aggressiveness, and its ability to disguise coverage’s, pressures, and blitzes. Offenses can’t as easily hit us where we ain’t, if they don’t know where it is that we ain’t going to be. Problem is, how do we keep them guessing when a situational player is on the field in the wrong situation?
An example of what I’m talking about is when a no-huddle offense catches us off-guard: Andra Davis has to stay on the field, and now the offense knows that DJ’s going to drop back in coverage instead of blitzing. Same with passing on a 1st or 2nd down… Andra Davis is on the field, so if we drop him into coverage, they get an easy completion. Therefore, we don’t. We instead take DJ away from what he does best.
This type of thing serves to turn our camouflage defense transparent, taking away one of our greatest strengths. Does it happen relatively often? No, not really. But these happenings - our defense being more easily figured out - occur at the most inopportune times; no-huddles, hurry-ups, two-minute offenses; they happen when the other team is driving to score.
Now I’m sure many of you realize that it’s not uncommon for teams to pull one inside linebacker out in passing situations. True. It’s probably even more of the norm, in fact. But our defense is predicated on its versatility and its unpredictability. And again, that’s severely marginalized when half of your second-level of defense is a situational player.
An offense can easier figure out our disguise when they don’t allow us to put it on – when they don’t allow Andra to come off the field for Wesley Woodyard. How do we stop them back? Well, instead of substituting him during game situations, we need to just substitute him all together. We need an upgrade, an ILB capable of doing it all, at any time. An offense isn’t going to know where we’re not going to be, who’s coming, or where from, when both of our center pieces are equally likely to pressure, cover, blitz, or run-stop.
With two guys in the middle having so much responsibility, they need to be better than average; their performance is more important, and their mistakes are more devastating.
How does Coach McDaniels prefer to try and win a MF game? Versatility. And there’s nothing winningly versatile about an average run-stopper, that can’t cover, and is tasked with defending 50% of the entire second-level of our defense. With an upgrade, DJ won’t get thrown at so much, he’ll be able to better do what he does. With an upgrade, offenses can’t as easily catch us off-guard in hurry-up situations, and they’ll have a harder time figuring out who’s dropping back and who’s coming at ‘em.
It's not nice to talk negatively about replacing one of our players, but in my mind, Andra Davis is a weak link. His situational presence is a liability, and it needs fixed if McX can find a way. Three-down ILB's aren't a dime a dozen. But that's not the point. Finding a way to upgrade Davis will not only help the numbers, but also the entire defensive scheme.