Marquee Matchups: Vollmer in his Wake
Miami's Cameron Wake took this opportunity to remind everyone of his immense skill as an edge rusher, displaying his wares against one of the NFL's best right tackles, Sebastian Vollmer.
Marquee Matchups: Vollmer in his Wake
One of the undoubted, and under-appreciated, defensive stars of the past few years faced off with one of the league’s elite right tackles on Sunday. Not that you’d know it, as neither player gets anything like the credit they deserve from the national media and, after three losses in their past four games, the home team had fallen out of playoff contention, taking some of the sheen off the matchup.
In spite of all that, this was still a direct matchup between two members of our Mid-season All-Pro Team as Cameron Wake of the Miami Dolphins faced off with the New England Patriots’ Sebastian Vollmer. You can’t get much more of a Marquee Matchup than this: the pair entered the game as our highest-graded 4-3 defensive end and our highest-graded right tackle — the best against the best.
Now, Vollmer missed the Patriots’ Thanksgiving Day humiliation of the New York Jets, so this was certainly a stern test of both his form and his fitness. This week Marquee Matchups examines how he fared on his return to action, and why Wake reminded everyone just why he is an elite pass rusher.
Not So One-dimensional After All
In this game (as in this season) Wake got off to a fast start and set out his stall early. In the early stages of 2012 he registered some obscene pass-rushing numbers feasting on extreme mismatches against the likes of Bobby Massie and Austin Howard, but in recent weeks his form has been inconsistent, so a big game against Vollmer was needed to get him back on track. From the first drive Wake made clear that he is just as dangerous as ever, worrying Vollmer from the Patriots’ first passing snap.
The biggest feature of Wake’s game is his speed to the edge, but that isn’t his only weapon as a pass rusher and he used that speed to work inside moves against Vollmer on Tom Brady’s first two attempts. On the first drop-back, he was took Vollmer back a little and tried to get inside to get into Brady’s face as he stepped up to throw, but the pass was gone before Wake could influence the play. However, on the next snap he was able to step and drive through Vollmer’s inside shoulder, slide off of the block, and hit Brady — taking the quarterback down as he threw.
As a measure of the strength of Brady’s throwing motion, he was still able to complete a short pass to Wes Welker where other quarterbacks may have had the throw dragged short of the receiver. Vollmer solidified on the next snap, turning Wake outside and sealing of any inside move as Brady was able to get a pass off for a third down conversion to Aaron Hernandez.
In just two plays, though, Wake had shown Vollmer — and reminded whatever doubters he had left — that he is not simply a one-dimensional speed rusher. In fact, of Wake’s six pressures (two sacks, one hit, three hurries) recorded against Vollmer in this game, five would come to the tackle’s inside… and for the season, more than one-third of Wake’s total pressure has come working inside of his blocker. That number compares favorably to Jason Pierre-Paul who last season also recorded one-third of his pressure to the inside of the player blocking him, and is the ‘Haitian Sensation’ ever referred to as one-dimensional?
Getting on the Stat Sheet
Sometimes great pass rushing days can be hidden, and bad ones overblown, simply by what the stat sheet says; it’s all too easy to judge a pass rusher based solely on sacks. This week Wake ensured that his dominance over Vollmer was accountable by whatever means you choose to look at it, recording a sack against the Patriots’ RT either side of halftime. This was Wake’s first multiple sack game since Week 5, and the first time Vollmer has ever allowed more than a single sack in a game in his entire four-year career.
Wake’s second-quarter sack came to the inside of Vollmer, but illustrated his control to each side of the New England tackle as he first set up Vollmer to the outside before ripping back across his face to sack Brady, in tandem with defensive tackle Paul Soliai, as the QB shuffled up in the pocket.
Without that inside move Wake would have flushed Brady up in the pocket to Soliai anyway — he had position and was turning the corner with the tackle unable to maintain contact with is right arm. However, he also got Vollmer into such a bad position that he simply couldn’t respond to an inside move and, with Soliai showing a rare flourish as a pass rusher on the play, Brady was doomed. Soliai, in the end, took Brady largely out of Wake’s arms, but the defensive end’s contribution to the play was as important.
The sack just after half time was Wake back to his bread-and-butter; one of three total pressures that he recorded on a third-down play and his eighth third-down sack of the season (half of which came against Arizona). There are few more important plays for a pass rusher to make than to record a sack on a third down, and for Wake to record one so quickly on 3rd-and-4 shows his devastating ability as an edge rusher.
As much as he demonstrated his multi-dimensional skills in this game, it remains that his speed off the edge is utterly terrifying and Vollmer simply couldn’t live with it on this play. As Wake explodes out of his pass-rushing stance, Vollmer is only just setting into his protection as the Dolphin has reached his outside shoulder. When Miami’s end dips and turns the corner, the Patriots’ tackle simply has no answer and Wake is on a bee-line for Brady who, looking downfield, does not see the hit coming.
This is pretty much the classic move that you look for from an edge rusher. Vollmer was not exactly slow to get outside, he was simply beaten for speed and a top-line pass rusher has to be able to do what Wake did on this play to be considered truly ‘elite’. For Vollmer, he couldn’t really have picked a tougher game to return from injury than to face off against Wake — on plays like this a tackle doesn’t really have much chance.
A Matchup for the Future?
These two players have been in the NFL for a similar amount of time (having arrived by different means), but despite playing in the same division, their prior meetings have been limited. Last season Vollmer missed both games against the Patriots and in their rookie seasons Vollmer was stationed at left tackle for the one game he played against the Dolphins. Consequently, the only ‘previous’ we have between these two are the 2010 encounters which came out fairly even as both players built upon impressive debut seasons.
Wake recorded four pressures (a sack, a hit, and two hurries) against Vollmer that season, but only a lone hurry in the final game in New England. All four of those pressures came to the outside of Vollmer at a time, perhaps, when Wake wasn’t the well-rounded pass rusher he is these days. The Patriots seem set on keeping former first-round pick Nate Solder at left tackle so, assuming they decide to retain Vollmer’s services this offseason, this is a one-on-one rivalry that we should get to witness developing in coming years.
The Dolphins once again visit the Patriots to close out the season and Wake will be looking to replicate his individual performance not only from this week in Miami, but also from last season in New England when he victimized Marcus Cannon for his most productive career game at Gillette Stadium. Meanwhile, Vollmer will be out for revenge as he returns to form and full fitness for the Patriots’ playoff run. Prior to the seven pressures he allowed in this game, the German tackle had allowed more than three pressures in a game only seven times in his four-year career.
Hopefully Vollmer will be at full health come Week 17; seeing these two go at it hammer and tongs would be one of the highlights to end the regular season as we look to build the excitement towards the playoffs.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.