Marquee Matchup: Thursday Night Throwdown
For this week’s Marquee Matchups we’re going to take you all the way back to last week’s entirely unmemorable victory for the San Diego Chargers over their division foe, the Kansas City Chiefs. Lost in all of the talk surrounding job security for senior off-field personnel on both sides was a match between one of the league’s best pass rushers and one of the league’s best pass protectors. A year ago these two were teammates but in this game faced-off for the second time in a month as rivals.
Dating back to a Week 1 defeat for the Chiefs in 2009, we have seen Tamba Hali and Jared Gaither go head-to-head three times with both players sharing the honors and never really dominating their opponent. The blend of speed and power that both players bring to the table offers us one of the best edge matchups in the entire league, a real back and forth battle.
Last Thursday, however, the balance of power in this battle shifted, though you wouldn’t notice it as the player getting the better of it came out on the losing side and was denied the ability to make a telling contribution to his team’s cause. This week’s Marquee Matchup will take a look at some of the prior meetings between these two, what was different last week, and what it means for both teams moving forward.
Back Where it All Began
The first meeting between these two in the professional ranks came all the way back at the start of the 2009 season. Gaither was a second-year starter on a team looking to build upon a conference championship appearance in 2008 while Hali was a pass rusher coming off of a strong end to the prior season having recorded 35 total pressures (2 sacks, 3 hits, 30 hurries) in the final seven games. Back then Gaither was still playing on a contract signed as a supplemental draft pick and was eager to prove himself as a player to be invested in after an acrimonious exit from the University of Maryland that raised the dreaded “red flags” on his scouting report.
While Gaither’s productivity in this game was excellent, largely limiting Hali off of the edge, there were a couple of plays that would raise concerns that came home to roost for Gaither last Thursday. Very early in the game Hali got pressure on a sharp inside move that Gaither simply couldn’t respond to, though the pass was still completed for a 22-yard gain. Then, in the second quarter, Gaither was beaten to his outside by the sheer work rate of Hali. On one play Gaither was forced to hold Hali as Joe Flacco climbed through the pocket for a scramble and later in the quarter he would relinquish a sack as Hali fought all the way around the corner against him to force a Flacco fumble that the QB recovered.
On all three of these plays it was Gaither’s footwork — and in particular his foot speed — that was found wanting. He couldn’t step quickly enough to cut off the inside move and on both the hold and the sack in the second quarter his feet simply couldn’t catch up to allow him to use his frame to cut Hali off as he did many other times in that game. This wasn’t a common problem, though, as Gaither built from this solid display to earn a pass protection grade of +20.3 in the 2009 season, yielding only 13 total pressures in 13 starts.
In spite of this fine 2009 season, Gaither’s career was derailed for the better part of two years and he didn’t get back on track until after he was cut by Hali’s Chiefs midway through the 2011 season. The Chiefs’ loss was the Chargers’ gain as Gaither put in an exceptional final month of the season to finally solve their problems at left tackle. In the offseason he was signed to a four-year contract to tie down his career and the Chargers’ left tackle position that had been thrown into flux by injuries to Marcus McNeill. However, it didn’t work out that way as Gaither’s track record of injuries caught up with him resulting in him missing the first three weeks of the 2012 season.
Gaither’s return came against the Chiefs and Hali in Week 4, three years after the two first met and again those issues with foot speed were hinted at. On the final play of the first quarter Hali recorded a pressure that looked eerily similar to the hold Gaither relinquished all that way back in 2009. Gaither was as ever quick to close the ground but over-extended and didn’t get completely across Hali which allowed the Chief to turn him around, driving through his left shoulder to get immediately into the face of Philip Rivers as he turned off of a play-action fake.
That play forced an intentional grounding penalty and later in the third quarter Gaither would relinquish a sack to Hali as he again used a sharp inside step to drive across the face the Chargers’ LT to set up a third-down stop. Gaither’s week inside step left him in no position to prevent Hali from driving through his right shoulder and making a bee-line for Rivers who made sure to get on the ground before he could step back into the end zone.
Once again, these were isolated plays and shouldn’t detract from an otherwise solid display against Hali; but more seeds were sown for the Week 9 rematch.
This matchup came to a head in the Chargers’ victory last Thursday night and rarely has Gaither looked quite as lead-footed and ponderous in pass protection as he did last week. It is only thanks to the Chiefs’ dubious defensive game planning and the Chargers’ lead that Gaither didn’t have a tougher night than the stat sheet suggests. After he got over a first quarter bout of the twitches (two false starts) Gaither allowed questions to be raised over his footwork and foot speed by NFL Network commentator Mike Mayock as we saw the two prior meetings between Hali and Gaither encapsulated in one game.
The pressure Hali recorded in the second quarter was all about speed as he feigned an inside step before driving to outside of Gaither, who was left nowhere on the play. Most concerning here was that the outstanding reach that Gaither usually uses to counteract his at times sub-par foot speed was nowhere to be seen. He responded quickly to the inside step but simply lurched forward with his shoulders rather than using his long arms to reach out and punch Hali — something that would have at least stalled the speed with which he could get into the backfield and press Rivers.
It was another quarter until we saw Gaither’s footwork again catch up with him, this being the play that drew Mayock’s ire for slow feet. The Chiefs worked the outside rush hard in this game — possibly too hard as Gaither was only rarely shown an inside move by Hali which allowed him to maintain a respectable stat line — and this was one of the occasions where it drew dividends with Gaither latching on to Hali early, but never able to get his feet to catch-up with his hands. With quicker feet Gaither would have been able to track upfield and turn Hali around the pocket, but instead he was leaning and reaching all through the contact. Against an inferior pass rusher or with Gaither in better shape this might work, but with Hali’s ability to dip and turn the corner it simply wasn’t good enough to prevent the sack.
That outside speed clearly got in Gaither’s head as he was too quick to try and cut off the outside move on the following play. Hali quickly drove inside of Gaither who could only reach an arm around his chest and slam him to the ground in the middle of the pocket, drawing a flag for holding from umpire Paul King, though in truth the term ‘choke slam’ would have been a better description. This came only a few plays after an embarrassing face-plant from Gaither on the opening play of the drive.
Clearly knowing that he was off his game, Gaither felt the need to make a statement block on the Chargers’ opening play of the third quarter. He drove out at Hali on the back-side of a rush off right end looking to physically dominate the smaller rusher and set the tone for the second half. Instead, Hali simply side-stepped Gaither and used his momentum and eagerness to throw the Chargers’ tackle to the ground, setting the tone for a half where Gaither was on the edge, off balance, and off form.
Further Tests to Come
It is to Gaither’s credit that a down day for him resulted in only allowing two pressures and a holding penalty. For Gaither to look as leaden foot and slow but still prevent a pass rusher like Hali from terrorizing the San Diego backfield shows his quality but also the Chiefs’ poor defensive game planning. Only rarely was Gaither tested with an inside move and even more rarely was the Chargers’ offensive line stressed with blitzes or with both outside linebackers coming after the quarterback. With a sterner examination and a more varied pass rush by Hali to really test Gaither’s footwork and balance, Rivers wouldn’t have been allowed to execute as efficiently as he did last Thursday.
This was Hali’s last shot at Gaither until next season, so he will still have to wait to build upon the glimpses he has shown in their first three career meetings to really excel and take Gaither apart in one game. The question now is where does Gaither’s season go? At present he is using his strength and size to excel as a run blocker but is struggling in pass protection, an unusual reversal of his typical form. His footwork and technique were extremely suspect this week so the question has to be: can his future opponents take advantage and really get after Rivers’ blindside?
With games coming against such pass rushers as Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs (who Gaither shut down late last season) and James Harrison, the Chargers’ coaching staff will be hopeful that this is merely Gaither struggling on his return from injury rather than a general lethargy, something Gaither has had a reputation for throughout his career, that will blight his entire season.
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