As we prep for the all-important third week of preseason, Steve Palazzolo takes the opportunity to rattle through some thoughts from the first two weeks of our inaugural preseason experience.
While free safety Devin McCourty is a lock to start on opening day, the Patriots have a lot of other interesting options at the position. It starts with veteran Adrian Wilson who was signed as a free agent in the offseason. Wilson has been one of the best strong safeties in the league throughout his career, but heading into his 13th year in the league, it remains to be seen if he has enough left to be a three-down contributor. He may not have the range to cover deep, but his ability to play around the line of scrimmage, help in the running game, blitz, and cover tight ends has always been a strength. He’s gotten some work at the Patriots “money” spot in their dime defense which would require Wilson to essentially play as an extra linebacker, and that may be where his value lies this year.
In addition to Wilson, the Patriots return Steve Gregory who graded at -2.2 last year including the playoffs. He was having a rather pedestrian season until the Patriots moved McCourty to free safety and started to play more “single-high” coverages with Gregory playing more of a “robber” role. He made some big plays in the new role and appears to do his best work when asked to break downhill on the ball rather than running backward to find it.
Beyond Wilson and Gregory, the Patriots have two recent draft picks in 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson and rookie third-rounder Duron Harmon. While they’re different players, Wilson and Harmon have a lot in common as both were seen as major draft reaches by head coach Bill Belichick and both selections had draft analysts scratching their collective heads. Wilson had a nice overall rookie season (+5.7 including playoffs) as he saw significant time in nickel and dime packages as he was generally charged with covering opposing tight ends. He struggled at times when asked to fill in a deep safety as he was often fooled by play action and found wide receivers running right past him. In his tight end covering role, however, Wilson can be an asset in New England — though he hasn’t been covering anyone well to this point in preseason (-3.4 in coverage).
For Harmon, he comes with his own strengths and weaknesses, namely his ability to get to the sideline when playing deep in cover-2. He showed this at times at Rutgers and again in the Patriots’ first game against the Eagles that he has the range to make an impact and perhaps limit big plays. Patriots fans have many recent images of receivers making plays in between the cornerback and safeties (looking at you Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI) and Harmon may be able to alleviate some of those concerns. Still, he’s a rookie mid-rounder, and has shown as such at times in the preseason as he’s found himself late on some passes (in single-high looks) and has taken questionable angles to the ball carrier at times.
So what does it all mean? From my view, the Patriots have an elite free safety in McCourty (+10.0 at the position last year including playoffs), and a number of safeties with unique skill sets: Wilson is a smart veteran who can contribute close to the line of scrimmage, Gregory is a nice compelemnt to McCourty’s single-high looks, Wilson can stick with tight ends, while Harmon has nice range in two-high looks. Belichick mixes and matches on a week-to-week basis as much as any defensive coach in the league, so look for him to tap into the various skill sets in his defensive backfield.
After struggling in their first game, it was a nice bounce-back week for a pair of guards in Chance Warmack of the Tennessee Titans and Josh LeRibeus of the Washington Redskins. Warmack looked a lot more like the 10th overall pick of the draft as he was perfect in pass protection and lived up to his reputation as a mauler in the running game. Check out his two pull blocks, first at Q1 12:32 then at Q2 12:37, as he levels both DT Wallace Gilberry and CB Leon Hall, respectively.
The situation for LeRibeus is a bit different as he’s hoping to thrust himself into the Redskins’ left guard competition but after starting in Week 1, he was relegated to second-half duty against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Still, it was a good second effort for LeRibeus who did a nice job of opening holes at the second level in the running game.
Find Him a Spot
I’ve been a huge fan of Seattle Seahawks running back Spencer Ware over the last few years at LSU and despite a crowded backfield situation in Seattle, I think he should see some time on passing downs. For a big guy, he’s a smooth receiver out of the backfield and generally strong in pass protection (hasn’t allowed a pressure on his 11 pass block attempts to this point). Ware was part of a loaded backfield at LSU that likely cost him a few opportunities but perhaps saved him some tread on the tires for his pending NFL career. He graded at +2.2 against the Denver Broncos last week, so look for him to get even more opportunities as the preseason moves along.
Turnaround in New Orleans?
By no means are we saying that Rob Ryan’s New Orleans Saints defense is channeling his father, Buddy Ryan’s, 1985 Chicago Bears defense, but it’s been a nice start for the Saints, even with their first two games coming against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. They seem to have taken to the new 3-4 scheme as they feature three of our top four 3-4 defensive ends to this point in Glenn Foster (+7.5) (more on him later), Tyrunnn Walker (+5.3), and Cameron Jordan (+7.2). It’s no surprise that Jordan has excelled, as he seemed destined for a 3-4 system when he was drafted in the first round in 2011, but he’s still been an exceptional run defender despite playing in the 4-3 the last two years.
Beyond the defensive line, the Saints have seen strong performances from linebacker Ramon Humber (+3.7) and second-year cornerback Corey White (+3.6). White’s an intriguing case as he was one of our worst slot cornerbacks last year, but was well on his way toward turning his season around with three strong games in Weeks 8-10 before going down for the year due to injury.
It’s only two games in, but the early returns are positive for the Saints’ defense, especially a year removed from being one of the worst defenses in the league. Here’s a piece I wrote back in 2011, but should be of encouragement to Saints fans.
The win-loss record hasn’t been pretty in recent years, but Illinois has done a nice job of putting talent in the NFL. A pair of Illini defensive linemen have stood out this preseason in Tampa Bay Buccaneers fourth-round rookie DT Akeem Spence and the aforementioned Glenn Foster who went undrafted. As I mentioned this week, Spence looks like a perfect complement to DT Gerald McCoy in Tampa Bay’s scheme. With McCoy lining up at 3-technique over the guard, Spence has play their “tilt nose tackle” position between the center and opposite guard. He’s done a nice job of penetrating the A-gap in their system and perhaps will become the player the Bucs were hoping for when they drafted Brian Price right behind McCoy back in 2010.
In New Orleans, Foster has been a pass rushing force notching three sacks, a hit and six hurries on his 46 pass rushes. He’s dominated the backup interior offensive linemen in Kansas City and Oakland, and if he keeps it up, he’ll find himself in the Saints’ defensive line rotation this season, perhaps as a sub-package pass rusher.
– The Eagles have used Shotgun on 93% of their snaps. Looks like Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense is in full swing.
– Speaking of the Eagles, take a look at how they’ve been using rookie tight end Zach Ertz
– Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers played only four snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals due to an ankle injury, but he’s been toying with a new role this preseason. He’s lined up at defensive right end on six of his 20 snaps after doing so just 34 of his 874 snaps last year. The Titans experimented with it late last season and it may be a good fit for Ayers who graded at +6.7 as a pass rusher last season often rushed the passer from a three-point stance in college at UCLA.
– No QB has released the ball faster than Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert’s 1.98 seconds. Looks like the Jaguars are really trying to get the ball out of his hand quickly here in his third season.
– Houston Texans QB T.J. Yates leads the preseason in Accuracy Percentage at 96.0%.
– Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson has completed all four of his deep passes (20+ yards) for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
– Broncos QB Brock Osweiler’s 21 pressured drop-backs are the most in the preseason. He’s also used play action more than any other quarterback at 40.5%.
– As Nathan Jahnke mentioned in his 32 Observations, Falcons rookie cornerback Robert Alford has yet to surrender a reception in his 36 coverage snaps. He did, however, get called for a pass interference penalty last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
– The Green Bay Packers’ offensive line leads the preseason with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 92.6.
– Detroit Lions DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo leads the position in Pass Rush Productivity at 20.5.
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The Week at PFF
– As always, we went in-depth on every preseason game. You can find all of our Re-Focused articles here.
Buzzing at PFF Offices
-Khaled Elsayed’s man crush on Jeff Tuel cooled for a week as Kevin Kolb’s return limited Tuel to only three passing attempts a week removed from grading as our highest rated player at +5.9.
-Sam Monson was not particularly impressed with the Raiders’ three-man rush against the Saints.
-The PFF office isn’t the only place that Chicago Bears rookie guard Kyle Long is buzzing. His +5.7 effort last week has Bears fans elated and perhaps looking for a yellow jacket to match his father, Howie. We’re not putting him in Canton just yet, but it’s been an impressive start for Long who has dominated in the running game while surrendering only one pressure on 50 pass block attempts to this point.
I joined Greg DePalma and talked all things NFL on our recent PFF Podcast. You can find it on the PFF homepage, just scroll down to use the plugin. Be sure to check in regularly as Neil Hornsby and Sam Monson also join in on the weekly podcasts.
Proud of Our Efforts
As a quick aside, I’d just like to commend my co-workers here at PFF and especially thank the fans who have flooded the site in recent weeks. When we started the preseason project, we had no idea that it would garner such a huge response from nearly every fan base. It’s certainly a lot more time and effort on our end, particularly as the summer winds down, but the positive feedback we’ve received is well worth the extra hours of work.
Most importantly, we felt it necessary to add the extra games at no extra cost. That’s over 2,000 graded players, numerous unique statistics, re-focused articles for every game, and much more. We’ve truly enjoyed the experience of finding the hidden gems around the league as your favorite team nears their final roster decisions.
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