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Reading the Defense

  Posted 9/17 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive to Footballguys.com


Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this week's column, let's quickly revisit our argument for patience last week after the Great September Backer Crash of 2008. Paul Posluszny, Mike Peterson, Will Witherspoon and Patrick Willis all bounced back with solid games. Antonio Pierce struggled in the tackle column again, but added a sack. David Harris had a second straight game with less than five solos, though he had eight total tackles. He'll likely be fine, but warrants watching over the next couple of weeks. Both Tennessee OLBs had poor tackling weeks, though the matchup and weather in Cincinnati weren't favorable. Meanwhile, other normally solid linebackers stepped up to take their lumps, as Nick Barnett, London Fletcher and Lofa Tatupu all failed to make more than four solos. This week's poster boy for patience is consensus #1 DL Jared Allen, who's gotten off to a two solo, one sack start in his first two games. Allen has faced two of the better offensive lines in the league thus far and a QB who's among the best ever at avoiding sacks. If you're lucky enough to play in a league with a grumpy owner who sends him to the waiver wire, do everything you can to get him on your roster.

As we mentioned last week, we've started to receive some questions from readers. Keep them coming, as we'll be sure to weave them into the weekly headliner section of this column. This week, we'll attack a question that comes up often in our IDP Forum.

Should You Target The Right Or Left Defensive End In A 4-3 Front?

The default feeling among many IDP owners is often to target the right defensive end preferentially over the left defensive end in 4-3 fronts. Defaults are a dangerous crutch, however, so it's worth taking a critical look at the issue. Those that feel the right defensive end is clearly a better box score option argue that the right end, who most often lines up opposite the weak side of the offensive formation, is less likely to be double-teamed by a tight end and may be able to align in a technique that gives him a better angle to the quarterback. They correctly note that the more athletic pass rusher is usually aligned on the open end, and, since sacks are a major element of DL value in IDP leagues, a better pass rusher facing fewer blockers with a better angle to collapse the pocket (i.e. the RDE) should be the default IDP option.

Those arguments are well made, but let's look at the box score data to see if they are as valid as they are reasonable.

Excluding all 3-4 defensive ends, hybrid ends like Jason Taylor and Terrell Suggs who have often played from two-point stances in recent seasons and players who see a significant percentage of snaps at defensive tackle on passing downs like Justin Tuck and Ebenezer Ekuban, we'll compare right and left defensive end tackle, sack and overall fantasy point (FBG scoring) production over the last three seasons.

  • Between 2005 and 2007, 55% of the top 10 4-3 defensive ends in solo tackles were LDEs. There were an equal number of LDEs and RDEs in the top 20 tacklers over that time frame.
  • Between 2005 and 2007, 67% the top 10 4-3 defensive ends in sacks were RDEs. 57% of the top 20 4-3 defensive ends in sacks were RDEs over that time frame.
  • Between 2005 and 2007, 61% of the top 10 4-3 defensive ends in FBG fantasy scoring were RDEs. 57% of the top 20 4-3 defensive ends in fantasy scoring were RDEs over that time frame.

There were more RDEs than LDEs in the top twenty in sacks and fantasy scoring, but the difference isn't significant. In fact, unless your league has very shallow rosters with a very sack heavy scoring system, the difference is barely more than a coin flip. Had you dropped LDEs in favor of RDEs on your draft lists in these seasons, you may have missed on players like Aaron Kampman, Patrick Kerney, Julius Peppers, Michael Strahan, Will Smith, Adewale Ogunleye, Robert Mathis, Charles Grant, Leonard Little and Tamba Hali.

Why doesn't the default argument work?

Though it's true that the right defensive end lines up opposite fewer blockers, teams will still find ways to get extra blockers on him with double tight end sets, chip blocks and rotating max protection schemes. Even if teams choose not to use max protection schemes, the left tackle is very often (though not always) the best pass blocker on the team and a tougher matchup for the RDE. Many teams also run to their strong side a higher percentage of the time, limiting the RDEs ability to make solo tackles on plays run at him. Conversely, the LDE sees more rush attempts in his general direction and faces a generally weaker pass blocker. With teams using their tight ends in pass patterns more frequently, the LDE often doesn't see as many double teams as one might think.

Instead of using a RDE > LDE default, consider the skill set of the player instead. Nearly every productive season among the best 4-3 defensive ends in recent years has been from an all-around threat. Players that know how to defeat a blocker and make tackles in run support are more consistent than one-dimensional pass rushers. Ends that can rush the passer as well as produce in run support are the true studs. That's the true common factor among the top ten 4-3 defensive ends. Michael Strahan, Aaron Kampman, Jared Allen and Mario Williams are studs because they are threats for both 50 solo tackles and double digit sacks. Each of those players would likely succeed on either side of the defensive line.

The alignment should be a factor in your decision-making process, but only one factor. Skill set, surrounding cast and fit within the scheme are equally, if not more important. As always, the primary take-home point is that using defaults is dangerous and can unnecessarily close the door on very productive players. Take the extra time to understand why the defaults usually work so you can correctly project the outliers and then you'll truly be getting the most out of the default IDP wisdoms.

Stunts

Nick Barnett owners were disappointed by his poor box score effort last week, but it's likely a sign of a matchup trend worth watching very closely as the season progresses. Barnett fell victim to the inept Detroit rushing attack (only twelve rush attempts against Green Bay), as did the combination of Keith Brooking and Curtis Lofton in Week 1. Don't be surprised if Patrick Willis has a below average game this week, especially if the leg injury he suffered in the second half of last week's game slows his pursuit and cover ability. Meanwhile, Barnett's teammate, A.J. Hawk, is off to a quick start, with 12 solos and two sacks in his first two games. Both players should have nice weeks against the Cowboys this week.

The Minnesota stadium statistician crew is again worth watching. As we noted a couple of seasons ago, the Viking statisticians sometimes award tackles to incorrect players or don't award them at all. This week, the crew failed to credit tackles to a specific player on five separate plays last week, including four instances where they credited a solo tackle to the "team" instead of a Minnesota defender. If this continues, it's a slight downgrade to the Minnesota defenders.

Despite their proclamations that Jordon Dizon would begin to get significant snaps in the base defense, the Lions played Paris Lenon at middle linebacker on every snap last week. If Dizon doesn't rotate in this week, he may not get back into the lineup for some time. The Lions did make good on their statements that Daniel Bullocks and Leigh Bodden would join the starting unit, however, and Bullocks responded with an eight solo tackle week. Bullocks was a very productive player when healthy in prior seasons and could be in line for a very nice season on a struggling team.

Washington LB H.B. Blades showed a lot of versatility this week filling in for an injured Marcus Washington. Blades was able to shed blockers on the strong side well enough to make four solo tackles and assist on two others while also adding a pass defensed. Blades doesn't have a clear role in the defense yet, but has now proven he can fit well at all three positions. Should any of the Redskin linebackers be out for any length of time, Blades could be an excellent stopgap pickup, especially if he plays in the nickel package.

We highlighted Miami DE Kendall Langford last week as a candidate for this season's 3-4 DE value du jour. In the same vein, don't sleep for much longer on San Francisco DL Ray McDonald. McDonald is playing a very similar role to that played by Marques Douglas in recent seasons for Mike Nolan. Douglas had a string of quietly strong 45+ solo, 5-7 sack seasons. McDonald has the skill set and surrounding cast to allow him to do the same. He gets a great matchup against the Lions this week. Consider him for a spot start if you're in a bind at the DL position.

Cincinnati S Chinedum Ndukwe played extensively in his first game back with Dexter Jackson missing time with a thumb injury. Ndukwe looked terrible on a long run by Tennessee's Chris Johnson late in the first half, but finished with a respectable four solos. With Jackson out again this week and Ndukwe presumably closer to game shape, the matchup against the Giants this week should produce a nice box score. He'll have to be more sound in his run fits to keep Jackson on the bench when his thumb injury heals. Meanwhile, Antwan Odom showed signs that he may have found his legs, finishing with four total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He may work his way into every week DL2 value very soon.

Justin Durant got the start at OLB in Jacksonville this week and presumably would have gotten the significant majority of the base defensive snaps. Unfortunately, Durant left the game with a groin injury, which could set him back again in his quest to wrest every-down stats from Daryl Smith. Keep an eye on the injury reports this week.

After a two sack effort against the Falcons last week, Tampa Bay DE Gaines Adams has two sacks and six quarterback hits over the first two weeks. Adams also added a solo tackle and three assists in run support. Should he continue to get himself around the ballcarrier on rushing plays, his value will get a sizable bump. His continued good play will also open things up for Jovan Haye and Greg White.

It's very nearly time to consider cutting bait on Charger LB Anthony Waters. Waters has been inactive for both games thus far, presumably due to his inability to contribute on special teams. However, Tim Dobbins began rotating in on some base defensive snaps last week for veteran ILB Derek Smith. That's not a good sign at all for Waters' perceived value inside the Charger organization. If Waters can't crack the Smith-Dobbins-Brandon Siler group, things aren't likely to get better when Stephen Cooper returns from suspension.

Keep an eye on Indianapolis DT Eric Foster. One of our own Sigmund Bloom's DraftGuys.com favorites, Foster got the start next to Dwight Freeney after Ed Johnson was released last week. Foster could get enough snaps in the three-technique role on base defensive downs to have an impact at some point this season, especially since the Colts seem serious about using Raheem Brock at end and using Robert Mathis as a situational rusher.

Cortland Finnegan, Brandon Flowers and Dwight Lowery (among others) have grabbed the early attention of most IDP owners who must start cornerbacks. All are off to reasonable starts. With those players now likely rostered, it's worth turning your attention to San Diego's Quentin Jammer and Kansas City's Brandon Carr. Jammer may not be available given his name status, but he's likely to get more opportunity than he's had since very early in his career opposite burgeoning shutdown corner Antonio Cromartie. He could be in line for a 70 solo, 15 pass defensed season. Carr got lost in the Flowers hype this summer, but he's working his way into increased playing time as Patrick Surtain battles injury.

Not much to report on the nickel linebacker front this week. Boss Bailey moved back into the starting lineup in Denver and assumed the every-down role held down by Jamie Winborn in Week 1. Despite his eight total tackle week (five solos), Curtis Lofton continues to leave the field on passing downs. Chad Greenway again lost nickel snaps to Ben Leber last week, though not as many as in Week 1. Whether that was by design as the Vikings looked to get their most athletic lineup on the field against the Colts or a sign of things to come remains to be seen.

A number of relative unknowns had surprisingly good numbers in Week 2. Washington S Chris Horton, who was a last minute replacement for a stomach flu ridden Reed Doughty last week, had two interceptions. Both were on tipped balls, however, and the team isn't ready to trust him as a full time secondary player yet. Tracy Porter, the promising rookie corner in New Orleans, broke out with an eight solo tackle week. Porter is definitely worth watching under the rookie corner rule, but nearly all of Porter's tackles have come in coverage. Wait for him to show a little in run support before projecting him as a consistent lineup option. Atlanta DE Jamaal Anderson finally had a decent week, posting six solo tackles. Anderson still has yet to tally a sack in his now 18 game career, but the solos could be a sign of things to come. He still has a long way to go before he's worth trusting with a roster slot if you're in a shallow league.

IDP Returner Threats

Rk
Player
Tm
Kick Ret
Punt Ret
Additional IDP Stats
KR 
Yds
TD
PR
Yds
TD
Solo
Asst
Sk
INT
PD
1
Quinton Demps
PHI
6
153
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
2
Allen Rossum
SF
5
136
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
3
Josh Wilson
SEA
5
120
0
0
0
0
3
0
0
0
0
4
Will Blackmon
GB
4
99
0
2
4
0
3
1
0
0
0
5
Brian Witherspoon
JAC
3
85
0
1
8
0
0
0
0
0
0
6
B.J. Sams
KC
1
21
0
3
37
0
0
0
0
0
0
7
Ellis Hobbs
NE
2
53
0
0
0
0
2
0
0
0
2
8
Leodis McKelvin
BUF
2
43
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
9
Danieal Manning
CHI
1
36
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
10
Chris Carr
TEN
1
36
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
11
Terrence McGee
BUF
2
35
0
0
0
0
7
0
0
1
1
12
Nathan Vasher
CHI
0
0
0
3
21
0
1
1
0
0
0
13
Charles Gordon
MIN
0
0
0
3
15
0
2
0
0
1
1
14
Adam Jones
DAL
0
0
0
3
11
0
0
0
0
0
0

Rk
Player
TM
Kick Ret
Punt Ret
Additional IDP Stats
KR 
Yds
TD
PR
Yds
TD
Solo
Asst
SK
INT
PD
1
Brian Witherspoon
JAC
6
209
0
3
53
0
0
0
0
0
0
2
Will Blackmon
GB
7
159
0
5
82
1
0
0
0
0
0
3
Josh Wilson
SEA
9
226
0
0
0
0
6
1
0
0
0
4
Allen Rossum
SF
7
194
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
5
Quintin Demps
PHI
7
168
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
6
Ellis Hobbs
NE
4
123
0
0
0
0
5
1
1
1
3
7
B.J. Sams
KC
3
71
0
3
44
0
0
0
0
0
0
8
Chris Carr
TEN
3
69
0
3
15
0
1
0
0
0
0
9
Terrence McGee
BUF
4
62
0
0
0
0
11
2
0
2
4
10
Danieal Manning
CHI
2
54
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

In response to the ever-increasing number of leagues that award points for kick and punt return yards, we're adding a new feature to the column. Every week, with a huge helping hand from our IDP Forum's own kerpow who will be providing the stat tables, we'll be tracking some notable trends among the league's dual IDP-returner threats.

In recent seasons, this group has been led by Buffalo CB Terrence McGee and New England CB Ellis Hobbs, with a few others working their way into the mix in fits and spurts. Thus far this season, McGee and Hobbs are again the only true dual IDP-returner threats. However, there may be trouble on the horizon in Buffalo. Leodis McKelvin showed up on the returner report this week, returning two of the four kickoffs Buffalo received in Week 2 and acquitting himself nicely with 43 yards on two returns. McGee lost a kickoff returns to Roscoe Parrish in 2007, but this is clearly a trend worth watching. Unfortunately, McKelvin looks to be fourth on the depth chart at corner with the continued solid play of Ashton Youboty, and isn't likely to have enough IDP value to warrant a starting slot in standard return yardage leagues. Ellis Hobbs, despite being arguably the Patriots best corner, continues to contribute in the return columns. His IDP stats have been solid as well. Should McGee lose returns to McKelvin, Hobbs will be the lone dual threat remaining. Other potential dual threats that bear watching include Seattle CB Josh Wilson and Green Bay CB Will Blackmon. Neither is likely to earn enough snaps in the base defense to have great value, but Wilson could get enough snaps in the nickel package to be a solid matchup play.

Remember to check out our weekly all-IDP podcast on the Audible every Wednesday and be sure to stop by the IDP Forum every Sunday morning for all the latest and most accurate IDP news, analysis and inactive players. Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

Best of luck in Week 4.