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Reading the Defense - Week 8

  Posted 10/28 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive for Footballguys.com

Hard to believe we're already halfway through the fantasy regular season. Hopefully, many of you are already considering how to best optimize your lineups for a playoff run. If not, it's time to rebuild your dynasty rosters or begin the process of figuring out what went wrong in 2009. Over the next few weeks, we'll have a little something for everyone. We'll be discussing the best ongoing tackle and pass rush matchups to target in the playoffs and general thoughts on how to frame your playoff lineup along with our usual weekly player and news updates. We'll do our annual "What did we learn?' debriefing, consider some of the hot free agents this offseason and look for emerging trends for 2010. So, regardless of your record, there will hopefully be something of value here over the next two months, starting with our position-by-position look at some potential up-and-coming players next week.

This week, however, we're bringing back the screencaps to show you how a little careful scouting can provide the answer to a surprising development in the ever-changing world of IDP statistics.

Beyond the Boxscore

In this column last week (and on our weekly podcast), we made the following observation:

With Nick Barnett back to an every-down role, all of Brandon Chillar's nickel snaps and his rotational time in the base defense are coming at [A.J.] Hawk's expense. Hawk may have a game with 5-6 solos on rare occasion, but he's not likely to get more than 40-50% of his team's snaps in any given week. While Chillar may not be a strong start every week with Hawk vulturing a percentage of the base defensive snaps, Hawk is no longer a consideration in any league format.

Against the Browns last week, Hawk led the Packers with eight total tackles (seven solo). IDP owners weren't the only ones to take notice. Asked after the game about his statistical explosion, Hawk said, "Some games as a linebacker you're set up to make some plays. Today was one of those days where you could run around. A lot of credit to the guys up front, they took up a lot of blocks." Looking at the tape of the game, it was immediately evident how Dom Capers changed up his defense to Hawk's benefit.

First, for comparison, we'll start below with a look with the Packers in the 35 front that they've frequently used in recent weeks. It's a variation of their usual 2-gap, 3-4 front with Brandon Chillar walked down in the box on the strong side.

In past weeks, we've noted that Hawk has struggled to defeat blockers at the point of attack and play downhill. While we've also argued that the 3-4 front isn't necessarily a deal breaker for IDP value, this 2-gap front above (even with Chillar in the box as an eighth defender, puts Hawk (aligned over the strong side bubble) at high risk of having a guard taking him on at the point of attack. More often than not, Hawk has struggled to win that battle and make tackles. With Chillar taking him out of the nickel package, it's easy to see why Hawk's expectation was so poor.

As Hawk said, he was set up to make plays. Indeed, the Browns aligned in different formation much of the day.

Earlier this season, we detailed the 46 front popularized by Buddy Ryan with the Bears in the 1980s. The Packers used the alignment above very frequently against the Browns, and it's very similar to the 46. Just before this frame, the Packers had aligned very similarly to the 35 front shown earlier. They then shifted both defensive ends inside over the guards and brought Chillar down in the box over the tackle. With the exception of Clay Matthews aligning to the weak side in a two point stance, this front is essentially an eight man Bear front. And it's easy to see why Hawk said that this game was one of those where he could "run around." Aligned behind a six man line and a picket fence of huge defensive linemen in front of the guards and center, Hawk had only to beat the fullback (if any blocker got to him at all) on most plays. Hawk did just that on this play and made the first hit on Jamal Lewis.

Will the Packers continue using the Bear front in future weeks? That requires reading the tea leaves, but it's unlikely. The Packers knew they had the corners to defeat the Browns' inexperienced wide receivers in man coverage and used the 46 to bring pressure and ensure the Browns were unable to run the ball effectively. That gameplan could get them in big trouble against the Vikings next week (and most teams). Expect Hawk to go back to his disappointing ways in the box score.

We've pointed out similar findings - the Saints using more 3-4 and its effects, what the Tampa-2 was doing to Jon Beason at times and plenty of nickel scouting findings - by taking a look at the tape. If you have access to the games, you can often explain an unusual box score by scrolling through a series or two on the DVR. It's almost always worth the extra effort.

Line Scores, Damn Line Scores and Statistics

  • LB Tim Dobbins (11-0, INT, PD)
    Dobbins put up the numbers many expected of Kevin Burnett against the Chiefs. Dobbins benefited from a slower than usual Stephen Cooper, who still isn't full strength from a knee injury suffered some weeks ago. The every-down RILB (Dobbins left the field for only two snaps in early nickel action) role should be a good one regardless, however. There's no guarantee Dobbins holds the job when Burnett returns to health, but Dobbins should be a very good short term fill-in at the worst.
  • DE Robaire Smith (9-3)
    Smith has had 16 solos in his last three games, a time period that we usually consider a strong trend. Be careful before rushing to a positive judgment on Smith, however. 2-gap 3-4 ends are risky and inconsistent tacklers and Smith has durability and pass rush concerns as well.
  • LB Gary Brackett (2-0)
    Unlike the A.J. Hawk findings, the tape didn't yield much on Brackett's disappointing day. There was plenty of opportunity and Brackett was around the ball often. The only concerning observation is that Brackett was dealing with more offensive line blocks. It's worth watching in future weeks, but Brackett belongs in your lineup as a LB3 unless you've clearly got better options.
  • DE C.J. Ah You (7-0)
    Ah You was a project defensive end drafted by Buffalo in 2007, but was never close to finding regular playing time. Against the Colts, with Will Witherspoon traded and few viable options for Steve Spagnuolo to use in the back seven, the Rams played with dime personnel and dropped eight in coverage. When the Colts spread the field, Ah You lined up in a two point stance over a guard and dropped back into coverage. Many of his tackles came over the middle after short passes and draw plays. With Paris Lenon possibly a factor as he learns the playbook and David Vobora returning from suspension, Ah You's 15 minutes of fantasy fame should be short.
  • LB Keith Brooking (2-0)
    Brooking teased us two weeks ago when he seemed to have bumped Bradie James from the nickel package. Against the Falcons, Brooking was again a spectator in subpackages and wasn't making the most of his base defensive opportunity either. Brooking will rebound some, but don't expect more than inconsistent LB3/4 value in his current role.
  • LB Jonathan Vilma (7-3)
    The Wildcat offense was the tonic for Vilma, who finally broke a season long slump on his way to a 5-3 first half. The majority of his plays came against the Wildcat formation, which helped the Dolphins provide a huge number of tackle opportunities in the first half (30). Vilma wasn't as effective in the second half and, with the Saints still using plenty of 3-4, isn't likely to begin a run of strong production.
  • LB James Farrior (9-6-1, PD)
    Farrior's Steelers defense finally saw better than average tackle opportunity last week against the Vikings, 61 opportunities against the fewer than 42 they've averaged through six weeks. Farrior hasn't been as effective as he was in year's past, but this week shows that he can be a viable upside LB3 against better matchups. It doesn't hurt that the Steelers have dialed up the aggressiveness again with Troy Polamalu back to health.
  • S Quintin Mikell (2-2)
    Mikell earned the benefit of the doubt after weak performances in Weeks 5 and 6 due to terrible matchups and tackle opportunity. Last week's two solo tackle effort against the Redskins despite 54 opportunities is cause for concern. Next week's game against the Giants is a watershed matchup. If he disappoints again next week, any chance he has to regain consideration as a DB1 disappears.

Stunts

Despite wishful internet speculation, Aaron Curry is not moving to the middle with Lofa Tatupu out. Curry was drafted to play the WLB role in this defense and the Seahawks have a strong option to replace Tatupu in David Hawthorne. The more important speculation should be about who plays in the Seattle nickel packages. All three current starters (including LeRoy Hill) have had primary nickel roles at points this season and all three have played well as every-down players. There's an argument for all three players, but unless Curry moves into a nickel pass rusher role or the Seahawks use a 3-3-5 front (both of which are possibilities), either Hawthorne or Hill is probably going to be a spectator in subpackages.

Though he finished well behind Hunter Hillenmeyer in solo tackles last week, Nick Roach is still playing every down and held the MLB job over Hillenmeyer, who moved outside to SLB. That strongly favors Roach in most weeks and he remains an upside LB3 moving forward.

Paris Lenon was expected to play an every-down role in St. Louis after the Rams dealt Will Witherspoon to Philadelphia last week. Lenon was rarely on the field against the Colts, however, as the Rams elected to play six defensive backs with safety Craig Dahl in a hybrid linebacker role. With David Vobora now in the mix, Lenon may never amount to much in the box scores.

The box scores don't suggest a change, but the safety saga in Washington continues. After playing just one snap in Week 6, Chris Horton played nearly every snap against the Eagles. Reed Doughty came in only in subpackages. Horton has generally been statistically productive when in a full time role and, though anything could happen with this situation over the bye week, he's worth pulling back off the free agent lists if you're thin at the DB position.

The safety situation in Philadelphia may also be changing. Sean Jones has been on the active roster in recent weeks and seeing time in subpackages. While Macho Harris was slightly dinged last week, Jones rotated in more often and he could be forcing his way into more playing time. Keep an eye on his snap counts in future weeks.

Those looking for a glimmer of hope with Richard Marshall might find one in the strong spreadsheet work done by Larry Thomas in the IDP Matchup Sheet released every week. The Panthers' defense has faced the fewest pass attempts per game and allowed the fourth fewest pass completions per game through seven weeks. Unfortunately, Marshall hasn't been able to counter that trend with strong run support numbers, but Marshall's schedule (NO twice, ARI, MIN and strong opportunity matchups like NYG, ATL and MIA) looks ripe for a potential rebound.

The Browns named Kaluka Maiava the starting ILB with D'Qwell Jackson out for the season, but David Bowens saw a handful of snaps in his place during the second half. Maiava was only a part-time subpackage performer, missing a number of snaps when the Browns went to a dime package. Maiava may still get enough snaps on a poor Cleveland team to have LB3/4 value, but he remains unlikely to approach the numbers Jackson was able to produce.

Returner-Defender Guys

There was unfortunately no clear indication during the bye week on Josh Wilson's status as a kick returner. Marcus Trufant reportedly had a good week of practice, however, which could put Wilson back into his former nickel back/returner role. Watch for late week news on Wilson, but he should be on rosters if he isn't already. Terrence McGee returned a kick last week, though it seems unlikely that the Bills will continue to use him in that role with the injuries in their secondary. Captain Munnerlyn was back on kick returns, in addition to his punt return duty, last week and his matchup as a nickel corner/returner this week against Arizona could bring huge numbers should that continue. The injury to Leon Washington opened up a potential job for nickel corner Dwight Lowery in New York, but the Jets have signed Justin Miller. Miller isn't likely to play on defense and has minimal value in most returner situations. Finally, Tramon Williams continues to see snaps as a nickel corner for Green Bay. His matchup against the Vikings is much better than last week's against Cleveland.

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

Best of luck in Week 8.