Here is part I if you want to check in on the poll. It appears many people think there could be some validity to the possible thunder-lightning effect from our DL. I hope we're right. Upward and onward to part II.
SAM and WILL are our two OLB positions and they manifest very differently. The SAM plays on the strong-side has more responsibilities with at least one extra offensive skill player to account for. The WILL plays on the weak-side and there's greater emphasis placed on flowing to the football. I wouldn't expect any major innovation from our coaching staff in this area. The SAM and WILL, as we've come to understand them, are probably here to stay.
Our coaches also recognizes the starters at these positions. KJ Wright is our starting SAM and Leroy Hill is our starting WILL. Pete hasn't explicitly said they're starting but he did say, "we expect KJ and Leroy to be well ahead of the other guys." So it's basically their jobs to lose. KJ fits well at SAM as he's long-limbed, quick, and intelligent. Despite all of Leroy's off-field misfortunes, he still mostly looks the part of the speedy, downhill, violent-tackling LB who at one point received the franchise tag and a fat ($38M) contract. An excellent fit for the WILL position.
However, the ability to play both positions is a clear necessity for the starting OLBs on this defense. If the tight end or slot receiver motions across the line, our DL might flip but our LBs will not. I believe that this need for flexibility stems from our Leo scheme. Teams will always want to flip the strong-side in order take Bryant and Clemons/Irvin out of their element. Even if our defensive line flips in response, as we've often seen, a savvy QB can sometimes snap the ball before we reset. If our LBs had to swap as well then we'd become particularly vulnerable to unreadiness at the snap.
I couldn't find the exact quote but at some point the ever-knowledgeable, Thomas "Baker, not Beeker, but still spelled Beekers" referred to them as more like "Left" and "Right" LBs. This versatility extends even further given how we can switch between Over, Under, and also 3-4 fronts on a snap-to-snap basis. SAM and WILL assignments are different in each alignment and our starting OLBs must be comfortable in all of them. Leroy's experience at both SAM and WILL probably contributed to our willingness to overlook his off-field troubles for a one year contract.
Knowing this, I'm getting excited about fifth round pick, Korey Toomer. I have seen next to nothing of him on the field but his skill set is certainly intriguing. Here is his SI Profile as a refresher. One point to add is that he has experience playing both SAM and WILL in college. Gus Bradley had this to say at the :54 mark following the second day of rookie OTAs,
I think he (Toomer) had a better day today. You know I think for him it's just figuring out everything and next to the MIKE, the SAM is a really loaded position mentally. So he was going through all the checks and that can sometimes slow you down. But it was better for him today.
At first glance this might appear a negative review and disappointing indication that becoming Wright's back-up is the most we can hope for from Toomer. On closer inspection, I think this is a sign we have high hopes for Toomer as our future starting WILL. With very little immediate pressure to start, we have the opportunity to challenge Toomer mentally. At 6-2 234, he could probably excel as an LB more quickly playing WILL, but learning the SAM position first should help his development down the road.
Pete Carroll later confirmed my suspicions, saying this* at the 9:27 mark following the third day,
Korey Toomer did very well too (previously praising Bobby Wagner), probably more comfortable than we thought. We thought he might be a little more raw and a little bit longer process to show where he can fit in. But we played him at the SAM spot, we played him at WILL and Nickel. He had some very good rushes to show that he can blitz. He, he, he (speechless? From Pete? High praise indeed) looked like we had hoped and we're really excited about him getting into it.
*As per usual, Pete's rambling could've made that quote box a single sentence and about two lines longer with the filler words unedited. I decided to spare your brain and transcribe him into something more grammar correct.
Our coaches pushing Toomer to learn several LB positions at once is reminiscent of how we handled KJ Wright last training camp. We know how that turned out. Leroy Hill is probably our starting WILL in 2012. But a Hill to Toomer transition in 2013 could draw comparisons to the Milloy to Chancellor transition in 2011. We also know how that turned out. Like Chancellor, Toomer should be a special teams contributor in the mean time. Korey Toomer is definitely a player to watch this preseason.
After QB and 2WR, the nickel LB spot could play out as the most evenly matched position competition on the team. Malcolm Smith, Matt McCoy, Korey Toomer, Mike Morgan, Barrett Ruud, and Heath Farwell could all be in contention. I've placed them in my totally unfounded pre-training camp rankings to win the job. If Matt McCoy or Barrett Ruud can somehow beat out Bobby Wagner for the MIKE position, then Wagner tops that list.
The prevalence of better QBs on the schedule this season makes the Nickel LB position pretty important. It also represents the only real opportunity for our non-starting LBs to earn playing time. These guys better play their asses off if they hope to get the nod. I can see reason for any one of them winning out. Who will take it and how much production can we expect from this position?
Over versus Under
If you've been keeping up on recent Field Gulls content then you should have a basic understanding of the concepts behind Over and Under fronts. The side in which the 3-tech lines up is the most notable difference between them. Since we have an exciting new 3-tech, Jason Jones, it stands to reason that he will heavily influence which alignment we use more this season. Our coaches have extensively utilized both 4-3 formations over the past two seasons. Perhaps we can learn something from this to help us predict how Jones will be used.
A smaller Brandon Mebane was our 3-tech in 2010 and he primarily lined up in Under fronts across from the offensive weak-side, which was most often the QB's blind side. I think the most likely explanation for this is we did not yet know how reliable Clemons was as a run defender and wanted the DL shifted that way to protect him. It's also possible that for his first season back in the NFL, Pete felt more comfortable using the alignment he's been running for years.
Alan Branch was our 3-tech in 2011. Mostly Over fronts this time. I see several possible factors that could have contributed to this change. For defending run plays to the weak-side, we knew Clemons could hold his own and having Leroy around would help as well. He's always been something of a force against the run. This gave us a chance to try generating more pressure from the strong-side with Branch. His size helped disrupt passing lanes as well.
Adding Jones to the equation changes the dynamic of these fronts quite a bit. I don't expect Jones to be a liability against the run but he's nowhere near the level of Branch or Mebane in that respect. How much will we try to protect him? He should be an enormous upgrade as a pass rusher. How can we best feature that strength?
I would say both questions point to more Over fronts with Jason Jones. On the strong side Jones will line up between two excellent run defenders in Bryant and Mebane, limiting his exposure to double teams. As a pass rusher he'll provide a nice counter point to the Leo on the other side. This also puts him in a better position to disrupt passing lanes.
I expect us to use both formations extensively though. The tendency toward either might be overshadowed by the match-up with opposing OGs. Jones has the potential of a rare interior playmaker. We should be trying to making the most of that talent. Right guards are generally bigger, slower, and more vulnerable to Jones' quickness than and left guards, who must protect the QB's blind side. A weaker left guard is always a tempting match-up though.
For the long term, I could see Under fronts reestablishing preference. Assuming Irvin eventually takes over at Leo and Toomer takes over at WILL, the weak-side probably won't be as strong against the run. We may want our 3-tech on the weak-side to protect them, as we did with Mebane in 2010.
I'm sure there are lots of pros and cons to each formation that I've missed. I welcome anyone to expand on or critique my take of it. The last poll went well so let's try another.