Reggie Bush is that not too rare example of a player that is simultaneously overrated and underrated. The former is elementary: Despite being a face of the NFL in just his second season, featured in numerous ad campaigns and talked about as a game changing force by fans and commentators the world over, he's played like a well below average running back throughout his career. In 2006 his rushing DVOA was -3.6%, this season it's -25.8%. At the same time, I would be very surprised if teams did not gameplan against Bush, because though he has yet to learn how to be an effective NFL rusher, his speed and agility are unmatched. He's also an excellent outlet receiver. Perhaps because it's been so long since Seattle has had a viable one, I'm a big believer in the idea that a player who can receive from the backfield has added value not easily measured just by their gross contributions receiving. Outlet receivers save quarterbacks from sacks, which in turn keeps teams out of bad down and distance, which further protects quarterbacks from more sacks. A three yard reception may not be more valuable than an average passing play on first down, therefore netting a negative DVOA, but second and seven is better than second and ten and much better than second and 15. You need only watch Donovan McNabb buried beneath the feet of Giants to know how much he missed Brian Westbrook.
Still, at the end of Sunday night Bush should have earned new fans in Seattle for all the wrong reasons. He's on the extreme end of the boom and bust spectrum. With a lot of bust, and only the occasional boom. You might be surprised to know that Bush has never recorded a rush longer than 18 yards in the regular season. That has everything to do with him tap-dancing in the backfield, waiting for impossibly open holes and misreading his own blockers. The Hawks don't want to be the team he puts it all together against, though.
Stopping Bush is job one for Lofa Tatupu. One of Tatupu's few bugaboos is that he misses tackles. It's not a chronic problem, but when he does you might be surprised just how bad it gets. I went back through my game notes and recorded the result of each of Tatupu's six missed tackles, and the results of all seven of his penetrations. Naturally you can expect a better outcome when a player gets into the backfield then when they miss a tackle, but take a look at the discrepancy:
P 6, P 12, P 22, R17, R 8, R 45
R 1, R 1, R -1, P 33, R 0, P0, P -8
The 33 yard pass play was Carson Palmer's screen to Rudi Johnson. Even with that outlier in there, that's 3.7 yards per play when Tatupu records a penetration versus 18.3 yards per play on a missed tackle. Pretty startling, really.
Tatupu has a great skill-set to own this matchup. He's quick, he takes great angles to the ball carrier, he negotiates traffic well and delivers a killer blow once he's reached his man, but he absolutely cannot allow Bush to break tackles. All too often behind Tatupu is a sea of open field. Bush doesn't hit the hole well and his ability to read his own blockers is underdeveloped, but given a whisper of room he reaches top speed in an unparalleled distance. To say Tatupu should win this matchup is only half the story, to say Tatupu must win this matchup is the other.
With Bush likely to be hyped well above his achievements, above many better players who will take the field this Sunday night, Tatupu has a chance to not only further solidify an under the radar early DPotY campaign, but also become a star. Tatupu can and should dominate this matchup against a far inferior player, but when you talk about matchups that may disproportionately affect the outcome of a game, an off game from Tatupu, even a couple busted tackles, could equal two scores by Bush. With Seattle's offense struggling, that could make all the difference.