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Three Definitive Observations From The 2007 Season

3. Big Man/little man

The Hawks had their own Big Man/little man dilemma on Saturday, one so thoroughly botched, you'd think John Marshall had played a pregame round of Edward 40 Hands w/ Dwaine Board.

Seattle has two basic tackle configurations, Brandon Mebane and Rocky Bernard, their Big Man unit, and Craig Terrill and Howard Green, their little man unit. The following two lists are of all runs, 1st quarter to the start of the 4th quarter.

Big Man: 8S, 6F (FF), 4S, 7S, 2F, 15 S (FD), 3F, 6S, 0F, 4F, 43S (FD)

little man: 4S, 7S, 26S (FD), 3S (FD), 24S (FD), -1F, 10S (FD)

The Big Men weren't exactly kicking butt, but a 60% success rating allowed is considerably better than the little men could muster. The 15 and 41 yards runs were both off left end. Hardly the tackles' fault. Both of the long runs allowed by the little men were up the gut. The little man group allowed 86% of all rushes to be successful. They were thrown from the line, and, with few exceptions, did more to screen their own linebackers than anything that slowed Ryan Grant. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, you'd think fixing the tackle rotation so that your pass rushing package was only on the field on obvious passing downs would be a pretty high priority - especially when they were clearly a liability against the run. But, nope, they were out for all sorts of down and distance combinations, and nothing changed after the half.

Why It Matters: When appreciating Mebane and Bernard, one must consider their contributions as part of a rotation. Both were strong in 2007, but both undoubtedly benefitted from regular rest. Seattle’s little man unit was an ongoing weakness that was severely exposed against the Packers. Much of the praise for Green is built on one play. Thorough examination reveals him as a big body that plays small, without much in the way of one gap skills. Serviceable depth that may experience a peak in the “good” range. Terrill is a one gap situational pass rusher. Neither should have sniffed the field on anything resembling a rushing play, but the Hawks lacked a better duo to spell their starters.

Going Forward: Seattle’s one tech (in Seattle’s system, the one tech is Mebane’s spot, its job is twofold, force double teams and get into the backfield) rotation is now Mebane/Red Bryant/Bernard. Seattle’s three tech (almost exclusively, get into the backfield, get to the ball carrier) rotation is Bernard/Marcus Tubbs/Lawrence Jackson. There no longer is a “little man” unit, just unrelenting big, punishing badasses.

2. Unsafe At Any Speed

Alexander: I wanted to figure out what got the Hawks crowd up in arms against their once beloved back. The two plays I can pinpoint are, first, his aforementioned pirouette. Seemingly, John Thornton tackles him after Sims blows his block, but it really looks a lot more like Alexander just fell over attempting a spin move. The crowd did not like that. The second is, well, if you're sick of me talking bad about Alexander you can skip down. This one won't take much explanation, it's 1st and 10 on the Hawks third drive of the second quarter, Seattle is at their twenty. Seattle is in a 3 wide, I-back set, Beck snaps, Alexander completely whiffs on his block leaving linebacker Caleb Miller untouched and with bad intentions for the Hawks exposed QB. Miller wraps but does not sack Beck. Beck dishes a little shovel pass, Alexander looks the ball in, seemingly catches it for a second and then watches it drop between his legs. Somewhere that's a fumble. Just ugly, fraidy-cat football by Alexander that nearly cost Seattle big.

Why It Matters: Alexander tallied 100 yards on 21 carries against the Bengals. 1/5th of that was a 20 yard rush with 49 seconds remaining, the Bengals without timeouts and anything short of a fumble a successful play. Nevertheless, most fans would consider this among Alexander’s best showings in the last two years. At his best, against a mediocre (at best) Bengals rush defense, minus every starting linebacker – to the point where bowtie salesman Dhani Jones was their leading tackler – Alexander was just barely good enough to be bad. Factor in his pass blocking and pass receiving and you have one of the five worst players in the NFL.

Going Forward: As much as I root for a committee backfield, if Julius Jones doesn’t receive 60%+ of the carries I’ll be shocked. Holmgren does what he does and when he can, he rides his primary rusher with a vengeance. Isolating the play of an individual player is one of the greater failings of statistical analysis in the NFL. That said, Jones was barely better than Alexander in DPAR and worse in success rate. Whatever he did in Dallas, from his second coming of Emmitt entrance to his vanishing act finale, he needs only to be league average to be so much better than Alexander it’s startling. I trust he can be that; in a blocking scheme fit to his skill set, I think he can be so much more.

1. Throwing Down, Stepping Out

Play of the game, courtesy of, who else?, Lofa Tatupu. Not a pick, but a tackle. First play, third Eagles drive of the third quarter. The Eagles run a wide receiver screen to Curtis, with Todd Herremans pull blocking. Tats starts shaded a little right of center. After the snap, Tats reads the play and charges left, but is met by Herremans. How does Tatupu react to the attempted block by the 6'6", 321 pound guard? By dropping a shoulder into him and laying him out. Flat. Then shoots the gap and stops the screen before it gets off the floor.

We're lucky to have this guy.

Why It Matters: I’ll admit it, I’ve long thought Tatupu was a little overrated. And I’m a Lakers fan. There, it’s all out there. When Seattle drafted Tatupu in 2005, he immediately assumed the middle linebacker duties and that team went on a miracle run, powered by an out of nowhere defensive renaissance, too much of the credit was channeled through Tats. Members of the media tend to speak out of both sides of their mouths, yakking about football being the ultimate team sport one minute before applauding the play of some superstar face the second. Leroy Hill, Bryce Fisher, Marcus Tubbs, Rocky Bernard – great seasons each, and each as important to that defense as Tatupu. In 2006, despite jacking his tackle totals, Tatupu did not deserve to play in the Pro Bowl. He spent entirely too much time lost in traffic. His pass rushing skills vanished. He was a good, but by no means a top MLB. Both deficiencies stemmed from one vital failing, an inability to fight off blockers. Scouts gleefully chortled at his struggles, having predicted his size and strength would forever limit his play in the pros. Then, they might have been right. Then.

Going Forward: It’s one play, but indicative of total growth. Tats was never destined to “break out” like less polished, but larger, longer and more athletic players. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t going to develop. Tatupu added vital strength between 2006 and 2007. Where he once was forever moving towards the ball carrier, even if he never arrived, in 2007 he destroyed plays before they could ever develop. He moved through and over blockers. In 2006, Tatupu recorded a 61% Stop Rate on run plays, his average tackle 4.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. In 2007, Tatupu recorded a 70% Stop Rate on run plays, his average tackle just 2.05 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s not hype, that’s year one of the best middle linebacker in the NFL.