Around this time last week, I was involved in a conversation with my colleague Greg Cowan regarding the play of the defense as a whole, with Dwight Freeney in particular worthy of our ire. The lack of production we've seen from Freeney this year was somewhat expected - I always felt Robert Mathis was going to make an easier transition, though I didn't necessarily expect the gulf in play to be as large as it has been to this point.
When I think about why Mathis has had an easier transition, I focus on a few things. Firstly, the physique. Mathis is more lithe and gangly compared to the stout stature of Freeney, and Mathis has greater agility and speed at this point in time. When one examines the traditional moves of the two in question, there can also be little doubt that Mathis' potential is maximised, while Freeney's is not. The great utility of 3-4 schemes in my book is in pass rushing - you can overload areas of the offensive line with your best pass rushers if the play is designed well and comes up against the right offense. Freeney thrived on psychological warfare and setting his man up, faking the outside speed rush before ripping inside, or simply unexpectedly bull-rushing the tackle backwards.
In simple terms, it's about execution - Peyton Manning lined you up in the 3WR 1TE 1RB set and ran about 10 different plays all game - you know what's likely coming, you just can't stop it. Dwight Freeney was the same from the 4-3 RE position. Given the variance that the 3-4 offers in terms of alignments and where you spot your pass rushers, perhaps it's only natural that Freeney doesn't thrive in the new system.
In any case - I want to look at why Freeney has proven ineffective so far this year, and in order to do so, it's time to look at the tape..
Let's take it back to Week 5 against the Packers.
Freeney is matched up one-on-one with Marshall Newhouse (#74 - LT) of the Packers. He has the luxury of having Robert Mathis opposite him, and in this case it proves pivotal. The Packers are conscious of Mathis on the right side and his speed rushing prowess, so they delegate John Kuhn (#30 - FB) on a blocking assignment to assist the RT. Commonly, we'd see the back chipping Freeney ahead of Mathis, though this shows to me that the Packers acknowledge the role reversal in the 3-4, with Mathis the more dangerous rusher.
Freeney bull-rushes Newhouse, who isn't expecting it. He gets the necessary leverage, and from here, Newhouse is only going backwards. Mathis sees the double team and tries to impact the play by going outside - forcing Rodgers to step up.
Freeney continues to push Newhouse backward while Mathis opts for the aforementioned speed rush.
Rodgers steps up and to the right to avoid the pressure from Mathis, but in doing so he leaves himself completely exposed from the blind side. I think he should have released the ball by now in any case, but it's the reigning NFL MVP. I'll cut him some slack.
Freeney is able to watch Rodgers in his peripheral vision, and at the right moment he disengages from his block and seizes onto Aaron Rodgers.
I've shown that play simply to highlight the difficulties offenses face when they're against a Colts defense manned by both Freeney and Mathis. Now i'll show you how offenses gear towards Freeney when that isn't the case.
Moving forward in time to last week - here we can see the Colts pass rush without Mathis. Freeney is lined up one-on-one with Mike Otto (#66 - LT) from his typical RE spot. The Colts interior line is going to stunt, and I'd like you to watch the reaction of the LG, circled in red.
Freeney sets Otto up for the spin move, which he's beginning to execute here. The Titans LG is dealing with the stunt here, and he has two of his colleagues to help against only two interior rushers.
You can see here just how exposed Otto is mid-spin move. Freeney absolutely takes him to the cleaners. The LG (I think it's Steve Hutchinson, not 100%) clearly has Cory Redding bearing down on him. He can't fail to notice the fact, and yet he completely ignores Redding in favour of blocking Freeney.
So - Freeney gets double-teamed, while Redding is allowed a free lane to the passer. I think that indicates the priorities of the Tennessee offense, and I don't think it's unfair to extrapolate from this instance (and the rest of the game and season) that offenses prioritise like this every week.
In the event, Hasselbeck manages to release the ball before he's sacked by Redding. I'm not sure whether to laud the Guard on his heads-up play or to simply call him lucky. Either way, it worked.
Continuing with the Titans theme, here's an example of schematic prioritisation as opposed to off-the-cuff prioritisation exhibited in that last play.
Freeney finds himself matched up against Otto again, but this time, he's going to find that the Guard is solely focused on him as well.
When you place a tackle on an island against Freeney, you can be in real trouble. He has two or three different options to get to the quarterback, and Freeney's psychology and pass-rushing versatility come to the fore. In this instance, Otto is able to kick out in a wider stance, not having to worry about the inside rush. Freeney has two options - knife inside and try to beat the double team, or go outside on the speed rush and try and impact the play if it were to stretch out. He chooses the latter, and that's fine with me.
This frame pretty much sums up what I'm getting at here.
I laud Freeney's awareness in trying to impact the play even against a double-team. In the event, Hasselbeck manages to release the ball.
Sometimes it's not even the opposing schemes which limit Freeney's effectiveness. Let's take a look at a play from Sunday against the Dolphins.
The Colts decide to bring pressure - they bring Zbikowski down to the line of scrimmage behind Freeney, which gives the linemen something to think about. I've indicated with blue arrows the play I would have designed - Freeney going on the outside, with Zbikowski knifing through the gap to take on Bush with some real momentum.
If you have an outstanding speed rusher, capable of beating even the best offensive tackles around the outside, what do you do? Do you send him out there, or do you ask him to knife inside in favour of sending a blitzing defensive back on said speed rush?
The Colts ask him to do the latter. Jake Long (#77 - LT) couldn't be more comfortable with that - the rest of the offensive line holds up with ease, and Long is able to direct Freeney into the churning confrontation in front of the pocket.
Long washes Freeney away with little difficulty, while Reggie Bush has to deal with the speed rush around the outside. My major query here is why Tom Zbikowski is speed rushing against a running back who's always going to be more agile. Surely it would be better for Zbikowski to use momentum, leverage and power to try and force the running back towards Tannehill?
Seconds later, Zbikowski has made no progress and Freeney has only just emerged from the chaos in front. Tannehill is able to release the ball by this point, and this play happens to be the 35 yard completion down the sideline to Brian Hartline. In my book, it's about putting your players in the best position to succeed. This was a clear failure in that respect.
I of course wasn't going to end without Freeney's signature play from Sunday.
He's matched up one-on-one with Jake Long (#77 - LT), the perennial All-Pro tackle for the Dolphins.
This was precisely the type of situation I was referring to earlier in terms of putting your tackle on an island. Long is in all sorts of trouble at this point. Freeney can continue his speed rush, he can possibly try a bull rush, or he can unleash a devastating spin move to the inside.
In a strange way, Freeney almost requires a block to pull the spin move off. He needs a consistent surface to spin against, and Long obliges with an attempt to disrupt the rush.
From here, it's curtains. Long is overextended and committed to the outside rush, so Freeney rips inside with a trademark spin move.
When capturing a frame, I often wonder about what players must be thinking at certain points in the play. Here is one of those instances - Jake Long can see into the future and knows what's going to happen.
Freeney launches into Tannehill from behind and forces the fumble through sheer hit power. He grips on to Tannehill like a limpet and doesn't let go. Beautiful to watch, really - and it illustrates that Freeney is still capable of such things when teams aren't scheming plays specifically to stop him.
Am I happy with Dwight Freeney's production so far this year? No. He has a paltry 5 tackles and 2.0 sacks on the year, and while he's been struggling with injuries and has missed some time due to it, I don't think that level of production warrants a $17m salary. However - when examining the Colts defense as a whole and watching tape, it's clear that teams design schemes to limit Freeney's effectiveness, whether through the use of quick passes, double teams or roll-outs. I also don't know the extent of Freeney's injury - and while one part of me says 'don't go on the field if your effectiveness is limited', another part of me objects. If an injured Dwight Freeney can merit a double-team regardless of his own physical state and production, then perhaps he's an improvement on someone like Mario Addison, at least in the respect that he frees up blockers elsewhere. With Robert Mathis again out for a period, look for teams to strategise in a similar fashion to limit #93.
Another element I haven't covered in any depth here is the coverage aspect. When Freeney and Mathis get sacks, very rarely do they come after more than a few seconds. When they beat their man, they tend to beat him fairly comprehensively and the quarterback is usually on the floor very quickly indeed. The appalling coverage downfield is the primary reason for this - Cassius Vaughn is an atrocious corner and should not be starting in this league. Jerraud Powers is not a #1 corner, and I'd be wary at this point of calling him a #2. Teams have absolutely nothing to be frightened about when they launch the ball out to the sideline on a quick release - Vaughn certainly isn't going to make a play on the ball, and Powers can usually be muscled out by a larger receiver.
I suppose all this goes to show is that a defense is only as strong as its weakest component, which at this point is the defensive backfield. Sorting out the coverage will help sort the pass rush - but either way I'll be happy should we go defensive in the first round come May.
On another note, Chuck Pagano's speech really did raise the stakes. It's time to get invested in this football team, time to believe. What I saw on Sunday from Andrew Luck was a stunning performance, and one that indicates to me that he can potentially carry this football team as far as possible, in the fashion of a Peyton Manning - and he can possibly do it this year.
Great article! Didn't Freeney say that spin move was the first time he tried it in a while? Meaning his injuries have kept him from using all of his moves. Yes, he's not worth what he's getting paid, but he's still making an impact on the field.
From the tape I watched, at least, earlier in the season (GB and a couple weeks after), these plays aren't an accurate picture of how teams are treating Freeney for the majority of plays. Sometimes, yes, but for the vast majority of plays he was getting single blocks in his first couple weeks back. Now, the past two weeks I haven't looked for it, so that could have changed, but for the first few weeks after he was back this seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.
That being said, this is an excellent piece. <3
I really enjoyed this. I admit I would really like to get better at understanding the more subtle and complex aspects of a football game, stat mongering can only take you so far. You inspire me. Preach on.
Great review. I'm also glad to hear someone address the coverage aspect and how it affects the pass rush. It's not just a one way relationship.
I hope that Dwight is getting healthy and he continues to improve in the second half of the season. That being said, the Colts need Robert Mathis on the field. Thanks for the look, Ben.
My only argument would be "well, yeah, but haven't offense ALWAYS been scheming specifically to limit Freeney's effectiveness?"
@matt_has Sure, but when he's carrying an injury and adjusting to a new scheme..
@matt_has And even if offenses have always schemed against him, perhaps it's no bad thing to illustrate with the All-22 exactly how they do so.
@matt_has And honestly, the statistical aspect does indicate to me that he's not really hustling on every play. I don't want to call a guy of his calibre out on it, but I mean, 5 tackles? Come on now.
@matt_has The physique thing was more of a personal slant. Prior to the upheaval of the last season, I'd always viewed Mathis as a prime candidate to shift to the 3-4. He just looks like a 3-4 backer to me.
@Ben Savage Oh, don't get me wrong – I loved your writeup, and the All-22 is fantastic. I just can't help but wonder about the "paltry" stats. Mathis seems to have adjusted relatively fine (your note on their physical differences is an interesting consideration) ... I'm pulling for Freeney to have 'turned the corner' last weekend, so to speak.
The first picture of the packers looks like a 4-2-5, not a 3-4. Mathis and Freeney both have hands on the ground along with two interior linemen. Also I'm not sure if Mathis actually realized or cared if there was a double team. PFF and FOA have him as getting like 3/4 of his pressures from off the edge. Freeney is a 50/50 split on inside and edge.
Freeney has also had a high ankle sprain since early in the Bears game. Those take 6-8 weeks to heal if you're doing nothing but rest and rehab. Despite Freeney's Wolverine status, given his in-game activity and general practice schedule, it's not unrealistic to finally see some normal production now. He's probably just now hitting a good bill of health.
@Payton In most of the above frames the Colts are running with 4 down linemen, sure. We're playing a lot of nickel, as a lot of teams are.
I simply want to illustrate why Freeney's production has been limited, and even if some may consider it to be retreading ground, I think it's helpful with the All-22 to see it with your own eyes. Perhaps it's health, but my question would be - he's a free agent after this season, why would he risk his body by playing with a pretty bad injury for a long time?
@Ben Savage A high ankle sprain isn't going to cause chronic health problems unless it was serious enough to perform surgery on in the first place. He's not really risking much, we know he loves to play, and he also needs to perform to get a good contract after this season.