FILMSTUDY: 2012 defensive personnel analysis – Linebackers

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A year ago the Ravens had no group with more potential for change than the linebacker corps.

While injuries changed the players involved, the retirement of Ray Lewis combined with the 2012 changes will likely make 2013 a transitional year for the Ravens’ linebackers.

Emerging in 2012 were Paul Kruger, Josh Bynes, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan, and Courtney Upshaw.

Meanwhile, declines in value included the play of Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain, Brendon Ayanbadejo, JJ’s free agent departure, and team’s parting with Sergio Kindle.

Michael McAdoo spent another year on IR, but remains an intriguing option to replace pass rush provided by Kruger.  Adrian Hamilton was also signed off the Dallas practice squad and played 10 snaps.   McAdoo is listed as a DE in the Ravens media guide which may well be where he ends up.  What do all of those players have in common?  None will get a separate player evaluation.

I included Terrell Suggs with the defensive line, since he plays more snaps with a hand on the turf.

Each player has 3 grades:

 

  • The Play grade is a representation of how well he played vs. his positional peers last season.  It is not a representation of value relative to salary.
  • The Value grade is a representation of the player’s contribution relative to 2012 cap expenditure.  Great players, at mid career (after signing their first FA contract), will almost never be graded an A in this category since they are typically paid the market price for their services.  It’s not a slap in the face to be graded a C here, but the best front offices will have many more As and Bs than Ds and Fs because they consistently uncover value in the draft and sign bargain free agents.  A player who does not miss time due to injury, but otherwise performs exactly as might be expected by his contract would be graded a B-.  In the case of linebackers and secondary, this grade includes consideration for their contributions on special teams.
  • The Developmental grade is an indication of how much the player improved relative to expectation as well as a measure of future expectations.  The primary reason to expect growth (or decline) is age, but injuries (particularly changes to prospective durability), leadership, position changes, etc. were all lumped in this category.  Even a 35-year-old gets a developmental grade.

Snap totals and percentages include only non-penalty snaps which were played competitively (excludes kneels and spikes) for both regular and postseason games unless noted otherwise.  The 2012 Ravens had 1,390 such defensive snaps as a unit in 20 games.

Individual Player Comments

Brendon Ayanbadejo

2012 Role:  Backup nickel LB (171 snaps, 12%) and core special teams player.  Brendon was still the Ravens’ best coverage linebacker (like being the best Brazilian curler), but didn’t have as large a role as in 2011 (293 snaps, 26%).

What was there to like about his season?  He allowed 8 completions to his assignments in 11 times targeted, including a PD, but did not give up a TD and the longest completion was 13 yards.

When did he play best?  He had a sack and a QH versus the Giants in week 16.

When did he play poorly?  He was steamrolled in the game at Washington.

What was his signature play of 2012?  He played well against the Chargers in week 12, particularly in overtime.  On a pivotal 3rd and 3 with just 5:12 left in OT, he pried the ball free from Alexander to force the punt which set up the Ravens’ winning drive.

What does he need to do better?  I’m not sure there is any need to change at this point.  He may retire a champion, but if he plays again, it probably won’t be with the Ravens.

Grades:  Play B-, Value C, Developmental: B-.  Brendon, perhaps through his fitness regimen, has beaten the typical aging pattern to this point in his career.  He’s a rare ILB that can provide some value in coverage.  There might be a team that seeks to utilize his skill set.

 

Josh Bynes

2012 Role:  Backup ILB (199 snaps, 14%) and core special teams player.  He’s an athletic young LB who contributed some snaps late in the season with the Ravens LB corps decimated by injury.  Bynes was the defensive signal caller for the week 15 home game versus Denver and played all 73 snaps.

What was there to like about his season?  While he didn’t play exceptionally well, he used his athleticism effectively vs. the run.

When did he play best?  He led the team with 13 tackles, registered a PD, and knocked down Manning once in week 15 versus Denver.

When did he play poorly?  After McClain’s season-ending injury in week 14 at Washington, Josh played every snap, but Griffin picked on him for 4 completions in 4 attempts (66 yards) to his assignments.  That included a 28-yard pass in the seam to FB Darrel Young.

What was his signature play of 2012?  He tackled Ted Ginn on the free-kick return that ended SB XLVII.  Since most Super Bowls are A) not close, B) effectively end with the trailing team having an unsuccessful pass play (typically an interception or incomplete), and C) frequently end with the leading team kneeling out the clock, this has not been a common occurrence.  Who are the other players with a game-saving tackle to end a Super Bowl?  See below for the answer and further details.

What does he need to do better?  His game needs to mature from primarily reliance on his physical skills to better technique.  In particular, the Ravens need a player to emerge as a nickel LB.  While Bynes appeared lost in coverage in 2012, he appears to have the skill set to cover.

Grades:  Play C, Value B, Developmental B.  He’s a possible emergent talent for the Ravens, particularly since they have opportunity at ILB.

 

Dannell Ellerbe:

2012 Role:  Starting ILB (906 snaps, 65%).  His play was up substantially from 2011 (248 snaps, 22%).  He was on pace to double his 2011 playing time before Lewis’ injury.

What was there to like about his season?  Ellerbe is the Ravens’ most athletic linebacker and had a number of penetrations.  Despite limited playing time, he was leading the team with 3.5 sacks through week 9 before Kruger began his tear.  After the bye, he was the Ravens 2nd best defensive player after Kruger.

When did he play best?  He had a terrific game generating pressure versus the Browns in week 9.  That included a sack among 3 QHs to go along with 9 tackles.

When did he play poorly?  The QB that gave him the most difficulty completed 20 of 24 passes while rolling up 226 yards with 1 TD and 0 interceptions (QBR 119.8).  Who was that?  Those are the combined stats for all QBs throwing to his assignments in the first 6 weeks.  The rest of the season he held opposing QBs to a 77.4 rating.  That’s a good rating for a defender, but it would have been 116.6 without the play below.

What was his signature play of 2012?  He had a huge play in each of the Ravens last 2 games.  His interception of the pass deflected by McPhee all but sealed the win at NE in the AFCC.  His pressure of Kaepernick on SF’s last play from scrimmage forced a hurried throw on 4th and goal from the 5.

What does he need to do better?  Ellerbe is still young and athletic enough to learn better coverage technique.  That would increase his versatility and value, particularly on 3rd down.

Grades:  Play B, Value B, Developmental B+.  Dannell’s developmental grade is based on his age, salary, and the fact that many thought he should not have been tendered an RFA contract last year.  It wasn’t quite Kurt Warner, but he played well on a good team at a position of need in a season at a personal crossroads.

 

Paul Kruger

2012 Role:  Nickel OLB (984 snaps, 71%) whose role was expanded to play more early-down snaps.  He played the highest percentage of snaps of any LB (Ellerbe 65%, Upshaw 59% were the next 2).  His playing time increased from 32% of snaps in 2011.

What was there to like about his season? He proved he could play more snaps and not lose any effectiveness as a pass rusher.  That said, with some time as a situational pass rusher, opponents passed on 61% of his snaps as opposed to 44% when he wasn’t in.

When did he play best?  He had several dominant pass-rushing performances, but his unheralded great game was against the Chiefs in week 5.  In that game the Chiefs had 10 runs for negative yardage and Kruger had a contribution on 7 of those including 3 tackles for loss.

When did he play poorly?  He played 59 miserable snaps versus Cincinnati in week 1 and was pushed around by Gresham and Whitworth.  He lost contain regularly and did not generate any pass rush of note.  At that point, and for the remainder of the first half, it appeared the increased snap count was hurting him as a pass rusher.

What was his signature play of 2012?  In the Wild Card game, the Colts were 3rd and 5 at the Ravens 30 (Q1, 3:52) working on a 7-minute drive in a scoreless game.  Kruger worked off the right shoulder of RT Winston Justice and reached out to strip Luck.  McPhee fell on it and the Ravens would never look back.

What does he need to do better?  He’s a better edge setter than he was, but still struggles to maintain his position when blocked by TEs.  The Ravens much prefer to have Suggs and Upshaw on the field when there is an increased chance of a run.

Grades:  Play A-, Value A, Developmental A.  Kruger surprised on the upside by playing more snaps without reducing his effectiveness as a pass rusher.  He’ll command a significant deal which won’t be with the Ravens.

 

Ray Lewis

2012 Role:  Starting ILB (730 snaps, 53%).  He recovered from a triceps tear in week 6 to play every postseason snap.

What was there to like about his season?  Leadership and the impeccable timing of his retirement.

When did he play best?  He played well in the opener against Cincinnati when Dalton completed just 3 of 6 passes to his assignments for 18 yards.

When did he play poorly?  Despite 51 postseason tackles, he didn’t play well when he returned for the playoffs.  He was picked on in the passing game, surrendering 19 completions and 251 yards (122 after the catch) in 24 times targeted.  He was also penalized twice (pass interference and unnecessary roughness).

What was his signature play of 2012?  He timed his blitz well on the 49ers’ last play of Super Bowl XLVII.  With 4th and goal from the 5, he crept to the LoS and tried to work through the left A gap.  Iupati picked up Lewis while Staley picked up Suggs allowing Ellerbe to race untouched to pressure Kaepernick.

Could it have ended better?  Ted Williams is the standard by which all baseball retirements are measured.  He went out as one of the league’s best offensive players in his final season, but his HR in his last AB came in a meaningless game #151 in front of 10,454 fans to help his team improve to 65-86 en route to a 7th place finish in an 8-team league. His exit was cemented by the HR itself (if he had stayed in, he would have been on deck with the game still on the line when it ended the following inning and the Red Sox still had 3 games to play in New York).  As great as Williams’ finale was, Lewis’ timing was orders of magnitude more spectacular.

Grades:  Among all who have set foot on a field:  A+.  I’m not going to grade his individual play this season, but I’d say it’s extremely rare that a great, long-tenured player can go out only 1 season removed from a high level of play.  Most careers end with an injury or several years of declining play, but not a 3-play sequence of contributions to deny the opponent a go-ahead TD in the last 2 minutes of a Super Bowl.

 

Jameel McClain 

2012 Role:  Starting ILB (698 snaps, 50%).  Jameel was a 2-down ILB (replaced by Ellerbe on passing downs) through the first 5 weeks.  After Lewis’ injury in week 6, he took over as defensive signal caller and sat out just 3 snaps before his injury at Washington.  He started all 13 games in before he was hurt.

What was there to like about his season?  He still provides some pass rushing skills.  He had 4 QHs in 2012 along with some other pressure, but he only rushed the QB 80 times.  With more dangerous pass rushers on the defensive line, that could translate to sacks and better defensive results on the throws.  Kemo and Cody in particular don’t generate personal pass rush, so they don’t frequently draw the committed doubles which create good opportunities for other players.

When did he play best?  He contributed to the run defense at KC including 2 TFLs among 7 tackles.

When did he play poorly?  He was invisible in the Dallas game.  The Cowboys ran the ball 38 times with him on the field for an average of 5.7 YPP.  He was credited with 8 tackles officially, but reviewing the coaches film, I’d make it 3 as the primary plus 2 assists.  He missed 2 tackles and was also flagged for a neutral zone infraction.

What was his signature play of 2012? He recovered the fumble on Ellerbe’s knockout hit of Josh Cribbs in week 4 (Q1, 5:18).

What does he need to do better?  He continues to be easy to throw on, but that was exacerbated after Lewis was hurt, because he became the defensive signal caller and was on the field every play.  I think he’d do better as a 2-down LB which would keep him fresher versus the run as well.  To do that, one of Pollard, Ellerbe, or Reed would have to call the plays in the huddle.

Grades:  Play D, Value D, Developmental F.  McClain’s play fell off in his 5th season and he’s got a spinal injury to deal with.  It will be a challenge for him to ever play well again, but he’s overcome some big hurdles to become an NFL starter.

 

Albert McClellan

2012 Role:  Backup ROLB (413 snaps, 29.7%).  McClellan came to camp much bigger and won the starting job as the rush linebacker with Suggs injured.  Prior to 2012 he had played some snaps versus the 49ers in the 2011 Thanksgiving game, but had otherwise been used as the extra big man in the occasional 4-4-3 formation.  The fact that he played with his hand on the turf a fair amount was one of the big surprises of 2012. 

What was there to like about his season?  He set the edge well with Upshaw when those 2 had the job prior to Suggs’ return.

When did he play best?  He played a career-high 57 snaps and had a great all-around game in week 2 versus the Eagles.  That performance included a 6 tackles, a PD (near INT), a FR, and some god pressure.  He set the edge effectively and I had 10 identified highlight plays for him from that game.

When did he play poorly?  Per PFF, he missed just 3 tackles all season, all against SD in week 12.

What was his signature play of 2012?  He fought free of TE Harbor then RT Herremans to recover Vick’s fumble (Q2, 10:09) in week 2.

What does he need to do better?  Competition at OLB was crowded and Upshaw provides similar upside against the run.  He was infrequently used as a pass rusher once Suggs returned.

Grades:  Play B, Value A, Developmental B+.  It was a solid step forward for a 3rd-year UDFA linebacker.  He’ll play for an RFA tender this season and may well earn a payday in 2014.

 

Courtney Upshaw

2012 Role:  2-down OLB (817 snaps, 59%).  Upshaw was used primarily as a 2-down player and was rarely in with the nickel.

What was there to like about his season?  He was an effective edge setter who replaced JJ with rock-solid run defense.

When did he play best?  He had a season-high 6 tackles and 3 QHs in the loss to the Eagles.  He also dominated the Raiders’ Mike Brisiell against whom he drew 3 holding penalties in week 10.

When did he play poorly?  He didn’t have any particularly bad outings.

What was his signature play of 2012?  He penetrated to force James back and outside (Q2, 12:04) on a stretch right, then pursued to force a fumble to end a long 49ers drive without points in the Super Bowl.

What does he need to do better?  He did not fulfill expectations as a pass rusher with just 1.5 sacks in 446 pass plays (74% pass rushes per PFF).  He needs to find a way to generate some pressure.

Grades:  Play B-, Value B, Developmental B+.  Upshaw gets a higher developmental grade because he’s shown he can do one thing very well.  A player who can set the edge like he can will have value as a specialist even if he can’t contribute on passing downs.  That said, I think he’ll find a way to contribute either as a pass rusher or in coverage.

So, who else had a Super-Bowl-ending tackle of the trailing team on the final play that might have resulted in a tying or winning score?

Close but no cigar:

SB V (Bal 16, Dal 13) ended on Logan’s interception of Morton.

SB VII (Mia 14, Wash 7) is an odd case where the last snap was Stanfill’s sack of Kilmer on 4th down to turn the ball over with more than 30 seconds on the clock.  However, the officials started the clock (I believe improperly, but rules may have been different then) after the field had to be cleared, but before the Dolphins could snap the ball.  In any case, this game didn’t end on the tackle.

SB X (Pit 21, Dal 17) ended on an interception thrown by Staubach.

SB XXIII (SF 20, Cin 16) ended on Esiason’s incomplete 4th down pass.

SB XLVI (NYG 21, NE 17) ended on Brady’s incomplete pass in the end zone as time ran out.

This leaves only:

SB XXXIV (STL 23, Ten 16) ended on Mike Jones’ tackle of Dyson at the 1.

In all of the other close Super Bowls, the winning team ran out the clock.  So for the time being, Mike Jones and Josh Bynes are the only 2 players in the history of the NFL to record a Super-Bowl-ending tackle with the game still in doubt.

If you missed the secondary evaluations, please see:

http://russellstreetreport.com/filmstudy-2012-defensive-personnel-analysis-secondary/

This entry was posted in Blog View, Featured, Filmstudy by Ken McKusick. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ken McKusick

Ken McKusick
Ken comes to us via area message boards where he has consistently posted some of the most insightful and memorable posts that you'll find anywhere.  Known as "Filmstudy", Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports who grew up about 1 mile from Memorial Stadium.  He attended...more

10 Raves on “FILMSTUDY: 2012 defensive personnel analysis – Linebackers

  1. Skip on said:

    Excellent as always! My only quibble would be about Ayanbadejo’s future. For a cap stretched team having a vet who will only earn 900K next year while providing core special teams and backup ILB play I would think it would be good to keep him around for a last year as the LB’s transition.

  2. Boldin Raver on said:

    Love the insights you guys provide. Surprised by McLain’s grades. Wow!

    I’m intruiged also, but I’ve heard nothing about McAdoo. Have you?

    And I’d love to hear your thoughts on Krugs’ viability as a middle linebacker? I had heard he was never a pure pass rusher and kinda suited up for the task anyway. I can imagine him being fierce in the middle shedding blocks and in blitz, although I’m less certain about him as a middle tackler and in coverage.

    • patrick on said:

      Kruger may not be a natural pass rusher gifted with athletic abilities like Suggs but he has worked to become one of the most skilled pass rushers in the league, who now has more “moves” than Suggs. The amount of pressure he generates is among the league leaders, especially as a percentage of his rushes. That’s a tremedous credit to a player whom I can recall filmstudy commenting about his remarkable lack of statistical impact in his early career. Anyway, I can’t see why you would want to take away something he has obviously worked so hard on by switching him to ILB, but its all probably moot anyway as he will probably be picked up by another team.

  3. Rob on said:

    Kruger an A? I beg to differ. If he had such an upside he would have played more than 23 plays in the Super Bowl. He’s pretty much a one trick pony. Add him to a long list of defensive free agents whose play diminishes after they leave the Ravens.

    • patrick on said:

      If you think Kruger is a one trick pony you just haven’t been watching very closely. He has a ton of pass rushing moves that he’s worked very hard on and is our most technical pass rusher. He can also cover when dropped back, and if the Ravens didn’t think he could play the run, they wouldn’t line him up on the right side like they always do. It just so happens that Upshaw is even better against the run, so the Ravens felt he would be a better matchup against the 49ers. On the year he played 71% of the snaps though. I think the Ravens should think hard about letting Suggs, coming off multiple injuries and on the downside of his career, go, and invest in Kruger, who keeps getting better and better.

      • patrick on said:

        just to edit the last comment, I meant “if they didn’t think he could play the run, they wouldn’t line him up on the left (strong) side like they always do.”

  4. Rob on said:

    The fact that teams never doubled Kruger tells me all I need to know. Again a player seeking 9 million per needs and should play more than 23 plays in a game. Cutting Suggs and signing Kruger would be a cap disaster for the Ravens.

    • Ken McKusickKen McKusick on said:

      The “23 snaps” isn’t really a good measure.

      The Ravens have 2 outstanding edge setters in Suggs and Upshaw. Even with multiple injuries that hampered his pass rushing, Suggs was still effective versus the run. After that, the Ravens have Albert McClellan, who is also an outstanding run defender playing the same position.

      So against teams that run first (SF, KC, Phi, Cle, Pit), Kruger plays fewer snaps, because A) those players are effective run stoppers and B) there is a gain from resting a situational pass rusher that is signifiacnt. You’re clearly focused on A), but I believe the manner in which front-7 snaps are parceled out is critical to defensive success.

      You should note that against the teams with pure pocket passers (NE, Den, Dal, etc) Kruger played almost all the snaps. That’s because it’s so important to have a great pass rush on every play against these guys and the Ravens play a base nickel against those teams.

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