The nouveau supermen of the National Football League are capable of both dropping back into pass coverage and bull rushing offensive tackles. They can race around linemen like they are stuck in quicksand, yet jack up tight ends at the line of scrimmage and toss them aside like rag dolls. They are the most feared defensive players in the game today for a variety of reasons and they all have one thing in common: They play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Monday night's contest between the Redskins and Steelers was just the latest example of physical specimens with ornery attitudes with the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison having a tremendous impact on the outcomes of games. The duo wreaked havoc all night, combining for 3.5 sacks and a boatload of pressures. If you need further evidence into the dominance of these hybrids just look at the current sack leaders around the league. Names like the Dolphins' Joey Porter and the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware join Harrison and Woodley among the top 10, and the outside 'backers for New England and Baltimore are not far behind.
What makes their stats even more impressive is that outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme are often only in position to rush on obvious passing downs and have to take turns getting after the quarterback with their partner on the other side during early down and distance snaps. The flip side, however, is that opposing offenses often don't know which of the two will be rushing, making it a guessing game that often results in the outside linebackers being matched up one-on-one against tight ends and running backs, matchups that a superb pass-rushing outside linebacker should win 90 percent of the time. Offensive coordinators wake up in a cold sweat thinking about those nightmarish scenarios.
The problem is it is very difficult, if not impossible, to put together a pass protection package that puts an offensive lineman on both players in every passing situation. It simply can't be done, and if you attempt to fan out the offensive lineman on both sides to take care of the defensive ends and outside backers, you leave yourself extremely vulnerable to an inside blitz from a guy like the Steelers' James Farrior or the Patriots' Tedy Bruschi.
Coordinators who run a 3-4 also have a lot more blitz options at their disposal than the typical 4-3 offers. That means there is a much better chance that the offense's pass protection unit will get confused by a Dick Lebeau or Rex Ryan stunt that allows one of the outside linebackers to come free and get a clean shot on the quarterback. This schematic advantage, combined with an opportunity to get more leaner, faster athletes on the field, is yet another reason why I anticipate more and more teams to think about incorporating some 3-4 principles into their defense if not switching to a 3-4 entirely.
Whether it ever comes out publicly, the Browns' decision to start Brady Quinn instead of Derek Anderson on Thursday night against Denver reeks of a move aimed at appeasing both the media and the fan base. Moves made under that pretense rarely work out in the long run, so it will be interesting to see how long the Quinn honeymoon lasts in Cleveland. I have a couple of problems with the decision to bench Anderson, not the least of which is the lack of an exact reasoning for the move.
Do the Browns think Quinn is the man who can spark this team back into the playoff hunt? I highly doubt it, though I am sure that is how they will sell it. Are they trying to get him some experience so that he can play at a higher level when he becomes the opening day starter in 2009? It's possible, but I would argue it's premature with eight games still to play.
The much more likely alternative is the powers that be in Cleveland, and I don't mean head coach Romeo Crennel, decided it was time to make a change. Crennel's comment that he was not really considering a change hours before the move to Quinn tells you all you need to know about the beginning of the Brady era.
I don't like the move because the Browns still have an opportunity to rally and make the playoffs should they go on a run, something the streaky Anderson is certainly capable of doing. And that leads to this point. Yes, Anderson is streaky, but do the Browns really know what they have in him at this juncture? I would say no. A week ago the talk was that the Browns had won three of four, Anderson hadn't thrown a pick, and they were turning things around. Then it all changed with one horrendous pass that Terrell Suggs returned for a touchdown.
Anderson is 13-10 the past two years as a starter for a mediocre team with question marks, both with the pass rush and secondary, a clear recipe for disaster in the NFL. Anderson was also steering an offense that had a couple of flat tires. Braylon Edwards' drops have been so egregious that Anderson could sue him for negligence or now, I guess, unlawful termination. Kellen Winslow has been nothing but a distraction, and the Browns have had to play without Joe Jurevicius and Donte Stallworth for most of the year. Had you ever heard of Syndric Steptoe before this season? Didn't think so. Yet he had to become the go-to guy as teams consistently rolled their coverage to the butterfingered Edwards.
I would have given Anderson two or three more starts to attempt to cement what type of player he is and what he can do when the chips are down. If he or the Browns were to falter, I would then turn it over to Quinn and give him five or six games to get ready for 2009. I would have been resigned to move forward without Anderson forever because once you make the move, I don't think you can ever look back.
Instead, the Browns will turn to Quinn now, and don't think for a second that the fact that Thursday's game is at home and televised nationally didn't have a lot to do with it. The Browns are an inherently insecure organization and this gives them an opportunity to try to showcase their future and now present the face of the franchise against a Champ Bailey-less Denver defense that has not shown it can slow down anybody.
I am officially jealous of Todd Herremans. The Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman scored his first career touchdown on Sunday and his teammates in the trenches were unusually ecstatic as they all celebrated. For those of you who have never done it, blocking defenders in and of itself is not really that enjoyable. The thrills for an offensive lineman come from either physically punishing someone with a devastating blow or seeing one of your skill guys make a big play and knowing that you were a big reason why.
So watching Herremans score made me envious, considering I scored one touchdown in 18 years of football, dating to 7th grade. Herremans spiked the ball with authority, which I probably would have done as well. I just hope he later picked up the ball and kept it, which would have been the key to the entire celebration. At any rate, here's to more O-linemen getting a shot at some glory.