The Raiders' surprising decision to release two-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall after only eight games is another example of a free agent not being an ideal "fit" for a team's scheme. Hall, the eighth overall pick in the 2004 draft, was acquired in the offseason to join Nnamdi Asomugha in forming one of the league's top cornerback duos. But Hall didn't play up to his all-star status in the man-to-man scheme, losing his job in midweek but reportedly signing on with the Redskins at week's end.
"[The Raiders] didn't get what they thought they were getting," said a former NFL secondary coach. "He has skills, but he is not the kind of shut-down corner they envisioned."
In the Raiders' aggressive "bump and run" scheme, Hall and Asomugha were expected to maul and shut down receivers at the line, thereby disrupting the timing of the opponent's passing game. When used in conjunction with a blitz-heavy pass rush, the scheme forces the quarterback to complete a series of low percentage throws under duress. The scheme has been a hallmark of the Raiders since the days of Hall of Famer Willie Brown, and Hall was expected to thrive in it due to his exceptional athleticism.
However, the marriage appeared flawed from the beginning because of Hall's preference for playing "off" coverage. Although Hall has the speed and athleticism to excel as a "bump and run" corner, the "ball hawk" is at his best when allowed to sit back and read the quarterback. By using the "clue" technique, Hall aggressively jumps short-to-intermediate routes while reading the quarterback's drop. He mastered the technique while playing in a zone-based scheme in Atlanta and has used it to tally the third-most interceptions (18) in the league since 2005. He was leading the Raiders with three interceptions and ranked third in the league in passes defensed (16).
"He wasn't playing well," said an NFC personnel director. "But it wasn't as poorly as it has been portrayed."
It's important to look at how teams successfully targeted Hall during the first eight games. According to data compiled by STATS LLC, Hall allowed 40 receptions for 552 yards in 66 pass attempts thrown in his direction this season. That's the most of any other defender in the league, and is not acceptable for a player who was viewed as a "shut-down" corner by the organization.
"When you paying a guy top dollar, you expect to get big time results and he wasn't playing to that level," said a former NFL secondary coach.
While the transition to a new scheme partially contributed to Hall's disappointing performance, other factors played a part too. Hall, who spent the first four seasons of his career as the Falcons' top corner, was targeted more often at Oakland due to the presence of Asomugha on the opposite side. With Asomugha emerging as one of the league's top "bump and run" corners, offenses opted to take advantage of Hall's soft coverage. Thus, he spent the first half of the season under siege, and the pressure of the relentless attacks likely led to him losing some of his confidence.
"Whenever you get that much attention and you give up a few plays, it's going to cause you to play tentative at times," said an NFC personnel director.
But don't be surprised if Hall regains his Pro Bowl form with Washington. The 'Skins feature a blitz-heavy scheme that encourages its corners to aggressive play short-to-intermediate throws. Hall's knack for reading the quarterback should fit in nicely within the scheme. In addition, his new position coach (Jerry Gray) is one of the best at teaching the nuances of the position. If Hall takes to his coaching, he will learn how to properly gamble in the back end without exposing himself to negative plays. Gray transformed Samari Rolle into a Pro Bowl player as a Titan, and he could take Hall's game from good to great in Washington.
In case you didn't notice, former fifth-round pick Tim Hightower rushed for 109 yards in his debut as the Cardinals' new starting running back last week, basically insuring Edgerrin James' days are numbered in Arizona.
"He gives their offense a little more juice," said an NFC personnel director. "He is a hard-nosed runner who flashes some explosiveness between the tackles. He finishes runs well, and has a knack for getting into the end zone on goal line situations."
Though the Cardinals' pass offense has ranked in the top 10 the past three seasons, the running game has been a bit of a disappointment with James carrying the load. The 10-year veteran has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the team has never ranked higher than 29th during his tenure. He has only seven 100-yard games and just four runs over 20 yards in 769 rushing attempts as the Cardinals' starter.
"James has become more of a grinder at this stage of his career," said an NFC personnel director. "The young guy brings a bit of a big play dimension to their offense."
Hightower, who ran for 3,712 yards at Richmond and who leads all rookies with seven rushing touchdowns, had thrived as a short yardage/third down back prior to getting the starting nod. Though he lacks elite top-end speed, his quickness in and out of the hole allows him to get to the second level quickly. With defense playing softer to guard against the Cards' explosive passing game, it is important for Arizona to have a runner with the potential to exploit the big seams in the defense. Hightower displayed that potential in his debut by breaking off four runs over 15 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown run.
During coach Ken Whisenhunt's time as offensive coordinator for the Steelers, he witnessed a similar move (Willie Parker over Jerome Bettis) spark the team to a Super Bowl run. He can only hope his decision to put Hightower into the starting lineup produces comparable results.
The stellar debut performance of Brady Quinn underscored the subtle adjustments that offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski made to the Browns' offense. Rather than relying on the deep, vertical passing game that transformed Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowl quarterback, Chudzinski featured a game plan that relied on an assortment of short, ball-control passes that emphasized the tight end and running backs.
With Kellen Winslow as the primary target (14 passes were thrown in his direction), Brady worked the offense from "inside-out." The Browns used an assortment of play-action passes out of two-back set to give Brady the option of taking the check down (underneath pass to running back) if Winslow wasn't available. In addition, the Browns increased the use of their empty sets to spread out the Broncos' defense. With the defense stretched horizontally, Quinn was able to take advantage of the quick option routes available in the middle of the field. This strategy limited the defense's ability to disguise its coverage and made it easy for Quinn to see if the blitz was coming off the edges.
While the change in offensive structure diminished Braylon Edwards' role, it increased the importance of Donte Stallworth. The oft-injured playmaker is one of the best runners after the catch in the game, and the Browns took advantage of his skills by using an assortment of short throws designed to get him the ball in space. Stallworth excelled in the role in the Patriots' offense a year ago, and his four-catch, 48-yard performance was his best as a Brown to date. If Edwards can regain his Pro Bowl form and provide the playmaking that made him one of the game's top receivers last season, the Browns will have a cast of weapons that will poses a formidable challenge for any defense.
Although the Browns' conservative game plan will need to be expanded to handle the arduous slate of defenses (Eagles, Steelers, Titans and Bills) that the team faces down the stretch, Chudzinski got Quinn's career off to a great start with superb plan in his debut.