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Big Blue Breakdown: Colts v. Redskins Edition, Part Deux

I realize that I already published a Big Blue Breakdown for the Colts-Redskins game on Sunday, Oct. 17.  But, as there is very little to look over on a bye week (except the Colts' massive injury report, of course), I had the time to go back over the game tape and isolate one player whose performances of late have drawn much criticism.

LB Philip Wheeler.

Wheeler's play has frustrated fans all season long, and the 'Skins game seemed to encapsulate - even in victory - the weakness at strongside linebacker.  Like him or not, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth seemed to summarize Wheeler in one quip, something I found worth writing down:

"Already we're seeing something here; Mike Sellers, the fullback, is more worried about the backside defensive ends, and the speed that they have with Mathis and Freeney...they're not worried so much about the frontside, and what's happening over there.  They think physically they can overpower them there."

Not something you want to hear, that the other team doesn't even have to bother committing a fullback to clear out your defensive strongside.

In a way, of course, this is another example of how greatly Colt DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis impact the opposing offense's gameplan.  These guys are so quick and react so fast to every play that they command additional attention, in what seems like an infinitely unfolding variety of ways, every game.  Tight ends, tackles, fullbacks, halfbacks.  Every combination of seemingly every eligible blocker is being thrown at the Colts' pass rush, even to slow them from impacting run plays.  Which would all be great, of course, if a) the Colts could consistently stuff the run (they have not, so far) and b) the Colts could consistently cover the limited number of receivers allowed to slip out into routes on these plays (they have not, so far, but did a better job in the Redskins games than others.)

I perceive Wheeler to be a large part of these defensive limitations.  Before I get into the breakdown itself, I should offer - in advance - my opinion of Wheeler.  From everything I've seen, Wheeler is a durable guy who doesn't quit on plays and possesses a respectable amount of speed.  He hasn't done anything stupid off the field and he's been a good team player so far in that he's played special teams when asked and, after losing his projected starting position in last year's season opener to LB Tyjuan Hagler, did not make a huge deal over it as others have after losing their respective starting positions.  Simply put: I want to like the guy.  Heck, I even projected the Colts to draft him in my mock draft that year.  But while I wish every Colt was a Pro Bowl caliber player, that simply isn't reality.  Wheeler is weak at the point of attack and therefore often fails to set a hard edge.  He struggles to shed blocks (something that isn't uncommon in the Colts' linebacking corps) and is not a particularly sound tackler.  Further, he always seems a step slow in coverage and rarely makes plays defending the pass.  In three years, Wheeler has one pass defended and zero interceptions.  And while nobody will mistake SAM linebacker for a glamor position, that still seems like a figure far smaller than most would expect from that spot.

Let's examine the play Collinsworth was referring to in my aforementioned quote.  It's not a fancy play by any means.  The Redskins line up in a simple offset I-formation, with FB Mike Sellers set to the right and RB Ryan Torain in the backfield.  Washington shows a five man line with TE Chris Cooley in motion from the left side to the right, where he will eventually set in front of Mathis.  On defense, the Colts show a standard 4-3, with Freeney at RT, DTs Dan Muir and Fili Moala in the middle and Mathis at LE.  The linebackers are all sitting down in the box, with Clint Session at WILL, Pat Angerer at MIKE and Wheeler at SAM.  As the Redskins move Cooley, it's obviously going to be an off-tackle run aimed directly at the Colts' defensive strongside.

Now, if this is essentially a power run decisively to one side of the line of scrimmage, with no particular emphasis on a cutback option, you would think the offense would commit their FB to that side and assist the TE in clearing out defensive players.  This is not, however, the play design.  The FB instead will cut back to the weak side and assist the left side of the offensive line in clearing out Freeney and preventing him from making a play in the backfield.  As a small aside here: I have to roll my eyes every time someone says that Freeney is one dimensional and can only rush the passer.  This is a clear case of an offense scheming to block Freeney out of a run play.  This playcall, and though there are several variations of it, it is not uncommon to see help drawn up for Freeney on run plays, flies in the face of that myth.

Anyway, the run is aimed right at the defensive strongside.  Washington's RT is going to take on Mathis one-on-one and block him out wide right of the play.  Cooley, who had set near Mathis prior to the snap, is going to continue out along the edge and seek out Wheeler.  All the while, the whole offensive line is slanting right (with Sellers the only player running left to account for backside pickup)  As the play begins to develop, we can see one problem beginning right away.  Muir gets decent initial push but then either attempts to rip inside or is otherwise pushed inside and takes himself away from the direction of the play, greatly reducing his probability of shedding a block and being able to take a good angle on the tackle.  Mathis is being pushed wide to the right, completely neutralized by the RT, and Cooley is able to skate by that block and commit himself to Wheeler.  There is a gaping hole between Muir and Mathis, both effectively blocked out by Washington, and Wheeler is in a bit of an odd situation here: he has outside contain, but there is also an obvious hole opening up between Muir and Mathis, and he must quickly react and fill that gap. 

Ideally, he would have created a hard edge earlier on and directed himself and/or Cooley back toward that hole, narrowing the space for Torain to run through and at least slowing down the RB.  But that would be a lot to ask for a guy whose primary responsibility is to ensure the play doesn't bounce outside first - almost a superhuman effort, really - so instead, Wheeler just seems to freeze and Cooley begins to initiate contact, as if trying to get a read on where the play is going from there.  This puts him in no man's land: he hasn't met the block with enough force to set any kind of an edge, but the run's being cut up inside anyway, so little reason at that point, right?  Well, if that's the case, it's still Wheeler's gap and he has to be able to see that hole opening up and quickly flow toward it, shedding a block along the way if he has to. 

Except Wheeler has committed himself so far forward that, by the time he reads the cut and turns his hips back toward the hole, Torain is already almost past him.  Wheeler has to desperately dive forward at his legs and, to his credit, does wrap up Torain's ankles and tackle him (after Torain falls forward for several yards.)  All things considered, it could be worse.  But it's indicative of the problem here: teams aren't even having to commit a lot of resources toward blocking the defensive strongside in order to make an impact.  We know the Colts' defense isn't generating consistent penetration from its interior line, or at least you'd agree with me that in the instances where they are, defensive players still aren't finishing tackles.  Ineffective defensive line play doesn't help linebackers, that's for sure. 

But still, this is a sight witnessed too often during Colts games.  Offenses are running right at Wheeler, and Wheeler never quite seems to be there to make the play.  I'll never forget the season opener against the Texans, where Texan FB Vonta Leach just smashed Colt linebackers all day long.  Wheeler, who to his credit continued to hang in there when guys like Gary Brackett, Clint Session and CB Kelvin Hayden looked like they'd rather be anywhere but standing in front of Leach, was beaten down savagely by the Texans' fullback.  He was erased from nearly every single second half run play.  And too often, erasing Wheeler from a run play seems to be a simple task on the part of opposing offenses.

Physically, Wheeler is often overpowered and unable to shed blocks.  In the play I mentioned, Cooley doesn't even have to do much in terms of block engagement to keep Wheeler in front of him and prevent him from moving where he'd like.  Perhaps more importantly, Wheeler is just often too hesitant, too slow to read the play as it develops.  In this case, as he didn't engage Cooley in order to set any sort of edge, he had an opportunity to flow back toward the hole as Torain began to cut it inside and meet the RB in the hole.  He was a step slow.  That seems to be the case more often than not.  The SAM position is difficult and requires a guy to take a lot of beating with little glory.  His job is mostly to set edges, prevent runs from being bounced outside and fight blocks to diagnose cutbacks and beat the RB to a spot.  These requirements require a lot of athleticism and a lot of on-the-fly adjustments.  Guys like David Thornton and Tyjuan Hagler were able to be effective because they were good at reading the play and making those crucial, split-second decisions.  Wheeler's play just strikes me as indecisive.  Is he going to attack the blocker?  Is he going to flow back to the hole?  There seems to be a costly pause between seeing and reacting with Wheeler, and the cost of that delay is often four or five yards if not more.

So as not to make these observations based on a single play, let's consider a similar play (same offensive/defensive formations and personnel) on a 1st-and-10 with 5:40 left in the first quarter.  Again, nothing changes.  Offset I-formation by Washington with Cooley and Sellers set right.  Unlike the last play, which was cut up inside, this one is going to go wide right, and as such, will be more indicative of Wheeler's ability (as the last play demanded quite a bit from him in terms of combining ability and decision-making, whereas this one is simple to the point where a seventh-grade SAM would know how to react.)  Cooley is going to engage Wheeler at the snap and simply just ride him wide right.  Again -- and earmuffs if you hate the guy -- let me quote Collinsworth:

"Cooley is not really known for being a blocker, but here he is on the edge, and every time you see a run bounce to the outside, it's because somebody is making a block on the edge." 

The victim of that block, of course, is Wheeler, who doesn't even come close to winning the battle with Cooley.  Once engaged, Wheeler is far too easily taken outside of the play and never sheds his block.  Torain is able to take it wide - almost a cardinal sin against a speed defense - and gain about seven yards on the play.  Again, this play is much simpler than the last in terms of Wheeler's responsibilities.  He just has to set a hard edge here, slow Torain up and force the run back inside.  Except he is taken out by a lone blocker, and obviously that edge is never set.  Simply no excuse for a SAM to be blocked out of a play like Wheeler was here.

I fear I've already written enough for a book advance now, so I won't delve into any more plays with specificity, but suffice to say that Cooley more or less handled Wheeler all night.  Nothing special on Cooley's part, just some simple, effective blocks that took Wheeler out of running lanes.  When I see Washington ran at Wheeler all night...well, I don't have solid statistics, but I would have to imagine that runs were aimed at the defensive strongside for the vast majority of the ballgame.  Further, Wheeler was not impressive in coverage either.  Cooley and TE Fred Davis were able to exploit a combination of soft defensive scheming and poor LB coverage to combine for several easy catches, some certainly in Wheeler's zone.  It wasn't the worst game in coverage, but it certainly wasn't impressive either.

Overall, Wheeler's game just seems a step slow.  He doesn't seem to possess the strength or athleticism required to shed blocks and put himself in good defensive position, and more importantly, he seems to be slow to read plays and make the appropriate adjustments.  Again, a SAM linebacker is rarely going to be a highlight reel playmaker, but that doesn't mean they have to be blatantly ineffective either.  Thornton was certainly effective and made plays when his number was called.  Hagler has been effective and made plays as well.  Wheeler has yet to really make any sort of significant play, be it a monster hit, a key stop or an interception.  He's just kind of out there with the rest of the defense.  I don't harbor any grudges against Wheeler and I'm not trying to hate on him for the sake of hating, but this game seems too typical of Wheeler's overall performance, and I have to wonder what he really offers this defense that Hagler doesn't - besides durability, of course, which I don't mean to discount.  But I ask you to watch the Colts-Texans game next Monday night and see where most of the runs are directed.  Ask yourself, then, if you think Wheeler is really the man for the job.

Unless Wheeler undergoes some sort of radical transformation over the back half of the season, and I have little reason to believe that will happen, expected to see more runs aimed at the Colts' defensive strongside, challenging Wheeler to react quickly and make plays.  Maybe he'll rise to the challenge.  I hope he does; he'll probably be tested as early as next Monday night, when he'll be reunited with his good friend Vonta Leach.  But if he doesn't and if the Colts' defense still continues to struggle on that side, I have to wonder how long it is until Jim Caldwell seriously considers going with Hagler at the position.