Do you feel that? Do you feel the cold air starting to descend upon your homes? Do you yearn for it to be socially acceptable to wear footie pajamas everywhere you go? Do you see the grass frosting over every morning as you begin a new daily ritual of turning on your car 5 minutes before you have to leave for work? Of course you do. It’s almost December. As a Texans fan, the start of winter has always meant one inescapable truth – it’s time to start looking at who Rick Smith will be selecting in the top 10 of next year’s draft. However, this isn’t just any winter. The Texans are 10-1 and practically clinched a playoff berth two months ago.
Despite the favorable position that the Texans have found themselves in this season, I just couldn’t kick the habit. After Week Ten or Eleven of every NFL season, I can’t help but go into full blown evaluation mode, and this week the targets of said evaluations were the outside linebackers, in particular Whitney Mercilus. With 2013 being such a factory for top-20 pick caliber pass rushers of every shape and size, the Texans would do well to keep a couple names in the back of their minds should one of them be the odd man out and fall all the way to the bottom of the first round. With Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin becoming suddenly (and inexplicably) ineffective pass rushers, Rick Smith has to allow for the possibility that one or both of them need to be replaced in 2013. Connor Barwin is the more likely of the two to get bumped from the starting lineup, considering Reed is a very recent (and high) draft pick who at least is dominant against the run, while Barwin is going to be a free agent and so far has offered much less as a complete package than almost any other starting Texans defender.
So what happens if Barwin doesn’t get brought back next season? Well, Mercilus would naturally step into his role as the weakside pass rusher next to Antonio Smith. That much is almost a certainty. What isn’t certain, however, is what happens behind Reed and Nubs on the depth chart. Bryan Braman has a legitimate claim to the title of "the best special teamer in the NFL", but as a rotational pass rusher, he doesn’t bring a lot to the table. If Wade Phillips wants to keep his potentially post-Barwin edge rush alive and well in 2013, it is very likely that Rick Smith will have to invest in yet another tweener prospect in the first two rounds for the third consecutive season (and fifth time in six seasons).
You might be saying to yourselves, "But what if Barwin does come back? What happens then?" Well, to be honest I think either way Whitney Mercilus will still ascend to the starting lineup full time in 2013, if not by the end of this season. I saw something in Mercilus this week that I just don’t get from the rest of the rotation, and that is straight up explosiveness. Sure, Reed and Barwin can physically abuse people at the line of scrimmage at times. Those two are massive human beings, and that’s what they are supposed to do. Mercilus, however, has a different element to his game – speed. He’s not the biggest tweener you’ll ever see; not by a long shot. What he lacks in size and strength he makes up for in lightning quickness and an absolutely jaw dropping sense of balance. He’s got outrageous bend and natural athleticism that not only gets him to the edge, but can help him outrace even the fastest tackles to the back of the pocket. If it were not for Alan Ball and Brice McCain having possibly the most embarrassing performances I’ve ever seen from defensive backs, Whitney Mercilus would have had an absolutely disgusting stat line in the win over the Lions.
Ming got so close so many times, only to be thwarted by the secondary immediately giving up separation to Lions' receivers off the line of scrimmage. If Johnathan Joseph played in this game, it would not have even been close. I firmly believe that. Kareem Jackson gave up a grand total of two catches for 19 yards in the entire game. Those two catches came against Calvin Johnson. Let me reiterate that – Kareem Jackson gave up only two catches and 19 yards to Calvin Freaking Johnson. That means that Matt Stafford threw for over 420 yards over the course of almost five full quarters against just Brice McCain, Alan Ball, and Glover Quin alone.
I – I just…what the hell, guys. What the hell. Let’s just cut to the tape.
Whitney Mercilus is lined up on the right side of the line. The Lions are in 2nd and 27, backed up to their own end zone. They know they have to pass, the Texans know they have to pass, and every single one of the millions of fans watching the game knows they have to pass. This should be simple, right? Just go get the quarterback.
Mercilus gets a great jump off the snap and immediately raises his "high hand" (the hand closest to the center) to engage the right tackle, the absolutely massive 6’7" 325 lb. Gosder Cherilus. It has been noted in the past that Mercilus has improved against larger offensive tackles that have size and strength advantages over him. He’s been able to improve how he uses leverage, agility, and technique to equalize the physical differences that normally would render him ineffective.
Mercilus has also improved his rushing ability from the right side of the line. Early on in the season, he seemed to not have the same degree of bend and flexibility around the edge on the right side as opposed to the left, which limited the amount of pass rushing moves that he could throw at right tackles (generally all he did in the first five or six games was just try to sprint to the back of the pocket and outrun the offensive lineman’s slide step, or if that didn’t work, try to change direction and loop back into the B gap between the tackle and guard. It didn’t work that well). This actual, tangible growth into a better-rounded pass rusher has me excited to see what he can do as a full time starter.
This was Whitney’s first mistake of the day. Although it was a minor one, it potentially cost him a sack, or even a safety if he played his cards right. Cherilus has great hand placement on Mercilus’ "low" shoulder (the shoulder furthest from the center) and is not letting his size lull him into playing too upright and compromise his leverage. Very sound technique from the 5th year pro. The mistake that Mercilus made, which is blown up below to make it easier to see, is that he countered the tackle’s low hand placement with his own low hand by placing inside the tackle’s arm. In this particular instance, Mercilus should have immediately clubbed the tackle’s low hand on the outside to disengage him and get around Cherilus’ right hip. With his low hand disengaged and no time to slide step and adjust, the tackle would have been helpless to stop Mercilus as he raced to murder Matt Stafford. I’ll admit that this observation is a little nitpicky, but when it comes to proper technique, the difference between not getting pressure and taking down a quarterback for a safety is as subtle as how you use a single hand in a split second. This is something that of course can be fixed, and he even improved it throughout the game, but I cannot stress enough that if Mercilus wants to be successful he has to make the right technical decisions on every single snap.
As you can see, without getting sacked, Stafford was able to escape the pocket and throw a 24 yard strike to Brandon Pettigrew. There goes that 2nd and 27…yikes.
This play was actually shown on replay in HD, so I grabbed the stills from the broadcast feed instead. The Lions are in a very heavy one back/two tight end set. Mercilus is lined up all the way in the 7-tech on the weak side. He’s definitely coming to get the quarterback, and from the pre-snap read, it seems as though he will be matched up with either the running back or the right tackle. How he approaches each blocker is very, very different, so after the snap he will have to diagnose the protection that is thrown at him and react in an almost impossibly small fraction of time.
Mercilus draws the right tackle as the running back steps up to help with Jared Crick. The tackle gets his high hand on Mercilus to jam his cutback inside. Mercilus smartly reacts by immediately countering the stiff arm from the tackle with both of his own arms to disengage him.
As Mercilus controls Cherilus’ high hand, the tackle counters by placing his low hand across his body to again try and stop the inside cutback. Mercilus begins to descend into his very low "pass rushing" angle to gain leverage against Cherilus, who again is keeping himself as low as possible to prevent his bulkiness from hampering his speed. Mercilus counters with his own low hand and tries to disengage Cherilus by the wrist rather than the shoulder or elbow. This is a very smart move because it shows that he has grasped the pure physics of his position. Similar to how a lever and fulcrum work to make heavy objects easier to move, controlling a tackle’s arm (the lever) by attacking the hands rather than the shoulder (fulcrum) is much easier, because the further you contact a lever from the fulcrum, the more force you apply to the object on the other end of the fulcrum (in this case, Cherilus’ body). This is textbook technique on both sides, and I enjoyed seeing this chess match unfold all day. Punches and counter punches were thrown on the right side at such high speeds that even watching at a frame by frame pace it was tough to see every little nuance. I loved it.
Cherilus recovers with his high hand, but it's already too late. He has lost his wide base (circled in orange), Mercilus is low enough to get enough leverage against the tackle’s physical strength (yellow), and most importantly his low hand is in position to neutralize the tackle’s arm and set himself up for a swim or rip to the tackle’s right hip and make a beeline for the quarterback. He’s got him. All he has to do is finish Cherilus off and he’s got a free shot at Stafford.
This was definitely frustrating to watch. Mercilus has the kill shot right there in his sights and he doesn’t take it. Instead of taking the swim that was given to him, he continues on his outside trajectory around the pocket and lets Cherilus recover. Even if he wouldn’t have gotten the sack if he neutralized the tackle’s arms, he still at least would have been in position to put a good lick on Stafford within a step or two of his release.
As you can see, Stafford went untouched and threw a completion that extended the drive. This was arguably the most disappointing trend I saw from Mercilus for a big part of the game. He had a tendency to not play with that recklessness that stud pass rushers need to have and almost always forced himself into playing it safe rather than just going after the quarterback. It seemed like he played more to contain Stafford rather than disrupt him, which as the weakside rush linebacker you can’t do. If you are the Will backer in a Wade Phillips' scheme, your job is to get the quarterback. Period. Mercilus can’t be afraid to dive inside if the outside rush doesn’t work. If the tackle is sliding one way, he has to go the other. If he has a tendency to punch with his low hand first, then the speed rip to the outside is just waiting to happen. So what if the quarterback is given an escape out of the pocket if Mercilus takes a chance on a lane that he’s been repeatedly given? It’s Matt Stafford. How far do you really think he’s going to get? Let the safeties and inside linebackers deal with clean up duty. If Whitney trusts himself, and his teammates, the sacks will come eventually.
In this still, Mercilus is lined up against fellow first round rookie Riley Reiff. Playing for the injured Jeff Backus, this is Reiff’s first start, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is a first round tackle from a school known for pumping out NFL-caliber linemen every single year. This will be a challenge.
Mercilus gets a great jump off the snap and tries to get the initial punch with both hands in an effort to turn Reiff into his pivot point around the edge.
Mercilus starts to get low and pumps his legs to keep his momentum going around the corner of the pocket. Notice how well he is bending to counter the equally sound leverage brought from Reiff. Very good technique.
Mercilus turns on the speed to beat Reiff around the edge while he ties up his arms. This shows the pure explosiveness that got Mercilus into the first round in April. You don’t get this from every tweener prospect coming out of college, and it’s easy to see how he had one of the greatest pass rushing seasons in FBS history last year. He’s just too fast, too quick, and too overwhelmingly athletic to keep in check for an entire game. All he had to do was improve his hand work and consistency in technique to become a truly dominant defensive weapon, and that improvement is coming along very nicely with each game.
Amazingly, Reiff manages to adjust the angle on his slide step just enough to cut off the edge and drives his high hand into Mercilus’ left shoulder in an attempt to keep his momentum going around the back of the pocket where he can contain the speed rush. Mercilus plants his right foot for a split second change of direction and somehow doesn’t go down. This was a wonderful and nearly inexplicable display of power and balance from a man standing on one foot. How he not only stayed up, but shrugged off Reiff’s punch to the shoulder on the side of his body that didn’t even have a point of contact on the ground, I’ll never know. Simply incredible.
Mercilus gets his left foot down and starts to drive Reiff’s right hip back towards the rear of the pocket, opening him up for the inside move. Simultaneously, Mercilus gets his high hand outside of Reiff’s own high hand to set him up for a swim or rip directly into Stafford’s only lane of escape. Perfect, perfect technique. The left guard sees Mercilus is beating Reiff and starts to come back to lend a hand.
Mercilus lets Reiff’s arm go (again, I’m not sure why he has a tendency to relinquish control of his blocker’s arms when he clearly has him beat. That’s something that needs to be fixed). The guard is closing the inside lane. It’s now or never.
Ouch. Mercilus sandwich, order for one.
Wait, he got out of that? Seriously? How does this guy do it? He’s like a human weeble wobble. You can punch him, you can grab him, you can crush him between 600 pounds of flesh and he just doesn’t go away. Remarkable. Even if Stafford gained a couple inches and prevented the sack, we all know that it was essentially the same result. Mercilus definitely could have executed the actual "pass rush" portion of this play better by finishing off Reiff when he had the chance, but the fact that he was able to recover from the offensive line’s double team and take the quarterback down at the line of scrimmage is amazing in itself.
In this still, Mercilus is again lined up over Reiff. Stafford motions his running back out to receiver to form an empty set.
Smith and Mercilus shift over by one gap, but it still looks to Stafford as though Mercilus will be coming off the edge because he knows that coverage isn’t exactly his strong suit. The Texans are playing in off coverage, which means that either they are cushioning themselves to play man-to-man behind a blitz, or they are setting up a 7-8 man zone. Stafford takes the gamble that the blitz is coming and has his receivers running clearing routes to flood the strong side of the field and draw the safeties away so that he can sneak his recently motioned running back out to the weak side for a catch and run. It’s a sound call considering the personnel that he is facing.
Stafford reads the defense incorrectly, and in fact is it a Cover-3 zone defense (Cover-3 denotes that there are three deep zones, marked with yellow) with a three man rush. Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain take their deep thirds of the field with Glover Quin taking the middle deep third. Danieal Manning plays the hook zone underneath Jackson, Bradie James plays a middle zone, and Darryl Sharpton takes the other hook zone. Barwin and Mercilus are supposed to take both flats, but as seen in the still Mercilus goes to the wrong zone and instead also plays the hook with Sharpton. This is the kind of mistake that embarrassing touchdowns are made of.
As you can see, the running back is all alone as he shallows out his slant to get underneath the three Texans over the top of him. Extremely luckily for the Texans, Stafford abandons his running back as his original hot route as soon as he sees Mercilus drop into coverage and opts for Pettigrew on the quick out instead. Had he seen that Mercilus dropped into the wrong coverage, this play might have gone very differently. Thanks, Matt, we needed that one.
Just for good measure, I want to show how completely alone the running back was at the time of Stafford throwing the ball.
On this snap, Mercilus is again lined up against Cherilus/Pettigrew. He’s got his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in Houston’s dime defense. It’s 2nd and 11 and Houston’s secondary has been awful so far. Logically thinking it is safe to say that the Lions will be passing the ball, and Mercilus anticipates a deep shot on a seven step drop. This was one of the first snaps that I saw Whitney really cut loose. He went for his read on the seven step drop and didn’t wait to see if he was right or wrong. He just went for it, and that’s what I wanted to see.
The ball is snapped and Mercilus explodes into a speed dip on the edge. He’s not stopping for anybody. Cherilus is caught off guard by Mercilus’ speed and tries to throw a desperate punch with his low hand. Mercilus gets his arm in position to rip through it without slowing his momentum.
Look at that bend, that leverage. He throws down a vicious rip on the tackle’s right arm and blows through the block. His legs keep pumping at full speed and he doesn’t even stop to see where Stafford is. He finally just trusts himself, regardless of the outcome.
Cherilus is beaten in every possible way, but unfortunately Stafford didn’t do a seven step drop, and instead only did a three step drop. If he had done a seven step drop, however, he would have been broken in half. That’s the lesson I hope Mercilus took away from his game. You don’t always have to be right, you just have to use the talent you have at your disposal to throw down your chosen moves and hope you're right. Eventually Stafford will take a seven step drop, and eventually that speed rush will pay off. Who cares if you’re wrong half the time and the quarterback scrambles for a few yards here or there? The other half of the time when you are right will be that much sweeter, and I would rather you be hitting the quarterback half of the time than simply closing running lanes all of the time. We need sacks from you, and that’s it. Go sack the quarterback and be unafraid of the consequences…please?
Bill Kollar, the Texans' defensive line coach, has a philosophy that I think hits the nail on the head. If you play forty defensive snaps a game and you beat your blocker on just one of those snaps, you will get a sack. If you beat your blocker on one of those forty snaps every week, you get sixteen sacks at the end of the season and go to the Pro Bowl. As a weakside rusher all you have to do is win 2.5% of the snaps that you line up in. That’s all it takes - go do it.
This last still is in overtime and the Lions are driving for a game-winning field goal. They have gotten in range and are just trying to run the ball to get an extra couple of yards. Mercilus is lined up over the tight end while the rest of the defense creeps up into the box to stop the inevitable run.
Mercilus engages the tight end one on one as Stafford hands off. Glover Quin charges down to fill the cutback lane outside the Lions’ left tackle.
The tight end sees Quin coming down to break through the gap and disengages from Mercilus.
Quin is blocked, leaving Mercilus one-on-one against the running back on the edge. This is the game.
Attaboy, Whitney. The result of the play was a three yard loss. The very next snap was a missed 47 yard field goal that banged off the upright. Had those three yards not been lost, the Lions likely would have won. Sure, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub got the Texans in position to score the winning points, but they wouldn’t have done that without Whitney Mercilus’ game-saving tackle. That’ll do, Nubs. That’ll do.
Overall, I am pleased with how Mercilus has evolved since the beginning of the season. He still has his issues, of course, but the talent is there. Every now and then, he flashes brilliance that takes even the most diehard Mercilus supporters by surprise. His speed, power, and insane lateral agility are not to be trifled with. Once he starts playing with the reckless abandon that J.J. Watt brings on every snap and worries more about making an impact rather than just not screwing anything up, he will be a force in this league. I promise you that.
Overall Grade: B