Since it's established the sack totals are a faulty way to look at Mercilus's season, next we'll need to analyze how Mercilus performed in one-on-one situations, where his weaknesses are, and how he can improve going into next season.
The most monumental quandary with Mercilus's game is he utilizes one move with an aberration here and there that ends up yielding the same results. He continuously keys on the tackle's outside shoulder, makes contact after taking three steps up the field at a wide angle, knocks the lineman's hands off him and then tries to rip to the outside. As an offensive lineman, or in any profession when you know exactly what is going to happen, that makes the job much easier. For a lineman to beat Mercilus, all he has to do is make sure he gets a decent punch, and the battle is over. Let's bust out the pictures once more.
Week 1 vs. SD. 1st Qtr., 11:58 Remaining. 3rd and 6. Result: 17 Yd. Pass to Eddie Royal.
Mercilus began his reign of running into the offensive tackle in Week One against San Diego. On this play, he lines up against King Dunlap in a one-on-one battle against the NBA sized left tackle.
We can already see the "attack the outside shoulder at all costs" strategy. Whitney is not rushing up the field; instead he's running at a slight obtuse angle to the outside, and Dunlap is countering by kick-sliding laterally while not gaining much depth. This is strange for a tackle. Since space is crucial to stopping defensive ends and outside linebackers, OTs usually try to gain more depth in their pass set. However, when Mercilus is taking such a wide route, rather than attacking up the field, Dunlap can move longitudinally across the line of scrimmage.
When Mercilus and Dunlap make contact, Mercilus is not attacking half a man. Instead, he has gotten right into Dunlap's belly and now has to try and drive him backwards so he can rip and get to Philip Rivers. The problem with this is Dunlap is 6'9" and 330 pounds while Mercilus is 6'4" 258 pounds. Hmmmmmmm...I wonder who's going to win this battle when both are square, even, and pushing into each other.
Since Dunlap is 6'9", Mercilus is able to use his leverage to get underneath his pads and drive Dunlap up like he's power cleaning. The problem is by the time he has the opportunity to rip back inside, Rivers is already about to unleash the football.
In this game, Mercilus had success bull-rushing Dunlap and attacking him inside because of King's height. The problem was that Mercilus kept trying to fight around Dunlap. Dunlap responded by over-setting for the outside move and waiting for Mercilus to run into his numbers like a snapping turtle. There is no doubt in my mind that if Whitney bull-rushed and fought inside more often he could have made Phillip's Monday night more nightmarish than it already was.
Week 5 vs. SF. 1st Qtr., 4:19 Remaining. 3rd and 5. Result: 11 Yd Pass to Vernon Davis.
Here's another example of what happens when the tackle is ready for Mercilus's outside rush.
At the snap, Mercilus takes a step up the field with his outside foot. As you see here and as you see in nearly every pass rush attempt, he's already starting to take a wide angle to rush the passer.
By the time Colin Kaepernick receives the ball, Mercilus has taken four steps up-field before he starts to wheel back around inside. On this play,even if Merclius made a great pass rush move (which he does not), it would not have mattered anyways because he takes too long to make contact. Every player rushing the passer has already engaged with the blocker except for Mercilus. He's taking a wide, lazy angle that wastes precious time on the pass rushing clock.
At this point, there's no chance Mercilus can make an inside move; consequently, Joe Staley pivots towards the sideline, opens the gate and waits for him to climb into him. This would normally be an atrocious way to pass protect, but without the threat of an inside move, Staley can pirouette and wall off the outside.
Kap throws the ball with J.J. Watt in his face. Mercilus is three yards to the left of Kap and two yards behind him. He does not even get the opportunity to make an actual football move because he runs right into Staley. The lack of a threat of Mercilus attacking inside and the wide path he took leads to him taking himself out of the play.
This play showcases what is wrong with Mercilus's path to the quarterback, as well as what happens when a player lacks some type of counter. When the tackle can hone in on one mov,e there's zero chance of disrupting the passing game.
Week 6 vs. STL, 3rd Qtr., 11:47 Remaining. 3rd and 6. Result: 11 Yd Pass to Jared Cook.
Whitney is keying Long's outside shoulder and has taken two steps up the field by the time Bradford receives the snap.
Long and Mercilus make contact. Whitney hits the key he aimed for. His head his on Long's outside shoulder and he has inside hand placement.
This still epitomizes one of the other issues with Mercilus' outside rush. The complication is that once a great tackle like Long gets his hands on you, you have a better chance of catching the Black Plague than escaping the tackle's grasp. Long is stronger than Mercilus; even though Mercilus gets into Long's body, he is quickly bench pressed off. The outside rush and rip is a great way to take advantage of lackluster tackles who lack the punch to stone rushers and the feet to stay with them, but an All-Pro player will quickly extend the opponent off his body once he's engaged.
Bradford lets go of the football and hits the tight end, Jared Cook, for an eleven yard gain for the first down. Long's arms are fully extended. He is completely even with Mercilus and he's face-to-face with Whitney. Bradford could have been in the pocket for fifteen seconds and I still don't think Mercilus could have pressured the quarterback.
Throughout the season, we saw this same technique used by Mercilus more often than we should have. It's a great move when you can get around the tackle, but when you beat the dead horse, the move becomes ineffective. Because Mercilus consistently attacked the outside shoulder, offensive tackles quickly caught and set themselves up to stone him outside, which can be seen below. This over-reliance killed his chance to get to the passer and constipated the team's ability to get to the quarterback.
Additionally, this GIF sums up what happens when a pass rusher over-relies on the same path to get to the quarterback.
Despite that criticism, Mercilus still found success at times by using his speed to get around the tackle's outside shoulder with his fly catching hands to rip underneath the opponent's pads.
Week 10 vs. ARI. 1st Qtr., 3:28 Remaining. 3rd and 5. Result: Pass Incomplete to Andre Ellington.
Just like you saw in the previous plays, Mercilus begins his pass rush by taking two steps up field against Bradley Sowell, who posts with his right foot and slides with his left.
Mercilus' outside arm is placed like he's sprinting while his left arm is flexed by his side. When you look at his feet, you see Mercilus has again taken a wide angle and has one goal: Get around the outside shoulder of the left tackle. Sowell, like Staley earlier, opens the gate (he's not square and has swung around) and faces the sideline rather than staying square.
Sowell is no Derek Newton, and he's unable to get a clean punch on Mercilus. Whitney takes his left arm and rips underneath the tackle's hands, creating a path to the quarterback. However, Mercilus faces one fatal problem. Since he's at the same depth as Carson Palmer, he has no margin for error. If Sowell is able to recover whatsoever and shove Mercilus off his line to the quarterback, Mercilus won't be able to make a play on the quarterback.
What I previously described comes to fruition. The tackle is able to take a great pursuit angle after Whitney and shoves him in the back, which leaves Mercilus looking like the morning after a crawish boil. Mercilus now can't make a play on the quarterback even though he had a great rip move to get around Sowell. The other issue with the outside move is obstacles like this arrive. Tackles are able to recover, quarterbacks are able to step up in the pocket, and running backs are able to chip before heading out to the flat. These are all examples of how fragile outside moves are. Any little hiccup can ruin a great move like what's seen on this play.
Here's another example of a successful outside rush. This time it comes against former All-Pro Michael Roos.
Week 2 vs. TEN. 3rd Qtr., 6:34 Remaining. 3rd and 15. Result: Pass Incomplete to Kendall Wright.
Now we get to see Mercilus lined up as a wide 5 in a three point stance. Like every play we have seen thus far, Whitney is in a one-on-one battle against the team's best pass blocker.
Both Mercilus and Watt look nearly the same in their get off, bouncing off their left foot. Each is reminiscent of a sprinter coming out of the block as they take their first three steps.
Here is where the two differ in their pass rushing styles. Watt chooses to attack the right tackle's outside shoulder instantly while Mercilus opts for taking a dull, wide, outside route and delays the inevitable.
When Roos goes to punch Mercilus, he slithers down low and squirms underneath Roos's hands. The crucial component to this play is that Whitney is only giving Roos a shoulder to punch rather than his entire chest, which would have stopped Mercilus dead in his tracks (ewww, cliches). Whitney has beaten Roos outside and his helmet is placed on Roos's outside shouder. He has him right where he wants him. All Whitney needs to do is keep his feet moving and rip with his left arm.
Mercilus gets around the edge of Roos and starts to explode his hips to gallop after Jake Locker. Unlike the last play, Mercilus is more shallow than Locker; even if Roos can recover, he's not going to knock him behind the quarterback and take him out of the play. The only way Locker can escape is by running to the right where Watt is or climbing up into the pocket where Antonio Smith is lurking.
Mercilus is now almost completely disengaged from Roos. Locker begins to get happy feet and starts to ponder an exit strategy.
Roos gets away with a little hold to stall Mercilus as he tries to pull away like a disobedient puppy trying to force his owner to move faster on an afternoon stroll through the trees. The chase is now on as Mercilus and Smith scamper after Locker.
At the end of the play, Locker is nearly picked off by Kareem Jackson after Jake tries to sneak a pass into Kendall Wright.
These last two plays epitomize Mercilus's base pass rush move when it works well He loves to take two to three round steps up field to delay engagement, position his outside shoulder away from the tackle to make him harder to punch, put his hat on the tackle's outside shoulder and leave his inside arm dangling. Then once he's about to make contact, he begins to swing his arm upwards to rip away from the tackle so he can disengage from the tackle and chase down the quarterback. He consistently does this with success against poor to good tackles. The best pass blockers in the league understand what's up Mercilus' sleeve and sit on his base move.
There are three components to being a great pass rusher: a setup (base), a counter and a finishing move. Since I assume most of you are more familiar with baseball (Go Rangers! Ed. Note: No.) than pass rushing, I will try out a metaphor. The fastball would be the base move, the counter would be a curveball or change-up, and the finisher would be a sick-nasty slider the pitcher uses when he has two strikes. In Whitney's case, his setup move is the outside rush and rip (fastball), the counter would be an inside attack to take advantage of the lineman who's rushing backwards to stop him from getting around the edge (curveball), and the finishing move that's still not there would be a swim, spin or something of this nature (slider). At the moment, Mercilus has a fine base to build on. Now he needs to build walls, lay tile and insulate the house.
Even though we rarely see it, Mercilus did counter offensive tackles with an inside move at times in 2013.
Week 12 vs. JAX. 1st Qtr., 2:36 Remaining. 3rd and 8. Result: 11 Yd Pass to Cecil Shorts.
Whitney is lined again lined up against Cameron Bradfield. As far as the macro blocking assignments go, the right side is making a "Ringo" call and sliding over one gap, and the backside is playing man to man. The reason why a "Ringo" call is made is because Maurice Jones-Drew is helping block on the backside, so if someone does blitz from the left, he will be accounted for.
Rather than take the wide angle we saw in previous plays, Mercilus has his head down and is barraging into the B gap. Whitney caught Bradfield off guard and this can be seen by looking at #78's feet. He was over-setting for the outside move Mercilus used the entire game, and once Whitney breaks inside, he has to plant and try to correct his error. This play is the perfect example of how a pass rusher needs a curve ball to counter the tackle when he focuses on one aspect of the pass rusher's game. You have to keep him honest and not let him cheat to stop your base.
Mercilus has the advantage so far. He beats the tackle off the ball. When they make contact, his head is across Corey's body and he has a free path to the quarterback at the moment. However, the Raguars have a mole in their hole. MJD is creeping up to halt Mercilus's progress into the pocket.
Whitney keels over after a shot to the ribs shakes him up.
MJD leaves a punch with an impression that lasts long enough for him to be able to help protect the rushers coming off the edge.
Even though the pocket is crowded, Chad Henne gets the ball away just in time.
Despite this play involving a stunt with Darryl Sharpton, the key lesson is exemplified in the second still when Mercilus's inside rush leaves Bradfield retreating inside after stepping out wide to shut down the usual outside rush. Mercilus is not doing anything special; he's merely dive bombing into the B gap, but because he's doing something different he catches Brafield off guard. If Mercilus could break out a sufficient inside move to spice things up five times a game, he'll have a break out year in 2014.
Additionally, once he gets the inside move rocking, he can counter that with this move he used against San Francisco.
Week 5 vs. SF, 3rd Qtr., 5:25 Remaining. 3rd and 15. Result: Incomplete Pass to Vernon Davis.
Houston is in the same Dime formation we have seen several times during this endeavor. The 49ers are protecting it by the usual man vs. man for the guard and tackle while the center piggybacks.
On the other side, Mercilus is a battle-fightin' with Staley and the Ninja is duking it out with Mike Iupati. Mercilus is whipping out a move I saw him pull out once, and here it is in all its glory. Whitney takes two to three hard steps inisde, plants with his left foot and then bounces to the outside like Reggie Bush. Mercilus's fake inside freezes Staley in place and leaves him looking like a shart.
Staley now has to play catch-up. He flails his arms at Mercilus trying to do everything he can to stall Whitney. My only issue with Mercilus's move is that he comes out of his break way too wide rather than staying sharp. He needs to come off Joe's hip to take the narrowest path possible to the quarterback. Since his angle is round, Staley can redact his mistake and get his hands back on Mercilus.
Whitney is trying to get to Kap as quickly as possible, but his wide path allows Staley to get his hands on him and bog him down.
As you can see, the tackle did just enough to impede Mercilus from getting to Kap, who releases the ball before Mercilus can deliver a hit on him. Whitney makes an incredible football move, but it is not executed well enough to get the end result he craved.
The key to both of these moves is making sure his rush looks the exact same each time. If he took a step or two outside against Bradfield rather than instantly attacking the B gap, Corey would not have even gotten his hands on Merc. He does a much better job against SF using an inside fake to open up an outside path to the quarterback. He takes two steps towards the tackle that look just like his inside rush before he bounces outside. The move in this case is great, but the execution is not there. Both of these moves work, because if the tackle has to react rather than attack, it creates an advantage for the rusher. Additionally, if the defensive player can attack inside and outside the tackle, the tackle becomes cautious and can't focus on one type of move. If Mercilus can make a few tweaks to both of these moves, he can develop a successful counter off his base move to act as a curve ball when he rushes the passer.
A finishing move is the last component of pass rushing Mercilus needs to develop. Currently, he has astonishing hands and a great rip. The problem is a rip is kind of, sort of, not really a finishing move. Every front seven defender uses the rip to shed tackles. It works not because of the move itself, but because of the speed, hand placement, space on the field and other variables. J.J. Watt's swim, that's a finishing move. James Harrison's bull rush, that's a finishing move. Dwight Freeney's spin, that's a finishing move. The last piece to the Mercilus puzzle is the addition of a finishing move he can break out in big plays where he must get a pass rush. I watched every pass rush situation in 2013 for Mercilus, and I found him use an example of these types of moves a couple of times. After every occurrence, I yelled, "WOWWEEEE! I can't believe it!" It was like seeing a penny laying heads up on a gum covered sidewalk.
Week 12 vs. JAX. 3rd Qtr., 4:36 Remaining. 3rd and 8. Result: 9 Yd Pass to Justin Forsett.
Mercilus meet Bradfield, Bradfield meet Mercilus. Oh wait, y'all have already met? Great, let's carry on then.
Whitney starts his rush like every how he does nearly every single time.
Then, BAM! He unleashes a spin move like a Tazmanian Devil. The only problem is he does not set it up well enough. Whitney uses the move too early rather than waiting until the last possible second to begin twirling inside. For him to improve on this move in the future, he will need to use his left arm (inside arm) to swat the tackle's left hand down (hand that punches his right shoulder; this stops the tackle from hindering his spin) and then use his right arm as momentum when he spins inside.
Bradfield does a great job using his hands to keep track of Whitney during his spin.
The problem is he stops his feet when he punches. Consequently, Mercilus has an inside track to Henne.
Henne throws the ball before Mercilus can make a play, but Bradfield does a good enough job of knocking Whitney off his line enough. Regardless of the result, its like gargling fresh air after escaping a lair of flatulence when Mercilus does something different than the usual.
Week 11 vs. OAK. 4th Qtr., 7:10 Remaining. 3rd and 6. Result: Incomplete Pass to Mychal Rivera.
Here's something I saw Mercilus only do once during my time watching the film.
When Whitney begins rushing the passer, he is much flatter than usual. The left tackle, Khalif Barnes (who's usually a starting guard), is a little high, but his hands are in sound punching position.
Whitney uses his left hand to punch the right shoulder in a game of Twister and then holds down the right trigger to power up his right arm.
He raises his right arm up to answer the teacher's question and then swims over the tackle in an effort to get around Barnes.
Here is the issue with the swim move that most people don't realize. When you raise your arm up to swim over the top, you open up your entire stomach as a target to punch. #69 does exactly what you should do in this sitaution--explode your hands into his stomach and knock the defender around. The player with the greatest swim of all time is J.J. Watt because he does it at a speed so rapid the tackle can't react quick enough to make contact, which leads to him lunging forward and falling onto his face. This is a move that no mortal should try at home.
This move almost leaves Mercilus flat on his back after suffering the blow of a vicious punch.
Week 9 vs. IND. 3rd Qtr., 12:03 Remaining. 3rd and 10. Result: Incomplete Pass to T.Y. Hilton.
The last finishing move we will look at will be Mercilus's bull rush.
The great thing about this pass rush move is the defender gets off the line just like how he does in his base pass rush. Mercilus takes two to three steps and plants.
Then when the tackle turns his hips and opens up, Mercilus cuts to charge into the tackle.
He makes contact here, but the issue is he's too high and not driving into the tackle how he usually does. His knees are barely bent, he's leaning rather than and punching and he is barely lower than Anthony Castonzo, who is three Inches taller than him. They'll end up in a stalemate. Cue this one up as a win for the tackle.
Like the spin move, the bull-rush would greatly benefit Mercilus' ability to get to the passer in the future. The swim move? Not so much, because Mercilus is not heavy enough to be able to take a punch to the gut, and he also goes up against quicker offensive tackles who can quickly react to a swim rather than the behemoths who scrounge around the center of the line of scrimmage.
At this point in his career, Mercilus has merely dabbled with finishing moves like a child who gets coaxed into eating vegetables here and there. He's only twenty-five, so there is room for improvement. For him to become something more than a guy who beats up on slow-footed tackles, he is going to need to learn either how to bull-rush, swim, or both so he can add another dimension to his game.
The final question remaining is, "What can we expect from Mercilus in 2014?". Last year was his first year as a starter and his second in the NFL. Even though I don't enjoy using sacks to measure pass rushers, I wondered how well great 3-4 pass rushers performed in their first few years in the league. What I did was look at the sack totals compiled in the first four seasons of their careers to see if there was a season where they made some type of leap. I found the following:
|Player||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4|
As the graph and table above indicate, pass rushers make their leap in their second year and drop off in the third year, which is skewed because of injuries. This does not bode well for Mercilus. We just saw Mercilus underachieve and go from 6 sacks to 7. However, this season was his first full year as a starter, which is different than his counterparts in the sample. If Mercilus does not improve next year, there may be some deeper issues and an indication Houston should cut ties and move on. In 2014, in his second year as a starter, he is entering the year where most great pass rushers see an increase in performance.
In order to start wreaking havoc in 2014, Mercilus needs to do a few things. The first is he should find someone to model his game after. In this case, I think he should watch every snap Clay Matthews has taken in the NFL. Like Matthews, Mercilus played defensive end in college and was a late first round draft pick. They are similar sizes, even though Mercilus is stronger and Matthews is more explosive. They also have similar jobs in their defense and rush the passer in similar style.
The difference between the two is Matthews plays with greater tenacity and rushes the passer in different ways. I don't like analyzing players I never met by using intangibles, but there are few players more animialistic on the field than Matthews. He leaps at quarterbacks like a lion, his motor never stops moving, and he explodes into tackles. Mercilus, on the other hand, is frustrating to watch because he gets extremely close to taking down the quarterback, but he lacks the killer instinct to take him down at times. There are multiple situations where he should have sacked the quarterback, but failed to come away with a hit. The play against the Cardinals illustrated above is a good example of a play where Mercilus beat the tackle, had a wide open path to the QB, and just barely missed having an impact on the play. This is a mental aspect of the game that Mercilus still has not yet grasped.
As far as pass rushing goes, Mercilus is like Matthews. Each go up against tackles who outweigh them by fifty or sixty pounds, so they must use their speed and hands to their advantage. However, the key difference is Mercilus does the same thing over and over and over again while Matthews has a curve ball. Clay viciously attacks tackles with his speed, and then once they start to over play it he plants, knocks his hands off of them and spins inside. Watch the video below at the 2:00 mark. Actually, watch the entire thing and focus on the spin moves.
What happens is the speed makes the tackle focus on getting back and creating space as quickly as possible. As a result, they end up playing high while increasing their stride length, which makes them unbalanced. To be a complete pass rusher, you have to have moves that counter what the opponent is doing. Mercilus still has not done this.
In Whitney's case, he has great hands, an alright get-off, and some speed. So his base pass rush would be to attack the outside shoulder, rip and get to the edge. Right now, that's all he can do.
Imagine if he could combine those hands with a spin move inside where his speed rush would set up the spin. Mercilus would punch the outside shoulder and when the tackle over sets, he would uses his own momentum against him and spin inside to get an inside crease to the quarterback. Or close your eyes and imagine Whitney taking three steps up the field, have the tackle overextend, and then plant and bull rush. This is what he will need to do to be more than a marginal pass rusher. The athleticism is there (even though he could be more explosive, though the same can be said for every player). He needs another dimension to be something more than a marginal player.
If the Texans did not have J.J. Watt, this season could have been even more grim, if that's even possible. With no one else able to provide pressure, opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart Houston's secondary and were given plenty of time to scour the field for Brice McCain. When opponents doubled Watt, they still had trouble keeping the denizen of the backfield from wreaking havoc, but his presence was somewhat mitigated. What's frightening is that not one member of the Texans' defense could take advantage of the one-on-one match-ups they were handed. If the Texans are going to make a run at a AFC South crown next season, they are going to need to maraud around in quarterbacks' dreams again like Genghar. For this to occur, they are either going to need to see Mercilus make the leap he has the ability to make, or use a high draft pick, spend money, and/or hope Trevardo Williams can do more than run really fast around offensive tackles.
All of these seem highly unlikely. The pressure is going to be on Mercilus;shoulders as he deals with this and a brand new scheme to learn in the 2014 season. If he can't improve, we are going to continue to see even more plays like this in 2014.