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Linebacker Report

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; Tuesday, August 05, 2003 POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Middle Linebacker By TCU Dan - SaintsReport.com Staff Writer - 7:26 pm CST As the Saints new-look defense begins to come together early in training camp, many questions are still circulating in the minds ...

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Old 08-05-2003, 08:39 PM   #1
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Linebacker Report

Tuesday, August 05, 2003 POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Middle Linebacker
By TCU Dan - SaintsReport.com Staff Writer - 7:26 pm CST

As the Saints new-look defense begins to come together early in training camp, many questions are still circulating in the minds of fans, and many of these questions concern the rebuilt linebacking corps.
So far in camp, Sedrick Hodge and Derrick Rodgers are both opening eyes. Rodgers, who was originally expected to provide veteran depth behind a young James Allen, has all but sealed the weakside linebacker position with his quickness in coverage and his somewhat untapped pass-rush ability. Sedrick Hodge is said to look like a new player, displaying much improved upper-body strength and even more improved instincts.

With what could, at least in training camp, end up being mainstays at the outside linebacker positions, middle linebacker still appears to be an enigma.

The three-tiered competition features a young utility man in Willie “Cie� Grant, a physical run stuffer in Orlando Ruff, and a savvy veteran in Darrin Smith. While Smith and Ruff seem to be the front-runners to man the position, each of these players brings something different to the table. Here’s how the competition breaks down:

This savvy veteran provides not only versatility and experience, but a collection of Super Bowl rings as well (earned as a starting linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys). Smith was the starting middle linebacker for the Saints in 2000, following Charlie Clemons preseason injury to his Achilles tendon. That season, Smith posted over 100 tackles for the Saints and also returned an interception for a touchdown.

Pros: Smith brings finesse to the middle of the Saints defense. While not powerful against the run, the 232 pound veteran knows how to get low and penetrate the offensive backfield. Smith, like many natural weakside linebackers, choose to “slip� blocks rather than take them on head up. He uses anticipation and timing to get below the shoulder pads of blockers and almost “slide� into running lanes. While Smith may seem to put himself at the mercy of the blockers, he utilizes a type of linebacker “Tai Chi,� using the opposition strength to his advantage.

Against the pass Smith is very solid, especially in the middle of the defense. Being surrounded by younger more athletic outside linebackers should make up for any quickness that may be lost with age. Smith can still consistently run in the low 4.6's in the 40 yard dash, even if he is on the wrong side of 30. He is a consummate coverage linebacker who solidifies the middle zones of the field.

Cons: Smith is undersized and a liability against a power running game as he can wear down. His finesse technique, while it works well against straight-line runners, often takes him out of plays especially against cutback runners. While he has above-average range, Smith is not quite the player he used to be in terms of quickness. Smith can also be overpowered by blocking backs and requires a degree of protection from the interior linemen. He is suspect against isolation plays and plays where teams run directly at him as he thrives off of his ability to take good angles and strategically position himself. He does not provide a very intimidating presence in th middle, either.

The 26 year old Ruff has taken the hard road into the NFL catching on with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent. The 6'4, 260-pound Ruff has never lead a defense in tackles, but was a key cog in the Chargers run defenses of 2000 and 2001 that ranked in the top of the league in statistics (top 5 both years) but in the bottom of the league in wins. After the signing of Donnie Edwards and emergence of rookie (2002 3rd round pick) Ben Leber, Ruff was demoted to backup duty. Even though he was courted heavily by the Chargers to come back as a starter due to the inevitable trade of Junior Seau, Ruff chose the Saints over the Chargers and other suitors, including the Eagles.

Pros: Ruff’s mere presence against the run brings another dimension to a team’s defense. He is extremely tough mentally and is very focused due to traveling the hard road. He engages in a number of mind-strengthening activities, including yoga and martial arts. A classic throwback middle linebacker, Ruff is instinctive and powerful at the point of attack, easily able to overpower blocking backs and fairing well at the point of attack with interior linemen. He does not need to be protected in the running game. Ruff uses good technique at the point of attack and more often than not positions himself into a position of control, thereby keeping himself in the play until he commits. He makes up for lack of speed with anticipation. Is an overachiever in pass coverage. While he may only average three to five solo tackles per game, he sets a tone with each hit. Is a motivator to a defense and to himself. Ruff is excellent at redirecting plays and disrupting the inside run, often taking away an entire running lane and sometimes two.

Cons: Was an undrafted rookie for a reason. Has barely average speed and only average range. Does not provide much pursuit outside of the tackles. Does not match up well against receiving tight ends or running backs. While he is able to over-achieve in zone coverage, he does not match up well man to man. Is a classic two-down middle linebacker. Must be surrounded with speed and cannot be expected to make plays outside of a defensive scheme. Can be taken advantage of with play-action passes that expose the middle of the defense. Does not provide much flash as a pass rusher. Is a role player who must be complemented with playmakers.

The speedy rookie was a member of the Ohio State National Championship team. Made the memorable last-second hit on Ken Dorsey that forced the errant pass and secured the OSU victory. Was recruited at Ohio State as a safety and spent time at cornerback as a junior and weakside linebacker as a senior. The Saints see him as a project to man the middle linebacker position in the future.

Pros: Grant is extremely fast, quick, and athletic. He is a diligent worker who never becomes complacent. A consummate team player, Grant is willing to make sacrifices in an effort to achieve a greater goal. He has experience all over the field, having started at both cornerback and weakside linebacker at Ohio state while seeing time at safety. Grant is not yet molded into a position and has very few “bad habits� that come with most tweeners. He has the frame to consistently play close to 240 pounds and not lose much speed or quickness. He also possesses excellent change of direction skills that keep him in plays even when he makes mistakes. Is excellent in both zone and man coverage. Grant is an instinctive, athletic football player that could develop into an instinctive, athletic middle linebacker.

Cons: Grant is extremely raw at the MIKE position. Most NFL scouts saw his natural position at safety. Is a classic space player that does not display much technique when it comes to taking on and beating blocks. He can be overpowered at the point of attack and has not dealt with the traffic situations that come with manning the middle of the defensive front. Is a player who would rather run around a block than run through it. Has no experience at middle linebacker, so he is definitely a project. Requires a lot of protection against the run. Right now is an enigma that is battling injuries early in camp. Will not vie for the starting position this year and could ultimately be moved back outside in a year or two.

Ruff and Smith are clearly the frontrunners for the starting spot while Cie Grant will contribute mostly on special teams. Unless he proves to be somewhat of an anomaly, do not expect him to challenge any time during the year as long as Smith and Ruff are healthy.

Competition brings out the best in players and both Darrin Smith and Orlando Ruff will only benefit from such a competition. Ultimately, what is considered a competition now could soon turn into a collaboration, with Ruff manning the middle on rushing downs and Smith coming in during obvious passing situations. With improved speed on the perimeter of the defense, the middle linebacker position will be well protected and should be greatly improved this year.


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BillyCarpenter1 is offline  
Old 08-05-2003, 09:35 PM   #2
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Linebacker Report

Good read, it looks like we improved quite a bit, but could stand an upgrade next year.
I see the Saints going free-agent CB (there will be many to choose from) and LB in draft (2003 draft is supposed to be heavy on LB\'s and CB\'s)

I\'d give our overall LB crew a C-plus to a B-minus. I thought last year\'s crew was a C-minus to a D+.

Lets face it, after the Dome patrol we will NEVER be satisfied. We had arguably the best LB crew in the history of the NFL.

Whether we agree or disagree; its all for Him.
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