Saturday, April 5, 2014

Breaking Down the Packers' Nick Perry vs. Detroit

A while back, I spent about six hours on a Saturday watching tape of Green Bay vs. Detroit, in Week 4 of the 2013 NFL season. Whether and how much Perry develops in 2014 is going to be really important to the Packers' season, so I wanted to see what his potential was by cherry-picking his best game. So sue me. Here's what I found. 

Perry played 38 snaps, including 20 at left outside 'backer and 16 at right outside 'backer. The Packers' plan seems to have been to rotate him with Mike Neal at LOLB, but after Clay Matthews went out with a broken thumb, they moved Perry almost exclusively to ROLB with awesome results.

Here's my scouting report on Perry, and then I'll provide more details below. 


Perry looked much, much more comfortable at ROLB than LOLB. He showed great footwork, a strong dip 'n' rip move and a considerable amount of power when rushing against Riley Reiff, the Lions' overmatched left tackle. However, when rushing at LOLB, he was anonymized. He didn't look nearly as natural or as comfortable there, and never got any sort of pressure. Physically, he's a big, strong, somewhat slow guy who is best when moving in a straight line towards the QB. He held up fairly well in coverage in limited opportunities, but is slow to turn his hips and very bad at changing direction. While he's solid when the other team is running directly at him, he's slow to pursue down the line of scrimmage on runs away from him, and was fooled several times by juke moves or misdirection plays, regardless of side. A pure rush linebacker who can be exploited in space. Plays with commendable violence at times. Needs to be on the right side.

Perry at ROLB: 

This was the BEST PART. Perry’s first rush from ROLB, snap #38, was also his first sack. It was one of the most beautiful plays I’ve ever seen.

Perry looked SO much more fluid, more natural, on the right side. He did his little hesitation again, took a couple of steps and then the one HUGE step that got him to [LT Riley Reiff’s] outside shoulder… Looking at the replay, he punches with both hands and grabs Reiff’s outside shoulder and just moves him, and as he’s doing that he dips his left arm under Reiff’s left shoulder and rips upward and through him. Reiff had no choice but to drag him down with a blatant (uncalled) hold, but Perry not only had the strength and ability to shake him off—even as he’s going down to the ground—but he has the awareness to keep moving forward and smack right into the back of Stafford’s legs and take him down.

Snaps #51 and #56 were excellent, too. He made it around the corner both times, nearly slapping the ball away in #51 and recording a hurry in #56 that could easily have been a holding call. Perry experimented with a spin move (#52) and attacked the inside shoulder for the first time (#52, #53). On snap #64, he notched his second sack; here’s the tape.

“Reiff appeared to be playing to the inside; he set his hips pretty early. Perry didn’t do anything unusual; he slapped Reiff’s outside shoulder and moved himself around, got his shoulders turned around Reiff’s, and was in perfect position to smash the ball away. He didn’t just hit the ball, he hit Stafford’s entire arm, coming down like he was breaking a branch off of a tree, and the ball went flying.” Stafford held it just a half-second too long, and that was the difference.

Perry rushed the passer eleven times from the ROLB spot, and had two sacks and two hurries. That’s an awesome ratio.

Perry at LOLB: 



Perry looked below-average at LOLB. Against Lions right tackle Jason Fox (and possibly Ike Hilliard), Perry was poor. On snap #13, he showed the beginnings of a dip-and-rip move; he took two steps, made a little hesitation move to the inside, and then tried to take Fox around the corner. It sort of worked, to the extent that he got his hips turned and aimed himself at the QB, but he wasn’t able to make it around the corner completely—that is, he never got his inside arm underneath Fox’s outside arm. On most of his other rushes, he tried to beat Fox to the outside, either by attacking Fox’s outside shoulder with speed or trying to go right through him with power. Neither really worked. Perry did consistently get his hands on Fox’s pads, keeping him off his chest, but Fox was able to consistently grab him by the shoulders and keep him from going anywhere. 

Perry vs. runs directly at him: 


With the exception of a reverse, which I’ll get to later, only one Lions designed run went to his side. That was snap #40, and it was one of Perry’s more impressive plays, especially at LOLB; he fought off Fox/Hilliard’s attempt to take him towards the sideline—Fox got his hands up high on Perry’s pads but Perry appeared to stay low and shed him—and stayed in the gap. The back actually cannoned into him and bounced off for two or three yards, but Perry shed the block and helped on the tackle. Detroit much preferred to run away from Perry.


Perry in coverage: 


I did not expect this. Perry dropped into coverage on snaps 30, 37, 39, 49 and 63. Snap #37 was nullified because of a delay-of-game on the offense, and in #49 he was actually in the middle of the field and covered TE Brandon Pettigrew on a four-yard out. During #63, he dropped into a shallow zone and nobody was around. The one really respectable one was #30. He was off the line opposite Pettigrew, the inmost of three wideouts to the right side, and did a nice job of turning his hips and running with him. As far as I could see, he stayed with him for 10-12 yards, by which point the ball was on its way to somebody else (it eventually hit Kris Durham in the head). Perry definitely looks clumsy and not very fluid in the open field, but he did enough to get by.

Well, except for snap #39. I have no idea what Dom Capers was thinking, but he split Perry out to the defense’s extreme right and had him try to jam a wide receiver, then drop into coverage on the back leaking out of the backfield. He jammed the WR, in the kindest, loosest sense in which you could call something a jam, and did okay on the back. I almost wonder if he was late getting off the field or something and had to settle for that, but it appeared to be a designed play.

Perry's mental mistakes: 


Reggie Bush froze him on his second snap of the game. Bush was running off LT, and Perry was unblocked on the back end. He was pursuing down the line and Bush gave him a little nod, not really a juke, but enough to freeze Perry solid. I counted three times where Perry was fooled by a hard-count; he would twitch before the snap, and Stafford would straighten up and point at him, presumably calling or changing the protection. One was probably a false start, but went uncalled. Snap #14, a play-action pass, was designed to fool Perry and get him to charge down the line and inside, which it did, allowing Stafford to get outside him and complete the pass. And on Reggie Bush’s twenty-yard reverse (#43), Perry was completely fooled into chasing Joique Bell down the line. When Bell tossed it to Bush and Bush came sweeping around Perry’s side, Perry was totally out of position and the run went through his gap for 20.

Now, most of these are minor, minor things. Mike Neal smeared Bush for -4 on the Bush juke, and most of Perry’s other sins didn’t hurt the team as a whole. It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t really have a baseline for how often linebackers do this, so this might just have been a normal game. It was something I noticed throughout the game, however.

Friday, April 4, 2014

When You Buy a Thing, All You're Buying Is The Thing

Hey everyone. Just wanted to take a moment to remember that when you're buying a product, be it a toothbrush or a car, all you are getting is the product. You're not getting any kind of intangible benefit. You're not cooler, richer, funnier or having more fun, unless you became any of those things through actual use of the product.

Some car advertisement, I don't remember for what company, but there was an advertisement during the Super Bowl that purported to sell, not the car, but the idea of luxury. Their strategy was to link the concept of luxury inextricably to the car, so that people would buy one with the expectation of the other.

This is something we see all the time, and it kind of drifts out of mind how crazy it is. Perfume makes you sexier, as do infomercial push-up aids. Paintball makes you cool. Cell phones make you hip. Shopping at Brooks Brothers instead of Target makes you classy. Taking X pill will make you happy.

All of this is absolutely wrong.

It's just perfume. It's just a push-up device. It's just paintball, a phone, a store and a pill. There is nothing special about it except what the product itself actually does, to the extent that that is special.

This is a good thing to remember.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Defense of Julius Peppers and his Supposedly Inconstant Motor

Here is a quote from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's story, by Tom Silverstein, on the Packers' signing of Julius Peppers earlier this offseason (bolding mine): 
And so Capers probably won't need to be too creative in finding ways to keep Peppers happy. But the Packers may have to find a way to keep Peppers motivated. He is a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play, but he did play an extraordinary number of snaps for the Bears and still managed to lead them in sacks most years.
JS guru Bob McGinn published an article a few days later with quotes from NFL scouts over the years, evaluating Peppers. Some highlights: "He disappeared on some plays but at least he showed up in each game. They used him well..." "He has the ability to turn it up to a level no one else has. If he takes a play off everyone is on his (expletive). The reality of it is you do not want to play that guy..." "His deal is, when he wanted to take over, it seemed like he could. But it's always been like this, rather than dominate a game. Some players that shouldn't have been able to, block him..." "He's a little off and on with his effort, as he's always been. I think it was a little worse [in 2013]".

The next day, professional parrot Tyler Dunne (also of the JS, regrettably) had these things to say:

When the Green Bay Packers reconvene at 1265 Lombardi Ave., David Bakhtiari will have a question for Julius Peppers. The left tackle never understood these hot-and-cold, motor-related concerns himself. On the field, Peppers showed signs of slowing down last season. Scouts have ripped his selective effort.
It's hard to quarrel with McGinn's article, although one could argue that the scouts were influenced in part by the popular narrative I am about to describe. But Silverstein and Dunne's casual epithets--"motor-related concerns", "a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play" represent nothing less than a nearly thirteen-year smear of a journalistic narrative, a hearsay-driven, secondhand tarnishing of the man's character. And it is that shitty journalism--an epithet I, at least, do not hand out casually--that has perpetuated this narrative about Peppers that has stuck to him his entire career. He doesn't work hard. He takes plays off. Runs hot and cold. Questionable motor. Doesn't give great effort. The Journal Sentinel is no more to blame than half a dozen other media outfits, but they share the blame for perpetuating the following idea: Julius Peppers' talent is practically limitless, and any gap between his perceived talent and his actual production must be due to a fault in his character.


Let's go back to 2001. Peppers is a junior at the University of North Carolina, and until this season--his last in college--he was, in addition to being a star defensive end, a walk-on basketball player. At the time Tim Crothers wrote this article for Sports Illustrated, he had just given up basketball to focus full-time on football. And the ceiling for him, according to just about everyone, is limitless. "On a learning curve of zero to 10, Julius is still a five," says North Carolina coach John Bunting, who played 11 years at linebacker in the NFL. "That room for growth should be exciting to him and scary to everybody else." "Now that he's focused on football, I think he'll become a prototype for the next generation of defensive ends," says Illinois assistant coach Donnie Thompson, who coached Peppers at Chapel Hill for the last two seasons. "He's got all the ingredients to never get blocked."" Peppers will earn the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's best defensive player, for his 2001 season. The awarding organization compares him to all-time great pass-rusher Lawrence Taylor. So do his coaches. This, mind you, before he ever reaches the NFL.

But buried just above those laudatory quotes is the following matte-black sliver: "Peppers needs 12 sacks to break Greg Ellis's school career record (32.5), but he's more interested in expunging a rap that he doesn't go all out on every snap."

Expunging a rap?

He doesn't go all out?

First of all, it's crazy to think that every player gives maximum effort on every possible play. One need only turn on some TV tape or All-22 coaches' tape to understand this. But why is Peppers noticeable in this fashion? Where did the "rap" come from?


There is no evidence whatsoever in Crothers' article to back up this claim. Where did it come from? His coaches? Players? Did it come from watching Peppers' tape? Crothers doesn't say. And that's the thing. With the exception of McGinn and his scouts, no one ever bases this claim, in all its variations, on any actual evidence. It's all anecdotal. "Some have said." Hearsay. The narrative goes like this, and you saw it above: Peppers is the most freakishly talented defensive end prospect in a generation. Which generation? Doesn't matter. He can do absolutely anything. Then-Bears GM Jerry Angelo, in 2010: "[I don't] see any reason why [Peppers] can’t be the most dominant defensive lineman in the game this year. I’m looking for an MVP year out of Julius.” Panthers DE Mike Rucker, in 2006: "To be honest with you, if he keeps playing like this, I see the career sack record going down... The longer he plays, those records are just going to fall."  

He has freakish talent, they say. But it's always coupled to that malignant 'if'. It's the exact same thing people are saying today about Jadaveon Clowney, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft: he has all the physical ability in the world, but what about his work ethic? That's former Panthers GM Marty Hurney comparing Clowney to Peppers:
"What frustrates people sometimes is you don't necessarily see it play in and play out, but it's very rare to find players of that ability that can make game-changing plays like he can... What is being said about Clowney was being said exactly about Julius Peppers... The question was, does Julius Peppers play with the motor, does he have the energy?"
Here are a few other examples of this narrative.

Sports Illustrated, 2006: "There'll be no excuses from defensive end Julius Peppers this year, not with Maake Kemoeatu, the free agent from Baltimore, next to him. Peppers is so gifted an athlete that it's an upset when he doesn't lead the league in sacks--but he hasn't done it yet."

ESPN, 2009: Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete who is Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers has also been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 14½ sacks this past season, but a career-low 2½ the year before that.

Chicago Tribune, 2010: [Ex-Panthers coach John] Fox dispelled the notion that the Bears' new defensive end takes a lot of plays off. He said effort was not a problem for Peppers. "He trains and works hard," Fox said.

Most damning of all, Ross Tucker of Sports Illustrated in 2010: "Julius Peppers' work ethic may scare teams come NFL free agency".

He could have been a once-in-a-generation dominator, a first ballot Hall of Famer who we'd talk about for years to come. Now, such an end appears unlikely. His career has been marked by good seasons and bad seasons, big games and games where he was nowhere to be found. That's because Peppers is so gifted, he has gotten away with taking off more than his share of plays. He's not the only player who takes plays off. Far from it. Plenty of oversized defensive tackles do so to compensate for their lack of conditioning and the physical exertion that it takes to play the position. Some defensive linemen do so as a ploy, attempting to lull offensive linemen into complacency so they can beat them when it matters most. Wide receivers more or less do the same thing against cornerbacks; Randy Moss is a prime example of a skill guy who picks his spots. But Peppers takes plays off simply because he can get away with it.
That's the narrative. That he's so freaking talented--big, strong, huge arms, everything--but he is also lazy. He has never lived up to his potential. Note, as in most of the examples above, the lack of evidence. ESPN cites his 2.5-sack year in 2007, which is a thing*, but in his other six seasons at the time the article was written, he'd averaged over ten sacks per year. But everybody who covers Peppers, whether or not they have a casus belli, seems to bring the 'lazy' narrative up. And if most of them aren't as virulent as Tucker, those articles still acknowledge it in passing, the way Silverstein did, the way Crothers did, as something known by all that scarcely merits discussion to confirm its truth.

And yet... everyone around Peppers, or who is assigned to block him, says that's absolute horseshit.


Let's repeat that, ladies and gentlemen: Horseshit.

Here's David Bakhtiari from Dunne's article:

Through his two games against the defensive end — and all that Packers-Bears footage he studied — Peppers was a brawler... "I don't know what gets into him," Bakhtiari said, "but every time he plays us, he's getting after it. I want to ask him, 'What is it about going against the Green Bay Packers that you just bring it all the time?' I didn't get the chance to see him being hot and cold. He was steaming hot when he played us."
In that 2006 USA Today story, his Panthers teammates "gush so much about his greatness — and his agility, his flexibility, his work ethic, his energy — that the effusive praise almost seems cloying." Fox defended him in that 2010 article above, saying that 'effort was not a problem' and that "He trains and works hard". Former Panthers and current Packers DL coach Mike Trgovac told ESPN Wisconsin this, two years ago:
There have been times during Peppers’ career when his effort level has been questioned, but Trgovac insisted that Peppers was never lazy during his time coaching him. “Everybody said that about Julius, and the more we researched it, the more it wasn't true,” Trgovac said. “You've got to be careful sometimes. Sometimes somebody will give a guy a label and it'll get spread around like it did with Julius, and it wasn't true. Julius works his ass off and has been a great player. So you have to be careful. Sometimes a bad rumor gets started about a kid and it just keeps going and multiplying. So you have to make the decision for yourself.”
Israel Idonije, Bears teammate, had this to say: "Just watch him; watch the guy practice,” Idonije said. “He gives everything, and works hard from the beginning of practice until the end. And he’s not just doing his own thing. He’s doing what the coaches have asked."
Perhaps the most telling quotes came from an anonymous coach (one would imagine this is Trgovac again), from ESPN Chicago in 2010.
Now that he’s accomplished the change, Peppers wants to finally silence the critics. One NFL coach who worked with Peppers in Carolina, held the same beliefs about a perceived lack of effort from the defensive end.

“When we were evaluating before we got him, I thought that too. Then one of our coaches gave me tape from the [2002] combine,” the coach said. “He said watch this one first; then watch Julius. I watched the first guy, he’s straining through this drill, grunting, making all kinds of faces. Right after that, Peppers comes up and goes through the same drill [the coach imitates an effortless run]. Smooth. You look at your watch, and Peppers just smoked the time [of the player in the first drill]. He just makes it look so easy sometimes it looks like he’s not trying.”
Peppers laughed at the story, before agreeing and adding his spin.
“You know, I think sometimes certain players – and I don’t name names – but certain players have a certain haircut, they have certain sack celebrations. They draw a lot of attention to themselves. That stuff can make it seem like you’re playing hard when really, you’re playing [about the same] as everybody else,” Peppers said. “You’re just bringing that extra attention to yourself. Just because I go about it mild mannered and I don’t do all of that stuff, maybe that’s something to talk about, too. If you hear [the criticism] from a coach that’s a different story. But I have yet to hear that from a coach. People who say it and watch the game don’t really understand my responsibilities on certain plays. If my play is not to run and chase the ball, if my play is to stay backside, then I’ve got to stay backside. I’ve got to be disciplined. I can’t run across the field and chase stuff that’s not mine. I can’t help that stuff comes easy sometimes; easier than somebody else. So I deal with it and hopefully, after this year, people won’t say that anymore.”
 Now.

If somebody wants to go over the All-22 tape or the TV tape of Peppers and show me where he's loafing, where he's taking plays off, and actually prove this label, than I will shut up. I might even go back over the tape I have of him (all Packers-Bears games), when I have time, and do it myself. But until somebody does... until anybody, including the sportswriters--and these are mostly national publications, or regional publications that are relatively unfamiliar with Peppers, bringing this up, I'd like to note--until anybody backs this up with actual analysis rather than hearsay, I will stick to the interpretation of events that I have laid out for you: that lazy reporting and a popular, never-dispelled perception of Peppers as unfathomably talented, yet never having reached his potential, are responsible for his label as a lazy player. Not his actual effort level, not his production (he averages 9.875 sacks and 3.25 forced fumbles per season over his career), but the narrative. 


I think the narrative about him derives from a perception that the number of sacks collected equals pass-rushing ability; an underestimation of opposing teams' efforts to double-team, avoid and otherwise neutralize Peppers; a fascination with his athletic ability and a corresponding overestimation of it; the crazy idea that players should go 100% hard on every play; his high draft position; the pre-draft and throughout-his-career huge expectations for him; the tendency of reporters to retransmit a popular perception whether grounded or not; and the general ineptitude and shallow knowledge displayed by national-level sportswriters who have to sum up a particular player in a couple of sentences. Let's remember that he was being compared to Lawrence Taylor before he ever entered the NFL, expected to be the greatest player in a generation. He has instead been a very, very good player for a lot of years, and there's not a bit of shame in that.


*It's worth pointing out here that great pass-rushers can miss out on sacks through no fault of their own. Clay Matthews had six in 2011 because the other rushers on his team left or regressed, causing his own numbers to drop from 2010.