This week in Season In Review: the Linebacking corps.
To properly assess the linebackers you have to separate individual production from team production. Individually, all three starters performed well at times. However, the production as a unit wasn't there. My impression wasn't that they were in-cohesive as a group, but rather never consistent individually. Ruud certainly hasn't lived up to his 2008 season yet and the expectations we set for him coming off that near Pro Bowl level year (coincidentally his last season playing along side a future first-ballot HOF'er). Black hasn't become the feared pass-rushing machine that Morris hyped him up to be. Hayes has steadily improved but his struggles are still exploited too often. At the same time each had phenomenal games which has justified some of the hope and hype surrounding the unit.
Barrett Ruud's run stopping deficiencies have been well documented. I don't believe they are as bad as some want to make it out. I think he plays decent assignment football, which is what is asked of him in the run game. The problem is that makes him average. It's easy to follow and execute an assignment. Where players like Jon Beason, DeMeco Ryans, Patrick Willis, etc separate themselves from average is their ability to play outside of their assignments. Reacting to the play, shedding blockers and penetrating the LOS, strong hits, lateral pursuit are all a part of that. There is a couple of reasons I believe Ruud's development stalled. One is the departure of Monte Kiffin. I think what Morris is asking Ruud is play assignment football. I also believe that Kiffin allowed him more freedom. Freedom to call some shots, break off assignments and react to the football. What Morris is doing isn't necessarily a bad thing, just different. Assignment football with a bad defensive line is necessary. Guys are getting driven out of their gaps, so the fewer gaps with holes, the better. I also know that's the other reason while Ruud has been spinning his wheels for the last two seasons. I thought Ruud got better as the season went along. That is in direct correlation with the defensive lines improvement. Ruud is past the point where he is going to develop into a pro-bowl Mike. That ship sailed. If the Bucs bring him back, improvement should once again be expected, but the anticipation of him being elite should be discarded.
Geno Hayes' improvement has been subtle, but it's there. In a Cover 2 having an incredibly speedy WLB is important. In coverage, his drops will be the largest. Against the run, they will be asked to make more open field tackles. Hayes did both pretty well. I'd like to see him sure up his tackling and his football knowledge to continue his development, but overall I thought he had an above average year.
Quincy Black might be an elite pass rusher, but until we get him some help at Defensive End we will never know. The truth is the defensive line never drew enough attention to give Black clear lanes. He had some nice sacks this season (this one comes to mind) but was never consistent in his rush. To Morris' defense, they tried everything. They used a variety of zone blitzes, stunts, inside/outside blitz packages, blitz combinations, etc and little worked. I think Black gives the team a couple of options for the future. If Morris can put aside his man-crush for Black, he provides some trade bait. Stockpiling picks for a guy who may never be an consistent producer is justifiable. He provides a body in a rotation with Hayward, Watson. Or he can provide the team with occasional to good pass rushing abilities with below average coverage skills. Again, if the latter is the play, I expect his pass rushing to improve with an improved defensive line (and a healthy one).
Watson/Hayward - I've said this many times before, but I loved how Morris used these two guys when Black went down. It was completely situational depending on the game-plan. I thought Hayward saw the majority of the snaps against power rushing teams and when they needed speed Watson got the go. Neither is a complete linebacker, but in a rotation, it works. As depth, I feel comfortable with both of them.
I think MNeilson there is spot in with his comments about most of the linebackers. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes have been up and down this year, and his assessment of Ruud playing 'assignment football' seems like the best description of Ruud's play I've heard yet. So I'm not going to go into the Ruud debate again. Instead, I'm going to focus on Quincy Black and Tyrone McKenzie.
Quincy Black was supposed to be the focus of the defense this season. The 3-3-5 was created to keep him on the field in passing situations, whereas previously the Bucs would run a 4-2-5 without Quincy Black in those cases. The off- and preseason hype for Black was that he was a great pass rusher who could really make an impact in pass situations. Thus, the Bucs rushed him a lot early in the season. That never really resulted in an impact, because Black doesn't have any pass-rushing moves. He's quick and he's a pretty powerful hitter, but if any offensive lineman gets his hands on him it's game over: he's not going anywhere. And I think the staff realized that as Black rushed a lot less later in the year before his injury, when the Bucs started to go with a 3-man rush in passing situations. That never got pressure, but did work pretty decently as a pass defense. Black's weakest skill is probably coverage though, so I wouldn't look for him to be on the field in pass situations next, if he's even back. Because Black is a free agent, and Hayward and Watson filled in very nicely at Sam linebacker when he was injured. Black has a lot of potential, but he hasn't really put it together and been a consistent defender, and that could mean his last game as a Buccaneer has been played. The same problem could occur with Geno Hayes as well, who's a free agent in 2012. If he doesn't step up and turn into a consistent player, he could be gone a year from now.
While Black could be gone, Ruud could be gone too. That would leave a big hole at middle linebacker, but the Bucs have a young prospect who has a chance to step up and make his mark at that position. Tyrone McKenzie was a 2009 third-round draft pick for the Patriots, but missed that season with a knee injury. The Bucs signed him off the New England practice squad late in 2010, and got him onto the field against the Saints when the Bucs ran some 3-4 schemes for the first time in 2010. McKenzie is a very physical linebacker who was highly productive in college, but he's also a hard worker and student of the game. While he hasn't been on the field much and we can't really judge his pro production, there was a lot of buzz about this player coming out of One Buc Place at the end of the season. I wouldn't really expect McKenzie to be the unchallenged next year if Ruud leaves through free agency, but I do think he'll get a fair shot at winning the starting job during the offseason. And it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up coming out on top.