A Former Player's Take on 10 NFL Players You Just Can't Game-Plan for
There have always been a few guys in the NFL that you just can't game-plan for. No matter what you do or what scheme you come up with, they are still going to make plays. You can try to minimize their impact, but you're never going to completely shut them down.
Here is a list of 10 current players who fit that same mold.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is just a physical freak of nature. He stands 6'5" tall, weighs 236 pounds, is fast enough to run by most defensive backs, strong enough to beat them at the line of scrimmage, and can out-jump most of them for the ball as well.
The most impressive thing about him, to me, however, is his hand-eye coordination. It doesn't matter what your 40 time or vertical leap is if you play wide receiver and can't catch the ball.
Johnson uses that superior hand-eye coordination to catch the ball high in traffic with guys hanging off him. Even when defensive backs are in good position, it's that ability that allows him to come down with the catch.
That's the main reason why you can't game-plan for one Calvin Johnson. Even when you run the defense right, he can still make plays.
Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers is impossible to game-plan for because he could literally line up anywhere on the defensive line from play to play and still be dominant. He can do this because, while he's 6'7" and just a shade under 290 pounds, he can move around the field like a running back.
Still, even when you know where Peppers will be, there's not much you can do to shut him down. He's too strong for most offensive tackles and too quick for most guards. When you send extra blockers at him, he still gets penetration and can push offensive linemen back into the backfield to blow up the play.
Running a bootleg or roll out to get the quarterback away from him doesn't work, either, because he's fast enough to run them down from behind.
For any offensive coordinators out there trying to find a way to shut Peppers down, all I can do is wish you good luck.
At 6'6" and 260 pounds, he is as big and as strong as many of the defensive ends he faces. He is also faster than any man that size should be.
If you put a linebacker on him, he will just run right by him. If you put a safety on him, the DB will be at his mercy on all jump balls.
He also runs hard with the ball in his hands, giving defensive backs nightmares when they see him in the open field.
If there is a good way to shut him down, no defensive coordinator has found it yet.
Everybody expects a man his size to be strong, but it's his cat-like quickness that is a constant surprise. He can run over an offensive lineman or make a move on him and shake him out of his shoes. He is also versatile enough to play anywhere on the line, making it hard to slide the protection to him even if you wanted to.
On most plays, it doesn't matter if he is singled-up or double-teamed, anyway—he is going to get the push regardless of the blocking scheme. He has the rare ability to keep offensive linemen off his linebackers and still make tackles behind the line of scrimmage as well.
When a guy is a force the way Ngata is, all you can really do is try to avoid him.
The only reason San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis hasn't had a record-breaking season like some of the other tight ends recently is because he has Alex Smith throwing to him, rather than Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
Even with a quarterback who has plagued by mediocrity most of his career, Davis continues to make plays in the passing game. He isn't fast for a tight end—he is fast period. He can run by some of the fastest defensive backs in the NFL.
Davis is also a physical specimen at 6'3" and a chiseled 250 pounds, making it hard for any defensive player to jam him at the line of scrimmage to slow him down. He is a big-play threat on every given play because there are few players who can keep up with him, and he does a great job of fighting for the ball when it's in the air.
There is no way to game-plan to shut Vernon Davis down. You just have to hope Smith has another one of his bad days, effectively minimizing Davis' impact.
While most of the players on this list are uncommonly large for their position, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin is just a regular-sized guy who is really fast, incredibly versatile and a threat to score any time the ball is in his hands.
Harvin returns kickoffs, catches passes and even lines up in the backfield to run the ball at times. He is that uncommon football player who is a jack of all trades, master of all.
He can line up out wide and take most defensive backs deep. He can also line up in the slot and make the tough catches over the middle. If you decide to try to double-cover him, then he can simply line up in the backfield, take the handoff and make positive yards running between the tackles or outside of them.
Even if you somehow stop him from making an impact in those ways, sooner or later, you will have to kick the ball to him on special teams.
J. J. Watt
At 6'5" and almost 300 pounds, the guy is a load for anyone to block. The thing that distinguishes Watt, however, is how ridiculously athletic he is for a guy his size.
He is another one of those defensive linemen who is versatile enough to play anywhere on the line and not miss a beat. Even with all of his physical abilities, it's his motor that impresses me the most. Not only is Watt highly skilled, he also seems to play each play like it's his last.
Make no mistake about it, however—Watt has superb athletic ability and technique, and that's what helps maximize his production. He can run around you or through you, and if you slide another guy over there, he will just slide between you.
Think I'm joking? Well, the guy has had at least 1.5 sacks in each game, so far, this year.
That's what you call defying game-planning.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is 6'7" and 265 pounds but plays like a wide receiver in the passing game. You can line him up as a traditional tight end, split him out wide, or put him in the slot, and he will still make plays. Graham has some of the best hands in the NFL bar none and is athletic enough to get open on anybody.
Graham is another guy at the tight end position with too much speed to be covered by most linebackers, and too much size for most secondaries. A bad matchup, period.
Maybe the most underrated part of Graham's game at the moment is his route-running, which helps him get open against the double-teams.
I suppose, if you wanted to really try to shut Graham down, you could put three guys on him. That would probably leave you quite vulnerable everywhere else on the field, however.
In the end, he still wins.
At 6'5" and almost 280 pounds, he looks like nothing but arms and legs, but the guy is deceptively strong. The best thing Pierre-Paul does is use his long arms to keep blockers off him. That gives him time to diagnose the play before he escapes off the block to make a tackle.
Whether that tackle be on a quarterback for a sack or a running back for a one-yard gain, the guy makes it almost impossible for one person to block him. When he is blocked at the line, he is still a threat to make a play because he is also great at knocking down passes.
Having said that, I would be remiss if I didn't point out how amazingly athletic Pierre-Paul is as well.
He has a quick first step off the snap and can get around offensive tackles who are a hair late, or easily go inside those that bail to try to account for his speed. On occasion, he can also pass rush inside against the guards and center and get surprisingly good push for a guy who doesn't look all that big, comparatively.
No matter what you do to try to game-plan for him, Jason Pierre-Paul will find a way to make an impact.
Reed watches so much film and studies so many players that he is rarely out of position and can often diagnose plays before they actually happen.
The fact that Reed is also physically gifted is what gives him the ability to actually make plays when he acts on this encyclopedia of knowledge. There are plenty of players who study a lot of film, but few have the speed and quickness to react in time.
Reed, on the other hand, has both and a seemingly innate ability to come up with the ball when it's in the air in his vicinity.
For a few years now, Reed has been dealing with a neck issue and other ailments that held him back against the run game. This year, however, he looks as if he has finally gotten healthy, and he is back to blowing up everything that moves in a different color jersey.
To game-plan for Reed, you would almost have to change your whole playbook, all of your tendencies, and maybe even bring in some new players.
Even then, there is still a good chance that you wouldn't fool him, and instead, he would end up making you pay for trying to attack him.