Mark Herzlich has leaped to the front of the middle linebacker competition, but his lack of physicality could prevent him from staying there.
A belief among some media members and fans is that the biggest training camp position battle for the New York Giants will occur at right tackle. While there is a heated competition for this spot, if biggest is being defined as most important to the success of Big Blue in 2013, then that distinction would go to the fight to secure the starting middle linebacker role.
Either Mark Herzlich or Dan Connor will win the spot, contrary to some talk about a third challenger. Below is an analysis of each player’s primary weakness that will need to improve upon in order to not only start at middle linebacker, but hold onto the job long-term.
It is fitting that the only spot on the offensive line for New York that is up for grabs is right tackle. This is arguably the least important of the five offensive line slots, so if you were going to pick a position on this unit that lacks a defined starter, right tackle would be the choice.
The left tackle’s importance is obvious—this player protects the quarterback’s blind side. A bad left tackle will not only surrender sacks but cause turnovers and eventually get his signal-caller injured. When the man behind center is Eli Manning, this position takes on added importance.
Both guard spots and center factor heavily into the run game since the success of any inside rushing attempt starts with those three players. They also play a role in runs to the outside and are integral in pass protection, because they keep the pocket clean, allowing the quarterback throwing lanes and the ability to step up.
Right tackle is not as important in pass-blocking as left tackle because the quarterback, assuming they are right-handed, will see the pressure coming from this side. Also defenses tend to have their best pass-rusher lined up over left tackle because of the blind-side factor.
As for the run, the right tackle’s main role is blocking for attempts to the outside and over right guard. Their involvement in any rush up the middle or to the left is minimal.
This is not to say that owning a good right tackle is a luxury, but it also isn’t a must-have. A good middle linebacker, however, is vital to the success of a defense. MLBs anchor the run defense and are heavily involved in stopping the short-to-intermediate passing game. In addition, they will be asked to bring pressure in blitz packages.
For the Giants, there is a perception middle linebackers are not a huge part of the defense, but this is largely a fallacy.
It is true that they will rely on nickel packages and three-safety looks more so than other teams. Sometimes, these packages take the middle linebacker out of the equation.
Still, last year’s starter, Chase Blackburn, played 798 snaps at the MIKE spot in 15 games. A normal three-down middle linebacker will log anywhere between 1,050 and 1,150 snaps over 16 games. Therefore, Big Blue’s middle linebacker is still being asked to play 80 percent of the time.
With the case made for middle linebacker being the team’s biggest training camp battle, let’s assess the weaknesses of Herzlich and Connor. Before diving in, the myth of a third candidate for the job needs to be debunked.
While Aaron Curry’s 6’2”, 250-pound frame would suggest that he can compete for the MIKE slot, he won’t, despite what some people believe. The 2009 fourth overall pick did not play middle linebacker in college and hasn’t played the position in his four NFL seasons. He also admits that he is trying to win the SAM spot with the Giants. It is pretty hard to compete for a role you don’t play and aren’t trying to win.
Herzlich entered training camp as the de facto starter, and he has held off Connor at least through the first two days. If he wants to win the job, and, more importantly, become an impact player as a starter, he must be more physical.
He is listed on NFL.com at 6’4” and 246 pounds, so he is certainly not undersized. His strength may have been compromised by his unfortunate battle with cancer back in 2009. Whatever the reason, it is clearly his biggest detriment.
Let’s take a look at two examples that show this lack of physicality. Both take place in his only start at middle linebacker in 2012, which came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9.
The first one is taken from an 11-yard run by Isaac Redman in the first quarter. The image below shows Herzlich caught in a block to the left of Redman, who is hidden behind the Steelers' offensive line, but about to emerge in the hole forming toward the middle of the field.
Redman gets into the Giants secondary with Herzlich still caught “in the trash.” Herzlich was first engaged in the block when Redman was just across his own goal line. The Steelers running back has now advanced to the 7-yard line, and Herzlich has made no progress.
An effective, run-stopping middle linebacker needs to disengage quickly and fill gaps. If he doesn’t, three- and four-yard runs quickly become big gainers, like what occurred in this play.
The next example even more clearly shows Herzlich’s inability to shed a block.
Herzlich is barely visible in the first image (small circle), as he initially gets blocked by guard Ramon Foster. Redman (big circle) is hitting the hole on his way to another 11-yard gain, this time in the second quarter.
Somehow, Herzlich gets blocked back five yards by Foster, even though Redman has advanced 10 yards up the field. He has not only failed to fill the hole, but he can’t even get back in the play to tackle Redman from behind.
Strength is a big part of this problem for Herzlich, but technique can’t be discounted. Better leverage and balance will help him be more effective stopping the run in the trenches. He will likely never be good in this area, but he needs to at least be adequate. If his struggles persist, he will continue to only be a backup-quality player.
Connor’s issue is the exact opposite. He is a good run-stopper on inside attempts and can effectively stack and shed blocks. His problem lies in a lack of speed, quickness and agility in space.
Let’s address the speed problem first.
In the example below, from Week 16 last season against the New Orleans Saints with Connor playing inside linebacker (the Dallas Cowboys, his 2012 employer, run a 3-4 defensive scheme), Connor finds himself Mano-a-mano with running back Pierre Thomas, after a dump-off pass from Drew Brees. Connor has Thomas right in front of him, and Thomas has his momentum slowed down trying to catch the ball.
Despite being on equal footing with Thomas, Connor lets him take a path toward the corner of the end zone 10 yards later.
If it wasn’t for the two Cowboys by the goal line, Thomas would have easily scored. The 16-yard catch and run is a nice consolation prize, though, and the main reason it happened is due to Connor’s lack of speed.
The second example demonstrates Connor’s quickness and agility issues in space. This time, we’ll be looking at a 17-yard run by running back Darren Sproles. Again Connor has his man squared up, this time with less than three yards between him and the target.
Sproles easily jukes him and gains a surprising amount of distance between Connor and himself in the span of several yards traveled to the left.
To be fair, Sproles is one of the quickest backs in the NFL. Still, when you have a runner right in front of you, so easily allowing him to get to the outside is inexcusable.
Over the next month, it will be fascinating to see who has improved upon their respective weaknesses. Practices should demonstrate any progress, but preseason games, which start for Big Blue on August 10 when they face off against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, will be the best way to tell.
The most desired scenario will be that both players have made strides, allowing the choice to come down to who has improved more and which guy is the better all-around fit for the position.
Then again, it is possible that neither player has improved their weaknesses. In this case, there will still be a winner, but the Giants will have ultimately lost, because they’ll have a flawed starter at an important defensive position.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
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