Breaking Down Curtis Lofton's Fit in the New Orleans Saints' 3-4 Defense
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During most scheme conversions, a player surfaces who just doesn't seem to fit the equation. Some schemes call for a prerequisite height and weight ratio, while others call for a certain skill set. Going from an even-front alignment (4-3) to an odd (3-4) usually exposes misfits within the front seven.
For the New Orleans Saints, former defensive end Will Smith's transition to an outside linebacker was a brief but painful experience. Watching Smith attempt to cover running backs in the flat or drop in coverage was awful to say the least. Unfortunately, Smith tore his ACL, putting an abrupt end to the experiment.
Looking forward, I see another potential misfit with inside linebacker Curtis Lofton.
When the scheme calls for two linebackers, as the 3-4 does, the role becomes different from when there is one middle linebacker. I'm not so sure Lofton's new role fits his skill set.
I've thought very highly of Lofton going back to his days at the University of Oklahoma.
I loved the way he diagnosed and sniffed out run plays on his way to bone-jarring hits and tackles. His junior year totals of 156 tackles (four forced fumbles), three interceptions and one sack garnered him Big 12 defensive player of the year honors—among numerous other awards—and cemented his spot as a potential high pick in the 2008 draft.
Lofton decided to forgo his remaining year of eligibility and enter the draft, where he was a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons (37th overall). As a matter of fact, the Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan in the first round of the same draft, essentially picking the quarterback of both the offense and the defense.
Without a doubt, both Ryan and Lofton lived up to their respective billing.
Lofton provided the Falcons with their most steady middle linebacker since the days of Jessie Tuggle and Keith Brooking. Playing in the Falcons' 4-3 scheme, Lofton had the benefit of being kept clean through scheme. Meaning, Lofton rarely had to fight through blocks on his way to ball-carriers.
Lofton's style of play is that of a search-and-destroy linebacker. He's one of the very best in the NFL at doing just that. Once all the blockers are engaged and Lofton is free to roam, his ability to cover distance is on full display. His 147 tackles in 2011, which notched him fifth in the NFL, exemplified that.
Playing behind an underrated defensive tackle in Jonathan Babineaux was one of the keys to Lofton's success. Babineaux's ability to engage multiple blockers and having a strong- or weak-side linebacker present to take on fullbacks allowed Lofton to concentrate on solely making tackles.
With the move to the Saints and their subsequent switch to an odd front, Lofton's job description is meant for a linebacker with a stack-and-shed style of play.
This is not in his repertoire...thus far.
Here is a basic diagram of a 3-4-based scheme (courtesy of Buffalo Rumblings). As you can see, the two ILBs are essentially lined up in front of unblocked guards. Being able to take on those guards and defeat them on the way to the ball-carrier is a must.
This is not something that Curtis Lofton is used to. His first instinct may be to go around the block.
This says nothing of his effectiveness as a player; it's more an indication of the style of player he is.
In the 4-3, as seen here, Lofton (ML) has plenty of beef in front and beside him to keep blockers off. Once again, it's not indicative of his overall effectiveness as player. I think Lofton is a top-five MLB in a 4-3 defense.
But thus far in the Ryan scheme, I'm not impressed by how he's being deployed.
This is a prime example of why Lofton is being underutilized in this scheme. Although Lofton is a more stout linebacker than David Hawthorne (who is a natural 4-3 OLB), he's not the most stout ILB you'll see. At 6'0" and 240 pounds, Lofton does not have the type of girth you would normally see at the position.
Here Lofton is engaged with the guard. He needs to stack and shed the linebacker, meaning engage and dispose of his in time to make the play. It's a very unique talent to have. Jerod Mayo of the Patriots is possibly the best in the league at doing it.
When Lofton is engaged with the lineman, it allows for Hawthorne (or Humber, or Reddick) to roam and make plays. If you were to pick the stoutest of all four of the linebackers, Lofton would be the choice. But that doesn't change the fact that it's not his style. He's better at roaming than anyone on the roster—and for that matter, just about anyone in the league.
Lofton still hasn't shed that block. Hawthorne makes the play, but whom would you trust to make a play on a ball-carrier, Hawthorne or Lofton? One of them has been in the top 10 in tackles a few times in his career. Take a wild guess as to whom...
Here is where Lofton being used to stack is problematic for all parties involved. Lofton is a good athlete, not a great one, so having him disengage from blockers and try to chase down ball-carriers will get old fast. He's too instinctive of a player to be used in such a manner.
Here Lofton needs to stack and shed quickly to set the edge. Hawthorne is the roamer. Check out the path he takes.
Lofton fails to set the edge as he's engulfed by a lineman. Hawthorne needs to scrape his way through the play on his way to the ball-carrier to enforce a minimal gain.
Lofton is now in chase mode—not necessarily a strength of his—and Hawthorne misdiagnosed this play totally!
The ability to stop the run—in my mind—is equally as critical as stopping the pass. The Saints don't commit to the run as it is; the inability to stop the run would mean the Saints more than likely get dominated on both lines of scrimmage. The Saints are at their best when they control the lines, and patrol the air...
Lofton, No. 50, is shooting the gap in an attempt to make a play behind the line. Watch what trying to get around the block, instead of disposing of the block, gets you.
It gets you pancaked to the point that it looks like you are doing a dance move that would normally be done by exotic dancers.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather not see Lofton perform these moves. And I definitely won't be tipping him afterwards.
Face it, even when Lofton made a tackle during the preseason, it was very telling as to what style of linebacker he is.
This is the perfect play for stack-and-shed linebackers. A tackle is leading the way, with a fullback in tow to block on the next level. Dispose of said tackle, and the ball-carrier is yours, at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Lofton doesn't engage; he dodges the block on his way to the tackle.
To his credit, he ends up making the tackle. Nine out of 10 times he probably wouldn't. Going around blocks is not native to this type of a scheme. It's the chief reason that Lofton's current teammate Jonathan Vilma was jettisoned from the New York Jets in their transition to a 3-4-based defense. Lofton and Vilma have very similar styles when it comes to making plays.
At one point in time, Vilma and Lofton would've formed the best one-two punch in the NFL. Now playing these guys next to each other would be asinine. Lofton shouldn't be taking on blocks for Vilma to make plays.
Vilma is not the athlete he once was, and he's not nearly the player Lofton is at this point in his career. The Saints have a deep stable of linebackers with David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Kevin Reddick and Lofton. The problem is all four of these guys are run-and-chase linebackers, rather than the stack-and-shed the scheme calls for.
Regardless, none of those aforementioned players are better than Lofton. Rob Ryan needs to make sure Lofton is the one free to make plays, or it will be another long year defensively...
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