What Happened to Enigmatic Rookie Manti Te'o?

BJ Kissel@bkissel7Contributor IDecember 3, 2013

USA Today

Until Manti Te'o steps up and makes an impact for the San Diego Chargers defense, he'll continue to be defined by his much-maligned past.

The problem with that and the narrative surrounding Te'o right now is that he hasn't given even his staunchest supporters much to feel good about.

Te'o has really struggled so far this season, and for a guy who already has a pretty steep uphill battle to change people's perception of him, the path isn't getting any easier.

In October, Te'o ranked second in Forbes' "Most-Disliked NFL Players" poll, behind Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, thanks to "memories of the bizarre fake girlfriend episode at Notre Dame."

Does the poll really mean anything? No, but it does show you that even months after the media cycle and constant discussions regarding Te'o and "catfishing," people still just didn't like him.

Let's take a look at how his rookie season is progressing.

Making an impact

Te'o was once thought to be a top-15 pick by some, even higher in a few cases, so there's still a good amount of pressure to live up to the hype, which he's trying to prove wasn't just "hype."

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Manti Te'o #50 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates their 30-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on September 29, 2013 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Te'o wants to prove he should have been a first-round pick. He said as much back in April after the draft, via ESPN.com.

"I did expect to go in the first round," Te'o said. "But things happened and all it did was give me more motivation."

The Chargers currently rank 28th in the NFL against the pass, giving up more than 268 yards per game through the air. Their rush defense ranks 22nd, giving up more than 117 yards per game there.

These aren't exactly glowing statistics about the defense, especially after some thought Te'o would be able to step right in and make a difference from the beginning.

One of those optimists was NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock, who said of Te'o:

The kid's a machine, which is why he was so good in pass coverage, even though he doesn't have that skill set. I love this pick for San Diego. You can plug him in. It's not going to be much of a stretch for him to step into San Diego.

Mayock is arguably the best in the business when it comes to analyzing football, both during the season and leading up to the draft. Even he believed Te'o was going to make an impact early in his career in San Diego.

Obviously, Te'o isn't the only part of the Chargers defense that has struggled, and a handful of games isn't enough to make any bold statements about the use of the Chargers' pick on him.

Te'o has made an impact so far this season, but it's been the wrong kind of impact if you're a Chargers fan. He admitted to a costly mental error in the Chargers' Week 10 loss to the Denver Broncos, via Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com.

"I've got to do better with my eyes," Te'o said. "I've got to know the situations and know my responsibilities. And I've got to do a better job of getting my eyes in the right place."

Te'o was referring to the play below. 

NFL Rewind

The Broncos are in the shotgun formation with Knowshon Moreno to Manning's right and tight end Julius Thomas set to the right of the formation and highlighted in red. 

Te'o is highlighted in blue and has Thomas in coverage responsibility. 

NFL Rewind

Manning uses play action to Moreno to bring Te'o closer to the line of scrimmage.

You can see where Te'o is looking, and when he talks about needing better eye discipline, he's talking about the awareness to know his responsibility in coverage as well as what's going on in the backfield.

This is a simple read for Manning.

NFL Rewind

By the time Te'o realizes what's happened, it's too late. The rest of the defense didn't help after the catch, but the play went for 74 yards and a touchdown early in the first quarter. 

After the game, Chargers' Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle reiterated whose responsibility Thomas was in the flat when asked about the play, via ESPN.com:

The linebacker needs to take him to the flat, because that's his guy. Derek (Cox) needs to either make the tackle or turn him back in, and I don't need to assume that the tackle's made, or he's stopped.

Weddle was also referring to the yards after catch and the Chargers' inability to stop Thomas from running for the touchdown.

The numbers

Besides this play against the Broncos, Teo's biggest problems aren't just about pass coverage or eye discipline. He's struggled to tackle and play physical at the point of contact. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Te'o is the fifth-worst inside linebacker at "tackling efficiency" in the NFL.

PFF's "tackling efficiency" ranks combined - out of 52 players
RankPlayerTeamAttemptsMissed tacklesRatio/Metric
48Manti Te'oChargers5596.1
49Mychal KendricksEagles90156.0
50London FletcherWashington83145.9
51Moise FokouTitans53105.3
52Colin McCarthyTitans47114.3
Pro Football Focus

To go even further than that, PFF breaks "tackling efficiency" into two separate categories. It takes into account tackling in the running game and tackling in the passing game. Its metric is the total number of attempted tackles per missed tackle in each of these areas.

In a basic perspective, tackling in the run game would seem to be more physical and in smaller confined areas. In the passing game, it would lend itself to being more out in space.

Te'o ranked slightly higher in the "passing game" tackling efficiency metric (7.0), ranking 37th out of 52. In the running game metric (5.9), he ranks 48th out of 52.

According to these numbers, Te'o is missing a tackle almost every six tackle attempts in the running game. For perspective, there are 18 inside linebackers in the NFL whose metric for this particular stat is over 15, or 2.5 times better than Te'o.

How do these struggles play out on tape?

Here's a play in space against the Miami Dolphins.

NFL Rewind

Te'o will be matched up in coverage with Dolphins tight end Charles Clay. 

Clay runs a simple out-route, and when Te'o goes to close in on him, he doesn't display the change-of-direction speed to keep up with Clay. The play results in a 38-yard touchdown pass.

This is a tackle Te'o should be able to make in the open field. 

This next play is from the same game against the Dolphins. 

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Chargers needing a big stop on defense, Te'o had an opportunity for a big play here in the run game and couldn't come through.

NFL Rewind

The left guard is going to pull around and meet Te'o in the hole here on first down. 

Te'o is just a bit too high when he engages with the guard but still manages to get off the block and reach the ball-carrier.

But because he goes too high and doesn't get his pads underneath the offensive lineman, he's got no leverage when he makes contact with Daniel Thomas, the Dolphins running back.

Te'o gets thrown down pretty easily after contact, and the opportunity for a big play defensively is wasted.

Later on this drive, the Dolphins kicked the field goal that put them up by four midway through the fourth quarter. The Chargers ultimately lost the game but had a chance as time expired as they drove down into Dolphins territory.

A big play from Te'o on the run above could have been exactly what the Chargers needed to keep the Dolphins from getting the field goal that extended the lead to four, which was the difference in the game. 


The jury is still out on Te'o, and it will be for at least another year.

It's not fair to judge rookies as early as many often do, but that doesn't mean there won't continue to be grumblings if his play doesn't improve. 

According to PFF, Te'o's best two games of the season were his first two, in Week 4 against Dallas and Week 5 against Oakland. Neither of those games saw an overall rating higher than 0.6.

He missed the first three games of the season after spraining his right foot during training camp.

It's not necessarily a good sign that his first two games were his best because there's no way to see improvement through these statistics.

What the film shows is a dedicated north-and-south linebacker who struggles when moving laterally. If you put Te'o in a phone booth, he'll be just fine, but he struggles when asked to change direction or fight through traffic.

Te'o has a long way to go to be the high-impact linebacker the Chargers hoped they drafted at the top of the second round last April, and he's got even further to go to change people's perception of him.

Right now, he's the struggling rookie that got "Catfished." Maybe down the road, it will be more about his play than his past.

He'll need to play better to make that happen.


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