Dallas Cowboys: LaMarr Woodley

Other Side: Ed Bouchette, Pitt. Post-Gazette

December, 13, 2012
IRVING, Texas – To get up to date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we talk to Ed Bouchette, the long-time beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Todd Archer - What's the state of the mind of this team after the loss to San Diego?

Ed Bouchette - Don't know because I'm no psychologist. Brett Keisel did say after Sunday's loss to San Diego that the team wasn't ready to play and on Tuesday Mike Tomlin agreed with him.

TA - Is Ben Roethlisberger OK and is it just a matter of him getting used to playing again?

EB - He's fine. If Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown had hung onto a few deep passes, he would have had over 300 yards and 4 or 5 TDs instead of 3. He also was a yard from being their leading rusher with 31 yards on 5 scrambles.

TA - How big of a loss is Rashard Mendenhall? He's been hurt. They have other backs. Is he being phased out?

EB - He's been hurt, rehabbing from ACL for the first three games and then after playing in two, hurt his Achilles. As you know, he's suspended for this game because he did not show up for last Sunday after they told him he would be inactive. He's a big loss but only in the sense they could use the Mendenhall of 2009 or 2010.

TA - The defense is still at the top of the league, but it just seems different this year. Am I wrong? Still feared?

EB - They don't sack anyone or create turnovers, and that's been an issue since the start of 2011. They had just 15 turnovers last season and this one they have 12 (although one fumble came on a muffed punt). Injuries to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley hurt this year and last.

TA - Todd Haley was a Dallas assistant for a few years so we know his, ummm, intensity. How are things going for him as the Steelers OC and how is the relationship with Roethlisberger?

EB - There's been not one hint of trouble and Haley is on the sideline for games. If he did not have that reputation, no one in Pittsburgh would know anything about it based on his behavior and relationships since he's been here.
There is no doubt outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is one of the best -- if not the best -- defensive players in the game.

But how good is Ware with Anthony Spencer, his fellow outside linebacker?

The pair combined for 71 quarterback pressures and 25.5 sacks last season. How does that stack up against other 3-4 outside linebacker duos?

In Pittsburgh, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley combined for 33 quarterback pressures and 18 sacks. San Diego's Antwan Barnes and Shaun Phillips combined for 22 quarterback pressures and 14.5 sacks.

Clark Haggans and Sam Acho in Arizona combined for 10 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures.

Now, the stats we used for these players come from the teams themselves, not the NFL. So this is the coaches compiling the stats for the players after watching tape the next day.

From a statistical standpoint, Ware and Spencer rank pretty high. Ware gets all the glory of course, based on his production and value to the team. Spencer gets the criticism from some fans and media for having just six sacks last season and not having a major impact in the defense.

Is Spencer better than Woodley, who had nine sacks last season? Nope. Is Spencer better than San Francisco strong side linebacker Ahmad Brooks? Brooks had seven sacks and 46 quarterback pressures last season and will start alongside Aldon Smith in 2012. Smith, incidentally, had 14 sacks last season. Take Brooks.

While Spencer isn't considered one of the top strong side linebackers in the game -- though Pro Football Focus ranked him 10th among outside linebackers in 2011 -- matching him with Ware gives the Cowboys a strong pass rush along the edges.

Spencer's pass coverage skills are slightly overlooked among some fans because few people want to talk about how a pass rusher covers tight ends and running backs.

It's about putting pressure on the quarterback, and it might be fair to say the Cowboys have two solid ones in Spencer and Ware. You could go for days talking about other outside linebackers in the 3-4 -- the Jets' Jamaal Westerman and Calvin Pace or the Redskins' duo of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.

The Cowboys have a good pair of outside linebackers, together.

Is it the best in the league?

You decide.
The Cowboys tried to work out a long-term deal with outside linebacker Anthony Spencer the last few weeks but couldn't complete one, so instead of allowing him to hit the open market, the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him.

Spencer will get a projected $8.8 million in base salary for the 2012 season, barring a sudden change in the franchise tag. (The officials numbers haven't been released yet.)

The Cowboys will continue to have an open dialogue with Spencer's agent Roosevelt Barnes.

Coach Jason Garrett is excited to have Spencer back to the Cowboys.

"You compare him to guys around the league who play his position, he's among the better outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense," Garrett said Monday. "So we had that ability to use the franchise tag and we're excited to use it in his situation and excited to have him back and be a part of what our defense is going to be."

It seems unfair to compare Spencer to fellow outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. But in 2011, Spencer finished with six sacks, none the last four weeks. Based on the coaches' statistics, Spencer was credited with seven quarterback hurries the last four weeks as well and two tackles for loss, coming in the Philadelphia game on Dec. 24.

Spencer finished the season with 31 quarterback pressures and eight tackles for loss.

Garrett's comments about Spencer being among the best at his spot, strong side linebacker, is a good compliment.

LaMarr Woodley plays Spencer's position in the Pittsburgh Steelers' version of the 3-4. Last season, Woodley had nine sacks and 11 quarterback pressures. Woodley played in just 10 games because of hamstring problems and his nine sacks came in the first eight weeks of the season.

San Diego's Travis LaBoy finished with one sack, six quarterback pressures and three tackles for loss in 14 games.

It's just a small sampling of what other outside linebackers do in comparison to Spencer.

"If you watch Spence play down-in-and-down out when he plays the run and he rushes the passer or covers in the passing game he does things really well and he does them easily," Garrett said. "We look at production and we look at how he produces week in and week out and it's more than just sacks. It's like some of the other things I was talking about. He shows up in games. He was an outstanding player on our team [in] two or three of the wins we had this year. A guy who shows up on defense, a guy who shows up on special teams -- he blocked a field goal. He's just one of those guys that's productive and production happens in a lot of different ways."

Cowboys must rebuild Doug Free

February, 24, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cowboys’ decision to move Tyron Smith to left tackle in 2012 is something that was in the plans when they selected him in the first round last year, but it is not the cure-all for the offensive line.

There is no doubt Doug Free struggled last season. He was not as comfortable as he was for whatever the reason: the lockout forced a short camp, the pressures of a $32 million extension, the loss of technique and the loss of confidence.

But playing right tackle is no easy thing, especially in the NFC East.

Washington can throw Ryan Kerrigan (7.5 sacks in 2011) and Brian Orakpo (nine sacks) at either tackle. Philadelphia can throw Trent Cole (11 sacks) and Jason Babin (18 sacks) at either tackle. The New York Giants can throw Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (five sacks) or Osi Umenyiora (nine sacks) at either tackle.

Outside the division, the Cowboys have to contend with Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Baltimore moves Terrell Suggs all over the field. Chicago does the same with Julius Peppers.

The adjustment to the right side should not take Free too long. He broke into the lineup there in 2009 after Marc Colombo suffered a broken ankle and showed the Cowboys he can play. The Cowboys felt comfortable enough the next year to let Flozell Adams leave via free agency and slide Free to left tackle. After the lockout ended the Cowboys gave Free the contract.

To me, the switch is more about Smith’s ability than Free’s lack of it but one of the top jobs facing new offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Callahan is rebuilding Free.

Power Rankings: Top 10 NFL linebackers

April, 12, 2011
Power Rankings Linebackers ESPN.com IllustrationSan Francisco's Patrick Willis ran away from the field in our voting for the NFL's best linebacker.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 linebackers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.

All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.

Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.

Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.

"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."

There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.

"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."

First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.

"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."

Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.

"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."

Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.

Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.

Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.

[+] EnlargePatrick Willis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePatrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."

Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.

Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.

Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.

"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."

Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.

"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."

On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).

Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:
  • "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
  • "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
  • "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
  • "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
  • "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
  • "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
  • "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
  • "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."

Spencer/Ware NFL's best OLB pair?

July, 28, 2010
SAN ANTONIO – DeMarcus Ware distances from talk about whether he’s the NFL’s most dominant outside linebacker. He’s much more willing to discuss the Dallas duo.

Do Ware and Anthony Spencer form the league’s best outside linebacker tandem?

“That’s what we want to be,” Ware said. “We talk about it all the time.”

Coach Wade Phillips believes Spencer and Ware already are the league’s best pair. Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison (combined for 23.5 sacks last season for the league’s third-ranked rushing defense) present a pretty strong case, but Spencer’s development puts the Dallas duo among the elite.

Ware is a perennial All-Pro whose dominance as a pass-rusher (56.5) overshadows his excellence against the run. Yet Spencer might have been the better player down the stretch last season.

Spencer, who tight end Jason Witten says is the toughest guy he has to block, has always been a beast against the run. The Dallas defense became dominant last season when he flipped the switch as a pass-rusher. He got pressure throughout the season but didn’t get a sack in the first 10 weeks. He broke the seal with a two-sack Thanksgiving performance and racked up eight sacks in the last eight games, including the playoffs.

The standard has been set for Spencer, whose confidence has carried over from his late-season emergence. Phillips compares Spencer to a man he might meet next week in Canton, Hall of Fame inductee Rickey Jackson

“I don’t see a lot of difference as far as how he plays that position,” said Phillips, Jackson’s first NFL position coach.

Ware is well on his way to a yellow blazer. Phillips, a pretty good authority on 3-4 outside linebackers, sees that kind of potential for Spencer.