I'd like to begin this week's "Things of that nature" by offering my deepest sympathies to the POD commenter who goes by "Ronbomb." Bomb is a 69-year-old gentleman whose name, I assume, is Ron. Ron attended his first Detroit Lions game last weekend, and Alex Henery did his best to assure that Ron did not have a good first experience. If nothing else, Ron, I hope you at least enjoyed Ford Field. Thanks for reading.
The title of this week's column is pretty self-explanatory. Is Tahir Whitehead good? Is he bad? Going into this week, I honestly had no idea. He hasn't exactly jumped off the screen the past couple weeks, but considering he plays on a defense with Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy, that's not necessarily an indictment of his play. It certainly could be, but again, I just didn't know. Fortunately, I possess a very public forum in which to satisfy my curiosities, so I went back and looked at Whitehead's snaps from the last two weeks to see what I could learn. Let's take a deep dive and see whether Whitehead honors the legacy of the greatest football player in Temple University history: Bill Cosby.
The best way I can describe Whitehead is that he looks exactly like what he is: an outside linebacker playing middle linebacker. When he's in space, he's fluid, runs well and finishes off plays. Over the past two weeks, Whitehead has made plays both in backside pursuit and when tasked to beat running backs to the sideline.
This is an example of the former. Chris Johnson follows the pulling playside tackle to just past the 40. DeAndre Levy does DeAndre Levy things here, beating Johnson to the edge and forcing him back inside, and Whitehead is the first man there to clean things up, resulting in a 1-yard gain.
This is an example of the latter. Whitehead gets wide quickly at the snap, keeping space between him and the left guard. As a result, he stays free and beats C.J. Spiller to the edge, coming up with the tackle for a 2-yard loss.
Both of these plays illustrate Whitehead's excellent mobility and closing speed in space. Those are good traits in an outside linebacker. Whitehead's deficiencies show up when he's asked to take on blocks in a phone booth. When offensive linemen get their hands on him, they're able to move him pretty much wherever they want, because Whitehead lacks the ability to effectively shed blocks at the point of attack. That is not a good trait in a middle linebacker.
Here's a play from the first quarter of the game against the New York Jets. Nick Fairley is lined up as the 2-technique over the left guard, who will double-team him along with center Nick Mangold. At the snap, Suh (opposite Fairley) comes hard inside at the right guard, commanding his requisite double-team. The right guard has to help secure Suh before blocking Whitehead at the second level. The play comes right at Whitehead, just to Mangold's right.
Willie Colon envelopes Whitehead and drives him a couple feet to the opposite side of the hash mark. Chris Ivory shouldn't have a cutback lane against Suh considering the play's original aiming point. But Whitehead is so thoroughly removed from the play that it actually results in that (admittedly narrow) lane's creation. This is a play Stephen Tulloch probably makes.
This is a pre-snap image of Chris Johnson's rushing touchdown from Week 4. It was obviously a strange play, with Johnson seemingly stopped dead at the line of scrimmage before breaking free and racing for 35 yards and 6 points. The problem, beyond the initial missed tackles, is that, had Whitehead not been so thoroughly removed from the play, he would have been in a decent position to limit the damage.
In the image above, Johnson's feet are essentially running over Whitehead's pre-snap alignment. Whitehead, meanwhile has been driven 5 yards outside and downfield, resulting in the chasm that exists in the image. Again, it may not be entirely fair to pick on Whitehead for getting beat on a broken play, but he should at least be involved in some capacity.
The thing is, I understand why you'd put Whitehead at middle linebacker. Aside from not wanting to move Levy, you can hide some of Whitehead's deficiencies behind Suh, Fairley and even C.J. Mosley. The Lions' defensive tackles absolutely eat up blocks, which leaves Whitehead free to pursue the ball and finish. On certain plays, Whitehead's quickness allows him to avoid getting blocked at all. But when he does get blocked, it is not pretty. It also bears mentioning that Whitehead only plays a true "Mike" on a limited number of snaps, given how much the Lions (and the majority of NFL defenses) run nickel.
When it comes to coverage, the reviews on Whitehead are a little mixed. Pro Football Focus implied he had a poor game in coverage against the Buffalo Bills last week, but for what it's worth, I think he was adequate. Whitehead puts himself in decent positions in coverage, but he doesn't make many plays on the ball. Here's the best example of that I could find.
The Bills are facing a first-and-30 after a pair of penalties here, so obviously the linebackers have to get good depth to prevent much from getting behind them. Whitehead's depth is fine here. He and the other linebackers are a solid 15 yards back, and the gap between him and Levy (above him in the image) is miniscule. Kyle Orton just slings one between them to Chris Hogan for 21 yards. I assume Whitehead was dinged for the play by PFF, but I'm not sure how much more he could have done. Orton just makes a hell of a throw.
Whitehead also got beat on some flat routes by Spiller in the game, which again were plays in which his positioning was sound, but he didn't quite make the play. Against the Jets, Whitehead ran step-for-step with Ivory on a few occasions and played fine in coverage. Faster scat backs give him trouble, but you can say that about a lot of NFL linebackers.
There's a lot to like about Tahir Whitehead, and given that he's been a developmental prospect from Day 1, his progress is encouraging. But the drop-off from Tulloch to Whitehead exists, and when opposing running backs get through the heart of the Lions' defensive line, you notice it.