As I reconsidered some of the topics discussed in yesterday's broad overview of Dan Quinn's defensive scheme, one of the bigger questions that lingered was how exactly this team plans to juggle its corps of linebackers. Specifically, the case of rising second-year pro Prince Shembo struck me as an intriguing one because of his skill set and how the previous regime used (or misused?) him on the field.
You'll remember that Shembo stood out as an outside linebacker for Notre Dame. With the Irish, he was asked to rush both standing up and from a three-point stance, from the weakside and strongside, and had some coverage assignments peppered in, as well. But it was mostly rushing the passer.
That at least seemed to translate into statistical success -- he recorded 48 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks and 17 QB hurries as a senior.
Using the ACC as a reference point for the independent school, Shembo had the third-most QB pressures of any ACC defensive player in 2013, behind only Virginia Tech's James Gayle (21) and J.R. Collins (18). Defensive rookie of the year Aaron Donald accounted for 16 that year.
Shembo was by all accounts a tantalizing prospect and a high-energy player who could rush the passer despite needing some fine-tuning in his game. So when the Falcons made him a fourth-round draft pick last May, many were projecting him as a strongside outside linebacker due to his thick build (though some indeed believed he was destined to be an inside player).
We know what happened after that. The Falcons moved Shembo inside, and he rarely received more than 30 snaps in a given game as a rook. According to Pro Football Focus, 55.3 percent of those snaps had him playing the run and 37.1 percent saw him in coverage. He only rushed the passer about 7 percent of the time.
In addition to that, the Falcons were running mostly out of the 4-2-5, and the continued lack of a consistent pass rush left the two inside linebackers (Paul Worrilow and the Bartu-Shembo platoon) with a lot of ground to cover in passing situations. Shembo still performed the best of the trio and graded out at +0.5 on the season, which wasn't bad considering the circumstances.
But were the Falcons maximizing his value? Should Shembo remain at the WILL?
The Falcons list him at 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, which is about the same size as Seattle's Bruce Irvin (6-foot-3, 248 pounds). Irvin primarily occupied the SAM linebacker position in Quinn's 4-3 under base defense, which as I already noted shows a lot of similarities to the 3-4.
In fact, Quinn himself said in an interview with ESPN 710 that the LEO (hybrid DE/OLB that makes his dough as a pass rusher) and the SAM "are so closely connected in how we play them." This was something I considered when reviewing Seattle's defense the other day, especially with noted pass-rusher Irvin finding success at that spot, but I wasn't entirely sure how the position functioned.
The one caveat about the SAM is that he often gets subbed out on third down. But with no proven pass rusher currently able to occupy the strongside defensive end spot (hey, Tyson Jackson!), Shembo's experience as a "hand in the dirt" rusher would make him a logical candidate to move there on 2nd or 3rd-and-long.
So when I projected Sean Weatherspoon as a potential SAM linebacker in yesterday's post, I was very wrong. While Weatherspoon is indeed a prototypical 4-3 strongside linebacker, it wouldn't mesh with what Quinn asks of the position, because of the 4-3 under's mimicry of the 3-4.
Shembo has value as a pass rusher and as a run-stopper, perhaps more so than as a cover man (and of course ILBs are required to have strong cover skills in today's game). That's why I believe the former fourth-round pick could find more success at the SAM in Quinn's defense.
Now knowing better what is asked of the position, perhaps the Falcons would consider something like this:
LEO: Jonathan Massaquoi
WILL: Paul Worrilow
SAM: Prince Shembo
Regarding Worrilow, the more I consider his size (230 pounds), tackling prowess, ability to pursue and his occasional success as an A-gap blitzer, he might fit better at the WILL. Weatherspoon could rotate in at MIKE if healthy, but there's definitely the need for a reliable/proven player in that spot.
Ah, but this is all hypothetical, isn't it? Regardless of the above, an influx of talent is what this defense needs across the board, and especially at the linebacker position.
Let me hear your thoughts on how the Falcons could situate the defense.