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Coaching Questions: Personnel Problems

Fix it. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Fix it. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Patriots cut defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from the roster and he is already talking about his experience with the team. Don't worry; it's mostly positive:

"I felt like I could still play," Haynesworth said. "I just want to prove myself. That was a great place. Coach (Bill) Belichick is a great guy and it’s a good system. But I just wanted to play more. I wanted to practice more and get more reps. The more reps you get, the better I’d get. I just wasn’t getting a lot of reps so they made the decision to let me go."

Emphasis my own. Haynesworth said he enjoyed playing for the Patriots, but his role was too small for his liking. He wanted to see the field more, not only on game day, but also in practice. The Patriots had a habit of limiting Haynesworth during the practice week, and I'll believe it's at least partially because they wanted to keep a closer track on his rise to fitness. However, he was not happy with his role on the team and he made his displeasure known by "speaking" with defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. Of course, that "speaking" led the Patriots to cut Haynesworth from the roster.

This isn't the first case of a Patriots player voicing his displeasure about his role on the team. Earlier this season, cornerback Leigh Bodden was cut because he did not like his reduced role on the cornerback depth chart (update: and because he was injured). Despite the clear lack of depth in the secondary, the Patriots cut Bodden the day before fellow cornerback Ras-I Dowling heard news about his injury and, in a span of two days, two of the best defensive backs on the team were no longer able to play.

These issues lead to the larger question: how are the Patriots managing their players?

It's clear that the Patriots don't appreciate when a player speaks out against the organization, and that involves speaking out against the coaching staff. I fully understand and support removing players who no longer feel like they can contribute and those who are unwilling to perform their assigned role.

I just wonder if the coaching staff needs to do a better job of assigning the correct role for the appropriate players. Expecting Haynesworth to play the same style of game as Vince Wilfork or Kyle Love is a poor coaching idea, due to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual player. Just as coaches shouldn't expect Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco to play the same role since they are receivers (although, until the Giants game, Ocho was limited to Branch-esque routes), they shouldn't ask defensive tackles to play the same role.

Fact: Haynesworth is a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle who is happiest when asked to disrupt the backfield. He is not a two-gap player because he wants to be unleashed upon the backfield, one of his main issues with the 3-4 defense, and should not be treated as a typical two-gap player. Unfortunately, Haynesworth was asked to be something he's not and that made him unhappy.

Of course, that's a fault on both parties. Haynesworth should have tried harder to fit the scheme, while the coaching staff should have modified the defensive strategy to fit his style of play (as well as another player who has struggled). Let's look at one of the plays in question:

Brandon Jacobs, 10 yard TD run

This play comes right after Tom Brady's fumble (although I will say that I feel like if the Giants defensive end did not catch the ball out of the air, I feel like there would have been serious consideration for a "tuck rule" call). The defense has its back against the goal line and, while it's not their fault that the Giants have the ball with such fantastic field position, the first Giants play was just a disaster for the Patriots.

Here's the initial line-up at the snap. The Giants overload the left side and have the 6-4, 264 lbs Brandon Jacobs in the backfield. The Patriots counter by placing Rob Ninkovich at the line to jam the potential tight end, while Andre Carter faces the left tackle. Single-gap defender Albert Haynesworth is over the left guard, with run defense sieve linebacker Gary Guyton in position directly behind him. (hint: there's your problem). Next to Haynesworth is the stout Kyle Love and, behind Love, is Jerod Mayo.

Here's the snap. Ninkovich immediately engages with the tight end and does a solid sealing the edge and not giving up much ground. The Giants send one of the tight ends to the inside to block any potential gate crashers who, in this case, happen to be Gary Guyton. Guyton is heading directly towards the hole that the 6-5, 283 lbs, fantastically named tight end Bear Pascoe is rushing to block. Guyton is doing his job, so this is not his fault- he's supposed to get into that gap. On the far side of center, Kyle Love is double teamed by the center and the right guard to seal a lane for Jacobs. It is very interesting to note that the Giants chose to double team Love over doubling Haynesworth.

The play continues to develop and the ball is handed off. Ninkovich and Carter still haven't given any quarter and are in great position. Love is clearly sealed off from the ball carrier, but he hasn't given up much ground and has allowed the linebackers to move into position to make a play in the hole. Except two problems occur: One, Haynesworth can't sustain leverage against the left guard and gets twisted into the gap that Bear Pascoe (full name. Always) is trying to clear. Two, Gary Guyton is supposed to be heading directly towards that gap that Haynesworth is being thrown towards (shown by the blue seal). Guyton coulda/shoulda/woulda followed the orange path to take a hold of the gap vacated by Haynesworth and, if he did, would not have any blockers in front of him because Bear Pascoe was inadvertently taken out by Haynesworth and the left guard. However, that did not happen.

Full steam ahead. Guyton ran right into Haynesworth and was blocked out of the play. Again, he was doing his job to take care of that gap. However, I feel like most linebackers with higher football IQs and instincts would have been able to acknowledge that Haynesworth closed his initial gap responsibility and that they should take the gap Haynesworth left open. Instead, Guyton runs into Haynesworth. In addition, the double team on Love split apart and the center blocks Mayo up the field. As Jacobs (reminder: 264 pounds) runs through the hole Haynesworth left open, Carter makes a full extension dive of nine (9!) feet to try and take down Jacobs. Of course, no one can dive that far and hope to take down Jacobs in the open field and Jacobs continues his way into the end zone.


So what do we see here? We see Haynesworth getting thrown about and unable to play the two-gap and we see the Giants respond by only using one blocker. If Haynesworth can only guard one lane, why both double teaming him in run defense? Behind Haynesworth is Guyton who, seriously, needs to get off the field on running plays. Neither his football IQ, nor his physical ability is there to make a play. Two players poorly utilized and two players stacked behind one another in run defense. Of note is that the best run-stuffing defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork, was on the sideline for this play. Poor execution by players, but poor coaching to put these players in the proper place to succeed.

So Haynesworth is a better pass rusher than he is a run defender- that's no surprise. The Patriots tried to limit his time on the field as a run defender (Pro Football Focus has his snaps at nearly a 2-to-1 ratio of pass rush-to-run defense.) and Haynesworth was unhappy with his role. The Patriots were in the right to limit his snaps because he was unable to be as dominant a force against the run as he was against the pass. However, Haynesworth played approximately 30% of the defensive snaps while he was with the defense. Opposing teams threw the ball over 60% of the time. That means that Haynesworth was underutilized as a pass rusher as he was on the field for only 33% of the opposing pass attempts. The defense wanted a pass rush? He was on the sideline, pouting.

It's all well and good to expect Haynesworth to do what he's told and sit on the sideline- that's what he should have done. However, when the defensive game plan puts the team's most effective pass rushing defensive tackle on the sideline for such a large percentage of passing opportunities, that's poor personnel management.

Now the handling of Haynesworth was not the only issue this season. The playtime of Leigh Bodden came into question and led to his release, even though he was a stronger sideline defender than Kyle Arrington. Up until recently, Chad Ochocinco had been running slants when his strong routes are Outs and Gos. Deion Branch has had zero success against man coverage, yet the coaches have continued to play him against man. Aaron Hernandez has the speed, size, and ability to take the top off of the opposing defense and create mismatches in the secondary, yet he has been extremely underutilized.

There are many players being asked to fill roles that do not match their skill sets, nor do they maximize their potential. While the coaching staff and team aren't responsible for a player's willingness to fit into the system, it's absolutely their job to put those players in the best place to succeed. The coaches need to acknowledge that not all players can fit the exact role of a cookie cutter defense and adjustments must be made to accommodate individual playing styles. Don't play a one-gap defender in a two-gap role (from Mike Wright to Albert Haynesworth). Don't force an undersized receiver into man coverage with a physical corner (Deion Branch). Make the small adjustments to get the most out of the player.

The problem is not entirely the lack of talent on the field. It's a combination of poor execution and poor strategy to place the talent on the field in a position where they will not be able to execute to their fullest potential.