Don’t you love life’s little ironies?
Just moments after Cris Collinsworth had long-windedly and orgasmically extolled the brilliance of Chiefs RT Eric Fisher (#72) during Denver's 27-17 Week 11 win, Derek Wolfe notched his fourth sack of the season by ragdolling Fisher. It happened with 9:35 left in the third quarter, and KC’s Alex Smith (#11) playing from the shotgun.
Since before he was drafted, I have liked Fisher’s play, and I enjoy watching his work. He’s learning quickly enough as a rookie for me to expect that at some point he’s going to take over the left tackle position from Branden Albert, just in view of his play so far. That doesn’t make his first year in the pros any less of a learning experience, though - every player has rookie moments.
Last year, Derek Wolfe became only the second defensive lineman in team history (Barney Chavous, 1973) to start every game as a rookie. That means he’s already made, worked on, and solved a lot of the mistakes and habits that he needed to overcome as a pro - his total pressures are already beyond last year’s final tally. Despite the concerns that some fans expressed over the first half of the season, Derek has been playing the role Jack Del Rio laid out for him very effectively. Let’s see how Wolfe schooled Fisher on this play:
Image 1 - The presnap lineup. You should notice that Wolfe is ‘helmet on helmet’, lined up directly in front of Fisher, because that tells you it’s likely that Wolfe is playing as a two-gapper. When the defensive lineman is shaded against the man across from him, with his head on one side or the other, it’s more common for that defender to be in a single gap responsibility. You can see that shaded positioning in Sylvester Williams’ (#92) angle on the center, Rodney Hudson (#61).
Image 2 - At the snap, Wolfe gets off the line by stepping in deeply to the outside with his right foot, feinting an attack in that direction. He continues in that direction when stepping with his left. Since he’s apparently going outside, the right guard moves inside to help the center with Williams.
Wolfe repeats those two steps, keeping his feet driving, and is now far behind the line of scrimmage. He has Fisher struggling to backstep quickly enough to keep up, and is outside of Fisher.
Image 3 - Notice that Wolfe’s right arm is inside Fisher’s left. The ‘inside’ man nearly always wins, and this is no exception. Looking over the notes I did post-draft on Wolfe, I found this:
From the games that I saw, his weakness is in getting his hands up quickly enough from his three-point stance...he just has to get his ‘fit’ into his man a little better without lunging.
He’s already overcome that, which is no shock. Wolfe’s a dedicated worker.
Wolfe’s turned the tables, achieving a hold on Fisher that lets him keep his hands inside and has permitted him to turn his own body toward the QB and to pull Fisher’s arms, forcing the tackle's weight forward. Notice below that Fisher’s shoulders are in front of his knees, feet, and hips, but that you can draw a line down from Wolfe’s shoulders to the front of his knees - he’s on balance. Fisher is both in a lunge position and has his head to the right: he’s off-balance.
Image 4 - Wolfe is playing at a lighter weight this year, but looks to have grown even stronger. He also has a long history of effort and dedication in the weight room which has maximized his hands’ functional strength. Wolfe knows that Fisher has no power or leverage in this posture, so he’s using his inside leverage and functional strength to fling Fisher to Wolfe’s left and behind him. Wolfe’s left arm swims over Fisher as Wolfe pulls him backward with his arms and ragdolls him.
In Image 5, Alex Smith has spotted Derek. He has some decent movement skills when avoiding a sack and in open space, but it doesn’t matter. Wolfe’s footwork has looked better this season, and he’s too quick for Smith. Whether it’s that he’s faster or just has more NFL experience, Wolfe’s visibly moving better.
Image 6 - Smith fights to get free and did a good job, but Wolfe’s hold on him isn’t going to be denied. Appropriately, Derek follows up the sack with his trademark Wolfeman Howl:
Heading into the rematch at Arrowhead, Wolfe has played 566 snaps in 11 games, the most among Denver defensive linemen (Shaun Phillips is just behind him at 564). Over that time, Wolfe has produced four sacks, six QB hits, and 28 hurries.
Over 1,007 snaps during his rookie season (including playoffs), Wolfe managed six sacks, seven hits, and 13 hurries.
PFF's stats for hurries are often judgment calls, but I’ve gone back and watched quite a few of them, and I’m comfortable saying that Wolfe is around the QB more often and with greater effect in disrupting throws than was true last year.
Derek is also showing a level of leadership that has been a benefit to the Broncos’ locker room this season - even defensive captain Wesley Woodyard has commented on it. Longtime former NCAA and NFL coach Butch Davis once noted that on every great team he’s been acquainted with, the defensive line has set the tone for the team. Denver has pace-setting personnel from John Elway through the coaches, coordinators, assistants, and players, but Wolfe’s adding to that leadership.
At Dove Valley, primary leadership has come from Peyton Manning’s cybernetic level of skill. It’s also true that the big fellas in the trenches on both sides play a big role in setting the tone for the team (as does Woodyard). If those players refuse to knuckle under to the desire to take a play off when it’s late, or cannot be tempted to think that maybe a play here or there doesn’t matter, other players are less likely to do so as well.
If the line has an inner toughness and a bit of a swagger, so will the team. It’s not a matter of ego, but a knowledge of what they are capable of doing, and a focus on accomplishing it. If the line trusts that they can stop a short run late in the game, it’s a lot more likely to have it happen. KC found that out when they were stopped on the goal line in Denver. With the division potentially on the line this weekend at Arrowhead, Denver will need more of this kind of play from Wolfe.
The defense has been instrumental in game after game over the past two seasons. Despite a poor performance during the second half in New England, Denver has a lot of reasons to be confident. Derek’s success thus far has played an important role in creating an effective defense. Moving into the future, his effort and leadership could develop his role even further.
That’s something to howl about.