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"It's just the preseason."
Ah, the great rationalization. Works for a lot of things, especially in game one. Vanilla play-calling, like running up the middle on third and three? It's just the preseason. Vanilla game-managing, like bleeding the clock instead of trying the two-minute drill? It's just the preseason. Vanilla pass-rushing, like providing none in 33 pass plays? Well....
It's just the preseason, right?
We've been dealing with this for a very long time. In 1997, our passing defense was ranked #2. In the 11 years since, not once have we ranked in the league's top half. Even last year, when our defense as a whole was a respectable #13, our passing defense was still a lowly #20.
Of course, there are two aspects of passing defense: rush and coverage. But the rush is the straw that stirs the drink. If your rush is good, you can get away with a lot of weak coverage. But if your rush is bad, the best coverage in the world won't save you. Unless you're lucky enough to be facing Kyle Orton every week, the quarterback will just stand there and pick you apart.
And year after year, that's what's happened. And if we're gonna contend this year, that's what's gotta change.
It wouldn't be so crucial if our offense were the more dominant kind. (In 1998, for example, our passing defense was ranked a woeful #29, but our offense was ranked #1 and we were probably a broken ankle away from the Super Bowl.) Don't get me wrong, I like what I'm seeing. I think we'll have a nice, steady offense that establishes the run and makes a big pass-play or two. But this is an offense that controls the ball; it's not an offense that's built for the blowout. Every week, this team will win or lose in the fourth quarter, and that means our defense will have to make late stops. We won't make those stops if we don't stop the pass, and we won't stop the pass if we don't rush the passer.
So when it comes to the pass-rush, the rationalization just doesn't cut it. Preseason or no, we need to see it. Not necessarily all of it, just some of it. And in game one, we didn't see any of it.
You'll forgive us, won't you, if we start our panicking now.
Okay, okay. This is a 3-4 defense, and when you go vanilla, as you do in the preseason, it can look pretty bad. Your three linemen aren't likely to get through their five, and your linebackers have a long way to go in a very short time. That's why a 3-4 defense depends less on individual battles and more on scheming, constantly changing who's rushing and from where. Naturally, Greg Manusky doesn't wanna show those cards, so shouldn't we just relax 'til the start of the season?
At the game's highest level, scheming can only get you so far. If you make your living rushing the passer, you can't expect to be unblocked every play. Eventually you're gonna find yourself face to face with a guy between you and the quarterback, and you're gonna have to find a way to get around him. Either you've got the skills to do it, or you don't. And if you don't, you're probably in the wrong business, aren't you?
In game one, no one showed he could do it. In 33 plays, no one laid a finger on the passer. In most cases, it was highly disappointing.
In the case of Manny Lawson, it was downright terrifying.
Lawson, you might recall, is supposed to save us. Despite our lowly ranking against the pass, we were told we didn't need to find a pass-rusher in free agency, in a trade, or even in the draft. Why not? Because, we were told, we already had one we just hadn't been using. Now that Lawson was healthy, we'd stop taking him off the field on third downs, and we'd let him show us the pass-rushing chops that led us to make him a first-round pick. "My role here suits me now," he said. "I'm going to get to rush more and I'm expecting things to happen for me."
So are we, Manny. So are we.
But there you were the other night, stuck on the ground again and again, so easily cut-blocked at six-foot-five. That wasn't Manusky, going vanilla. That was you, being beaten, again and again.
There's so much riding on this. First, of course, is the season itself. Jed York has promised us a playoff berth, and a pass-rush like last year's will put that promise very much in jeopardy. But also, Scot McCloughan has placed his own head in the noose. This was his call. He knew we needed a pass-rusher; everyone did. But he'd drafted Lawson to be that pass-rusher, and seeing how his first-round picks haven't exactly bolted out of the gate—with the notable exception of one Mr. Willis—he's gotta be desperate for Lawson to come through. So McCloughan's gone all-in with Lawson, and he's taken us with him. If Lawson fails, McCloughan will lose big, and so will we.
So again, after game one, you'll forgive us if we start our panicking now.
After acknowledging the obvious, that our pass-rush was "nonexistent," Mike Singletary offered this assurance: "We will get to the quarterback. I'm confident of that."
It's not that we don't trust you, Coach. We do. But remember your motto for this year. "Don't tell me, show me."
Show us, Coach, just a little. Please, please show us.