Earlier this morning, Ramblin’ Fan posted our version of the Pro Bowl defensive line, marked by a number of changes to the actual starting lineup and in the backup spots. Now, we move to the outside linebacker, which, like the defensive line, is tough to guage when having to consider both 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebackers. The two spots play drastically different roles, for the most part, but that does not mean that a couple of players cannot “stand out” in their respective role on the field. Since the outside linebacker spot is such a subjective position to measure, we decided to go a little more in depth into our rationale behind the selections for our Pro Bowl team. Here is Ramblin’ Fans’ NFC Pro Bowl roster (Outside linebackers):
Actual: Aldon Smith* (San Francisco), DeMarcus Ware* (Dallas), Clay Matthews (Green Bay)
Ramblin’ Fan: Justin Houston* (Kansas City), Aldon Smith* (San Francisco), Jo-Lonn Dunbar (St. Louis)
The obsession with the 3-4 linebacker in the NFL is utterly nauseating, especially when those players get undue recognition for the “big plays” that they make. However, being a one-trick pony in the NFL will only get you so far, especially on the defensive side of the football. A player who is great on the pass rush, but gets removed on rushing down, goal line, and never drops back in coverage is not the definition of a “true” outside linebacker. With that said, there have have a number of 3-4 outside linebacker that have shown they are more than simply a pass rusher…
Many have probably never heard of Justin Houston, but, assuming Kansas City makes a competent change at head coach, will soon be throwing it around as a household name. Among qualifying 3-4 OLB, Houston ranks among the Top 10 in nearly every category. He has 10 sacks (T-5th), combined with 7 hits (12th) and 27 hurries (T-7th) as a pass rusher. He also has 3 batted passed (4th), and amassed 41 solo tackles (2nd) and 37 stops (4th). More impressively, he has played phenomenal in coverage, allowing a mere 61.9% catch rate on 21 targets (2nd), with an interception to top it off. Houston is one of the few three-down, 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, supported by the fact that he is one of only seven players at his position with 900+ defensive snaps.
We needn’t waste anyone’s time rationalizing the Aldon Smith pick, who leads all linebacker in sacks, trails only Von Miller in hurries, and only Phillip Wheeler and Miller in hits on the quarterback. Smith has been decent in coverage, but sensational in run support, with 46 combined tackles and 46 stops, while playing nearly all of the 49ers’ 976 defensive snaps.
HOMER! That is probably ringing through the head of nearly every non-St. Louis Rams fan reading this article. Yes, DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews are really good at sacking the quarterback, but being a pure pass rusher should not be a lone variable in picking the “best” players. Aside from the shear sack total, the two players notoriety undoubted played a major role in the their ticket to the Pro Bowl. However, both that been sub-par in a number of areas this season. Clay Matthews has never been anything more than a pass rusher, and with injury this season, has not performed at the same level he has in the past. Aside from not playing in five games this season (which should be enough to knock a player out of Pro Bowl contention), Matthews has average 0.67 sacks per game over the last nine games that he has played this year. The long-haired wonder is 11th out of 22 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers in hurries, and 18th in tackles. Worse, he is a non-factor in coverage, and, when he has dropped back, allowed a 75.0% catch rate. Ware is harder to argue against… but, not too hard. Ware leads all outside linebackers with 9 penalties this season, and has does not have any Top 2 or Top 3 statistic to make up for it, aside from sacks. Ware trails five 3-4 outside linebackers in hurries, but only three is missed tackles, and has allowed a 90.0% catch rate in coverage. He has not intercepted, batted down, or deflected a pass this season, and trails 10 players in solo tackles, and even more in combined tackles.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar may be the most underrated 4-3 outside linebacker in the league right now, especially with the talent in the NFC in the second level of the defense. He is not the most dominating pass rusher, but, then again, isn’t given the opportunity to pin his ears back and jolt into the backfield on every snap. Dunbar is an all around linebacker, being one of only 17 4-3 outside linebackers to have played on over 75% of the defensive snaps. Unlike Ware and Matthews, who have been targeted a combine 18 times this season, Dunbar is pressed into coverage far more often, being targeted an astounding 76 times this year (2nd most among all outside linebackers, Top 40 among CB). In coverage, Dunbar has allowed only 8.8 yards per receptions (7th), has 3 pass deflections (T-6th), and 2 interceptions (T-4th). However, he hasn’t just been a cover man against the pass, amassing 4 sacks (T-4th among 4-3 OLB), 5 hits (t-4th), and 9 hurries (T-5th). However, pass rushing and coverage are not why the Rams brought Dunbar to St. Louis. Dunbar is a punishing tackler (just ask Alex Smith), who has been absolutely dominate against the run this season. He has 110 combined tackles this season (3rd among NFC OLB), which is 47 more than Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware have put together! More impressive than the shear number of tackles is the amount of stops that Dunbar has this year. Again, a “stop” is defined as a solo defensive tackle that results in a failure offensively (i.e. sack, tackle for loss or no gain, etc.). Dunbar has made 57 such plays, fourth among all linebackers in the NFL (interior linebackers included), with 22 more than Ware and 27 more than Matthews. No outside linebacker has performed better than Dunbar this season in combing pass rush, run stoppage, and coverage, which should at least be enough to earn him a backup role on the Pro Bowl roster.