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Doug Farrar

Upon Further Review: Can Keith Bulluck handle the Tampa 2?

Doug Farrar
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If you wanted to add to your team's roster with as professional and under-the-radar a linebacker as possible, it would be difficult to do much better than Keith Bulluck(notes), who was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the 2000 draft and didn't miss a single start between 2002 and 2008. His 2009 was starting well - he played in the season's first 14 games, and was a major part of the team's turnaround from an 0-6 record. But the torn ACL he suffered in Week 15, and the fact that he turned 33 in April, had the Titans thinking twice about bringing him back with a new contract. The Detroit Lions, coached by former Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, showed some interest in Bulluck, but the veteran found a more captivating home near his Syracuse roots with the New York Giants.

Bulluck signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the G-Men on the 24th, and was almost immediately named the team's starting linebacker. In 2009, the Giants' defense took a huge backslide as Antonio Pierce's(notes) time with the team, and then his career, came to an end. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is a student of the Tampa 2 defense, which he learned at the professional level as the Chicago Bears' secondary coach in 2004 and 2005. The Tampa 2 that the Giants will now run as a predominant scheme requires the middle linebacker to drop into coverage quite frequently, which raises the question – can a 33-year-old linebacker coming off knee surgery bring the kind of coverage ability to the field that is required in this defense?

Bulluck did have some decent stats against the pass in 2009, but according to Football Outsiders' game-charting metrics for pass defense, Bulluck went from third in yards after catch allowed among NFL linebackers in 2008 to 38th in 2009. He also went from second to 50th in yards per pass allowed. This would seem to indicate two things: That Bulluck has been dominant against the pass in the past, and that the Giants are betting that the 2008 version of Keith Bulluck will show up again.

I asked Tom Gower, a compadre of mine at Football Outsiders and one of the main men at the outstanding Total Titans blog, for his take on Bulluck's future in a coverage-heavy defense.

Bulluck was a great player to watch in the vintage years. He only made one Pro Bowl, but for a couple of years he was probably the league's best pursuit linebacker. He played well as part of the great defense of 2008 but was clearly on the downside of his career then, and his play slipped even more as the quality of the defense around him fell in 2009. This was maybe most clearly the case in pass defense.

As you mention, though, Bulluck's FO metrics for pass defense were actually pretty good. These are a little misleading, though. If you look at the charting data, there are 46 passes with Bulluck listed as Defender 1. 21 of those 46 were incomplete passes. Since Bulluck was primarily an underneath defender, holding quarterbacks to a 54% completion percentage is very good. If you look at why those passes were incomplete, though, 19 of those 21 incompletions were for reasons having nothing to do with Bulluck. The receiver dropped the ball, the defensive line's pressure forced an errant pass (hit in motion/tipped), or the QB simply missed the receiver in some manner (thrown ahead, thrown behind, overthrown, thrown away).

Bulluck's problems in 2009 in pass defense were twofold. First, he started the year playing with a lack of discipline in zone defense. This is something he'd done in the past, but his speed declined from excellent earlier in this career to merely good/very good, meaning he was less able to recover from the freelancing. The Steelers and Texans were able to exploit him at the beginning of the year because of this. After those first couple weeks, I thought he played with more discipline in zone defense, but that also meant he played less aggressively and couldn't attack players the way he did in the past. This was most true against running backs and other players with more agility-he simply can't stay with them the way he could when he was younger.

All this, of course, was before the ACL injury that prematurely ended his 2009 season. The list of old linebackers who have an ACL injury and are still effective after the injury is a very short one. Bulluck, for his entire career, has been a pursuit linebacker who's depended on his speed to chase after guys, not a stout point of attack run defender. If he can't run, I strongly doubt he can be an effective player. If the Giants try him in a Gary Brackett(notes) role, they better have much better safety play than they got in 2009, because they're going to need it covering for Bulluck.

I agree with Tom's assessment. In watching the Titans in 2009, one frequently sees a linebacker corps excellent in forward pursuit, but late by a step in intermediate coverage. If the Giants are to benefit from what Bulluck has left, they may have to shelve some of the Tampa 2 concepts brought by Fewell in favor of the more base 4-3 looks Bulluck mostly played in Tennessee. With a defense in transition, the Giants have to strike the same balance that every other team does - the balance between scheme and personnel.

Other "Upon Further Review" articles: Kevin Kolb | Terrell Owens

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