Geno Atkins BengalsBy Shawn Maher
Backer of the Big Uglies (@ShawnBenMaher)

On Thursday, the NFL Hall of Fame announced the list of 2013 nominees. While this season’s Week 4 was stuffed with an inordinate amount of excellent football, we would regret not mentioning some of the great hogs of years past that were nominated.

With the first year nominees being those who retired after the 2007 season, the group included many who have directly shaped the way the NFL currently plays football.

Specifically, the offensive and defensive linemen who evolved from the equivalent of club-toting cavemen beating each other mercilessly to today’s equivalent of jet fighters and homing missiles.

The Hall of Fame selection committee has made the Hog Report proud as of late, eschewing many skill-position players for trench warriors Dermontti Dawson, Cortez Kennedy, Chris Doleman and Willie Roaf to enter the NFL Valhalla in 2012.

In this special edition of the Hog Report, we will look at handful of the 2013 nominees and how they paved the way for some of this season’s highest-performing groups of hogs.

Prime Cuts: Hall of Fame Edition

The Bengals’ D-Hogs Using the Jimmy Johnson Model: Lean and Mean

The Bengals’ secondary features a banged up group of first-round castoffs collected from around the league. It is led by former homegrown first-round selection Leon Hall, who is hampered by a still-healing Achilles tendon. The Bengals d-hogs have had to bear down and carry the load, and have managed a 5th-ranked 11.69 NPP% despite only one interception in four weeks.

Against the Jaguars in Week 4, the Bengals managed to bottle up running back Maurice Jones-Drew while terrorizing quarterback Blaine Gabbert, shooting them up eight spots in the D-Hog Index. They ended the game with a 17.50 NPP% on six sacks and their added interception. To add the icing to the cake, MJD only rushed for 2.92 YPA.

After playing a quarter of the the season, the Bengals have accumulated 17 sacks. They are only one of nine teams since 2000 to rack up that many through four weeks, although their lack of interceptions is disheartening.

YearTeamSacksComp %INTYDSNPP%Wk 4 RecordFinal RecordSeason Result
2008PHI1757.4476715.112-29-6-1Lost NFC Championship
2006BAL1753862318.664-013-3Lost in Div Round
2005ATL1757.9474914.003-18-8Missed Playoffs
2004PHI1862194610.334-013-3NFC Champions
2002CAR1755.1863717.363-17-9Lost 8 straight starting WK 4
2001GB2062.3458516.903-112-4Lost in Div Round
2001NO1758571616.183-17-9Missed Playoffs
2000TB1961.5766315.573-110-6Lost in WC Round

The other teams with 17 sacks at this point in the season have found mixed results, but the Bengals look schematically very similar to the 2004 NFC Champion Eagles. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer runs a similar scheme to that of the late Jim Johnson of that Eagles team.

The attacking 4-3 defense is also the choice of Jim Schwartz, former assistant to Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis. Schwartz claims his Lions’ defensive tackle playbook consists of two words: “Kick butt.”

Their one-gap, four-man front has its roots in Jimmy Johnson’s Super Bowl teams of the early nineties. Johnson was widely mocked for his undersized linemen, but they found success aggressively attacking a single gap and being disruptive.

Bengals’ defensive tackle Geno Atkins fell to the fourth round in the 2010 NFL draft due to his size (6-1, 286), but has proven that he is a perfect a perfect fit for Zimmer’s defense. With five sacks through the first four games, Atkins is on pace for 20 sacks, which would be a record for defensive tackles.

The Bengals have an aggressive group, though they have given up 5.45 YPA rushing. In comparing the Cowboys’ 1992 defensive line to the Bengals’ current group, one can see the similarities in size.

BengalsHeightWeight Projected Sack Total
DT Geno Atkins6-128620.0
NT Domata Peko6-3 3074.0
DE Carlos Dunlap6-629014.0 (Missed 2 games)
DE Michael Johnson6-7 26016.0
CowboysHeightWeight1992 Sack Total
NT Leon Lett6-62903.5
DE Tony Tolbert6-62688.5
DT/DE Jim Jeffcoat6-527410.5
DT Jimmie Jones6-42854.0
DE Charles Haley6-52526.0

Like the Bengals’ Michael Johnson, who dropped RGIII once for every Robert Griffin in his family, weak-side defensive end Charles Haley was of a slighter build than many defensive ends. Unlike Johnson, Haley is a three-time finalist for the Hall of Fame.

Another Cowboy who wears 94, DeMarcus Ware, owes a great deal of success to the man who paved the way before him. He has used his hybrid “Leo” position to blaze his way to 99.5 sacks through his first seven seasons, only topped by Hall of Fame defensive end/tackle Reggie White.

White raked in a jaw-dropping 110 through his first seven years.

But he also he owes as much gratitude to his former coach, who defies tradition in the 3-4 front, Wade Phillips.

Wade Phillips: Spitting in the Face of 3-4 Tradition

J.J. Watt TexansIt is no secret at this point that the Hog Report has a great admiration for Wade Phillps’ Houston defense. Specifically, J.J. Watt. Like Charles Haley and DeMarcus Ware, he is utilized in a different manner than many have seen before in the framework of his defense.

Most 3-4 defenses use their linemen to soak up blocks to allow linebackers make plays cleanly. Phillips, however, has let his hogs run wild. During this season, J.J. Watt has racked up 7.5 sacks and his two sacks against Tennessee in Week 4 contributed to a 19.35 NPP%, giving them a third-place 12.08 NPP% on the season.

What is even more impressive is that Watt plays defensive end in a 3-4 defense, but still generates such huge numbers. A long and lean linemen (6-5, 290) that can control defenders with his Stretch Armstrong arms, Watt is given free rein to shed his blocker and attack.

He will also use his pterodactyl-sized wingspan to frequently knock down passes, with five to his credit this season. In fact, with two of those tipped balls leading directly to interceptions, Watt is personally responsible for a 6.38 NPP% on his own this season, more than half of the Texans’ total NPP%.

In Dallas, Phillips was also similarly creative with his d-hogs. His treatment of nose tackle Jay Ratliff was similar to his handling of Watt. Ratliff, a minuscule (6-4, 293) nose tackle, racked up 7.5 sacks in 2008 from a position that traditionally only bumbles onto an infrequent sack.

It would be hard to say that was detrimental to other pass rushers, as Ware took down opposing quarterbacks 20 times in that same season. The Cowboys ended 2008 with a second-place NPP%.

Tony Dungy’s Tampa Two Design is a D-Hog Dream

Tony Dungy is a man hardly known for being boisterous or aggressive, but his version of the Cover 2 zone does all the talking he needs. His disciple Lovie Smith has the best d-hog unit in the league in Chicago, with a maddening 14.36 NPP% using the system created by Dungy.

By combining Jimmy Johnson’s bat-out-of-hell pass rush with the stacked Cover 3 zone coverage that Dick LeBeau devised to shut down Run-and-Shoot offenses, Dungy cemented his position as a pass-rush prophet and defensive innovator.

When Dumgy and Monte Kiffin arrived in Tampa Bay in 1996 to create their new defense, they already had the perfect pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2013 Hall of Fame nominee Warren Sapp. In 1997, the Buccaneers finished with Sapp and Chidi Anahotu putting up double-digit sack totals, and had similar numbers to Johnson’s 1992 Super-Bowl-winning squad.

Of course, Dungy never had the offense that Johnson did. When Dungy won his Super Bowl, his defensive numbers were outstanding.

 SacksINTNPP%Def Yds RankDef Points RankRush YPA
92 Cowboys441711.551st5th3.6
96 Buccaneers441310.613rd2nd3.9
02 Buccaneers433113.381st1st3.8

Warren Sapp BuccaneersAnother striking similarity is the career arc of both Sapp and Atkins, the previously mentioned Bengals’ defensive tackle.

1995: 3 sacks
1996: 9 sacks
1997: 10.5 sacks

2010: 3 sacks
2011: 7.5 sacks
2012: 20 sacks (projected)

Of course, it is too early to be proclaiming Atkins as anything other than a rising star in the NFL. But to be mentioned in the same breath as a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer is quite encouraging.

The Vikings’ Matt Kalil is Channeling his Inner Jonathan Ogden

The Vikings have been playing efficient, hard-nosed football that made even Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers look bad. The Vikings’ 3-1 record already matches the amount of wins from 2011. Even if their running game has declined from 5.11 YPA last season to 3.96 YPA through four weeks in 2012, the big story is in their NPP% improvement.

After declining from 11.81% in 2011 to 6.11% this season, the selection of Matt Kalil in the 2012 draft as their left tackle of the future is looking more than wise. Quarterback Christian Ponder has yet to throw an interception, and Kalil is showing the combination of power and agility that were the hallmark of Hall of Fame finalist Jonathan Ogden.

Ogden was freakishly tall, using the leverage created by his 6-9 frame. Kalil is no slouch himself at 6-6, and has the power to bench press 225 pounds 30 times at the combine while still running a sub-five second 40.
In a division with Julius Peppers, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Clay Matthews ready to bury Ponder in the turf, Kalil’s outstanding protection is a big component of their view from atop the AFC North.

Trench Warfare Week 5: Buffalo vs. San Francisco

49ersThis will be a match-up between two of the season’s biggest surprises. On the one hand, Buffalo’s offensive line has shocked the world into a top-rating on the Offensive Hog Index. Their propensity for run-blocking has led to a break-out season for C.J. Spiller and opens holes for running backs at a rate of 5.14 YPA.

On the other hand, the San Francisco d-hogs have not been the dominant unit that we all expected after fellow Mizzou Tigers Justin and Aldon Smith dominated opposing offenses last season to earn the second-best ranking in the 2011 Defensive Hog Index. This season they are sitting at 15th, but still are limiting opponents to a measly 3.24 YPA rushing.

The Bills’ offensive line is ranked 18th with a 8.53 NPP% and the 49ers have a 24th-ranked 7.38%. Both of these rankings look to be adjusted on Sunday, with the 49ers regaining their dominance and the Bills regressing towards their 2011 form. Especially if Bills’ left tackle Cordy Glenn misses the game, look for the 49ers to regain last season’s form.