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With Rolando McClain facing a 10-game suspension the Dallas Cowboys are in a bind. They have invested in moving Sean Lee to the WILL linebacker spot and it seems to have paid off with him being both amazingly productive and having one of his healthiest seasons yet. The last thing Dallas wants to do is move him back to MIKE. But, apart from Lee, they don’t have anyone who has proven they can play the position the way Dallas needs it played.
Now, some of you may fondly remember Anthony Hitchens from 2014. I was impressed enough with him that I argued against bringing McClain back for 2015, as, according to Pro Football Focus Hitchens actually had a better stop rate than McClain. But for 2015, PFF raked Hitchens over the coals, rating him in the bottom quarter of the league against the run. In similar vein, BTBers Joey Ickes and Landon McCool in a recent pod cast argued that Hitchens would merely be run over for lack of sand in his shorts. Did the Atlanta Falcons and Devonte Freeman simply find Hitchens’ weakness and render him useless for the MIKE linebacker spot?
Well, not entirely. A MIKE linebacker has a lot of responsibilities in Rod Marinelli’s defense and the ability to stack and shed is only one of them. Hitchens is still a strong performer in most of those categories, particularly navigating a wash of blockers as you’ll see below. But there is a real weakness when he is asked to take on an offensive lineman or a top notch fullback (Atlanta’s Patrick DiMarco was the highest rated blocking fullback by 12% points over the next ranked contender in PFF’s rankings). I did an in depth examination of Hitchens’ performance during McClain’s four-game suspension last year as well as the Jets game, where Hitchens again filled in at the MIKE spot.
Goal to go against the Giants from the under shifted line up that Joey discussed:
Or this penetration against Philadelphia to trip up DeMarco Murray:
But you’ll note that they are both knifing, incisive plays rather than taking on a blocker head on.
He also played very well for most of the Saints game, here making another nice penetration to disrupt a play
But he did get pushed around at the end of the game by Saints tackle, #75, Andrus Peat.
Similarly, at the end of the Jets game, RT Breno Giacomini was able to get hands on Hitchens and steer him around.
Though he does do a nice job holding up to the Jets D’Brickashaw Ferguson on this goal line stand
All in all, though, there is a definite drop off in performance from McClain to Hitchens when a lineman latches on (Watch Falcons left guard Andy Levitre, #67)
But size is not the only thing that matters here. Kyle Wilber is the biggest linebacker on the team after McClain and he got repeatedly obliterated by the Falcons tight ends and fullback. This is just one example
And even Sean Lee struggled against the Falcon lead blockers.
I think it’s safe to say that the Falcons had a very good day and the whole Dallas defense had a poor one against Atlanta. Hitchens held up better than Wilber, in my opinion. He may still be the best choice in that spot. He can navigate traffic, reads plays well, can carry receivers upfield, and, occasionally, stack and shed though that is clearly the weakest part of his game.
The McClain suspension is bad news. The worse news is that we may not be able to do better than Hitchens as a replacement, and teams will game plan that. It’s not a complete disaster, however, as there are 11 players on the defense and, by and large other players can step up. Here’s where the Cedric Thornton signing may pay some real dividends as even the lowly Nick Hayden was able to make some plays to prevent teams from taking too much advantage of Hitchens’ size. Hopefully Thorton will do better. But the simple fact is that the loss of Rolando McClain puts even more pressure on a beleaguered defensive line that now has to step up against the run as well as find a pass rush without it’s two top defensive ends.