COMMENTARY: Dissecting the path to LB success

IT'S UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED that improvement at linebacker is an area of key concern for the Beavers in 2011. But what does that really mean? First, getting a firm handle on what all went wrong is a must before looking to ways it can be fixed.

What happened to Linebacker U? Where did it go wrong? That was a familiar fan refrain in 2010.

Obviously losing David Pa'aluhi was a huge blow. The Beavers didn't have a ready-made starter to replace him at middle linebacker, and it showed. There was a 3-man rotation in '10 with Tony Wilson and Rueben Robinson splitting the season starts, Feti Unga coming in as well, and the production just wasn't there. To understand what really went wrong though, take a look deeper than just tackles made.

Tackles are the single most talked about stat for linebackers, but total tackles don't come close to telling the whole story. Equally important are tackles for loss (TFL), yards after contact (YAC), sacks and passes broken up (PBR). All of those are a big deal, because claiming the Beaver outside linebackers were "absolutely terrible last season," can't be proven or disproven in just looking at the tackle numbers.

The term "gap cancellation scheme" is often bandied about when talking about the OSU defense. The Beavers' run defense is predicated on stringing the play out to the sidelines - that's the bottom line.

They clog the gaps up front to bounce the play out wide and allow the linebackers to scrape down the line and string the play out to the edge where the safeties can help. When it works, it allows for plenty of tackles to be made behind the line of scrimmage and in space.

THE GOOD: OLB Dwight Roberson was doing work. He led the team with 88 tackles, had 4 sacks, and 8 TFL, as well as 8 PBR. D-Rob was all over the place in many a game, and the real bright spot -- a whopping 52 solo tackles. Those are outstanding numbers when you consider he was giving up spot time to Collins, who had another 39 tackles, 2.5 TFL and 2 PBR, as well as 19 solo tackles. Also, the duo combined for 3 fumbles forced.

A difference of opinion
SOURCES CLOSE to the OSU program in background conversations have said one of the reasons longtime LB coach Greg Newhouse parted ways with the Beavers was his steadfast refusal to reconsider his MLB rotation and Pankey's role. Coaches like working for Riley because he gives them a certain level of autonomy when it comes to choosing their starters and rotation. That doesn't mean it's without discussion. And sources say there were "heated discussions" about the Beaver LB lineup last season. Halfway through spring, there appears to be optimism that despite graduating two seniors, the linebackers will be greatly improved this season.

THE BAD: Combine the 2010 3-headed MLB monster (Wilson, Robinson, Unga) and they logged 102 tackles, with 47 of the solo variety. That's below average for a MIKE in Oregon State's system. Wilson had 4 TFL, Unga had 2. Robinson posted just one assisted TFL. Not good. Unga had 1 sack, Wilson one assist, Robinson no sacks. Not good. Between the trio, just one pass broken up. Not good. No matter how you slice it, the MLB position was just not productive in 2010.

THE UGLY: At first blush, Pankey's 62 tackles, 5 TFL, and 2 PBR don't look too bad, but the number that jumps off the page is that he managed only 25 solo tackles. For an OLB in the Beaver defense, that's pretty glaring – and it confirms what this writer thought he saw during the games, Pankey wasn't a solid tackler in space. His one sack came in the ASU game where he lined up at MIKE in the goal line defense and knocked Steven Threet silly on a QB sneak. More troubling is that Pankey spent so many more minutes on the field than his backups - Devin Unga, Keo Camat, and Michael Doctor had 14, 11, and 9 tackles respectively.

COVER YOUR EYES: The real frightening statistic, when taking a comprehensive look at the numbers from last year, is this: Lance Mitchell had 74 tackles (49 solo), Suaesi Tuimaunei had 85 tackles (53 solo), and Anthony Watkins had another 27 tackles (18 solo). Tui had 5 TFL as well. It's never a good thing when two of your top three tacklers are safeties, that means a lot of plays are getting to the third level. The safeties had a lot of cleanup duty on their plates, and were not able to confidently drop into coverage because they were needed in run support virtually all the time. That also makes life tough on the CBs, and it netted Brandon Hardin and James Dockery a lot of undue criticism.

WILL THIS YEAR BE DIFFERENT: Cameron Collins and Doctor have drawn positive reviews this spring on the outside -- the Beavs are faster there than last year. And the hope is that Wilson will be able to trust that surgically repaired knee more this season and grasp the starting role a little more firmly. Physically, he fits the bill most closely for an Oregon State middle ‘backer. There are others who think Robinson is the future at the MIK, and still others see a breakout season on tap for Unga. The one thing nobody wants to see is another year with a three-headed monster in the middle, with no one able to claim superiority over the others.

Cross your fingers, Beaver Nation.

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