Initially, when I set out to write this film review, I wanted to focus primarily on Miles Burris, who played all 56 of the Raiders’ defensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Burris had his best game as a pro against the Falcons, registering positive grades in all areas save for pass rush. However, as I watched the game, I found myself focusing on Philip Wheeler, as he seemed to be involved in every defensive play. And so, here we are. I’m writing about Philip Wheeler instead of Miles Burris, and you’re reading about Wheeler, instead of… well, you get the point.
Even to the naked-eye, Wheeler is having a great season, which is confirmed by PFF. But just how great that season is might surprise. By PFF’s stats, Wheeler is the fourth best linebacker in the NFL, and the second best in coverage. To my amateur-eyes, I thought Wheeler exemplified his incredible season with equally incredible play against Atlanta, but PFF disagrees.
The past two games have been forgettable for Wheeler, in PFF’s opinion anyway. True to these ratings, Wheeler did have fewer stops amd tackles, while most of his other statistical outputs were down as well. But, this is not the result of Wheeler’s poor play. To the contrary, this is likely a result of teams game planning for Wheeler. Aside from Wheeler’s play, one thing stood out: How little Atlanta ran to Wheeler’s direction. To measure the extent to which my observation was true, I charted all of Atlanta’s run, excluding quarterback Matt Ryan’s scramble.
Lo and behold, the Falcon’s ran it at Wheeler just 28% of the time. But that didn’t matter much, as four of Wheeler’s 10 tackles came on runs away from his side. Simply put, Wheeler is incredible.
Statistics aside, the film suggests Wheeler had a great game on Sunday. Perhaps it was not as great as others played this season, but he was matched up against a top offense and one of the all-time great tight ends this league has ever seen. Despite the formidable opponent, Wheeler more than held his own against the pass and the run, as you’ll see below.
Play: Michael Turner right guard for 9 yards (tackle by Philip Wheeler)
Notes: This play stuck out for two reasons: (1) Turner runs off right guard while Wheeler is lineup outside the left tackle and (2) Wheeler is fast. At the snap, Wheeler disengages from Tony Gonzalez’s block (not that impressive given Gonzalez’s run-block ranking is -6.9, also known as worst among tight ends in the NFL) and covers over 13 yards in the time it takes Turner to pick up nine. Now, I realize Turner’s not fast by any definition of the word, but Wheeler’s closing burst is worth noting.
Play: Matt Ryan pass incomplete deep right intended for Tony Gonzalez is intercepted by Tyvon Branch
Notes: Wheeler’s unimpeded to the quarterback. Sitll, it is his great closing-speed that forces quarterback Matt Ryan to throw the ball much sooner than he’d like. The result is an easy interception by Tyvon Branch (not pictured).
Play: Michael Turner left end for 1 yard (tackle by Philip Wheeler)
Notes: Wheeler does a good job of not getting caught in the wash of offensive lineman. Again, he uses is clear speed advantage to takedown Turner.
Play: Michael Turner up the middle for 1 yard (tackle by Miles Burris)
Notes: Wheeler effectively takes on Falcons’ guard Justin Blalock, which forces Turner back inside. Wheeler’s ability to shed — or maintain — blocks is truly impressive.
Play: Matt Ryan pass incomplete short middle intended for Tony Gonzalez
Notes: There is nothing incredibly impressive about this play, other than Wheeler’s ability to stay with Gonzalez. I mostly just wanted to include this to show Wheeler’s coverage ability. Wheeler’s ability to stay with Gonzalez forces Ryan to throw the ball out of the reach of Gonzalez.
Whether Wheeler goes down as one of Reggie McKenzie’s great signings is dependent upon whether McKenzie can lock-up Wheeler long-term. As it is, Wheeler is playing on a one-year contract. Clearly, he’s earning is himself a lucrative payday this offseason. I just hope that payday comes at the expense of the Raiders, as I’d hate to think of how poorly this defense would perform were Wheeler not a member.