When the New Orleans Saints traded Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins for Dannell Ellerbe and a third round pick, it raised a lot of questions. To that point in the offseason, it had appeared that the Saints were only trying to cut big money contracts, but Stills was heading into the third year of his fifth round rookie contract. Ellerbe, on the other hand, was a largely overpaid linebacker that the Dolphins signed in a reactionary move to his excellent time with the Baltimore Ravens (one day people will learn people tend to outperform their talent in that defense).
The good news for the Saints, however, is that Ellerbe played in a 3-4 in Baltimore, and he'll be returning to that defense in New Orleans. The Saints will obviously want him to play inside after the recent cut of Inside Linebacker Curtis Lofton. Lofton's specialty was in the running game, but the Saints are hoping that Ellerbe will be able to address their glaring hole in terms of linebacker coverage. David Hawthorne is a liability, and it's not out of the question that the Saints try to replace him the draft.
Here's a look at Ellerbe's stats throughout his career:
|Year||Team||Games||Tackles (Total)||Sacks||Fumbles Forced||Fumbles Recovered||Interceptions||Passes Defended|
As these stats show, Ellerbe's woes in Miami may have been slightly overblown. Obviously spending the entire 2014 season season on IR with the exception of one game makes him a risk factor, and the fact that he's never played 16 games in a season is a bit of a concern also. However, Ellerbe can move to the ball well and he also gives the Saints something that they haven't had since Jonathan Vilma in his prime: An ILB that can prove to be an effective blitzer from the ILB position.
Stats, however, don't tell the whole story. Playing in a 3-4 will (usually) dilute linebacker numbers a bit, as being the Middle Linebacker in a 4-3 defense requires a lot more range, whereas the ILB position in the 3-4 requires more gap control. Ellerbe's 2012 campaign was stellar, and that's the reason that Miami found themselves overpaying for him. They simply couldn't afford Ellerbe, as they're going to be up against the cap for some time due to the Ndomakung Suh contract.
This play came in the 2012 Super Bowl. It was one of the first plays of the game. Ellerbe is the player highlighted in red. The 49ers come out in a pistol formation with their fullback on the weak side. The Ravens have countered with a base 3-4 in which both pass rushers are up on the line of scrimmage. Terrell Suggs (topside) is responsible for contain, whereas the linebacker that is on the bottom is in a traditional 2 point rush stance.
Here I've overlayed both images over one another so that Ellerbe's exact thought process can be seen. Everyone has 2 reads to make on this read option. Ellerbe's initial read is shown in black. He moves up towards the ball. Suggs, on the other hand, is heading straight for the quarterback. He is going to be picked up by the pulling guard on this play. Ellerbe's second read is in red. The top side of the field is left wide open due to Suggs's overpursuit.
Once again, Ellerbe's adjustment allows him to basically cover the entire side of the field that Frank Gore is rushing towards. The image that's more centered is Ellerbe's actual position, however, he can easily move laterally to the second position if need be. This allows him to singlehandedly shut down the side of the field that the play is going to, which is invaluable when Suggs is an outside linebacker. Expect Ellerbe to play on Junior Galette's quite a bit in 2015, so as to compensate for Galette's constant motor towards the quarterback.
Finally, the pulling guard engages Ellerbe, while Gore tries to hit the minute gap that's there. Ellerbe allows himself to be engaged on the play, but holds his spot stoutly so as to not give up ground to Gore. Furthermore, Gore is unable to bounce the ball outside due to the way that Ellerbe maximizes his space. He holds a wide base, and Gore is already stumbling by the time that he hits the hole.
Upon the breakdown of Suggs, Ellerbe tracks Gore and contains both the inside hole and the outside stretch of field. He stops Gore for no gain while shedding a block from the lead blocker, and the Niners find themselves in second and long.
Equally as important as he makes the transition back to the 3-4 will be Ellerbe's pass coverage. The Saints need a linebacker that can effectively play the middle of the field, and if he can't then Ellerbe will have to simply be a stop gap. Here's a look at a play in the AFC Championship Game vs. the Patriots in 2012.
Baltimore plays a man up Cover 2 defense, in which the linebackers are responsible for the middle of the field. The safeties limit the deep ball, while the corners take away the outside. The backers are to take away the intermediate throws whilst crashing on the throws underneath.
Ellerbe's first move is to look towards Aaron Hernandez inside. Hernandez is running a 10 yard dig route. Ellerbe immediately opens his hips at the snap, but keeps a line of sight to the quarterback so as to not move too far out of his zone. The corners engage their receivers at their own pace. The general design of the play is to man up on wide receivers, and leave tight ends and running backs to their own devices. The safeties don't move back until engaged.
I mapped out Ellerbe's route on the play. He goes from his starting spot, to engaging Hernandez, to passing Hernandez off to the safeties once he gets past him. The corners remain locked up. There is a great deal of space between Ellerbe and the other ILB for Hernandez to run into, but the safeties begin to crash onto Hernandez as well once they realize that the deep ball is no longer a concern. Ellerbe locks eyes with Brady on the play. The ball gets tipped at the line, and Ellerbe jumps it for a pick.
Being able to read those tip plays is an underrated skill for a linebacker, and this is a classic example of right place right time in the case of Ellerbe. He's sitting in his zone, perfectly underneath Hernandez, and he makes the easy interception. This also highlights the importance of pressure in any defense; it cannot be emphasized enough that the Saints need to get to the quarterback better in 2015 if they're going to have more success on the defensive side of the ball.
In the 4-3 defense, Ellerbe was asked to play the middle linebacker position, which is an entirely different animal. It requires a strange combination of a need to pursue the ball and a patience in letting plays develop, due to the lack of help at the second level. While a 3-4 employs multiple looks and fronts to keep quarterbacks off guard, the 4-3 is more of a stock formation that relies on the sheer talent of its linebackers, especially the middle one.
One thing about being a 4-3 MLB is that it's harder to generate top end speed. This is exemplified when Ellerbe goes up against Chris Ivory and the Jets in the 2013 season finale.
First off, the best part of getting back into the 2013 season is the night and day difference in image quality. Here, the Dolphins come out in a 4-3 "over" front, which they have their Sam linebacker (strong side) down on the line of scrimmage. The Jets simply tried to overpower Miami for much of this game, to varying degrees of success.
The real problem that Ellerbe faced as an MLB was a total inability to create plays with his speed. Note that his stance hasn't really changed since the play started. His feet are still open, his eyes in the backfield, and he hasn't run upfield so much as he's hopped. This doesn't suit Ellerbe particularly well. He's a fast player that prefers to create plays in the backfield, rather than waiting for plays to come to him, and it shows in his overall style of play.
Ivory finally hits the line of scrimmage, and Ellerbe is waiting for him in his gap. The problem is, the push made it so that Ivory wasn't contacted until he was 4 yards downfield. Despite the fact that Ellerbe was able to make the play, it's still a successful run for the Jets. Ellerbe and the Dolphins gang tackle the powerful halfback, but the play took so long to develop that gap discipline really becomes pointless for the Dolphins and it's still ultimately a net positive for the offense.
Note how tentative Ellerbe looks waiting behind the gap. Ivory isn't engaged until he's several yards downfield. This is the risk that teams run in a 4-3 defense, as it's very effective up front, but if the line is contained then it's a lot more difficult to stop the running game. Ellerbe does the best that he can with what he has, but it's very difficult to make these plays when you're forced to wait for plays to come to you.
In the passing game, there were still a few growing pains. Ellerbe found himself responsible for a lot more of the field, and it showed, particularly in quick hitting plays.
With the Patriots in an empty formation, Miami comes out in a nickel set, leaving Ellerbe widely responsible for the middle of the field. The Patriots stack their tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and their slot receiver Danny Amendola topside, with Ellerbe matched up on Hoomanawanuia. Ellerbe's zone is the intermediate middle, as the MLB's job often is in the dime or nickel defense.
Ellerbe's immediate instinct is to backpedal at the snap. Amendola is running a quick seam and Hoomanawanui is running a quick dig. Ellerbe never commits to either receiver, however, and Hoomanawanui is left running free across the middle while Amendola gets inside of the corner that lined up over him into the seam. Ellerbe's eyes remain in the backfield, even while Brady begins to wind up to throw.
By the time Ellerbe commits to Amendola, he's already upfield and the Patriots get an easy 12 yards. The entire Dolphin defense struggles to keep up with the quick hitting Pat's offense on this play, and Ellerbe's indecision at the snap ultimately leads to easy yardage for New England.
Ellerbe backpedals and can't decide between Hoomanawanui and Amendola, creating an easy gap for Brady to throw into. The result of the play is a quick hitting first down for New England.
Ellerbe wasn't as bad in Miami as many Dolphin fans would have people believe, he just didn't perform up to par. Factor that in with his constant injury concerns, and it's no wonder that the Dolphins were a bit wary of keeping him on, especially in their cap situation. While Ellerbe wasn't bad in Miami, he was much better in Baltimore. He had a few big years there and was a solid ILB, especially when he lined up on Suggs's side. Galette may not be on the level that Suggs is, but he's still a similar style of player.
Ellerbe should gel well with the Saints' defense, if Rob Ryan is able to cater to his skill set, which is to say his ball pursuit skills and his ability to hold / pass on receivers in zone coverage, then he should be able to make the transition back to an ILB relatively harmlessly. Other than that, the Saints just need to make sure that Ellerbe stays healthy. He doesn't do anyone any good if he's injured. If he keeps his head on straight, then the trade with the Dolphins could be a bigger win than a lot of people are acknowledging.