RSP Writers Project Q&A: Russ Lande of GM Jr. and The Sporting News

Looking for a player with Darren Sproles’ style? Former NFL Scout and draft analyst Russ Lande tabs Falcons RB Jacquizz Rodgers for this role on his ground-centric offensive attack. Photo by McD22.

Russ Lande is a former NFL scout with the Rams and Browns who produces the draft publication GM Jr. and provides content for The Sporting News, including its annual draft guide. Lande has also appeared on television, including The Big 10 Network and ESPN2. Here’s a Q&A I did with Lande in the New York Times Fifth Down a couple of years ago at the Senior Bowl.

Lande’s RSP Writers Team has a makeup of players that is largely unique from other squads submitted thus far. Although I believe writers like Jene Bramel and I have selected good special teams players, Lande was the first writer thus far to truly emphasize special teams play. His team analysis is below.

Describe your offensive system: I am going to primarily line up in an “11” alignment (1 RB and 1 TE), which therefore means three receivers.  However, I selected both Brent Celek and DJ Williams as tight ends partly because they both have NFL or college experience blocking from a wing-back alignment. This occurs when a tight end has to go in motion and occasionally from a fullback alignment.  So there will be a lot of times when I use two tight ends and one of them is moving puzzle piece off the line of scrimmage.

Personnel formations: Primarily I will use three receivers, one tight end and one running back.

Lande’s blocking scheme will utilize the same system Norv Turner used in San Diego and Washington. Photo by Marianne O’Leary.

Blocking schemes: I will use mostly a power-based rushing attack that relies upon man blocking assignments.  There will be a lot of plays with the tackles pulling and trapping similar to what the Redskins of old and the current Chargers use.  In pass protection, I will ask my linemen to block more aggressively than most teams do. I want them to take on their man on the line of scrimmage rather than giving ground before doing so.  While this can be a risky scheme, I feel it gives a quick passing attack the best chance of success.

Bread and butter plays: I can’t say exactly which plays will be the bread and butter plays because until I would be able to watch all of these players go thru a ton of practice I cannot really determine which plays they are able to execute the best.

Some of the pivotal players in the scheme: Obviously, the most important player is my quarterback Philip Rivers because no offense can succeed without a top level passer in today’s NFL. While my starting running back Donald Brown is important, I believe that Jacquizz Rodgers will likely be an even more vital player to the offense.

His ability to contribute carrying the ball as a running back, catch screen passes and catch passes after splitting out as a receiver will open up the offense tremendously.  Three other players that are vital to the offenses success are wide receiver Devin Thomas and tight ends Coby Fleener and Taylor Thompson.  Both are extremely gifted players with the potential to be Pro Bowl-caliber players and if they both achieve that then the offense will be outstanding.

The coordinators and coach that you’d likely pick to run it: My head coach would ideally be Marc Trestman who is currently the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.  He has been an offensive coordinator in the NFL four times and every season he was his offense finished in the Top 10 in the NFL.  As the head coach in Montreal he has displayed the leadership necessary to lead his team to two Grey Cup wins in four years as head coach.

I would want Coach Trestman to also call the plays and be the offensive coordinator because I believe he has a very creative offensive mind and has consistently shown the ability to take advantage of mismatches.  I would like to have Wade Phillips or Dick Lebeau as my defensive coordinator as they both have done excellent jobs with this style of 34 scheme.  They have both shown the ability to build elite defenses with some high draft picks, but primarily by developing some lower draft picks into quality starters.

Describe your defensive system according to the same criteria above:

Lande will use a 34 defense that is closer to the Steelers style of play than the Patriots. See below. Photo by Ryan Dingman.

I will be running a 34 scheme, but it is important to note that there are basically two styles of 34 played in the NFL.  There is the “Big 34” that the Patriots ran for many years and requires all the defensive line and linebackers to be big, strong defenders.  The goal of this scheme is to create a seven man wall from one side of the field to the other to shut down the run.

This is primarily a two-gap scheme that asks their defensive line to anchor and tie up offensive linemen.  On the other hand, the 34 scheme I will play is similar to what San Diego and Pittsburgh play.  This is a smaller version in that the defensive linemen and linebackers do not need to be as big and often are focused on defeating blocks, rather than tying them up and making plays.  I believe in the quicker, faster 34 scheme played by San Diego and Pittsburgh because you have a larger pool of players to select from to build your defense and this defense tends to get more explosive defensive plays.

I understand your logic for not providing any bread and butter plays for offense and defense, but can you at least match some types of plays that you believe some of your players would do well with based on what you’ve seen from them individually?

As to my receivers, I would like to use Demaryius Thomas and Juron Criner a lot on short and intermediate slant routes because with their size, strength and run after the catch ability they could offer my offense a lot of the big play ability that the 49’ers relied upon so much in their heyday.  In addition, while I would use them both on fade routes in the redzone, I would try to utilize their size to act as a pick/screen to open up other receivers and tight ends.
For Danny Amendola, Kealoha Pilares and Jeremy Ebert I would use them primarily as slot receivers and rely upon their quickness out of their cuts on short, quick hitting routes (slants, outs, stops, curls and short digs) to take advantage of their ability to create separation on their own.  I would use running back Donald Brown on screen passes and wheel routes as he is a good receiver out of the backfield. However, I would plan on using Jacquizz Rodgers as a big part of my passing attack in a similar role to how Darren Sproles is used by the Saints.  He would catch a ton of passes out of the backfield and would also be lined up in the slot a ton because he offers great versatility and big play ability once he gets the ball out in space.
In terms of blitzes, I would likely use all three outside linebackers, Sam Acho, Ryan Kerrigan and Martez Wilson in a variety of different blitz alignments – Even having all three on the field at the same time in definite passing downs.  I would likely switch between a three and four man front in obvious passing situations in order to keep the offensive line off balance and would likely use Cameron Jordan, Acho, Kerrigan and Wilson as my four defensive lineman in a four-man front.  Having Earl Thomas and Kendrick Lewis will give me two safeties that are explosive and powerful blitzers who I will line up and blitz from different alignments.

Where do you believe your offense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?

I believe my offense will likely not be a high scoring unit and it could get into real trouble if the defense does not hold up and they have to win games in shoot outs.  In order to minimize these vulnerabilities I have tried to build a strong offensive line so that my quarterback would have time in the pocket if he had to throw the ball a ton to win a shootout.  Additionally, I have built a defense with quality throughout and good depth in the belief that they can be a strong unit that keeps games close.

Lastly, I have selected a kicker who is outstanding at forcing touch backs and one of the best punters in the NFL.  Both of these specialists combined with the many special teams studs that I have as end of the roster players should make the opposing offense have to consistently drive a long field in order to score which will keep the game from being a shootout.

Where do you believe your defense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?

My biggest vulnerability on defense is a lack of premier, elite game changing players.  While I have a number of young players that I believe will develop into impact players, if they do not my defense could have trouble pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers.

Who are your stars and why did you invest so much in them?

Earl Thomas is one of only two players on Lande’s team that Lande considers a star performer. Photo by Aaronisnotcool.

The only stars of note are Philip Rivers and Earl Thomas. I invested in Rivers because I believe he is not only an outstanding quarterback, but a great leader who can get his team to consistently play at a higher level.  Earl Thomas is the most versatile defensive back in the NFL because I believe he could shine as a corner or safety. He can be aligned in many different spots and this adds to the quality of the defense and makes it hard for the offense to consistently make pre- and post-snap reads of the defense.

I would ask you “what makes Philip Rivers and outstanding quarterback,” but my guess is that in addition to his leadership and smarts about the game, you would say his pocket presence, accuracy, aggressive-attacking style, and anticipation despite lacking that elite athleticism and power arm. Am I right?

Rivers is an elite NFL QB in my eyes because he is so smart and does such an outstanding job of identifying the coverage pre-snap to make the proper adjustments.  In addition, Rivers shows remarkable poise with pressure all around him and does not get flustered when he has to slide to avoid pass rushers and is able to re-set and get rid of the ball very fast after doing so.  He is an accurate passer whose arm strength is under-rated and consistently has shown the ability to put the ball in a spot where his man can make a play on the ball.  Even after a 2011 season where he was not great statistically, on film Rivers still proved to me that he is an elite quarterback
You recently tweeted that the NFL tends to downgrade quarterbacks that lack A-level arm talent and athleticism and many quality passers with the pocket skills, anticipation, accuracy, and smarts get placed behind the eight ball before they even have a chance to compete for a job. Can you discuss that phenomenon in more detail?
Way too often scouts, coaches and front office personnel put so much emphasis on arm strength that they over-look a quarterback’s lack of accuracy, questionable decision making and inconsistent poise in the pocket.  There is little doubt that a quarterback with arm strength limitations puts limits on the offense because he cannot make all the throws, but too many quarterbacks have come into the NFL with arm strength questions and have become elite quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Joe Montana to name a few).
Who are some quarterbacks that might be languishing at the bottom of depth charts or bounced in and out of the league that in your opinion should have been given a shot over the likes of a Kyle Boller?
I think Graham Harrell is a quarterback who was over-looked in the NFL Draft and has had to do a ton of work just to get noticed because of his lack of arm strength.  In college he displayed excellence in every area except for arm strength and this led him to slide way down.  This year Matt Flynn will finally get a chance to prove himself as he was viewed as a quarterback with limited arm strength (One of the many things that led to him being a late round pick) when he came out of LSU.

Name some of your offensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.

Jacquizz Rodgers – He is not the starter, but he is going to touch the ball as much, if not more, than the starter. I believe Rodgers will produce rushing and receiving totals similar to Darren Sproles.

Demaryius Thomas – He is raw, but he is huge with excellent speed and natural hands.  He will likely need another season to make the big jump, but I believe he could become a star in the NFL.

Kealoha Pilares – He is already an excellent kickoff returner, but I think in the future he can develop into an excellent slot receiver.

What is it about Kealoha Pilares that you like enough to project as a future starter in the slot?

I think Pilares has better foot quickness and agility than many give him credit for and these traits enable him to change directions in a flash to get separation from coverage.  In addition, he has natural hands to reach out and pluck the ball away from his body and to make tough catches seem routine.  He is 200 pounds and looks more like a running back than a wide receiver and this strength combines with his balance so that he can run thru hits and attempted tackles to consistently gain yards after contact.  When you combine Pilares’ vision and instincts running with the ball with his strength, balance and quickness he has what it takes to be a dangerous runner after the catch.

Name some of your defensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.

Marcus Gilchrist – As a rookie he flashed excellent coverage skills along with the toughness and strength to be a good all around starting cornerback.  He has the talent to be a versatile cornerback who can be effective as an outside cornerback and as a slot cornerback.

Dannell Ellerbe – He has rotated with other linebackers with the Ravens, but I believe he can become a highly productive starter who excels against the run.  If he improves his pass coverage ability he could become a star.

Martez Wilson – While Wilson is definitely stiff, his explosiveness and natural pass rush ability will allow him to contribute as a pass rusher in 2012 and eventually become a high end starting outside linebacker in our 34 defense.

Which of your starters or significant situational contributors on your rosters do you believe would be on the roster bubble in 2013?

Versatile, smart, and a leader. So why is Steve Gregory Lande’s choice as a player potentially on his roster bubble in 2013? Maybe it’s more of a default answer. See below.  Photo by SD Dirk.

Based on the way I have constructed my roster the only player who I can project to be on the roster bubble in 2013 would be safety Steve Gregory.  That is only if Kendrick Lewis wins the starting job in 2012 and has an excellent season in 2012.  However, the likelihood of Gregory being cut a year from now is low because his salary is low and he brings excellent versatility, smarts and leadership to the secondary along with good special teams play.

What was the most difficult part of the selection process for you?

The hardest part was building a strong all around roster without any glaring weaknesses while still finding players that have the potential to become play-makers at nearly every position.

Based on your roster what type of playing facility would you want as your home stadium (describe the facility as outdoors, indoors, turf, grass, climate)?

I would prefer to play outdoors on grass in a cold climate.  I believe this would lead to my team having a distinct advantage in late season games if our power rushing attack becomes as good as I believe it can be.

Name three risky personnel selections on offense and explain why (talent, off-field, age, injury, fit, etc.).

Donald Brown – Brown is an athletically gifted back who has struggled to become a durable starter.  He has all the tools to be a 20-plus-touch per game back who makes big plays running inside and outside, along with catching a lot of passes.  He is unproven so there is definitely some real risk in making him my feature back.  However, I believe that Jonathan Dwyer and Dimitric Nance have the playing strength, instincts, and tough running style to be effective power rushers if Brown fails.

Will Svitek – Svitek was a defensive lineman in college and converted to offensive lineman in the NFL and had been primarily a backup until he replaced Sam Baker at left tackle during the 2011 season.  He has the quick feet, agility, technique,and rare competitiveness to be a solid starting left tackle, but he is unproven.  That is why I selected Ryan Harris to be my third offensive tackle as he has talent to be a high-end starter if his back issues are a thing of the past.

Demaryius Thomas – Thomas is being counted on to be my team’s No.1 receiver, but has yet to prove he is a true No.1 yet.  He is raw in his route running and will need to prove he can excel with a passing quarterback who relies on strong routes and timing from his receivers.  If Thomas fails my team will be counting on young receivers like Juron Criner, Keahona Pilares and Jeremy Ebert to contribute earlier than is preferred.

Name three risky personnel selections on defense and explain why (see above).

Defensive end Cameron Jordan is one of Russ Lande’s risky plays. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.

Dannell Ellerbe, Sean Spence and Akeem Dent – All three of my inside linebackers are unproven players and I need two of them to develop into starters for my defense to excel.  While Ellerbe has been in the NFL for a few seasons he is not an established starter, Dent has virtually no starting experience after just one season in the league and Spence is going to be a rookie.

Cameron Jordan – Jordan was a rare college player who was dominant, but his rookie season was filled with a lot of ups and downs.  I am counting on him to step up and become a quality starting DE in a 34 defense, so there is definitely concern about how good he can become and how quickly he can become that player.

OVERALL DEPTH – As I believe so strongly in building a strong corps of special teams players there are a number of players (tjhree definite and possibly five) that will contribute primarily on special teams and could limit the defense’s ability to be deep on game day.

Name a few players you really wished to add, but couldn’t find the room due to the restrictions of the salary cap or the fit within your team’s system.

Outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Von Miller, and tight end Antonio Gates.

Which players on your team would you have added even if they cost more than the listed price?

Philip Rivers, Demaryius Thomas, Jacquizz Rodgers, Cordy Glenn, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Mike Sciffres.

How do you think the makeup of your roster and distribution of your resources illustrates where your philosophy breaks with NFL conventional wisdom?

Zak DeOssie is regarded as one of the best long snappers in football. Photo by Scott Ableman.

I probably leaned a little too much on making sure I have five or six core special teams players to win that phase of the game every week. In addition, I have four active quarterbacks because I really believe that is the way to go because for a team to be successful it must always have elite quarterback play, which means you always have to be developing one or two young quarterbacks so that your team is never caught without a good starting quarterback on the roster.

While many NFL teams focus on drafting wide receivers high and building an elite wide receiver corps, I am a strong believer that a top quarterback makes his receivers much better and can win with an average bunch of receivers.  While a lesser QB cannot be highly productive even if he has elite receivers.

Lastly, I believe that I focused very hard to making sure my roster is deep at nearly  every position, which is what the best NFL teams try to do.

How much of a priority did you place on special teams, considering the restrictions of the salary cap? How would you rate your special teams unit?

I think I likely placed a little too much emphasis on special teams for some people’s beliefs, but in my view winning the special teams battle every week can be the difference between a team making or missing the playoffs.  I am sure that few people have a designated long snapper (Zak DeOssie) or choose a tight end (Brent Celek) who has been his team’s backup long snapper.

In addition, I have five players (Matt Slater, Devin Thomas, Eric Frampton, Zak DeOssie and Heath Farwell) whose primary job on the team will be to excel on special teams.  When I add in a kicker who excels on kickoff through the end zone to create touch backs and one of the best all-around punters, I believe I will have the best special teams in the league by far.

What specifically makes your 5-6 core special teams players good at this facet of the game?

I think a key reason why the core special teams players are good on teams is that they all have shown a willingness to work/compete hard on teams, which too many backups do not.  Having a snapper like DeOssie gives my kicking/punting units a level of stability and Brent Celek gives me a valuable backup snapper.  Devin Thomas and Kealoha Pilares are both very good kickoff returners who should help the offense get good field position after kickoffs (obviously kickoff returners are not as valuable as before the kickoff rule change, but they can still help significantly).

Jim Leonard is an excellent punt returner and Pilares has shown the skills to be a good one, so they can definitely affect the field position battle.  Both Devin Thomas and Matt Slater are excellent gunners on punt coverage unit and M. Gilchrist did a good job as a gunner in 2011.  Slater, Farwell, Dent, Devin Thomas, Kendrick Lewis and Marcus. Gilchrist have shown skills to be very good kickoff coverage men.

What will they do to help your team win the field position battle that other teams might lack?

I think my depth in terms of high quality coverage men combined with my elite punter and kicker and good returners, I should be able win the field position battle in nearly every game.  I think no other teams will have the number of players that have made their living on special teams so far in their careers (Like DeOssie, Farwell, Devin Thomas and Matt Slater) that I have which gives my team a chance to really shine as compared to other teams.

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