It’s Time to Shine for Bolts’ Melvin Ingram
The starting role
There are two sides: the strong side and the weak side. The “Jack” (the rush outside linebacker) position usually refers to the weakside linebacker, while the “SAM” refers to the strongside linebacker. Barring any setbacks, Ingram should takeover as the starter opposite Freeney, which would mark him in as the 3-4 SAM linebacker. He will take full responsibilities in pass coverage and run-stopping, as well as pass rushing.
The 6-foot-1 Ingram has great speed and incredible athleticism to take over that role. After watching him play, it seems as if he has a never-ending motor.
It’s hard to grade Ingram because he was injured last season. He did receive a +1.6 rating against the run (ranked 15th among 3-4 OLB’s) his rookie year, but his coverage game was among the worst with a -3.7 rating. I’m putting that in hindsight after he came up big in limited time in 2013, especially during the playoff game against the Bengals. In the clip above, you can see him drop back in coverage to shadow 6-foot-6 tight end Tyler Eifert, and with great instincts he picked off Andy Dalton.
Even though Freeney missed 12 games in 2013 and is 34 years old, he’s a veteran leader and the Chargers’ only proven pass rusher. He will likely play the 3-4 “joker” outside linebacker position (which is also the Jack), a “tweener” capable of rushing the passer from a standing position as well as sticking his hand in the ground and rushing off the edge. On the other hand, Johnson’s role could be in limbo. He played the SAM linebacker position last season, setting the edge and controlling the outside run. With Ingram taking the next step, Johnson could see time just as a situational run defender. What worked in Johnson’s favor playing the SAM was his height (6’3″). It makes it easier to contend with 6-foot-5 tight ends. While your typical 3-4 OLB is 6’3″-6’4″ (Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith), Woodley (6’2″) and Harrison (6’0″) proved that talent can overweigh measurables.
Can Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram work?
We have yet to see Freeney and Ingram on the field at the same time, but given where Freeney will line up you’d have to assume he will be the primary pass rusher. A couple of questions come to mind when thinking of the starting lineup: IF Ingram does play opposite Freeney, how will it work when both Freeney and Ingram are fixed to play the Jack role? Don’t forget, Ingram was originally set to start in that role last season opposite Johnson until he got injured, which forced the Chargers to immediately make moves and acquire Freeney.
Could Ingram thrive in the SAM position? In Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme, Harrison played the Jack linebacker position while Woodley played the SAM position. In 2010, each had 10 sacks and two interceptions a piece. In most situations, the Jack linebacker (ex. Aldon Smith) is given more pass rush duties, blitzing more often than the SAM, while the SAM (ex. Ahmad Brooks) focuses more on dropping into coverage and stopping the run. Even though he was the SAM linebacker, Woodley’s sack numbers were not limited, as he ranked in the top five in terms of Pass Rushing Productivity that season, per PFF. There is a possibility Pagano will move them around and get creative where they can both play to their strengths–Ingram shouldn’t just be limited to lining up right at the line of scrimmage outside the tight end’s shoulder because he is the SAM.
Footage captured from nfl.com
Other questons: what will it look like when Freeney is gone? Freeney plays the role of the “sack-leading” pass rusher in the 3-4 scheme. Could Ingram eventually take over Freeney’s role and rack up huge numbers as many Chargers fans envisioned him to do (if unable to be effective as a SAM linebacker)? Or could Jeremiah Attaochu form into a three-down, pass-rushing specialist and take over the Jack position? If so, would that hinder Ingram’s talents, as he would consistently be playing the SAM position and not the rushing linebacker?
Creative play-calling and comparison to another linebacking core
All in all, it essentially comes down to the play-calling of Pagano. Even with the labels of “Jack” and “SAM,” Ingram could still be the primary rusher. With Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy wanting to add more speed to their team, having Ingram and Attaochu on the outside would in fact relish that point. In such circumstances you could have Ingram, Freeney and Attaochu out on the field at the same time, which will confuse offenses. Not only do the Chargers have a three-headed attack on offense with Mathews, Brown and Woodhead, but there’s a chance we could now see the same from a defensive standpoint.
“Strengths of the 3-4 include speedy ILB’s and OLB’s in pursuit of backs in run defense and flexibility to use multiple rushers to confuse the quarterback during passing plays without being forced into man-to-man defense on receivers.”
The key component to everything: talent and depth. If you take a look at the 2008 Super Bowl Champion Steelers, their defense had a lot to do with the team’s success. You could argue they had the best linebacking corps in the league featuring James Farrior, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Woodley and Harrison. The Steelers had the No. 1 overall defense that year, and their 51 sacks were second-most in the league. With a strong core in place for the Chargers, Pagano can use all his linebackers in creative ways to get the best out of them. It’s not unrealistic to say that a successful performance from this position could be what brings the Chargers to the next level.