3:36 pm Oct. 24, 2011
Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Calvin Pace, who played linebacker in the Jets’ 27-21 win over the San Diego Chargers.
Finally, a win for the Jets that perfectly matched their blueprint.
It was of the “gritty” variety, as the Jets came back from two separate 11-point deficits. It featured a defense that clamped down in the second half, led by the performance of inimitable cornerback Darrelle Revis, who somehow gained four times as many yards with one interception return than he gave up all day to the man he was guarding.
Mark Sanchez was not spectacular, but he was good enough at the right times, which is basically the high end of any reasonable expectation for him. He threw three touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress, who, as he does every now and then, lived up to his hype-borne reputation as a red-zone machine. Running back Shonn Greene, who had been maligned in some quarters for regressing after an encouraging rookie season in 2009, had his best game since early last year.
As for Calvin Pace, the Jets’ versatile and well-compensated outside linebacker—he had a much quieter day, one that's hard to characterize as “good” or “bad.”
On the negative side, he only put pressure on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers once in his 22 quarterback rushes, though he often faced double teams while rushing with just two other men. Also, he may have been partially to blame for the Chargers’ third touchdown. (On the play, he crashed inside from his outside position, only to see Chargers’ running back Mike Tolbert slam through the gap Pace had vacated. Still, because another Jets defender stepped up into that hole, it’s very possible Pace was just executing his assignment.)
On the good side, he dropped back into pass coverage 10 times and didn’t give up a pass in his zone. Surely, he deserves credit for the fact that the Chargers running backs, who as a group had averaged 8 receptions coming into the game, only caught two passes yesterday. Pace also did a nice job “setting the edge” in the running game. He only had two tackles, but he did his part in a defensive effort that limited the Chargers to 98 rushing yards, 25 below their season average.
So Pace’s game was defined more by solid all-around contributions than thrilling pass-rushing heroics. At this point, most Jets fans realize, that’s what they’re going to get from Pace: He isn’t the dominant, visible pass rusher that his prototypically angular 6-foot-4, 265 pound-frame suggests. But he is a solid ball-player who has been a vital piece of a defense that’s been among the league’s best the past two years. Maybe that doesn’t justify the $22 million in guaranteed money the Jets gave him as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals before the 2008 season, raising hopes among Jets fans that they had their version of Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck. But maybe it does, or at least comes close.
According to the ratings of Pro Football Focus, a website that grades every player on every play, Pace is actually a much better run defender than pass rusher. Going into yesterday’s game, he ranked third-best against the run out of the 28 outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme similar to the Jets’ who had enough snaps to qualify. (Pace played more snaps than all but three of these linebackers, a testament to his adaptability.) Last year against the run, he ranked third, and in 2009, he ranked second.
As a pass rusher, his statistical performance has been uneven, though it should be noted that any statistical appraisal of a pass rusher working within Rex Ryan’s unconventional pressure schemes probably doesn’t tell the full story.
His best year as a pass rusher was 2009, when he notched eight sacks and pressured the quarterback 35 times, third-most of any outside linebacker. He did this despite missing the season’s first four games to suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. (Pace claimed it was an over-the-counter supplement.)
But last year, while battling through lingering effects of preseason foot surgery for an injury that Jets coach Rex Ryan said was only 20 percent healthy by season’s end, he only had 5.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked at the bottom of pass-rushing productivity of all outside linebackers. (This might explain why Pace took a $1 million pay cut on his base salary before this year.)
This year, he has three sacks, two of which came against the hapless Dolphins. Going into yesterday’s game, he was eighth among outside linebackers with 13 pressures.
I ASKED RAY MCCARTNEY, WHO WAS PACE’S DEFENSIVE LINE coach at Wake Forest, what Pace’s best attribute was as a player. He talked about his explosiveness and his first step as a pass rusher, which perhaps was more extraordinary at the college level than it has been in the pros. But above all, he said, was Pace’s “feel for the game.”
“He has a good football I.Q.,” McCartney said. “He gets it when it comes to concepts, to all the intricacies. And with Rex Ryan, you’re gonna run some pretty off-the-wall concepts. It’s not just ‘Go out there, do that.’ There’s a lot of reactionary stuff.”
Not surprisingly, McCartney thinks very highly of Pace. In 2008, he got a call from then-Jets coach Eric Mangini, who was considering signing Pace as a free agent. Pace had been a first-round draft pick in 2003 after a stellar college career. But he had failed to get on track in his first four pro seasons amid the malaise of a chronically poor team and a defensive scheme that was always changing.
In his fifth year, right before his contract expired, he finally fulfilled his first-round potential. But Mangini wanted to know: Was his lone good season merely a one-year spurt motivated by his upcoming free agency, or could he trust Pace?
“Mangini asked me 20 questions, and he didn’t ask me one about football,” McCartney remembered. “‘Does he put the work in? Is he a locker room lawyer? Is he a good kid? Does he abuse women? Does he abuse drugs?’”
McCartney gave Pace a clean bill.
“The next day, the Jets gave him $42 million,” McCartney said. “Then I called Calvin and told him to get my wife a Jets jersey.”
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