The Great Gardner Debate of 2006

(AP Photo)

It's turning into the most spirited debate in quite some time amongst Colts fans and it's even trickling into the media. Is Gilbert Gardner getting the job done at strongside linebacker? ColtPower's Ed Thompson weighs in, and suggests that that people may be debating the wrong issue.

We've had some pretty lively discussions over strongside linebacker Gilbert Gardner in our fan forums over the past few days and it's popped up at other sites as well. If you missed out on it, the bottom line for many appears to be that Gardner isn't putting up the number of tackles that Cato June and Gary Brackett do, (or even as many as Rob Morris did this past weekend).

The Indystar.com's Phil Richards even suggests that Tony Dungy's recent assessment of Gardner playing "pretty well" wasn't a fully truthful statement when he said in his blog this week that, "he lost his poker face" while talking about Gardner. "In poker parlance, this is what we call a definite tell. Dungy looked down at the podium and did not make eye contact again until at the end of the statement," Richards wrote.

Like many who are jumping on the "Bash Gardner" bandwagon, Richards makes a faulty comparison between the three linebackers due to the difference in their roles in Tony Dungy's defense. "How can a team run the ball 31 times and a linebacker has only one assist? Cato June had nine tackles. Rob Morris, the fill-in for injured Gary Brackett, had eight," he writes in his blog.

Well, here's a news flash. Linebackers don't just make tackles on running plays so I'm not sure how the number of running plays become a determining factor in how many tackles a linebacker should make in a game. Two of Morris' eight tackles were on pass plays. I also wonder how many people in this grand debate knew that Gardner was the linebacker who came out when the Colts put their nickel package out there, which reduces his time on the field versus the other two linebackers. And for the record, David Thornton had just two assists and no solo tackles against the Patriots last year, so it's not the first time a strongside linebacker didn't register a solo tackle in a game.

The bottom line is you can't expect the strongside linebacker in Tony Dungy's defense to post big numbers. Just ask David Thornton who had 145 tackles as a weakside linebacker and just 81 last year at strongside, a 44% decrease in tackles production. Gardner is on pace for 62 in his first year as a starter and at his position, about 23% less than Thornton, who just got a huge deal from the Titans during the offseason. That's not great, but it's not shabby for Gardner's first year in the job.

Folks should also read rookie linebacker Freddy Keiaho's interview at ColtPower this week in which he talked about the role of the strongside linebacker in this defense. Keiaho pointed out that the strongside linebacker doesn't even have a gap assignment in plays that are run right at him. A gap assignment provides a player with his intended route to the ball-carrrier to make a tackle. If you think about that statement, it tells you that Gardner is a gatekeeper, not a guy who is expected to be the tackler in this defense. In most cases, he's expected to wait for the play to come to him and keep it from bouncing outside where opponents can get big gains since there are less tacklers out there. Most of his tackling chances are going to be in the rare instance when the running back decides to go outside even though he sees Gardner planted out there, or while defending a tight end or running back who catches a pass on an out route.

By contrast, the weakside linebacker, Cato June, is free and unmolested on the other side until he sees the direction of the play and shoots through his gap as an attacker. The middle linebacker is much the same on running plays, except on plays out of the I formation with a lead blocker. In those situations, he's not going to make many tackles because he usually has the assignment to blow up the lead blocker while Gardner battles the tight end. But watch Cato June and you'll see that he's a free agent out there. This defense is designed to make the weakside linebacker the tackling machine out of the three and the stats bear that out if June is doing his job well.

I watched tape of Gardner's first-half performance against the Bills. He didn't even get all that close to the ball carrier on most plays because this is what a typical play looks like for him based on his role in this defense: The tight end comes off the line and usually heads right for Gardner. Gardner waits to see if he's going out for a pass, but more often than not, the tight end is coming at him to block. And the battle between the two of them plays out over and over again if you watch the tape. And Gardner did his job practically every time. He got to the outside of the tight end and the running back opted to stay inside with his run on most of the plays. On one I watched where the running back managed to get wide outside and Gardner got the assist on the tackle as Nick Harper came up to make the hit. The irony is that he got credit for an assist on a play that the coaches may actually feel he failed on because the play got to the corner. Fortunately, it was a minimal gain with Harper coming up to make the play. Gardner didn't miss a tackle either, but like I said, he really wasn't near the ball carrier that often to even take a shot at him.

In the first half, Gardner was given two blitzing opportunities. On one, running back Anthony Thomas made a nice block at the thigh pads to slow him down long enough to get the pass off, but Gardner didn't go down. On the other, he took on the left offensive tackle about two yards behind the line of scrimmage and pushed him back two more yards despite the size differential. Booger McFarland got the sack on the play.

So maybe playing strongside linebacker in this defense is less about how many tackles a guy makes and is more about how few times a team is able to reel off a big run to the outside or slip a running back or tight end through on an unexpected out route for a decent gain. I'll bet that's what the Colts coaches are focusing on more often than not in measuring Gardner's success. Because they know that if Gilbert Gardner can be a consistent gatekeeper in those situations, they're going to keep the running backs in the area where they have the most players available to make a tackle -- to the inside.

Of course, that begs the question of who's not making the tackles inside if Gardner is doing "pretty well" at forcing the runners to stay inside.

Let the new great debate begin.

In-Story Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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