Coming out of the University of Alabama, MIKE linebacker Rolando McClain was one of the top prospects in the 2010 NFL Draft because of his dynamic play in Nick Saban’s hybrid and complex defense.
He was a hulking linebacker, measuring in at over 6’3″ and nearly 250 pounds. He appeared to handle the Crimson Tide’s defensive calls with ease, which was particularly impressive on one occasion during his junior season during a game against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
I recall sitting in awe as I replayed the junior’s performance, when he frequently called audibles to counter those made by Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier in a “take that!” kind of demeanor. After the ball was snapped, he would undercut passes and disrupt passing lanes of the quarterback. I was impressed; however, as I sat back and watched and watched some more with detail, I started to consider the talent of McClain.
He had uncommon, beastly size at the MIKE position, but he was protected up front by massive nose tackle Terrence Cody and seemed to struggle while disengaging from blockers when Cody wasn’t snacking on them. When in pass coverage, he made big plays but didn’t move a whole lot while making them because of the Cover 1 Robber scheme that Saban was employing at the time. He appeared instinctive, but simultaneously slow moving to the ball when he was forced to do so.
He wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Two years after being selected eighth overall (surprise?!) by the Raiders in the 2010 NFL draft, he was still that way. McClain is still not getting off of blocks properly, even though he improved after his debut seaason, and he’s still a step behind in pass coverage, which may or may not have been exacerbated by the mind-boggling “defense” put together by former coordinator Chuck Bresnahan (he once fielded 10 players, and we’re still not sure if that was intentional).
To delve further into his inabilities versus the run, he just wasn’t getting to the ball carrier in time. It was as if his feet were stuck in the ground for a brief second while everyone else moved and then he’d suddenly start going forward without discipline, vacating his assigned gap and maybe making a tackle (if he wasn’t cut blocked before or failed to disengage) a few yards past the line of scrimmage.
Against the pass, he proved to be greatly undisciplined. He’d bite too hard on play action fakes, unaware that someone just passed by him, and he’d completely leave his assigned zone vacated, and an opposing receiver would quickly enter it to catch a pass for a long gain.
He also appeared to lack range at times, while at others he would close the gap between himself and the opposition quickly enough. Further, when the opponent was passing, Chuck Bresnahan would call ‘Tampa 2′ and McClain would be administered to control the seam, sometimes running 25-30 yards down the field with pass catchers. That’s not what he’s good at because he lacks hip flexibility, struggling with quickly changing directions (and break down in space), and foot speed — both of which are vital in Tampa 2 coverage.
So if he struggles against the run and is not flexible or fleet of foot against the pass, where does he fit?
It’s highly unlikely that he’s playing for someone else other than the silver and black in 2012 because of the money he’s owed, and it would simply be far too early to give up on a player they selected in the first round only two years ago. And despite his struggles thus far, he’s still a player with a lot of talent who can offer intelligence (even if it may not appear that way at times) and instincts to the defense.
Moreover, the Raiders made the right move by letting go of Bresnahan. They should look to play to McClain’s strengths (which doesn’t include extensively running down the seam) by keeping blocks off of him and asking him to roam around in the middle of the field much like he did for Saban in the aforementioned Cover 1 Robber concept.
That will let him play instinctively and free him up from matchup disadvantages that he dealt with last season. It will also give him more work in an area he’s very familiar with, and honestly, it’s what he does best.