Manti Te’o saw his first extensive action on Sunday, a career-high 43 snaps during the Chargers’ 27-17 loss to the rival Oakland Raiders.
He was aggressive, flying to the ball when defending the run and somewhat controlled when covering the pass. He didn’t do a whole lot of the latter, being taken off the field when the Chargers deferred to their sub-packages against 11 personnel, but that’ll change soon. He’ll be getting more snaps, according to head coach Mike McCoy.
“He’s going to learn every week,” McCoy told U-T San Diego. “There are going to be plenty of things for him, especially as his number of snaps increase from week to week. It’s a different game here, and when I say that, it’s a new system for him. He’s defending new styles of offense, and there are certain adjustments we’re going to make. The more snaps he gets, the more comfortable he’ll be, and I think it’ll take the thinking out of it so he can just go out there and play.”
More snaps equals more targets in coverage. Te’o's biggest knock coming out of Notre Dame was that he wasn’t as great of a cover linebacker as portrayed. Hardcore draftniks and tape-watchers called him overrated in that regard, namely the popular Greg Cosell noting that Te’o will only be a base package pro defender. He was better coming downhill and with his eyes on the ball in zone coverage than in man, where he wasn’t a smooth turn-and-run defender and was far too aggressive.
That was the case in man coverage against the Raiders, too. He was too aggressive, grabbing, holding, and falling over tight ends. For a while, it looked like he forgot that after five yards, he wasn’t able to knock the opposition around like he did in college, where he could until the ball was in flight.
The best example of Te’o's overly physical coverage came midway through the first quarter on a 1st-and-10 snap at his own 29-yard line. Facing 12 personnel, he was aligned inside the strong-side end and across from the left guard, set to man cover rookie tight end Mychal Rivera.
At the start of the play, Te’o bounced to his left, raised his arms up and anticipated Rivera’s pivot route. It required a diagonal stem across the middle of the formation, and then a quick sit-down for an easy throw from the quarterback. But when Rivera went to turn to the quarterback, Te’o tossed him to the ground. Predictably, it drew a holding penalty from the whistle-blowing zebras.
Mirroring Rivera would have sufficed, as it also would have three minutes later on a two-yard touchdown.
The Raiders were three yards from the end zone. With quarterback Terrelle Pryor under center and two sets of twin receivers, the Raiders were likely to pass on first down, putting Te’o in coverage against tight end Jeron Mastrud. Mastrud was at the center of the left twin set, and Te’o was tucked in behind the left foot of the defensive end to that side.
When the play began, Te’o immediately flipped his hips, faced them at Mastrud, and blocked off the inside. This was a smart move, as was his physical hand-battle with the tight end. But Te’o eventually got too aggressive and was knocked back before tugging on the shoulder of the tight end. He pulled and lost control, then fell face first to the ground. The throw went elsewhere for the touchdown, but could have easily gone to the tight end as well.
There’s hope that Te’o will become a better pass defender despite these two examples of his struggles. As the game continued, he was in more control and did better covering the tight ends overall. He was instinctive and recognized plays, which will ultimately be the keys, along with discipline, that will make him a good cover linebacker. He also ceased to fall to the ground again, and although he was still hands-y, he did it within the rules. He looked more relaxed, which he later admitted to not being early on.
“I’ve got to do a better job, just relaxing,” Te’o told U-T San Diego. “Can’t take that long to get into the groove of the things. I’ve got to get better.”
He’ll have a chance to get better in Week 6, when he’ll face the 4-1 Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football.
The Colts are primarily an 11-personnel team, and they detach their tight end more frequently from the line of scrimmage than the Raiders did. That tight end is Coby Fleener, who hasn’t had a breakout week yet, but he could if Te’o struggles to matchup, provided he gets those additional snaps.
Fleener will move to the slot and be isolated on the back of 3×1 sets, which could put Te’o in man coverage with little help. Because of the fluidity Fleener has at his monstrous 6’6″ frame, it’ll be important for Te’o to get his hands on the tight end, but not to the point of penalty. Once he gets his hands on him, let the route develop and cover it. It’ll be important to not only stay aware, but also comfortable and relaxed in coverage.