Tyrann Mathieu lives in a video game. No really, have you ever seen anything like it? It's not as if opponent's aren't aware of who this cat is, by now, right? In 2010, he was playmaker with a knack for finding loose football, or forcing footballs loose. In 2011, it would seem Mathieu is suddenly the only offensive player LSU allows to play defense, with the way he keeps scoring, I mean. In 18 games, LSU has scored 44 points either from Mathieu himself or on the possession following a turnover forced or recovered by Mathieu.
And now, the national media has taken hold of what LSU fans have known since game three of last year. Suddenly Mathieu is drawing Heisman talk, with Kirk Herbstreit even going as far to say that he'd vote for him if the ballot was cast today. Dana Holgorsen went out of his way to say he was, by far, the one who stood out on tape for the LSU defense, which is quite the compliment considering the gobs of NFL talent oozing from every position. Yet, with all the hype, and the ability of offenses to essentially "scheme away" from defensive playmakers, surely Tyrann Mathieu can't keep on making game changing plays, right? Surely a team with the talent of Florida will ensure that Mathieu can't force a fumble, pick it up, run from end zone to end zone (for fun), before taking it in to score... right?
The unique aspect about Mathieu, and this is all due to the brilliance of John Chavis, is that they have not confined him to a position on the field. Take a player like Darrelle Revis. Well, he's absolutely one of the 10 best players in the NFL, and while his impact can be felt when he takes away a premiere receiver, he can also be "avoided" simply by throwing to the other side of the field. Good linemen and linebackers are often "run away" from or double, even triple-teamed, if they prove too dangerous. The best players command the most attention.
However, by moving Mathieu all over the field, it becomes increasingly difficult to "defend" him as an offense. By this point, Mathieu has earned himself a "check." By that I mean, every single play, the offense needs to account for where this guy is, because if you don't, you're probably going to pay for it. Chavis mixes him brilliantly , moving him seamlessly all over the field, from the QB's backside to his front side, to covering slot receivers, even to blitzing up the middle, at times. He's technically a "nickel back" but he plays more like a roving linebacker, in some instances. He's like a 3-4 OLB with pass rushing responsibilities, that can also cover and intercept. In the era of "hybrid" players, Mathieu continues the tradition, in the most unconventional ways.
So how does Mathieu make all these amazing plays? It's a combination of unique instincts, fearlessness, speed and size (yes, I said size).
Many have caught on by now, but I was jumping on this bandwagon after Mississippi State last season (proverbial self-pat on the back). Players who have ball skills are unique and rare, and impossible to quantify in any sort of logical terms. In fact, the only way to describe them is in the ways I typically pan people for using (that being the abstract usage of bland terms that mean a whole lot of nothing). But he somehow lives up to the abstract.
I'm still a young pup in Tiger years, but LSU hasn't had a playmaker like this on defense for as long as I can remember. Laron Landry was a fabulous safety, and perhaps one of the best players in LSU history, but Laron didn't have a knack for the football like Tyrann does. Comparisons are being thrown out from the likes of Ed Reed to Troy Polamalu, and while I typically also pan people making such ridiculous comparisons, it's hard to compare him to anyone else. His ability to not only find the football, but somehow magically make it his is unrivaled, in my opinion.
Les Miles and Jarrett Lee said it, and it continues to prove to be true. When Tyrann looks in the mirror, he sees 6'7, 300 pounds of raw steel and sex appeal. Mathieu believes he's the biggest, baddest, fastest, toughest mofo that you'll ever see. And it shows in his play. Last year, a frustrated Florida player body slammed him. Tyrann popped right back up. He's been the victim of a cheap-shot or three. He throws his body into OL, as if they are his own size. Even if he hasn't shown a great deal of skill as a punt returner to date, his fearlessness can be further noticed there... he shuns the fair catch as frequently as possible.
Besides those killer instincts, one of Mathieu's greatest assets is his pure speed. Some guys are fast, and some guys can run. Mathieu can run. There's really no way to explain the difference, but you can see it on tape. Watch how easily he darts all over the field. His stop and start ability is truly unique. This speed allows him to close down on players that others might be a step too slow for.
Finally, his size. For all the plaudits, it seems an article can't go written without labeling Mathieu as "pint-sized" or "mini" or '[insert euphemism for short here]." Yet, I see it as an asset. A few years back, an analyst on ESPN (can't remember who) broke down tape on Wes Welker, and he commented that Welker's size was actually to his advantage. He believed that Wes being short allowed him to sneak into pockets in the defense that others may be unable to. I see similar characteristics in Mathieu. When he comes flying off the edge, Mathieu is able to get low, into a nearly unblockable position, particularly for OL. A bigger player, with less explosiveness likely couldn't exploit the edge in such a way. Yet, Mathieu commands attention which either results in a direct path to the QB or the OL taking an extremely wide path, which only allows another player to have more room to operate around him.
As for the Florida game, it should be interesting to see how Mathieu is used. The offenses of Oregon, West Virginia and Kentucky are built in a way that allows Mathieu maximum time on the field. Against a team like Florida, who now operates in the Pro-Style, Mathieu may not have quite the opportunities to roam. Perhaps this game will give him more of a chance to operate in coverage?
Then again, Mathieu always finds a way to make a play. Look, 1,125 words and I didn't even say Honey Badger... well, shit.
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