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San Diego Chargers Player Focus: Manti Te'o

San Diego Chargers rookie linebacker Manti Te'o now has a few games of NFL experience under his belt after missing the preseason and the start of the regular season with injury. How is he faring?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

As with several other positions, injuries have been a problem for the San Diego Chargers linebackers. Donald Butler has been missing playing time, Jonas Mouton is on IR, and Manti Te'o has been put into a role where he is playing significant snaps out of necessity. How is he handling the responsibility?

First Quarter
  • Te'o starts the game spying on Andrew Luck. The Colts QB is sitting comfortably in the pocket and completes a 35 yard pass to Reggie Wayne.
  • Te'o shows some pursuit speed on a quick pass to the left to T.Y. Hilton. He hustles admirably from the far hashmark and would have been in a position to make a tackle if Shareece Wright hadn't made the tackle a split second earlier.
  • On the Colts first running play, Te'o is easily blocked by guard Hugh Thornton, who didn't have to put forth any effort at all to take Te'o out of the play.
  • The next running play sees Te'o make his first tackle in the game. Te'o reads the gap perfectly and aggressively attacks it. Unfortunately, he runs afoul of fullback Stanley Havili, who puts Te'o flat on his ass. Te'o, by sheer luck, happens to fall in front of Trent Richardson's legs and grabs ahold for the tackle.
  • Luck completes a short out to Reggie Wayne with Te'o in coverage on him. This was a huge mismatch that Luck took advantage of immediately. Less than a second off the snap, and Wayne was open on Te'o by 2 yards. Derek Cox came up to hold Wayne to a 3 yard gain.
  • The Colts have had a 3rd-and-4 and a 3rd-and-6, and Te'o has been pulled for both of them.
  • The Colts third drive starts with an 8 yard Donald Brown run. Te'o positioned himself well to limit it to 2 or 3 yards, but is again easily blocked out of the way by Hugh Thornton.
  • On the next play, Te'o aggressively attacks the back side to team up with Eric Weddle to take down Brown for a 2 yard gain. Solid play by Te'o.
  • Te'o follows up that good play with another one. On first down, Te'o drops into a zone about 8 yards deep from the line of scrimmage. He reads Luck's throw to T.Y. Hilton over the middle and positions himself well to break it up. Luck's throw is short, but Te'o played the pass well if it were catchable by Hilton.
  • Te'o blitzes on the following play, diving over Donald Brown to make contact with Luck just after the throw. Te'o needs to be careful here. A slightly more aggressive dive would have earned him a 15 yard penalty.
Second Quarter
  • Te'o gets a bit overaggressive on the first play of the Colts next drive, and Donald Brown is able to cut back for a solid 5 yard gain.
  • The next play is one of Te'o's worst plays of the night. Andrew luck hits Trent Richardson for a short pass on the right. While Richardson is shaking tackles, Te'o launches himself at Richardson, diving...and not even making contact. After catching up to the play, Te'o claps his hands in frustration. I will come to hate that clap. He does it nearly every time he misses a tackle.
  • Te'o has no ability to avoid blockers at all on run plays. He understands where he is to attack, but if a body gets in his way, he can't get around it. He is the defensive version of Ryan Mathews.
  • Te'o continues to be absent on 3rd down attempts, playing only once in four such plays, on a 3rd and 1 in the 1st quarter.
  • On the Colts drive to end the half, Te'o was not on the field at all. The coaches really don't trust him in obvious passing situations.
Third Quarter
  • The Colts open their first second half drive with a Richardson run. Te'o watches his gap assignment well, and combines with Larry English to make the tackle. One positive I will say for Te'o - he knows where he should be.
  • Andrew Luck scrambles up the middle on the next play. Te'o misses the tackle badly. What should have been a minimal gain turns into a first down. Hand clap.
  • Te'o gets shoved out of the way with ease on a 12 yard Richardson run. Te'o may know where his gaps are, but he hasn't succeeded in beating a blocker yet. His tackles so far are when he is unblocked, or happen to fall down in front of the runner when knocked down.
  • On the next play, Te'o does a decent job plugging the primary gap on another run, forcing Richardson to cut back.
  • Another run, another easy block. This time by tackle Anthony Castonzo, who just shoved Te'o back before moving on to someone more worthy of attention. I don't expect a linebacker to win that often against an offensive lineman, but they aren't even breaking a sweat stopping Te'o.
  • Luck scrambles again after Te'o drops back in zone. Luck opts to slide before Te'o can miss another tackle on him. Te'o credited with the tackle, since he was the first to touch.
Fourth Quarter
  • Te'o gets credited with the tackle as Reggie Wayne runs out of bounds. If Wayne had turned upfield, Te'o probably had no chance to tackle him.
  • Te'o is still getting pulled on 3rd-and-4 or longer. Not necessarily due to matching up with offensive personnel, either.
  • Te'o barely played in the fourth quarter, he wasn't in on either of the Colts final two drives.
Final Thoughts

Manti Te'o has a lot of work to do if he is going to be worthy of the pick the Chargers selected him with. He doesn't elude blockers at all. Most of the time, a blocker would just shove him out of the way and move on to another target, so he doesn't even occupy blockers effectively to allow someone else to make the tackle. It makes me wonder if draft experts were right to drop his draft grade after this was a real problem in the BCS National Championship game.

Te'o's tackling technique is also a problem. He tends to launch himself at the ball carrier and tries to let the impact of the hit bring runner down. The problem is that players in the NFL are larger and stronger than those he faced in college, and he isn't a big linebacker (at 241 pounds, only Andrew Gachkar is lighter at LB on the Chargers roster). NFL runners shrug off or avoid those hits regularly, and Te'o is going to have to learn to wrap up and keep his balance better.

One thing Te'o does well is handle his gap or zone assignment, assuming he isn't blocked. He positions himself well to make plays. His main issue is actually making them, either by avoiding a blocker and/or making a tackle. If he doesn't improve in those areas, it doesn't matter how well he places himself. The potential might be here, but he will a lot more coaching in order to reach it.