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Game of the weekend: New England at Denver. Intriguing player of the weekend: Elvis Dumervil.
Who is he? Where'd he come from? How can the Sam Mills of pass-rushers (5-foot-11, 245 pounds) be leading the NFL in sacks through one-quarter of the season? How can he be so good and so under-the-radar at the same time?
First, an illustration of Dumervil's Tazmanian Devil approach to rushing the passer. Dumervil, for the first time in his college or pro career, is playing outside linebacker because new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has switched to the 3-4 and 245-pound guys would get eaten alive against the run at end in the 3-4. But in passing downs, Dumervil moves to a hand-down defensive end in Nolan's 4-3.
In the Dallas-Denver game last week, on a passing down, Dumervil lined up to the outside of mountainous left tackle Flozell Adams. On game tape, the matchup looked a little like Muggsy Bogues against Yao Ming. Adams is eight inches taller and 95 pounds heavier than Dumervil. At the snap of the ball, Dumervil, rushing low, took a hard outside rush, and Adams flexed out his arms to try to push him outside. Like Elastic Man, Dumervil stopped with both feet planted and leaned back, then shot inside Adams and smothered Tony Romo in the pocket. It's a move you'd probably have to see to believe, but trust me, it wouldn't matter how big Adams was -- there's no way he was ever going to stop that rush.
"I want to be known as relentless, a game-changer,'' Dumervil said on the phone from Denver. "I want to be known as one of the good pass-rushers in the league.''
Here's the thing you notice about Dumervil: His size actually helps him. Rushing is a game of leverage, on each side of the line, and Dumervil can get so low that it's hard for big tackles to get underneath him and leverage him backward. Heck, from watching Dumervil rush, it's hard for the linemen to get their hands on him, period, because of his quickness and simply because he's hard to locate. "I think I benefit from them having to play at my level,'' Dumervil told me. "Playing that low has been something I've done all my life, so it's hard to get your hands on me when I'm rushing that low.''
All his life, his size has been questioned. How interesting now that it's actually turning into a benefit -- at least the way he sees it.
"What's the big deal?'' he said. "I'm a football player. But sometimes out there, I do feel like I'm invisible.''
Born to Haitian parents in the gang-riddled Liberty City section of Miami, Dumervil benefited from the Florida football craze as a kid. He never wanted to play basketball or other sports. "We played street football three, four hours a day, 12 months a year,'' he said. "Not tackle football. But it was great for me because it was all quickness.''
At Louisville, he started slowly; it still haunts him that three times in a game against Miami of Ohio, a burly quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger shook off three Dumervil sack attempts and riddled the Louisville defense. "He probably doesn't remember, but I sure do,'' said Dumervil.
As a senior, he burst onto scouting reports with a 20-sack season, but his size pushed him down to the fourth round in the 2006 draft. After 21 sacks in his first two pro seasons, he slipped to a five-sack season last year. "I never thought it would be so hard to rush with a broken finger,'' said Dumervil, whose right pinky was busted. "I got it casted up, but I learned how valuable my hands are to rushing the passer.''
When Nolan told him he'd be moving to outside linebacker, he lost 10 pounds and worked on quickness throughout the offseason. Now it's showing, with eight sacks in the past three games. With Tom Brady on the horizon, Dumervil realizes how important he is to what the Broncos must do on Sunday to win.
"You can't just sprint at [Brady],'' Dumervil said. "He's not a fast guy, but he's elusive in the pocket. I'm a big fan of his. Great player, great leader. I know how valuable he is to everything they do. I've never sacked him before, but he's one guy I'd really like to have under my belt.''
A couple of Dumervil sacks would go a long way to Denver continuing the most unlikely season in the NFL. I'm picking New England 23-17, with lots of quick slants and curls from Brady so he can avoid Dumervil. I expect the Patriots to give their left side some chip help with a tight end or back Sunday, but a couple of opportunistic rushes from Dumervil outside left tackle Matt Light's left shoulder, and this could be a different game.
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