Taysom Hill Proved He’s a Starting Quarterback

Taysom Hill finally got his shot to start for the New Orleans Saints and he did not disappoint. He showed good mechanics and accuracy and was routinely able to move through reads. He dealt well with pressure off of play-action, understood where his hot routes were, and his ball placement helped keep his receivers out of harms way. While it wasn’t a perfect game and he was inconsistent with his anticipation throws, it was a very good showing for his first start as a quarterback.

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Reading the Defense

One of the more common pass game concepts that the Saints run is Dagger. It involves a clear out from the slot and a deep dig in behind it from the #1 receiver with a shallow drag from the receiver to the backside of the play. The clear out takes away the deep defenders and the shallow drag is designed to help hold the linebackers underneath which opens up space for the deep dig. This play shows the versatility that Taysom Hill brings to the quarterback position.

He did a really good job most of the game keeping his eyes up when moving in the pocket and getting outside. Taysom comes out of the play action and looks to locate where the underneath defenders are to see if they’ve gotten under the dig. As he diagnosis that, he feels pressure and has to climb up and out of the pocket. A really good indicator that he has a chance to become a legitimate starter is that he keeps his eyes up instead of relying on his legs. He sees that the dig has made its way across the field and delivers a really accurate ball on the move to his receiver.

This is that same Dagger concept but I want to use this example to show Taysom’s ball placement ability and his understanding of defenses and holes that appear. The Falcons here are bailing to a two-high safety look with the slot defender immediately turning his hips and bailing at the snap. Again, off of play-action, Taysom has to quickly diagnose this shift and process what that means for the play.

With that rotate and with no receivers releasing to the top of the screen, Taysom understands that that corner can now get under the clear out and the original middle field safety is freed up to rob anything in the middle. This means that Taysom needs to protect his receiver on the deep dig if that’s what he’s going to throw. He can’t lead him into the middle of the field because that free safety will be able to deliver a big hit or impact the throw. Taysom is able to diagnose all of that and throw to the back hip of the receiver to slow them down and prevent a big collision with the safety.

Taysom Hill showed a few good anticipation throws throughout the game as well. The guy might be 30 years old, but for a first start and his prospects of being a legitimate starter, these are some really big things at the quarterback position. Taysom consistently had a stable base which allowed him to be accurate and stay on rhythm to throw with anticipation. Here he’s seeing the space underneath the deep curl is open and begins his throwing motion just as his receiver is breaking down. These are the kinds of throws that can be problematic if you throw them late or aren’t seeing the defense well but Taysom was able to hit a number of these through the game.

He wasn’t perfect, but the throws he made were definitely good indicators. Here again, he keeps a solid base and begins his throwing motion just as the receiver is starting to break their route off and hits him at eye level for an easy completion.

Ball Placement

That ball placement is what I found most impressive.  It’s starting quarterback caliber. He’d throw back hip to slow receivers down and protect them from hits, give them balls that they could easily run with after the catch, and showed decisiveness and zip on a lot of his underneath and intermediate throws even with pressure in his face.

Understanding Blitzes

While he showed good understanding of where his hot reads were, there were a couple times where he didn’t realize he was hot. Based on what the defense is showing here, there are seven total potential rushers and the Saints are in an empty formation with no running back to help in pass protection. Taysom knows that if more than five rushers come, he has to get rid of the ball.

The Saints are running a half line slide here to the side with more potential rushers. From the center over, they’re sliding right to take care of the three “bigs” or defensive linemen to that side. Taysom Hill has to know that if either linebacker comes on a blitz to that side, he’s hot and has to throw to the area that that linebacker is blitzing from. The Saints have a drag from Michael Thomas built in that would be the route Taysom should throw since the linebacker is blitzing from that area. However, Taysom doesn’t look to check for a blitz and therefore doesn’t see the pressure coming soon enough. By the time he feels it, it’s already too late and he takes a sack.

Late Reads

While Taysom did show a number of anticipation throws, there were also some reads where he was a beat late. On his only turnover worthy throw of the day here, he’s seeing the window, but throwing it late. He initially wants the route out of the backfield to Deonte Harris but holds onto it for a beat too long. There’s a window for the drag to Thomas but it has to be thrown with anticipation. With Taysom being a beat late, the defender is able to close the opening and get a hand on the ball.

It’s a small sample size in his first start but there also may be some concern for his deep ball. Taysom Hill had no issue driving the ball on intermediate throws but the two times he tried to load up and throw deep, he ended up underthrowing his receivers. It worked out both of these times, but if he’s going to attack deep downfield, he might need to be a guy that does it on rhythm much like Drew Brees does. He doesn’t seem to be a guy that can throw it late on a broken play since he’s topping out at about 50-55 yards on these throws. That’s more than enough for normal fades and rhythm posts, but not quite enough to sling it late downfield.

Arm Strength

Running Threat

Of course, while Taysom Hill may struggle throwing deep late, he does bring his ability to scramble and run to the table which can’t be overlooked. The Saints really didn’t do anything fancy but ran this quarterback power lead play five separate times in the game. It helps the offense gain an extra blocker when the quarterback is the ball carrier and adds to Taysom’s ability and utility. In important situations, he’s able to get yards with his legs and adds another dimension to the Saints attack.

We knew Taysom Hill was a versatile player before this but I came away very impressed with his accuracy, clean mechanics, and ability to keep his eyes downfield when under pressure and outside the pocket. He’s always a threat on the ground but if he wants the opportunity to be a legitimate starting quarterback, he’s going to have to continue to put together games like he did against the Falcons. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed his ability and gave the Saints something to think about going forward. Maybe all that talk Sean Payton did about him being the next Steve Young isn’t so far off and the Saints will be set for years to come.

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NFL Film Breakdown: How Rams DC Brandon Staley Has the LA Defense Playing at a Championship Level

The LA Rams have a new defensive coordinator in Brandon Staley and have been shutting down the run game while maintaining a two-high look, adapting to their opponents, and pairing excellent play from defensive front and their secondary. They’ll use Jalen Ramsay to lock down receivers in man which opens up their safeties for run fits and more aggressive play and have mastered using Eagle and hybrid fronts to bring pressure and simultaneously have the 5th best run defense in the league. Staley worked with the outside linebackers under Vic Fangio his whole NFL career up until his defensive coordinator job with the Rams and a lot of the Fangio tenets have appeared with the Rams but Staley has done an incredible job of adapting his personnel and front to react in-game to what offenses are doing as evidenced by allowing just three or fewer points in the second half in eight out of the nine games the Rams have played in so far.

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Rams’ Samson Ebukam #50 and Aaron Donald #99 sack Giants quarterback Daniel Jones] #8 during their NFL game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA., Sunday, October 4, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Where Staley has really begun to blaze his own path with the Rams is how he has used the Eagle front to great effect this season. There’s a lot of subtle naming differences when looking at fronts so to keep things simple, I’ll refer to any front with three players aligned in a nose or nose shade and tackles lined up as a 4 or 4i technique as an Eagle front. What that means is that the nose tackle is either directly over the center or shaded to one shoulder of the center and that the tackles are lined up directly over the offensive tackles or on their inside shoulders. The Rams will also then bring their outside linebackers down into wide 9 techniques which places them outside of the tight end and allows the Rams defensive front to flow into and out of different front alignments like more generic 3-4 and 4-3 looks. With the interior linemen in 4 or 4i techniques, this makes blocking and climbing incredibly difficult for offensive linemen. It almost mandates double teams across the board and if a guard leaves on a power or hard stretch, it’s very easy for that 4i technique to attach at the hip and follow down the line of scrimmage. That’s what the Eagle is really designed to do. Create free runners at the linebacker position and help defensive linemen penetrate.

We’ll start with how the Eagle front works in the run game. You can see how each defender fits in their run gaps with the nose tackle two-gapping and reading which direction the play is going and run support coming from the safeties. The tackles are responsible for the B gap and the Nose has the play-side A gap which forces him to two-gap as he’s feeling the movement of the center and attacking that direction. The linebacker then has the weak A gap but can flow over the top with split zone looks, fullbacks, or any other movement to help with cutback contain. The outside linebackers have the C or D gap with the strong side outside linebacker typically being the rush end and the weak side outside linebacker dropping into coverage. If that weak outside linebacker does have to run in coverage, the safety now replaces him as the C gap player. Bonus Clip for Patreon

Here, the Bears are running stretch split zone to the outside with a crunch block from the H-back. Since the line is stretching hard to the left, that allows the 4i defensive tackle to go to work. That slight alignment to the inside of the offensive tackle makes it hard for the offensive line to reach him. With the guard vacating to try and help double the nose before climbing to the linebacker, that leaves the tackle all alone to try and cut off Michael Brockers. With Aaron Donald winning his B gap and the nose tackle demanding a double team, that keeps the linebackers completely clean and forces the running back to work to the backside.
That’s where #90, Michael Brockers has beaten his man to the inside B gap because of his alignment and is waiting there for Montgomery to cut back into him. It’s great team defense. The running back has nowhere to go and has to stay play-side because Brockers beat his man, Donald is able to shed his block, and #59 Micah Kiser is also there to help fill.

If you have good tackles and a nose that can demand blocks like the Rams do, you really don’t even need exceptional athletes at the linebacker position. If they play decisively and can read the flow of the offense, they’ll be just fine since they won’t often have to shed blocks when the Rams use their Eagle front.

Since the linebackers are kept clean and are able to be free runners, the Rams often don’t put extra men in the box and maintain a two-high safety look. To combat some of the issue of having lighter boxes, they align their safeties close to the line of scrimmage at 10-12 yards. This allows them to be quicker contributors in the run game and protect gaps on the backside. These safeties are essentially just deep linebackers. Here, with the Dolphins set up with their strength to the left, Micah Kiser is shaded over the tackle to help seal the C gap inside the tight end, with the outside linebacker #54 Leonard Floyd there to seal the D gap outside. So that means Taylor Rapp, the safety #24 is now responsible for that weak side A gap. With the motion though, you can see the gaps shift over for the Rams defense. The slot corner over the receiver bumps down to take the C gap from Micah Kiser, Kiser bumps to take the weak A gap that was held by Taylor Rapp, and Rapp bumps over with the motion. On the snap, the H-back now also crunches across the formation which yet again shifts the gaps. There’s now no longer a D gap, so Leonard Floyd is responsible for the C gap which allows #22 to bump over and take the weak A now and Kiser takes the C gap outside where the crunch is headed to. That’s a lot of adjustment but the three down linemen still have their same assignments and even if the linebackers and secondary get out of position, the front again forces double teams and keeps the linebackers clean. Notice that none of the linemen are initially able to move up to the second level because they are forced by alignment to be solo on blocks or double team Aaron Donald. The Rams are one of the most sound defenses when it comes to playing with gap integrity. Each man does their job and they have the horses upfront to hold blocks and allow their linebackers to fill and fly around.

The run fits and gap assignments upfront make the whole defense go and while the Rams don’t blitz often, they will use their Eagle front in interesting ways to confuse offenses by walking up linebackers in the same alignments as they usually have their down linemen in. You still have someone aligned in a 0 over the center and two guys lined up in a 4i while you now have Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald with their hand in the dirt to rush the tackles. This can cause protection issues and force solo blocks on some of their best pass rushers. Offenses don’t know who will drop out by alignment and the Rams are stressing every gap. This forces the Bears into sliding to the left to take care of three potential rushers to that side. This however leaves a two on two to Donald’s side with an additional corner blitz. They’ve isolated their best pass rusher one-on-one and overloaded one side with a corner blitz all because of the front. The best thing is that they’ve manufactured this pressure while only rushing four guys so the structure of their coverage isn’t compromised.

They’ll give teams multiple blitz and pressure looks from that same stand up Eagle look with their linebackers. In the second quarter against the Seahawks, the Rams gave them that look and brought Kiser on the blitz while also running a stunt with him and the defensive tackle to try and bait them into opening a lane. Brandon Staley just wants to find any way possible to get his guys into one-on-one situations because he knows over the course of the game, they’re going to win more of those than they’ll lose.

Now that they established that look, late in the 4th quarter the Rams showed the exact same thing. This time, Kiser doesn’t come on the blitz but the center pauses and waits for the rush from Kiser before realizing he isn’t coming and going to help the guard late. That small pause and hesitation of not knowing if Kiser will come gives the rest of the defensive line chances to win their one-on-one matchups and that’s exactly what Michael Brockers does. With no inside help, he works the guard upfield before swimming underneath him to the inside and getting a direct line on Russell Wilson for the sack.

The Rams love this look with additional pressure and if the offense does run it, they still have everyone in their base gaps and assignments. Even though it may look like the Rams are bringing a lot of pressure, they’ll often rush just four but you have no idea where its coming from. Even if they aren’t getting home all the time, they almost always create significant pressure out of these stand-up Eagle looks.

What helps even more with pressures, the run game, and coverage is that they’ll often run Ramsey on lock calls which means he is man-on-man with the receiver. This then allows the safeties to fit their run gaps faster and support the linebackers more quickly because they don’t have to worry about getting over the top to help Ramsey.

You can see an example of this here with Ramsey locked to the top of the screen and the safety Taylor Rapp, doesn’t have to worry about helping him or getting over the top of his receiver. Instead, he can now help bracket and rob routes and crossers in the middle of the field which the 49ers love to run. Ramsey’s ability as a pure man corner frees up the secondary everywhere else and allows them to play aggressive and fast and gain players in other areas of the field.

Having a corner in Jalen Ramsey who can hold a top tier receiver like DK Metcalf to 2 catches for 28 yards and not a single target until the last minute of the 3rd quarter can do incredible things for your defense. It just condenses the field for the offense with more players in less space. Nobody has to get under his route or over the top and keeps defenders closer to the formation.

The Rams rank second in yards per game and are allowing just 18.7 points a game. They’re shutting down teams on the ground and through the air and Brandon Staley has used the pieces that the Rams have to perfection. He has found ways to get his guys in a position to succeed while being aggressive and balancing that with maintaining integrity to prevent big plays behind it with his two-high safety looks. Talent has met scheme in LA and it’s the Rams defense that has them thinking that they just might recapture that 2018 magic and make it back to the Super Bowl. 

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Kylin Hill: King of the Hill

Kylin Hill will forever be an icon for Mississippi State fans. Besides the fact that he helped get the state of Mississippi to change their flag, he was a key clog in the Bulldogs offense for four years. He did decide to opt-out of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic but figures to be one of the top running backs in the 2021 draft class. It seems that at the moment Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are one and two, but the spots after that are up for grabs. If Hill can have a strong combine to go along with the progress he has shown the past few years, there’s a chance he becomes a day two selection.

Positives

North/South Runner

Hill is exactly what you want in terms of a North and South runner. While he can be patient behind the line of scrimmage, once he sees his opening, he’ll hit the hole hard. He’s not a guy that’s afraid of contact but also displays the quickness needed to accelerate past linebackers. If you look at most of the best running backs in the NFL, you’ll see they have similar running styles to Hill. They see an opening and don’t waste time dancing side to side. Players who run East to West are either gimmicky players or spend time bouncing from team to team. Downhill runners will always have a place in the league.

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Emerging Receiver

If there’s one thing where we saw a big improvement in Hill’s game in 2020, it was as a pass catcher. While there is some room for improvement, Mike Leach’s Air Raid system devalues the running back position so Hill had to make the most of his opportunities as a receiver in the few games he played this year. In fact, he had more receptions than carries this year. I don’t see him used as an Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey type running back, but he is a true three-down back who will keep defenses honest at the next level.

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Physical Football Player

If you were to look up the term “football player” in the dictionary, you could put a picture of Kylin Hill right next to it. He’s tough as nails and will stick his nose into contact as frequently as he can. His contact balance is superb and rarely does he go down from arm tackles. Listed at 210 pounds, he plays a lot bigger than that due to the fact that he will take on anyone. Simply put, he’s a guy you want on your team to help build a culture of toughness.

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Negatives

Lacks Long Speed

If you look at some of his longer runs in the GIF’s above, you’ll notice how he’s always being tackled from behind. Players have been successful without long speed, but it diminishes their big-play potential. A guy like Frank Gore has been in the league since the Cold War, yet has never displayed good long speed. Hill is a guy who can gash defenses for 4-7 yards a play, which is what you will take every time but won’t be the guy you call upon to come up with a home run play.

Overly Aggressive

Sometimes he’s looking forward to running a guy over so much that he misses open lanes where he can gain more yards. The attitude and toughness are what you love to see, but in order to help his team out and maintain his health, he needs to change his approach a little bit.

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Conclusion

The running back position might not have the draft importance it once did, but that doesn’t mean it’s a meaningless position. For as much as the NFL is focused on the passing attack, great teams are able to run the ball effectively in key moments. Like I said earlier, I think Hill is a safe bet for a second or third-round selection and if he were to drop any further, he would be a steal. He’s a relatively scheme versatile player, so no exact team at the moment pops into my head as a good fit for him, but he is a good back who can come in right away and get some touches.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How Lamar Jackson Has Grown as a Passer and is Used in the Ravens Run Game

Lamar Jackson is one of the most unique quarterbacks in the NFL right now with over 2,000 yards rushing in his career paired with almost 6,000 passing yards and a 102.1 passer rating. A lot of talking heads diminish Lamar’s ability calling him a running back playing quarterback like it’s some kind of knock or dig at his ability. Some of the criticisms are valid, he can struggle mechanically and can overly rely on athleticism but trying to box Lamar into the strict definition of what a quarterback is as foolish as trying to tackle him in the open field. He isn’t a normal quarterback. So why try to define him as one? Lamar is an all-world runner so people try to point out his his ability, or inability, to throw – especially this year where his completion percentage has dropped (although his receivers have dropped 4.9% of his passes) along with his sack numbers rising and a higher rate of fumbling and interceptions. He’s not producing at his 2019 MVP level but let’s take a look at Lamar the player and not just as a pure passer – though we’ll look at that too. When looking at Lamar you have to take a wholistic view and understand how he helps that offense operate both in the run game and the pass game.

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Nick Wass/Associated Press

Lamar is at his best in the passing game when he’s working the underneath game and throwing on rhythm. Because he’s such a dynamic runner, when he progresses through his reads, he can start to get jumpy in the pocket and is prone to try to escape because, ultimately, I think he still trusts his legs more than he does his arm. However, he has started to throw with really good anticipation that shows trust in the scheme, his receivers, and illustrates his growth in his ability to throw off of defensive movements. There are some mechanical issues, but for the most part, the mental side of the game seems to be really slowing down for him.

Here, the Ravens are running a deep Dagger concept with a clear out post from the slot and a 15 yard dig from Hollywood Brown outside. The running back releases into the flats to try and hold the linebackers from getting depth underneath the dig. The post here is designed to hold the safety and pull defenders to open a window for the dig. The clear out is able to pull the safety and there is a window but it’s not a very big one and it’s 15 yards downfield. Lamar begins his throwing motion just as Brown is getting out of his break but he’s still about 10 yards from where he’ll catch the ball. Lamar see’s the two linebackers dropping to their seam responsibilities in cover 3 and knows he has to drive it in the deep hole behind them with anticipation because if he’s late, the window to the dig will close fast.

These anticipation throws are the biggest step Lamar has begun to take in his game and more than that, is an indicator that he’s starting to trust his eyes and his arm to make these plays. These aren’t throws where he’s seeing someone open first and then throwing. It takes high level processing to make these kinds of throws. Here, Lamar is starting his throwing motion just as the receiver is planting to break to the corner. Lamar trusts his guy to be at the right spot and trusts his arm to get it there. It’s an impressive tight window throw with pressure bearing down on him.

Anticipation like this is a really good indicator for Lamar. On this play, he’s hoping to throw the seam to his tight end the whole way but he sees the safety shaded directly over the top bail to the middle of the field at the snap. He looks off the safety to ensure that he has created enough room and then throws an absolutely perfect ball to the seam right over the defenders’ head and before the safety has a chance to make a play on the ball.

However, like I said, as a passer, there are still some big mechanical issues that Lamar has and they’re issues that he also had last year, which is concerning since they don’t seem to have been cleaned up much. This play encapsulates basically all parts of Lamar. His biggest issue throwing the ball is a huge dip at the top of his drop, subsequent heel-click which causes even more issues with vertical accuracy, and then an occasional tendency to drop his eyes and look to escape from the pocket. On the flip side, despite all that, he turns this play into a 10 yard gain and first down.

At the top of his drop, you can see how low Lamar gets and how much his hips sink towards the ground. As a quarterback, you want to stay as even and stable as possible and you don’t want that vertical bounce because if you throw off of this last step in your drop, your body is now rising simultaneously as you throw, it’s harder to get good power and drive, and you get a lot of vertical accuracy issues. Because of this elongated last step of his drop, he also tends to heel click and bring his feet together on his hitch steps. This again creates vertical bounce which you want to eliminate. He then drops his eyes and looks to scramble but if he kept his eyes up, he would see the safety is flat footed and his receiver is running open on a seam for a potential touchdown. Lamar has a pocket, but instead escapes out. I say all this knowing that he gains a first down on this play and that’s great, but it’s important to know that he is leaving plays on the field in the passing game as well.

As a pure passer, these mechanics are going to make you less consistent. You can see here that same huge vertical dip at the top of his drop and how that gets him onto his toes and bouncing in the pocket. If all your cleats aren’t in the ground, you’re going to have difficulty generating power and accuracy from your legs up. As a result, Lamar is unable to open his hips to the throw with his toe pointed towards the sideline and can’t generate enough power and leaves the ball behind his receiver which results in an interception.

The longer the throw, the more impactful this heel click and vertical bounce can be on his vertical accuracy. You can see how pronounced it is here against the Bengals on this deep shot which causes him to overshoot the throw by about 5 yards.

These mechanical issues and misfires pop up in almost every game. Big dip at the top of the drop, lots of heel click, and vertical inaccuracy. While Lamar does tend to sidearm which leads to most of his horizontal inaccuracy, issues with touch and vertical misses are all because of his footwork and this is now year three of these same issues.

A passer isn’t all that Lamar is, though. It’s foolish to think of him as just a quarterback because he just flat out isn’t just a quarterback. He might not be what most people think of as a conventional player, but to use that as a knock just flat out makes no sense to me. We are seeing that he is capable as a passer and to add that to what he does on the ground is what separates him from every other player in the league.

Lamar adds a ton to the Ravens run game as you might expect but he does it whether he keeps the ball or not. The Ravens use a ton of read option which leaves one defender free to be read by Lamar. This allows them to gain an extra blocker and forces defensive flow and gap fits to become compromised. The Ravens really like to run a center and tackle counter read and it can be incredibly powerful. A lot of the time, teams have issues sealing off backside pursuit on counter and preventing penetration from the defensive end but since the Ravens read that guy, it eliminates that issue. Since the Ravens have two ball carriers in the backfield at all times by default with Lamar, they now can force teams to be gap sound on every play. If that end comes down to chase the counter and pulling tackle, Lamar will give the ball to the running back running to the outside. If that end stays up-field, Lamar will pull it and run the counter himself. What this also does is give false read keys to the linebackers who are often taught to read and follow pulling linemen. They can’t really do that anymore because if they do, there’s no way they’ll be in position to chase the running back. You can see that here as the linebackers are frozen during the mesh and are late to get outside which enables to running back to get around the edge of the defense.

The Ravens will also switch it up and have Lamar be the outside keep and the running back run counter. The same principles apply. Read off of the defensive end. If he chases, pull the ball and run around him. The Ravens are also crunch to arc blocking with their fullback. He’s coming around to go up and block the linebacker to seal the outside for Lamar if he keeps the ball. So now there’s a ton of backfield motion for defenses to look at and Lamar is special in the open field. If you crash down like the defense does here, he’s capable of ripping off huge gains when he keeps the ball.

Now since Lamar has kept it once, it opens up the counter action for the running back. Just watch this at full speed and try to figure out what’s going on in the backfield and know that Lamar is capable of burning you if you don’t protect against him keeping it to the outside. The defensive end comes up the field so Lamar gives the ball to the running back since he has taking away his path to the outside. Two of the linebackers are also now sitting and staying home in case of the keep by Lamar which gets them out of position on the counter. The Ravens now have +1 blockers to the play-side as Lamar has influenced three separate players on defense and taken them out of position to make a play.

This is the full power that Lamar has. He influences the running game like no other quarterback does and then he can also play action and boot out of those same looks and has developed into a solid passer of the ball. If for a second, you aren’t sound on defense, the Ravens will make you pay on the ground. That’s never really been up for debate. But as Lamar has grown in the passing game, they’ve also started to make teams pay through the air. Lamar is not by any means an elite passer at this point, but he is still growing and is showing signs of the game slowing down for him. With all that he brings to the field, there’s no deadlier weapon in the NFL right now and if Lamar can continue to evolve, the Ravens may just run – and throw – their way to the Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: A look at Tua’s First Start, His Mechanics, and Decision Making

While Tua had a relatively pedestrian first start against the Rams with only 93 yards and one touchdown, the fact is, he just didn’t have to do much and the Dolphins didn’t ask him to do that much. With outstanding performances from the defense and special teams that gave the Dolphins the lead, Tua just needed to run the offense and run it against a very good Rams defense that can get after the quarterback and also has the guys to cover in the secondary. While Tua did struggle at times, especially early before he settled down, there were also some moments where he looked like he could be the guy of the future. It’s way too early to know what he’s going to turn into but let’s take a look at a couple of his plays from his first start.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Sep 20, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) warms up prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Tua didn’t push the ball down the field a whole lot, but notably, the Dolphins are really set up to make him feel at home in the shot gun with a lot of spread concepts and plays. The Dolphins here are running Dagger with a clear out from the slot at the bottom and a deep dig behind it from the outside receiver. To the top of the screen they have a seven yard out. Something that you love to see from a young QB in their first start is reading calmly and throwing with anticipation. Here Tua looks to the Dagger concept and sees a defender dropping into the area where the dig will enter. This forces him to come off of that read and he comes all the way across the field to his seven yard out. What’s incredibly encouraging here is that he is throwing with anticipation. He starts his throwing motion to get the ball out to Gesicki before Gesicki has planted for his cut. He read the defense, comes off his first read, and then throws the ball with anticipation to his check-down.

This ability to be calm and use his eyes really jumped out. He was able to look off defenders, make decisive throws underneath, and move through his progressions. Here, he takes one of his few deep shots but first looks to the top of the screen to help hold the safety. He knows that the Rams like to use jump calls on crossers on 3rd downs, so he’s expecting the safety #24 to come down on his shallow drag which leaves a true one-on-one outside with Mike Gesicki. He throws a beautiful ball in rhythm in a great place for his receiver to make a play. This is again a good indicator that he’s processing and understands what’s going on around him.

Overall, Tua handled pressure pretty well. Even when faced with free runners or blitzers, he was able to move out of the pocket and throw off platform to keep the offense on schedule and create plays. A lot of the time, being able to create and make things happen on broken plays or when teams blitz you can be the difference in what makes a good quarterback.

While there were some really encouraging things, there were also some rookie issues where he was expecting a receiver to be in a different spot, lost his consistency in his mechanics, made some rushed throws, or missed some reads downfield. Here he’s just expecting the quick screen to his receiver to be closer to the line of scrimmage and misses what should be an easy completion.

Especially early in the game, he was very frenetic in the pocket. There was a lot of bouncing which can cause some huge vertical inaccuracy. You want to stay as level as possible as a quarterback and calm your feet otherwise when you start your throwing motion as you’re moving up and down, you can get balls that sail on you. Here, Tua does just that and in combination, misreads the leverage of the defender covering the fade to DeVante Parker. The DB is stacked on top, eliminating vertical space. If you’re going to throw that, you have to throw this back-shoulder. You can’t put it in a position where your receiver has to play defense and break up the play. So Tua’s mechanics here were off with the bouncing, he over shot his throw, and he didn’t indicate that he understood the leverage of the defender and where that meant he needed to throw it.

All things considered, Tua did a good job for his first start. There were some flashes of his potential even in the 93 passing yards he had. There were also some rookie mistakes which are to be expected. It’ll be exciting to watch him progress because the Dolphins are rolling with the number one scoring defense right now and are right in the thick of the playoff race. If the team around him keeps playing at a high level and lets him learn while not having to do too much, the Dolphins are going to make some noise in the second half of the season and even compete for the AFC East crown.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: A Look at Drew Lock, His Potential, and Some Concerning Trends

If you aren’t strapped in already, it’s time to buckle up for Drew Lock’s wild ride. The Broncos are 6-3 in games that Lock has played in their entirety as the starter but he has just as many games this year with multiple interceptions as he does games where he’s thrown a touchdown. It’s important to remember through this all, that Lock is still incredibly raw and has only played nine full games in his career but it’s worth looking at his upside and potential areas of concern because Lock has the talent to elevate the Broncos to wins but he also has some mechanical and decision-making issues that can lead to game-changing mistakes.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

DENVER, COLORADO – NOVEMBER 01: Quarterback Drew Lock #3 of the Denver Broncos looks to throw for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth quarter of the game at Empower Field At Mile High on November 01, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Drew Lock does not like pressure. Against blitzes, Lock has just a 47.7% completion percentage and has thrown three of his five interceptions on the year. When teams don’t bring extra men, Lock has completed 62.6% of his throws and has thrown four touchdowns to two interceptions. This disparity can also be seen with his time spent in the pocket. On throws that happen within 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage goes up by 23%, his QB rating is 28 points higher, and he’s attempting throws further downfield. All this is to say that Lock is at his best as a rhythm thrower. He has an unreal arm that allows him to hit receivers in stride and if he’s throwing on time as receivers get out of their break, he’s almost impossible to stop and the film and numbers both back it up.

When Lock can key off of one defender, he plays much more decisively. The Broncos are running a drive concept here against the Patriots which creates a high-low read for Lock. You have a shallow drag from the #1 receiver, and a dig behind it from the #3. The Patriots play a lot of man coverage and you can see at the snap of the ball that Lock locates the blitz from the linebacker and then immediately goes to check if anyone is under the dig being run by his #3 receiver. With man coverage, there’s nobody to get into the passing lane, and Lock is able to hit the top of his drop, drive off his back foot and deliver the ball in stride to his tight end.

Lock is still young and can have some trouble diagnosing things so if you simplify his reads and let him play fast, he’s going to play much more efficiently. The Broncos will use some motions or release the running back to help him read off of linebackers and throw off their movements. The Broncos here run a man in motion and pull the running back across the formation in pass protection which let’s Lock read the flowing linebackers and attack the vacated space in the middle. Again, he gets to the top of his drop and is able to hit his receiver in stride.

The Broncos are starting to figure this out too. After a rough first quarter against the Chargers, the Broncos started to dial up some simple reads for Lock and while they didn’t manifest into points on those drives, Lock slowly become more decisive and accurate as his confidence built into the 3rd quarter. What’s most encouraging is that Lock is growing and learning on the job.

In the first half, Denver called another high low concept with a quick hook at 6 yards and a dig wrapping in behind it. The read on this is to watch the linebacker with inside leverage. If he stays up on the hook at six yards, the quarterback should throw behind him as the dig is wrapping around him. If he drops underneath the dig, you throw the quick hook. Here, Lock misses the dig and instead checks it down late to the running back. If he throws with anticipation and waits a beat, the dig is open. Instead, he gets bouncy in the pocket, his base starts to deteriorate, and he throws an inaccurate check-down.

Fast forward to the 4th quarter now and the Broncos call the same concept to the top of the screen. This time, Lock is dialed in and has learned from his first rep earlier in the game. The linebacker steps up to the hook and Lock hits his back foot on rhythm and fires the ball to hit his receiver in stride for the score to pull the game to 27-24.

When he isn’t on rhythm though, he has a huge issue with pocket movement. He will drift in the pocket and into pressure, bail from clean pockets and get into trouble, and his drop will often take him too deep which allows pass rushers to take easier angles to impact his throws. To top that all off, his mechanics when he moves tend to get sloppier and he has trouble getting consistent footwork and hip rotation. As we talked about before, when Lock throws after 2.5 seconds he is way less accurate and is more prone to mistakes.

On a four-man pressure here, Lock drops his eyes and misses four separate receivers that are breaking open because of a stunt to his blindside. Lock is initially looking at the deep curl to the bottom of the screen and wants to take a deep shot over the top to the post which is coming across the field with the curl holding the corner from getting underneath it. The play works perfectly and if Lock stands strong in the pocket it’s an easy big gain to the post and he can even throw the curl if he wants. But the movement on the line scares him out of the pocket and he immediately comes off those reads to check it down. To take the next step he’s just got to be able to stand in and make throws and not be so skittish in the pocket. He’s leaving tons of plays on the field because he’s feeling pressure that isn’t there.

What makes it worse is Lock will often create some of this pressure himself by dropping too far back. Unless you’re working a play-action bootleg, normal shot gun drop backs should be at about 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Lock’s skip drop he takes after his initial punch step will often take him to 10-11 yards behind the line of scrimmage though. This makes the offensive tackles lives incredibly difficult because they can’t wash edge rushers behind the pocket anymore since Lock is so deep. It also creates pressure in Lock’s face and gets him out of rhythm on his throws which causes inconsistent footwork. He just flat out cannot handle pressure. On this play he misses a touchdown down the sideline because his drop is so deep he feels pressure and tries to check it down. If he climbs or drops to 8 yards, he can hitch and deliver a strike down the sideline for a touchdown. Instead he’s falling away from his throw with pressure in his face which causes the ball to go high for an incompletion on a check-down.

Lock takes a little longer to process things than you’d like and that’s why you get some of his wild variability. When he takes longer to process, his feet get sloppy, he throws late, and gets himself and the team into trouble. He can lock onto receivers which pulls deep defenders that way and causes turnover worthy plays as he waits for things to open up instead of throwing with anticipation or getting to his next read.

Things are slowing down for Lock though. He’s starting to build comfortability with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, understand concepts and defender keys, and has made progress in the underneath game. To really unleash his potential though, he has to translate that to seeing the entire field and to being able to stand strong in the pocket. Even with those things, he still makes some amazing throws and the talent is clearly there. Drew Lock has the potential to carry a team on his back but he also makes a few decisions a game that put them in a disadvantageous position. One thing’s for sure though, he makes the Broncos exciting and as he gets more and more experience, the Lock rollercoaster may have a lot more ups than downs and if things start to really click, we’ll all be along for the ride.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

2021 NFL Mock Draft: Midseason Edition

IT’S MOCK DRAFT SEASON!!!! Ok, maybe it’s not quite yet but we’re halfway through the season and we have an idea of how the draft order is going to look. In this exercise, we used Tankathon for the order and did not include any trades.

  1. New York Jets- Trevor Lawrence, QB Clemson

The Jets need to rebuild this franchise BADLY. Luckily for them, they just so happen to have one of the best quarterback prospects of all time available to pick in Lawrence. I’m as big of a Sam Darnold fan as there is, but Adam Gase has ruined him completely and I think you can get a second-rounder in return if you decide to trade him. Not great, but good value. Let the new coach grow with Lawrence, who might just become a megastar with his talent and the fact he’s playing in New York. You can turn this team around quicker than many would anticipate. Now, an interesting hypothetical: Does Lawrence pull an Eli Manning and flat out refuse to play for the Jets? I say no because he seems like a high character guy, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. 

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  1. New York Giants- Penei Sewell, OT Oregon

If there’s anybody that’s going to be the second overall pick that is not a quarterback, it’ll be Penei Sewell. Sewell might be one of the best offensive line prospects in the last decade or so and immediately becomes a starter at left tackle. Yes, the Giants did just draft Andrew Thomas last year but you can move him to the right side and have two possible dominant linemen to build your team around. Now, there is a good chance they draft a quarterback here and move on from Daniel Jones. However, it seems that the organization is behind him as the starter of the future. If that’s the case, then he needs to be protected. Would I stick with Jones? No, but much smarter people than me are making these decisions.

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars- Justin Fields, QB Ohio State

Many see Justin Fields as the consolation prize to Trevor Lawrence. Let’s just make it clear right now, Fields shouldn’t be seen as that as he is a bonafide stud. In most years, he’s the top overall pick. But, this isn’t most years. Fields still won’t drop out of the top three. A phenomenal athlete, Fields is a perfect quarterback for today’s NFL as he can move in the pocket and deliver an accurate ball. For the Jaguars, it seems like they aren’t sold on Gardner Minshew as their guy. He has the potential I think to carve out a Ryan Fitzpatrick role for himself so there might be some trade value for him based on his age and contract. Still, an easy decision to move on from him if needed. 

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  1. Miami Dolphins (via Houston)- Ja’Marr Chase, WR LSU

Just like last year, this year’s wide receiver group is incredibly deep. There are probably seven or eight receivers who could possibly go in the first round, but Chase is by far the best in my opinion. Yes, both Alabama guys (Waddle and Smith) are impressing early, but they don’t have the all-around polished game like Chase. As a sophomore, he had over 1700 yards receiver and 20 touchdowns. Yes, those are right and aren’t from a video game. Anything you ask him to do, he can do it at a high level. Pair him with a young QB like Tua Tagovailoa and that’s a deadly duo for the next decade. This is one of those dream draft fits that if it happens, could totally change the future of a franchise. 

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  1. Dallas Cowboys- Patrick Surtain II, CB Alabama

The Dallas Cowboys have more problems than a math book right now, but a lot of those problems are on the defensive side. I don’t see any way that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan keeps his job and who knows if Mike McCarthy will be around next year. But, at this point, they could really use a strong cornerback with high upside like Patrick Surtain II. Surtain II is a very good cornerback prospect and actually went second overall in Todd McShay’s preseason mock draft. I don’t know if he’s a game-changer that’ll become the best corner in his first few seasons like Jalen Ramsey, but he has a high floor and should be a multiple-time pro bowler that gets better every year like Stephon Gilmore. Also, I’m assuming that the Cowboys re-sign Dak. There’s no reason to not lock him down, but knowing Jerry Jones, I guess anything is possible.

  1. Atlanta Falcons- Gregory Rosseau, EDGE Miami

The Falcons might be in for a rebuild or they might look to retool. They are a tough team to predict because whoever their next coach is will have so much power and get to pick how they want to address the future of the franchise. Regardless of what happens, this team needs help on defense. In particular, the pass defense. Currently, they are at the bottom in passing yards allowed per game and have some decent young talent in the secondary, but need some help. One big way to help that secondary is getting pressure on the quarterback and in an edge class that has a decent amount of depth, there is only one true star and that is former Miami Hurricane, Gregory Rosseau. Rousseau is quite raw, only playing one season of college football, but dominated with 15.5 sacks in 2019. He lined up in several positions across the line and has the body type (6-7, 265 lbs) to become a star. He may take a year or two to produce like a top ten pick, but there’s just too much upside at an important position to pass up.

  1. Washington Football Team- Trey Lance, QB North Dakota State

There is almost no chance Trey Lance makes it out of the top five or six in my opinion, but no trades here! Washington needs a quarterback badly after raising the white flag on Dwayne Haskins. Enter Trey Lance, the biggest question mark in this year’s draft. Blessed with all the talent and fortunate to have great success in a pro-style system, Lance comes from an FCS program and hasn’t played the elite talents like the other quarterbacks in this class. Despite this, Lance does everything well and is a quarterback coach’s dream. Washington might have to sit Lance out a season to develop but the long-term potential is there. 

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  1. LA Chargers- Wyatt Davis, OL Ohio State

Wyatt Davis is an ass-kicker. That’s the best way to describe him as every time you line up across from him, you know it’s going to be a war for all four quarters. While guards might not be seen as a position of high importance in the draft, Davis is going to become one of the league’s premier interior players very soon. The Chargers have their signal caller in Justin Herbert, great talent in Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, but need to find a quality offensive lineman or two. Davis is a positive step towards strengthening the trenches and finally getting some talent there for the Chargers. I considered a linebacker here, but getting an offensive lineman is a necessity. 

  1. New England Patriots- Jaylen Waddle, WR Alabama

Waddle was absolutely dominating the SEC until a nasty leg injury ended his season. He claims to be faster than former Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, who ran a 4.27 40 last year. If that’s true, then holy shit this guy might be the fastest guy in the NFL next year. Add that with good route running and strong hands and you have yourself a game-changer. I hope his leg injury doesn’t have any setbacks and he’s good to go for next season. The Patriots need offensive skill players, especially at receiver. Currently, they have Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and a bunch of replacement players. Whoever is your quarterback next year needs playmakers and Waddle is exactly that. 

  1. MInnesota Vikings- Alex Leatherwood, OL Alabama

The Vikings need young talent in the worst way. They are stuck with Cousins based on his contract and right now they are kind of just depending on Dalvin Cook to win them games. What’s one way to help their run game and also give time for Cousins to throw? Building a solid offensive line! Alex Leatherwood just so happens to be a tackle or guard prospect and plays in a premier conference in the SEC. While I think he can play tackle, which is where he plays at for Alabama, he’s better in the run game than he is a pass protector at this point which might make teams want to kick him inside. For me, it doesn’t matter. Just find a way to get him on the field. 

  1. Cincinnati Bengals- Samuel Cosmi, OT Texas

The Bengals need to find a way to protect Joe Burrow before he gets hurt. Seriously, you could argue they have the worst offensive line in the league. In a division that has elite pass rushers on every team, having good pass protection has to become a blueprint for your success. Cosmi does need some refinement, but he’s athletic and has experience as a starter. He shows a mean streak when he’s on the field and finishes every play he’s involved in. Might be a case where you play him on the right side for a year or two before flipping him to the left.

  1. Carolina Panthers- Dillon Radunz, OT North Dakota State

Matt Rhule seems to be building a contender in Carolina and have so far overachieved this season despite not having Christian McCaffrey for most of it. They took over what seemed like a massive rebuild and are remaining competitive this season, despite not having the talent like the other teams in their division. Right now they have Russell Okung lining up at left tackle and he’s more of a temporary solution rather than a long-term guy. Many of you may have never heard of Radunz, but whenever you watch Trey Lance, you’ll see how great his left tackle is. He’s a mature player for playing FCS and while he might not have the upside like the previous offensive linemen, he has a high floor. 

  1. Detroit Lions- Micah Parsons, LB Penn State

If Parsons is on the board at this point, the Lions would sprint to the podium. The Lions swung and missed on Jarrad Davis in the first round, but Parsons is as good of a prospect as you’ll find in this class. There’s nothing he can’t do and would immediately become one of the best players on this defense. Right now their defense ranks towards the bottom in passing and rushing yards with no immediate solution in sight. Parsons is a special athlete who can do just about everything. In reality, I don’t see how he drops out of the top ten, but in this scenario, he falls right into the laps of a team in need of star power. 

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  1. Denver Broncos- Caleb Farley, CB Virginia Tech

Farley has all the physical tools but lacks some refinement which is why I have him slightly below Surtain II. Farley reminds me a lot of Miami Dolphins CB Byron Jones in the sense they both have great size and athleticism for the position. Farley is still a work in progress and is new to the position, so the Broncos can rely on A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan next season as Farley continues to hone his craft. With the dynamic pass rush of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, Vic Fangio’s defense just needs corners who can cover for a few seconds, making Farley’s job that much easier. 

  1. San Francisco 49ers- Shaun Wade, CB Ohio State

The next defensive star at Ohio State is Shaun Wade, who was once a top national recruit finally getting a chance to be “the guy” in Columbus. He was their slot corner last year and decided to come back for his junior year to prove he can play out on the boundary. As he continues to show that he can do that, teams can be patient with him knowing that that can put him in the slot year one and know he can do that at a high level. San Francisco has been decimated by injuries and will have a decent amount of free agents to try and lock down this offseason. Cornerback alone has three key guys (Richard Sherman, K’waun Williams, and Jason Verrett) and it’s very unlikely they keep all three. Wade will inject some youth and skill to that position that they can develop into a starter.

  1. Miami Dolphins- Creed Humphrey, IOL Oklahoma

Miami is trending in the right direction. For a team that at this point last season looked hopeless, they figure to be in the hunt for a wild card spot this year. Brian Flores is doing a good job of building that defense, mostly via free agency, and their offense looks solid despite not having the talent like other teams. One spot where I think they can help out a few facets of their game is an important but overlooked position, which is the center. The center is the quarterback of the offensive line and often the one making line audibles and calling out potential rushers. It just so happens that Creed Humphrey is an elite center prospect worthy of a high first-rounder selection. He’s a multiple-year starter that’s in a spread system, which is something we are seeing more of in the NFL. Help out Tua by giving him extra beef on the offensive line. 

  1. Las Vegas Raiders- Jay Tufele, DL USC

The Raiders are a tough team to predict here. Offensively, they are looking much improved and defensively have some young talent. Their secondary isn’t performing well but they spent a first-round pick on Damon Arnette, a cornerback, last year. So, what else can help a secondary? A strong pass rush. They have Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, but need some pressure up the middle. Jay Tufele is a big fella in the middle of the defensive line and can wreak some havoc in a multiple ways. He doesn’t have eye-popping stats, but he moves very well for a guy over 300 pounds and holds his own against the run. This is a high floor pick that will give the Raiders another stud on the line.

  1. Chicago Bears- Kyle Trask, QB Florida

The Bears have one of the best defenses in the league, but right now their offense is just tough to watch. They’ve already given up on Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles is a replacement-level player. Are they a QB away from being legit Super Bowl contenders? Maybe. They need another lineman or skill player, but a good quarterback can elevate the rest of the offense. Trask has helped his stock tremendously this year and has taken a Burrow-esque leap. No, he’s not as good as Burrow but he has taken that leap to become a legit NFL prospect. I think he’s ready to start right away and may not have the crazy upside like the top three, but is a safe option here. 

  1. Philadelphia Eagles- Dylan Moses, LB Alabama

Dylan Moses was a Youtube superstar before stepping foot on campus and has been a key player for the Crimson Tide’s defense two of the last three years. He did tear his ACL in 2019 which may need extra medical pre-draft examination, but he looks to be back to full health this season. As of the Eagles, they are somehow on top of the awful NFC East and are picking this low for that reason despite their low win total. One of the main problems on this team is their linebackers, where I think they have the worst linebacker group in the NFL. Moses would come in as an immediate starter and provide a much-needed boost. 

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  1. Cleveland Browns- Kwity Paye, EDGE Michigan

The Browns defense is still a work in progress, but they do have one of the league’s best players in Myles Garrett. The other pass rushers for the Browns haven’t been as productive and starting edge rusher Olivier Vernon has zero sacks so far this season. I doubt he’s back in 2021. So, it’s time for the Browns to find Garrett a partner in crime and they do so here in freak athlete Kwity Paye. Paye hasn’t had the crazy stats you’d like to see, but his athleticism is unmatched. Bruce Felman of the Athletic lists Kwity Paye has the #1 freak athlete in college football with his times in all agility drills being elite for a guy his size. His 40, 3 cone, shuttle, and vertical would have all been tops in the 2020 class for edge rushers and he’s doing it at 275 pounds. That reminds me a lot of Ziggy Ansah as a prospect, a guy with immense talent that continues to learn how to be a football player. 

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars (via Rams)- Pat Friermuth, TE Penn State

Simply put, Pat Friermuth is a baller. His teammates have dubbed him “Baby Gronk” and the nickname fits him. He’s already built like an NFL player and excels as a blocker and receiver. He doesn’t have the crazy receiving yard totals due to the nature of the offense Penn State runs, but he has 16 career touchdowns to this point. The Jaguars grabbed Justin Fields as their QB of the future earlier and getting Friermuth would be a perfect compliment. D.J. Chark and James Robinson look like promising players and adding Friermuth to the mix would give Fields a safety blanket over the middle. 

  1. Indianapolis Colts- Zach Wilson, QB BYU

Philip Rivers obviously isn’t the long term starter for the Colts, but it’ll be interesting to see how they approach that position. Do they try to acquire Darnold or Haskins? Look to sign one as they have a ton of cap space? Or will they draft someone? I’m assuming the latter and the best QB on the board is Zach Wilson aka “The Mormon Manziel”. He’s exploded onto the national scene this season after struggling his first two seasons as a starter. He has the arm strength and athleticism that teams desire, plus excels when things break down around him. The Colts could bring back Rivers to mentor Wilson and help him learn the playbook. 

  1. Arizona Cardinals- Joseph Ossai, EDGE Texas

If you want to compete in the NFC West, you need to find ways to slow down the potent offenses. The Cardinals have one of the best sack artists in the league in Chandler Jones, but he tore his biceps and will be 31 next season. They need to continue to add to their talented defense, which is why they get Ossai here. Ossai is a workhorse who has a high motor, never giving up on a play. He’s athletic enough to play 3-4 outside linebacker but will need some pass coverage coaching. He won’t be drafted to play in coverage though, he’ll be drafted to get to the quarterback.

  1. Baltimore Ravens- Rashod Bateman, WR Minnesota

The Ravens are a team that really doesn’t have a weakness. In fact, I think they have the league’s best roster, but that might change in the near future as a big Lamar Jackson contract extension is probably coming. So, if you want to help out your franchise player you need to find guys who will make plays. They drafted Hollywood Brown in 2019, but he’s a deep threat and to me doesn’t really fit into Lamar’s game. He wants guys who will get open in intermediate routes and can make plays after the catch. Bateman isn’t fast like Brown, but he is a physical receiver who makes his money on breaking tackles. 

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  1. Green Bay Packers- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB Notre Dame

I dream of a scenario where the Packers draft a wide receiver in the first round, but I also dream of winning the lotto. The Packers do have other needs though, in particular at middle linebacker. Their run defense is still weak and needs an athletic linebacker to play the run and still be able to cover tight ends. Owusu-Koramoah isn’t a thumper and is a bit skinny, but he has great instincts and makes plays all over the field. If you can add another twenty pounds of muscle to his frame while keeping his agility, he’ll be a steal at this spot for the Packers. A true three-down linebacker, he will make up with speed in what he lacks in size.  

  1. Tennessee Titans- Quincy Roche, EDGE Miami

The Titans went all in and got Jadeveon Clowney right before the season started, but he has zero sacks on the season. For the “But he gets pressures!” crowd, when you pay a guy thirteen million, you sure as hell better get some sacks. I don’t see a scenario where he’s back in Tennessee next year. Roche is a mature player, who is a bit undersized at 235 pounds, but uses that to his advantage with his quickness. He has experience with his hand in the dirt and standing up, which is perfect for the 3-4 defense the Titans run. I don’t think he’s the edge player with the most upside, but he’s a solid player who should get between 7-10 sacks every year.

  1. New Orleans Saints- Devonta Smith, WR Alabama

To be honest, I have NO idea what the Saints will do. They’ll be about 80 million dollars over the cap for 2021, so will have to dump a bunch of contracts. It also looks like Drew Brees will retire after the season, but Sean Payton seems to love Taysom Hill, for reasons unknown and has Jameis Winston also in the building. With a team in such cap hell, I think they’ll roll with one of those two or draft a young guy, but I think Payton favors a veteran as they want to win now. So, I’ll give them the best player on the board, which is Devonta Smith. Smith doesn’t wow you physically, but does the little things well. He’s a good compliment to Michael Thomas, assuming he’s still on the team next year, in the sense he is an excellent route runner and has strong hands. Smith may never become a star but will be a high-end WR2 for years.

  1. Buffalo Bills- Kyle Pitts, TE Florida

Kyle Pitts is more receiver than tight end, but if he develops some blocking skill then watch out NFL. He’s built kind of like New York Giants tight end Evan Engram but isn’t nearly as athletic and is taller. However, he’s a better all-around receiver than Engram was and is dangerous in the slot or split out wide. The Bills finally got Josh Allen a WR1 in Stefon Diggs, but a guy like Pitts can be used as a chess piece in what is become a great offense in Buffalo.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Marvin Wilson, DL Florida State

Marvin Wilson was a top-ten player coming into the year, but like most of the Florida State team, has been underwhelming so far in 2020. If you were a fan of Derrick Brown last year, you’ll enjoy Wilson. He’s a big-bodied defensive tackle who won’t rack up the sacks, but often take up two blockers. The Bucs defense is one of the league’s best, but Ndamukong Suh is a free agent and on the wrong side of 30. I think Wilson can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and bring the fight to offensive linemen every snap. Pairing him with Vita Vea would give Tampa two large and athletic bodies in the middle of the line.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs- Jaycee Horn, CB South Carolina

The son of Joe Horn has made quite the name for himself this season. He has all the measurables you desire in a corner and has the same swagger that his dad possessed. My favorite type of corner is the guy who will get in your face and play mind games with the offense, which is what Horn is. The Chiefs lack stability at the corner position and that or linebacker is what I was expecting them to address in the first round last year. You know your offense can put up points, so it’s time to focus on building up the defense with your lack of cap space. 

  1. New York Jets (via Seattle)- Travis Etienne, RB Clemson

I’m sure Trevor Lawrence would love it if you could pair him with his college running back, who just so happens to be a first-round player. The Jets need talent so they could go almost in any direction and the pick would make sense. Etienne has developed into a pass catcher this year and has shown he can be a three-down player. He has the vision and wiggle you want in a runner, yet has shown he can carry the ball 20+ times a game with no problem. Rebuilding the Jets won’t happen overnight, but if you get high character athletes like Etienne and Lawrence, you’ll be in good shape. 

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  1. Pittsburgh Steelers- Trey Smith, IOL Tennessee

The Steelers have always been a team that prides themselves on being more physical than their opponent and that starts with the offensive line. DeCastro and Pouncey are two of the best in the league at their position, but the other three spots have some question marks. And while Trey Smith does have injury concerns, he is the prototypical Steelers player. A nasty interior lineman, who also has some experience at tackle. No one will out muscle him and he is built for the power run game. He did miss the 2018 season because of a blood clot issue in his lungs, which is very worrisome, so the team’s doctors will have to pay extra attention to him. 

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How the Chicago Bears Defense Confuses QBs into Making Mistakes and Taking Sacks

The Bears defense is alive and well. Akiem Hicks is back and disrupting plays with 13 QB hits and 5 tackles for loss, Khalil Mack has 5.5 sacks on the season, Eddie Jackson is one of the best safeties in the league, and Kyle Fuller is allowing just a 51.5% completion percent. To have a truly elite defense, you need to have a secondary and front that work together. The Bears like to move their secondary players around at the snap to force quarterbacks to diagnose things on the fly and adjust in real time. It can cause them to make poor decisions or hold the ball for a half second longer to allow the Bears pass rush to get home. It sounds simple but being static can often be a death sentence for defenses. If you don’t give teams something to think about at the snap, you’re conceding that it’s going to be your guys versus theirs. Moving your pieces around gives the advantage back to the defenses and is part of the reason why Chicago has allowed just 58.7% of passes to be completed this season.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

https://theathletic.com/791467/2019/01/30/already-compared-to-ed-reed-how-good-can-eddie-jackson-be-paired-with-chuck-pagano/

The Bears are predominantly a one high safety team and play a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They’ll often show two high safeties though because they want to force quarterbacks to process and figure out what’s going on post-snap. At the snap of the ball or leading up to the snap, they’ll rotate their safeties to change their pre-snap look. Often, this leads them to running Cover 1 Robber. Cover 1 just means that there is one high safety and man coverage everywhere else on the field. Robber is describing the action of the other safety because he is going to drop down at the snap and “rob” the middle of the field. This Robber player is free to jump any routes that flash in front of him. Cover 1 Robber can be used to prevent slants, quick hitting hooks underneath, or crossing routes. Here, the Giants are running a common play which is a chains concept where the receivers get to the first down marker and turn around for the ball. The Bears are running their Cover 1 Robber to the trips side so that they can help Roquan Smith in coverage. Smith knows that there’s a robber behind him so he can now bracket to the inside of the tight end. The corner to the top of the screen also knows he can play with outside leverage and funnel inside because the Robber will be there to pick up any crossers. The Robber frees up other players to play with more conservative leverage and funnel things inside to both the free safety over the top and the robber over the middle. Daniel Jones here is reading that Roquan smith is way inside on his tight end, so he’s determining pre-snap that’s the route that he wants. The tight end is going to turn around right at the sticks and with two safeties over the top and with leverage on the linebacker, it should be an easy completion. What Jones doesn’t see though, is Eddie Jackson dropping down to rob the route. Jackson knows the routes are coming based on down and distance and keys off of Jones’ eyes. He breaks on the route and causes the ball to pop up into the air.

You can see in this play how Cover 1 Robber looks when coming down on a crossing route. The Bears show two high before the late rotate back to centerfield by Tashaun Gipson and the Robber, Eddie Jackson, sits right in the middle of the field waiting for a an in-breaking route to rob. The Lions are running a dig route across the middle of the field and Eddie Jackson is sitting in the deep hole ready to break on it. Stafford doesn’t see it, and Jackson is able to break on it and pop the ball into the air again for an interception.

Really this robber look is just designed to cause hesitation on routes in the middle of the field, set the safety up with angles to make a play on the ball, or force the offense to make throws outside where the Bears are getting great play out of their corners Kyle Fuller and their rookie Jaylon Johnson.

For example, here the Falcons use pre-snap motion to try and diagnose what the Bears are doing. When the receiver shifts over and the corner comes with him, that’s a man coverage indicator. You pair that with two high safeties, and you expect to see 2 Man Under which gives the defense two deep players in each half of the field and man coverage underneath. So, if you’re Matt Ryan, what’s a route that you love here? The Falcons are running two crossers behind each other across the field. Based on leverage and having a shallow drag route to the top of the screen, he’s going to want to hit the first crosser because that receiver has inside leverage on the slot defender. The shallow by the tight end at the top will pull the defender to that side, and he sees the boundary side safety getting depth on the snap. What he doesn’t expect is for Eddie Jackson to again be in that Robber look coming down from the four-receiver side. Jackson comes down right in front of that crosser which is where Ryan is looking first. Ryan sees that the crosser is bracketed but by that time is feeling pressure. He has to come off the read, and throws short for an incompletion.  

Similar to Cover 1 Robber, the Bears also use jump calls against teams that like to run a lot of crossers like the Rams in Week 7. The Rams run a ton of tight formations and drag their receivers across on deep over routes in their play-action game. The Bears’ method of combatting that was to use Jump calls. A Jump call is very similar to using a Robber, but it takes a little more communication and understanding from the defense. With a Jump call, the safety is coming down on the crossing route and the corner that was initially over that route replaces them in the middle of the field instead of chasing them across. The Bears use this coverage on the single receiver side of the formation so that that corner isn’t going to be immediately threatened in their half of the field when they vacate it. For the purposes of this play, the slice behind the formation by the receiver in the slot turns this into a single receiver side to the bottom of the screen after the snap of the ball. This Jump call allows the Bears to keep the integrity of their defense and bypass traffic in the middle of the field while picking up crossers from the safety position with an angle to make the tackle or a play on the ball.

So, the Bears run a lot of the Cover 1 Robber, typically with the Robber coming from the trips side and they’ll also use those Jump calls. They’ll also invert that and show a one-high safety look and then bail out of it into Cover 2 Trap, also called Palms. Palms is popular against spread formations and two receiver sets which is what we have here against the Panthers. It’s essentially Cover 2 with match coverage principles tied into it. The corners on the outside are keying the #2 receivers on the inside. If they have an outbreaking route, they’re going to carry the #1 until they see it and then drop to jump the out route by #2. If that’s the case, the safety over the top would then pick up #1 as they go vertical. The linebackers then help to bracket any in breaking crossers like a dig or slant.

That’s what the Bears are running here. The problem that Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers have is that Chicago is showing single high which either means Cover 1 or Cover 3. In either case, Teddy likes the matchups and leverage of his routes to the top of the screen. The #1 goes vertical, the #2 runs a wheel right behind it, and the running back runs an arrow out into the flats. In the Bears Palms coverage, the corner is going to pass off that vertical to the safety coming over the top and jump the outbreaking route from the #2. He then carries that wheel up the sideline since he is now in man coverage on that route. The slot defender is bracketing but has no in breakers, so he runs with the running back to the flats. Everything is covered. Normally, though, in a Cover 3 or in man, that initial vertical would pull the corner deep. The #2 running the wheel route would be carried by the slot defender who would normally have the flats in cover 3 and now there would be no flat defender to pick up that running back since that defender carried the wheel. In Cover 1, you’d be one-on-one with your running back on a linebacker in man. All matchups you’d probably like. So, Teddy looks that way off the snap but then sees the Bears are rotating into that Cover 2 look with two high safeties and the safety getting over the top of the vertical from #1. He knows that that side of the field is going to be covered and tries to get back over to the bottom of the screen.  By then, though, the corner has broken on the slant from Robby Anderson, Teddy has to move out of the pocket, and the Bears close in for a sack. It’s the perfect marriage of coverage and pressure and is what makes these rotates and post-snap movements so effective for defenses. One second of pause from the QB and all the sudden your pass rush can get home for a big play to put the Panthers on their own one yard line.

Here’s another example of Cover 2 at the bottom of the screen with the Bears again giving a late rotate into the two high safety look. The corner is again keying the #2 receiver for an out-breaking route and leaving any crosser or vertical route for the safety or the linebacker. The corner takes the quick out and the linebacker now brackets and gets inside of the post from the #1. Bridgewater knows the Bears like to have their robber to the trips side and the Bears had run a single high look with man coverage earlier in this game against the Panthers’ empty formations so that’s exactly what Bridgewater is looking for here.

The Bears instead rotate the middle field safety over and drop Eddie Jackson into the deep seem to the trips side. Normally, offenses will have reads versus defenses when they’re showing middle of the field open with two high safeties versus middle of the field closed versus one high safety. In this case, DJ Moore has an option route of running a dig versus 1 high or a post versus a 2-high look. You want to attack the weakness of the defense. Because of the strong rush and the late rotate, Teddy still thinks it’s a 1 high look and either man or Cover 3 so he’s expecting a dig from DJ Moore. Meanwhile, Moore is seeing the rotate by the safety and breaks for a post to exploit that vacated middle of the field – which really is wide open if Teddy throws the ball down the field. There’s absolutely nobody there. But because he doesn’t see the rotate and the rush is getting home, he throws the dig right into the linebacker who has bracketed the in-breaking route. It’s an interception that ultimately seals the game and prevents the Panthers from continuing their potential game tying drive.

The Bears are sitting at 5-2 and are right in the mix of the NFC playoff picture. Their defense is getting to the quarterback, locking down receivers, and confusing quarterbacks into holding the ball and making mistakes. With the marriage of an elite secondary and a defensive line that can cause pressure, the Bears have all the pieces to the puzzle on defense. The offense might have its ups and downs but as the old saying goes and as Bears fans are hoping is true – defense win championships.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How the Saints use Pass Game Concepts Dagger and Y-Cross to Create Chunk Plays

A lot has been made of Drew Brees’ arm strength and the New Orleans Saints, but they’re sitting at 3-2 and are right in the thick of things in the NFC South. They’re scoring 30.6 points per game, and while there is a lot of short game and possession passing in the Saints offense, they also attack the intermediate middle of the field with deep digs and crossers in the Dagger and Y-Cross concepts. These those two schemes are very similar to each other and also work to open up space underneath for Kamara on check downs. Nothing is really new under the sun for NFL teams and passing schemes. Almost every team uses some variation of the big concepts like Drive, Shallow Cross, Stick, Mesh, or Dagger, but the inventive coaches find ways to tweak them, make them look different, disguise them so defenses can’t key on them, and even combine multiple concepts into one play; and that’s what Sean Payton does a good job of.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

https://cbssportsradio.radio.com/articles/sean-payton-discusses-drew-brees-new-orleans-saints

First, let’s understand the Dagger concept. Dagger uses a clear out with a deep dig behind it and typically a shallow drag or someone in the flats underneath it to give a high-low read on the defense. Dagger can be incredibly effective against any coverage. Its one downfall though, is that the primary read and goal of the play – the deep dig – takes a long time to develop so it puts a big burden on the offensive line. With the deep dig to attack the middle of the field, you’ll often see it called in 2nd or 3rd and long situations where you’re more likely to see two high safeties and softer coverage. That’s exactly what we have here with a 3rd and 15 for the Saints. Here, the Packers are in match cover 4. What that means is that for all intents and purposes, the deep routes are covered in man. Match coverage uses a lot of man on demand or MOD coverage. If the receiver lined up on the corner goes vertical, the coverage turns into man. If that receiver goes inside within five yards, the corner would pass that route off to the linebacker. This also applies to the nickel corners here lined up over the #2 receivers. If their receiver goes vertical, they carry. If they go inside under five yards, they pass it off. You can see just that at the top of the screen as the tight end Jared Cook immediately goes inside and the corner passes him off the linebacker while pointing and communicating an “in” call.

The safeties meanwhile, are giving support over the top and helping to bracket routes inside and out. You can see that the safety to the bottom of the screen quickly bails to the outside to bracket the receiver to the outside while the nickel carries him from the inside. Kevin King on the other side of the field is running a lock call so no matter what, he’s man on that receiver. This frees up Adrian Amos to peak and lean to the field side and help down the middle. This is exactly what the Dagger concept can exploit. Remember, we have a clear out with a seam or a skinny post from the play-side slot receiver. This receiver needs to get inside of the safety to his side so that he pulls him in coverage. The more people he can take with him on this route, the better. On the outside, we know that in match cover 4, the corner is going to be MOD on the dig because it’s deeper than five yards. So, we’re clearing the nickel corner and play-side safety and now have a one-on-one with the corner on the outside. Meanwhile, from the backside of the play, we have that shallow drag coming across the field. We talked about that being passed off to the linebacker and that’s exactly what happens. It keeps the linebacker underneath to open the window for the deep dig behind. It all works perfectly – except for protection starts to break down and Brees can’t hang in the pocket long enough to hit the dig as it’s breaking open. What the route concept has done though, is left Kamara one-on-one in the open field against that dime corner that passed off the shallow drag. A matchup that the Saints love every day of the week. It might be a dump off and check down off of a deep play concept, but it picks up the 15 yards on 3rd and long and moves the chains because it has stressed the defense vertically and opened space underneath.

Dagger is still really effective against a single high safety look as well. The purpose of the clear out is exactly the same. His job is to hold that safety with his seam route and pull the corner with him to clear space underneath for the deep dig. The Raiders are bringing extra pressure here so the middle of the field is really open but that means the running back has to stay in to help with the blitz so there is no outlet for Brees now. He’s going to have to stand in the pocket until the dig develops or until the shallow drag pops open. What’s great about these tight splits when running Dagger is that the deep dig gets inside leverage on that cover 3 corner which makes life a lot easier on both the quarterback and the receiver. The slot corner carries the seam up to the safety, the dig has leverage on the corner outside, and Brees can throw with anticipation here because there’s no linebacker to get in the passing lane and he can see the corners back turned in the middle of the field. The safety tries to rotate down on it, but it’s too late and a nice chunk gain for the Saints.

The Saints will run Dagger a couple times a game to attack the middle of the field. The concept stays the same and is effective against whatever coverage they might see. Even if it doesn’t go to the deep dig, it still gets their playmakers in space underneath.

So that’s Dagger. What Sean Payton has started to combine it with though is the Y-Cross concept. Let’s dig into that a little bit and then we’ll see how he meshes the Dagger and Y-Cross into one to add wrinkles to the playbook and give Brees a lot of options on the play. The Y-Cross is run by a lot of teams off play-action and with tight ends but you can run it out of any personnel grouping and off pure drop back as well. Against the Lions, the Saints run it out of 11 personnel with a rocket motion to the field. The tight end, or the Y, has the Crossing route. He is working for an inside release and then across the field and an angle at which he would run out of bounds at 18-22 yards downfield. Against zone, he would settle in the first hole after the Mike linebacker and in man he would continue to run across the field. Behind the Y-Cross, you have a deep dig route similar to what we saw on Dagger. There really are a ton of areas that are possible to settle in for both the Y-Cross and that deep dig route so it can be hard to recognize since it can be run five times and have the receivers all stopping in five different spots on the field. The concept on Y-Cross it is very similar, the Y-Cross pulls defenders and vacates space for the dig coming in behind it. The main difference here is that the outside receiver is running a vertical route and there’s no shallow drag coming underneath it. The first read is always checking for that vertical from the X receiver away from the Y-Cross. The quarterback then works to the Y-Cross, and then the deep dig behind it.

Now on a pure drop back you have the same concept, with the Y-Cross which can sometimes be checked into a hard dig if the receiver is feeling man coverage. You still have the dig behind it and the vertical from the X receiver. Brees could have again had the dig but checks it down to Kamara in the flats and ends up getting good yardage. With all that flow to one side, the Saints like to leak Kamara into the flats into the backside. Again, they’re just getting their best player in space on a linebacker or corner and letting him go to work.

Now that we understand what both Dagger and Y-Cross look like we can look at what the Saints do out of trips to combine the two concepts into one play and stress the defense in multiple ways. It’s an easy install into already established plays in the offense and allows versatility for attacking coverages and creating a big play. The Chargers are in a unique defense here where they’re playing man coverage underneath with one true free safety and then two deep seem defenders that are going to sit at the sticks and help bracket players from the outside on this 3rd and 14 from the Saints. The Saints call up their Y-Cross Dagger combination concept out of trips. The #3 receiver runs the Y-Cross, the #2 receiver runs that seam clear out that we saw in Dagger, and the #1 receiver runs the deep dig behind it. On the single receiver side you have the shallow drag that you normally see in Dagger as well. So really it’s just like running a Y-Cross with the additional receiver on the Dagger side when they’re in trips. You have Dagger from the outside guys and the dig plays into the Y-Cross so you’ve managed to combine both concepts. What this does is attack that deep safety with two verticals. If he runs to the Y-Cross, he’s leaving his corner out to dry down the seam, and if he stays with the seam like he does, it puts the linebacker in trail position in an impossible position. That seam defender to the boundary at the top of the screen is supposed to sit and guard the sticks, but if there’s nobody threatening, he has to get deep and underneath the Y- Cross. That player is #44 Kyzir White who plays linebacker. Clearly not a guy that’s used to protecting a deep zone of the field. Brees knows that, and attacks that matchup. If the Y-Cross wasn’t there though, the dig portion of the concept is about to break open in the middle of the field and the shallow drag has pulled out any underneath defenders. The Seam from Dagger concept held the safety to allow the Y-Cross to get open.

The Saints have run this combo concept a couple times this year. This time, against the Lions, the Seam is the one that’s open. Brees ends up checking it down to the shallow drag to Taysom Hill but let’s take a look at the bind it puts defenses in. The Y-Cross gets the safety’s his hips turned inside and the dig helps bring down the corner. The corner to the top of the screen jumps on the dig and with the safeties hips turned the wrong way, the Seam is open and there’s a ton of space for Brees to throw to. The Y-Cross has taken 3 defenders, the Dig has taken two, and that leaves 1-on-1 matchups for the rest of the routes – the seam, shallow drag, and leak from Kamara. Brees comes down to the shallow drag who settles in the middle of the field but the shot to the seam was there and available for a big play.

The Saints are right in the thick of things and have managed to survive a stretch without their best weapon in Michael Thomas while still being right at the top of the NFC South. Things are only going to improve for that offense upon his return. Sean Payton does a good job of combining concepts and attacking defenses in multiple ways. It creates easy outlets for Drew Brees and even when they don’t work, they end up getting Kamara into the flats. So, let’s not say Drew Brees is washed and the Saints are done. They’re just fine. With the wrinkles that Sean Payton assuredly has in store, the sky is still the limit for the Saints and they can absolutely still compete for a Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How Stefanski is Using Zone and Counter to Power the Cleveland Browns Run Game

The Cleveland Browns might finally have things headed in the right direction and in large part that’s due to the run game that Stefanski has installed. The Browns rank 1st in the NFL with 942 yards rushing with an average of 188 per game. While Stefanski uses plenty of stretch zone and wide zone, his use of the counter scheme has really powered the Browns run game. With strong and athletic linemen and some very talented backs, Stefanski has helped establish a power, tough nosed, identity in the run game for the Browns. He’ll dress counter up in an infinite number of ways which helps create creases for Chubb and Hunt to attack and allows his linemen to drive block and wall off defenders on the inside. Counter is somewhat of a rarity in the NFL – at least as a bread and butter run play. Defenders are so fast and good at penetrating, they can often disrupt the play if the timing isn’t there. That’s why Stefanski is using his fullbacks, H-backs, and any other personnel he can find to make counter hit faster and more cleanly open up space.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

We’ll start off with their pure counter look before we dive into how Stefanski likes to add wrinkles and make his counter look slightly different from play to play. When they’re running their generic guard and tackle counter, they like to run counter strong so that they know that they’re going to typically be running at the 3-technique that is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard which in turn, makes the down-block for the center easier because he’s now facing a 1-technique that is shaded on his backside shoulder.

In counter, the guard kicks out and the tackle is the one that wraps through and up-field. Usually if there’s an end, that’s the guy that’s left for the kickout but since the Browns here are in 12 personnel with two tight ends and the end is in a 6 technique head up with the first tight end, the guard has to be able to sift through and kick out the first outside man that appears that is trying to pinch down on the hole. That ends up being #58 at the Mike linebacker position. The guard wants to kick him up and out and then the tackle coming behind him, is meant to wrap up and through that kickout block and block the first enemy color. It can depend on the scheme and leverage of the end man on the line of scrimmage, but the tackle will usually look inside out as they wrap through.

Everyone else is down-blocking. The rest of the line trying to create a wall that prevents penetration and pursuit to the play-side. So, the two tight ends are down-blocking on a combo to the Will linebacker – meaning they’re leaving the Mike for the guard or tackle to pick up. The play-side guard and tackle are also double teaming and trying to climb but the defensive tackle here does a good job anchoring and preventing that. The center walls off, and the receiver in the tight split just tries to get in front of any backside pursuit and slow it down. Chubb does a good job of being patient here and riding his blocks up-field.

So, that’s counter at its core. A guard kick, with a blocker wrapping behind with down-blocks and double teams from the play-side. Let’s now take a look at the variations that Stefanski runs with the Browns – because there are quite a few. The simplest next variation is a guard and H-back pull. The Browns block it slightly differently on this snap than your conventional counter though. The kickout is now designed to be on the linebacker because the play-side tackle is hinging and blocking the defensive end. With no end man on the line of scrimmage to kick out, the pulling guard is now responsible for kicking out the play side linebacker. The H, who is replacing the role of the tackle, is looking inside to block the flowing backside linebacker. As a result, the counter hits a lot more vertically and tighter to the center of the field.

You can see comparatively how this is a harder block now for the center because they’re running counter weak, away from the H back. They’re doing this though because they want that open B gap on the play side. So, the play side block for the guard is much easier on their down-block on a 1 technique which helps prevent penetration. If that player was in a 3-technique, as we’ll see soon, the play would be run like a normal counter because they wouldn’t be able to down-block a potential 3 tech there and still be able to block the end. Because the guard isn’t kicking out the end, he has to know he has to be really tight to the line of scrimmage here because he can’t over run that linebacker that’s going to fill the B gap. It’s not perfect because he gets the up-field shoulder of the linebacker, but it’s effective enough to create movement and space. The H wraps around looking inside for the flowing linebacker, and Chubb again does a good job running tight to the wrap block and bursting up-field off of it.

As a comparison, you can now see that same concept run against the Bengals when they have a 3 tech to the play side. The left tackle now down blocks on the 3 technique, and the guard wraps around him. The Browns in both these cases used a jet motion – which, to be honest, they could stand to do a lot more of.

A lot of data is indicating that plays run with pre-snap motion have a higher expected point value on them than plays that don’t. Stefanski was notoriously bad with that with the Vikings last year and ran motion on only 5% of plays and it’s not much better this year. You can see though how impactful that motion is, because it forces the end man on the line of scrimmage out of the play. The guard is now able to wrap up to the linebacker, the H follows behind looking inside first, and while that player that the motion originally moved ends up making the play, it’s not until they’re already 10 yards downfield.

The Browns will also really change it up and mess with linebacker reads by pulling the play side guard instead of the backside guard and run counter with a fullback. It’s almost like a wide trap that can hit very fast with the kickout from the guard and then a more athletic pulling fullback coming across the formation to wrap through. All the staples of counter are there though. You have the down-blocks and climbs to linebackers creating a wall, you have the kickout, and you have the wrap through. Because they’re running at a 3-technique, the the fullback knows that the guard is going to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLS) and that the tight end is going to be able to easily climb to the linebacker based off of alignment. So, the fullback is now looking outside in and picks up the corner that’s walked down into the box. Everything works as schemed and Kareem Hunt is able to get a really nice gain off of it.

They’ll even occasionally have their fullback kick out the EMOLS and have the guard wrap through. Yet another small wrinkle to get to counter but make it look a little different.

Before going into the Browns last couple forms of counter, it’s important to look at their wide zone, because they work off of each other. Wide zone and stretch zone are essentially the same play and it’s largely semantics, but the Browns like to run them both. It gets linebackers flowing and creates cutback lanes for their running backs. They’ll run naked boots off of it and play action and it can be a super effective play for them.

This is an example of stretch zone. Really the defining characteristic for me, and the difference between this and wide zone, is the play side tackle and the size of horizontal steps by the rest of the line. If the tackle is trying to lead with and wrap his hips to seal the outside, I call it stretch. It’s a slight philosophical difference in how the play is run. You can see the tackle is working to seal the outside and allow the running back to turn the corner, which he does successfully. The rest of the linemen are taking hard horizontal steps and working to overtake and climb to linebackers to create hard flow and cutback lanes for the running back when linebackers over pursue.

The ball might not always go outside, but that’s the goal of stretch zone. They really want to create hard flow and stress the edges and are willing to be a little more vulnerable to some inside penetration to do so.

Compare this now to wide zone, where you have a similar alignment from the end man on the line of scrimmage, but now the tackle is just drive blocking him out of the way. He’s not as concerned with sealing the end and is okay with the play cutting up underneath him. The rest of the line takes slightly less aggressive horizontal steps but otherwise stay on the same tracks as the stretch zone.

The main reason I wanted to show some of their wide and stretch zone is to show how the flow works on the offensive line and what that causes in the defense. They’ll often throw in a fullback and have him lead block on their zone plays as well. He just takes the same track as if he was a running back, reading outside-in on the defensive linemen and then attacks the first linebacker to appear and acts as a lead blocker.

Now that we’ve seen how the Browns use their wide and stretch zone and even incorporate lead blocks with the fullback into it, we can go back to our counter. The Browns will run that same look with the outside zone lead, and now they’ll pull that fullback around on a counter action and wrap just like we were seeing before with the H. He takes steps forwards like he’s lead blocking, the down-blocks from the line look an awful lot like wide zone steps and reach steps, but now the guard and fullback are coming around on counter. The guard kicks out and the fullback wraps through.

This is the same concept but a great illustration of how this looks similar to wide zone and gets the linebackers out of position. Again, we have the fullback fake lead to counter wrap and the guard kicking out but take a look at all the linebackers taking a step the wrong way. Because they establish the wide zone and wide zone fullback lead, the linebackers react to it and are out of position. They get caught in traffic trying to scrape across, you have two lead blockers going the other way and there’s one poor corner who’s supposed to take on a kickout block from a guard. Not a recipe for success for the defense.

The Browns also have a guard center counter that they’ll run that can really force defenses to flow hard to the wide zone look and can also be read similarly from the running back perspective. It’s really the same concept we’ve been going over. Just now we have the play side guard and center working the counter action. Guard kicks out, center wraps through. It does make for some incredibly tough blocks on the backside though. It’s a big ask to  cut or wall off pursuing defenders so it’s been a little hit or miss for them but when it hits, it can hit big.

What’s cool is that when they don’t go for the cut blocks backside to prevent pursuit, the play can turn essentially into wide zone. If the defense over flows to the two pullers and the stretch and cutoff blocks, the running back can cutback to the backside just like we see in wide zone. Some really interesting little wrinkles and shows how the run scheme is all tying together for the Browns. The plays build off each other to look similar and keep similar concepts, they’re just designed with slight tweaks and differences.

To finish things off quickly, we’ll talk about that game winning end around to OBJ that the Browns called to beat Dallas because it works off these same concepts. It’s a gotcha play two rungs up the ladder. The Browns run wide zone, they run wide zone fullback lead, then they have the wide zone FB counter wrap play, and now here they are running the counter H-back look except the H-back is now wheeling back around and lead blocking for the end around to Odell Bekham Jr. They still pull the guard and give the Cowboys every indication it’s another one of their power looks and the linebackers buy it and get out of position. They ran it earlier in the game and got a good chunk out of it.

The Browns are grinding people out right now in the run game. Even though Nick Chubb is down for a few weeks, Cleveland just keeps on running it down people’s throats. They are pretty versatile in their game plan and will be heavy zone one week and heavy power and counter the next but the beautiful thing is that it all ties in together. Stefanski has found a way to mesh them into one identity. An identity of aggressive, powerful, and tough football. A team that can grind away your will on the ground and make things easy for Baker Mayfield and some absolute top tier weapons in Odell Bekham Jr, Jarvis Landry, and even Austin Hooper. If you can’t stop the run of the Browns, it’s going to be a long day. The Browns won’t stop running until you make them and if things continue like this, they may keep running all the way to the playoffs.

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