Just understanding defense is tough; playing is even harder. Breaking down the skills a defender needs to succeed in the NFL becomes critical for evaluating players. Here, Sal Conti explains how to evaluate upfield burst for defensive linemen.
Context is critical in the proper evaluation of football personnel. Without investigating and understanding context, your eyes may be lead you astray in your attempt to make an accurate evaluation of a player based on what he is actually being asked to do.
Take, for instance, defensive linemen and their upfield burst off of the line of scrimmage.
The get off from the snap may seem simple to the naked eye: The first-level defender simply moves from his stance and through the offensive side of the line of scrimmage. If the defender is extremely quick off the line, then his upfield burst is noted as being “very good.” If his movement is not quite that fast, the grade given could be “below average,” or even “poor.”
However, evaluators that view a defender’s upfield burst with the mindset shown above are missing a big piece critical to the context in their evaluation: Understanding what a player has been coached to do. There are three main coaching points that defensive linemen are taught in order to get off the ball, one requiring more processing or quick-twitch athletic skills than the others. Dan Hatman from The Scouting Academy explains those schools of thought here:
The three main schools of thought when it comes to keying the snap and get off are:
- Anticipating snap counts: Just as it sounds, timing your initial movement based on the verbal cadence of the quarterback;
- Keying the ball: Tilting your head to keep your eyes on the ball, using the initial movement of the ball to begin your initial movement;
- Matching your key: Waiting until your offensive line key (typically the outside shoulder of the OL you are aligned over) moves to begin your initial movement;
Each requires different discipline from the defensive lineman and aids in executing different techniques based on the front the defensive coordinator is using. They all have a different effect on the speed of the players get off from their stance.
Keying the Ball
The defender under the scope here is Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (#15), aligned at right defensive end in a 5 technique. Garrett uses the ball as the key to his get off; once the ball moves, he’s off. Now that we know that Myles is operating on this train of thought, we can accurately assess the physical traits that are displayed – foot quickness and lower body explosion – and are needed to trigger his initial steps, while gaining ground as quickly as possible in order to put stress on the offensive tackle.
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Garrett displays the ability to key and react well to the ball being snapped. Not every defensive lineman can tilt their head to see the ball, watch the snap, and then shift their eyes back up to their OL key efficiently while also attacking vertically. From here, we notice the sheer speed and explosive athleticism Garrett plays with; he quickly drives the back-side knee to get his first step in the ground and gains around 2.5 yards by his third step. Notice how stressed the Mississippi State left tackle’s pass set is by the third step; in reaction to Garrett’s explosive upfield burst, the LT panics. With his hips facing the sideline, as opposed to being square to the line of scrimmage, his weight is distributed primarily on his outside foot, making him unable to brace for the impending contact and set in to anchor, as well as to quickly re-direct inside versus any inside rush moves. Compounding the problem for this LT, his elbows are outside of his shoulders, which causes him to miss the defender’s strike zone entirely. To put it lightly, the Mississippi State LT is in no position to slow down Garrett’s momentum and protect his QB from a collapsed edge of the pocket, a hurry, and a sack.
Matching Your Key
While it is not the most common coaching method in today’s game, you’ll still see some defensive lineman use the offensive lineman across from them as their key to get off the ball. It is effective in 2 gap fronts where the defensive lineman is expected to react to the offensive lineman’s movements as opposed to attacking a gap. Take Oregon’s defensive front from 2015, for instance.
DeForest Buckner was Oregon’s 4 technique on the right side. This alignment (flat-backed and low to the ground stance, often dubbed a “frog stance”) places Buckner in a more favorable position to two-gap – from this position a player can extend and lock-out an offensive tackle with his arms, then find the ball-carrier, shed the blocker in order to leverage their assigned gap, and make the tackle.
On this 1st and 10 snap, Buckner’s key to get off of the ball and burst upfield is the movement of the OL across from him – 2016 NFL Draft top-ten selection, Jack Conklin. Because of this, Buckner will not pierce the line of scrimmage immediately after the snap, as his movement is dictated by Conklin’s actions. Michigan State lines up in an offset i-formation with 21 personnel signaling to the defense – and Buckner – that this could be a run play.
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The Spartans run play-action, meaning that Buckner must now transition from his two-gap technique into his pass rush mode during the play. While he does a good job later in the play of using his hands to create separation from Conklin, Buckner’s initial upfield burst does very little to put the Spartan LT in distress; all that Conklin has to do is target Buckner’s hands, stay in good pass protection technique, and set his anchor. You should also notice that by Connor Cook’s fifth step, Buckner is only about one yard away from the line of scrimmage.
With all of that being said, it is still not enough evidence to call Buckner’s upfield burst below average. Why? Because the defensive play call did not require him to be an up-field penetrator; it asked him to strike full surface and lockout the LT in an effort to two-gap. In order to get a clearer picture of Buckner’s upfield burst, a number of plays that feature him shooting a gap and keying the ball to get off need to be evaluated, as opposed to just this form of dealing with an offensive lineman.
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On this 1st-and-20 versus pass-happy Washington State, Buckner aligns as Oregon’s 3 technique to the boundary (short side of the field) and is assigned to rush the B gap. This play is a great opportunity to evaluate Buckner’s processing ability to key the ball and move on the snap, as well as his initial foot quickness and lower-body explosion.
Buckner does a good job of keying and moving off of the snap, leveraging solid initial foot quickness to engage the Washington State left guard. Buckner’s upfield burst (along with his inside hand placement to maximize the amount of push) sees him four yards away from the line of scrimmage after the quarterback receives the shotgun snap and lands on his third step. While the LG gets walked back, the QB is still able to make a clean throw downfield. While Buckner’s upfield burst would likely not be classified as very good, it is solid for a player of his size; looking exclusively at the previous clip to assess his upfield burst would have an evaluator writing it off as below average.
Jumping the Snap
Defensive linemen that attempt to “jump” (or pre-determine) the snap or the QB’s cadence can seem to have impressive processing skills and more quick-twitch athletic traits than other players coached under the previous two schools of thought. How can that be? Let’s turn to a couple of college clips from 2012 2nd-round draft pick, Jerel Worthy.
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Worthy, who was known for his “surprising burst for a player his size” coming out of college, gets off of the ball very quickly on this particular play, timing the snap of the ball perfectly. Ohio State’s right guard departs the line of scrimmage with wide hands, unprepared for Worthy, who sheds the blocker before penetrating the backfield and collecting the tackle for a loss. Can an evaluator take away that Worthy has very good quick-twitch, explosive athletic traits based solely on this snap? Not necessarily. Timing the snap count accurately places him at an advantage, but in order to truly gauge his explosiveness and ability to disrupt the offensive lineman, let’s see how he plays when he has a worse jump.
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Worthy’s timing is slightly off on this play, as he leans up-field before the snap without getting into the neutral zone. Now that his timing is off, let’s see him use the very good twitch and lower body explosion that (we thought) we saw in the last clip. Alas, now that Worthy is playing without the jump off the snap, he loses momentum and the ability to disrupt the RG’s pass set. Without the ability to jump the snap, Worthy’s upfield burst, made up for by his processing and quick-twitch athletic abilities in other instances, is below average. The flashes of snap-jumping dominance on his Michigan State tape clearly have not translated to NFL production, either; the three-year pro has accumulated only 15 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks in 18 career games.
At the end of the day, it is crucial to remember that not all defensive lineman are coached to get off the ball in the same way. Learn and understand the three techniques that are used to coach the get off and you’ll have a clearer, more complete process in evaluating defensive lineman.
Follow Sal on Twitter @SC2Football.