Want to see what good middle linebacker play looks like? Watch this Alabama prospect work.
31 Oct 2013
by Cian Fahey
It's well-known that quarterbacks are affecting the outcomes of games even more than ever, that receivers, tight ends and receiving running backs are more heavily involved in game-plans and that power running backs are a very rare commodity. What doesn't receive as much attention is how defenses are evolving to counter these new offensive philosophies. There are well-known stars such as J.J. Watt, Earl Thomas and Darrelle Revis who are too good to ignore, but there are many more outstanding players who can thrive in this new NFL.
After being drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft, the now 27-year-old Calais Campbell played sparingly as a rookie before becoming a vital piece of the Cardinals defense, as a hybrid defensive lineman. When former Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton was in Arizona he relied on Campbell and Darnell Dockett to anchor a 2-4-5 personnel package on a regular basis. That asked a huge amount of both defensive linemen as they could routinely be double-teamed by the offense. Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 noted that after Horton left, Dockett let his feelings be known: "I hated that scheme. I really hated it."
The Cardinals used their nickel package 48 percent of the time in 2012, so it's no surprise that Dockett was disgusted, but Campbell didn't seem to mind. Campbell finished the season with 6.5 sacks in 12 starts to go along with 50 tackles and six pass deflections. After eight games this season, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Campbell already has four sacks, 30 tackles, one safety, one forced fumble and two pass deflections. Bowles isn't as aggressive as Horton but he runs more of a hybrid scheme that gets the most out of Campbell's flexibility. While the former Miami Hurricane is officially listed as 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, his athleticism is so overwhelming that he can thrive in a variety of roles.
Unlike most 300 pound defensive linemen that come with huge girth, Campbell is as slender as most linebackers and has a frame that is reminiscent of an NBA center. While Campbell’s frame should give a leverage advantage to opposing blockers, his strength, quickness, and balance allow him to dominate the opposition frequently. Even though Campbell’s height periodically works against him in the running game, this is overshadowed by how many passing plays he disrupts with his long, active arms.
Even though he has only been credited with two pass deflections this season, Campbell is always looking to disrupt passing lanes and his relentless level of activity along with his sheer size can make the quarterback's life in the pocket very uncomfortable.
The first thing that stands out with Campbell on the field is not his play as such, but rather how the offense approaches him. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Campbell was double teamed on many occasions in the first half. While it's unfair to expect any defender to consistently beat double-teams, Campbell wasn't pushed off the line of scrimmage in the run game and fought through blocking after initially being held up to pressure Ryan more than once. There was one play in particular that stood out more than any other. It was a play that not many defensive linemen in the NFL can make.
Campbell lines up directly over the left A gap on the offensive line. That means that both of the Cardinals defensive linemen are on that side of the center. This is a passing situation so the Cardinals have less care for gap integrity upfront. Where Campbell initially lines up implies that he is going to attack that gap, but instead the Cardinals are going to use him on a stunt with Karlos Dansby (No. 56).
The crossing action from the stunt draws two blockers onto Campbell. The center is already engaged, but Campbell isn't affected by his attempts to push him backwards. Because of his quickness, Campbell is able to get level with the right guard before he even contacts him. That means the right guard is always in a losing position because Campbell is now between him and his quarterback, Matt Ryan.
The feet of both linemen reveal who is winning this battle. The right guard is desperately trying to push Campbell to the ground by throwing all of his momentum sideways. Campbell is already too far downfield for him to succeed. Against a less powerful player, the right guard could have recovered his position. The center was beaten at the snap. Campbell's quickness was too much for him even as he worked across his face. Campbell is powering past his outside shoulder, which has completely taken away the center's base. Without a base beneath him, he has no chance to withstand this kind of a surge.
Campbell doesn't get the sack, but only because Ryan gets rid of the football quickly. Both Dansby and Campbell are in the face of the quarterback, even though the stunt was designed to just send Dansby free while Campbell occupied the double-team.
The Cardinals used stunts frequently against the Falcons with good reason. They worked, which is no surprise given that Campbell's control of his body while moving quickly in tight spaces is phenomenal. Not only does he get to spots very quickly, he is able to explode through blockers who don't see him coming. More often than not, he will have a free route into the pocket if he is not double teamed so the offensive line must decide if they want to give the other member of the stunt a free run or try to contain Campbell with one blocker who is already at a disadvantage at the point of contact. This quandary is exactly what happened for Campbell's sack in the fourth quarter against Atlanta.
Interior pressure is very difficult for quarterbacks to overcome. It's much easier for the better quarterbacks to adjust to edge-rushers if they have a clean pocket to step up into. If you have an interior presence like Campbell who can push the pocket and force quarterbacks to consistently throw off their back-foot, then you won't need sacks to create big plays. While Campbell's pass rushing ability makes him special, he still has to be able to carry out his run-stuffing responsibilities.
He primarily relies on his quickness to shoot through gaps while holding off defenders with his strength instead of swallowing space at the line of scrimmage. Campbell is a very well rounded player who plays with a great level of discipline. He may not have the same production as Watt, but he is definitely in the group of players who are trying to catch up to the Houston Texans star.
Even though Campbell is only 27 years old, there are a few significantly younger players who are following his path in the NFL. One of those players is Cameron Jordan, a key cog for Rob Ryan's impressive front seven in New Orleans. During his first two seasons Jordan was a good, not great player playing in a 4-3 scheme for the Saints. But he has really excelled in Ryan's multiple front scheme.
Jordan and Campbell play the game differently, but do many of the same things. Jordan is shorter, standing at 6-foot-4, and lighter, officially listed as 287 pounds, with a very different frame. However, Jordan is a well-rounded defensive end who can't be targeted in the running game, has enough quickness to beat offensive tackles and has the strength to beat double teams. Just like Campbell, he also moves around the formation and can attack the quarterback from a variety of positions.
What immediately stands out with Jordan on the field is his sheer power. He is quick and agile between the tackles, but that quickness serves as a complement to his power opposed to being something he can solely rely on. This became evident early on against the Bills when he maintained position against a triple team in the running game.
The Bills didn't intend to triple team Jordan, but a missed assignment saw the tight end clamp down on Jordan even when the left guard and left tackle where already engaging him. Ultimately what Jordan does is irrelevant for the result of the play, but the fact that he continues to move forward against a triple team is a testament to his strength. That strength is something that shows up in every facet of Jordan's game. Even when he moves outside to match up against offensive tackles, he primarily relies on his strength and power to get into the backfield.
On this sack versus the Miami Dolphins, Jordan lines up very wide of the offensive tackle in a four-point stance. He is in the perfect situation to speed rush around the edge to get downfield. However, at the snap Jordan squares up with the offensive tackle before quickly using his hands to knock the blocker away with a swim move. Jordan's swim move is powerful because his hands are quick and powerful.
Against the New England Patriots, Jordan had a coverage sack. However, that doesn't mean it wasn't a very impressive play from the defender.
Even though the Saints came out with just two down linemen, Jordan lined up outside the right tackle in the C gap. Again he is in a four point stance, but he is much tighter to the shoulder of the offensive tackle this time.
The tight end immediately runs out into a route without any care for Jordan. This leaves him free to attack the right tackle. Instead of squaring up to the tackle like he did against Miami, Jordan runs past his outside shoulder to widen his attack. Because the Saints are only rushing three defenders, Jordan is quickly double-teamed by the right tackle and the right guard. The right guard checks inside before turning to Jordan, so he is late. By that time, Jordan is fighting off the right tackle who is desperately trying to engage him.
The right guard immediately looks to knock Jordan down as he is battling the right tackle with his hands. Jordan sees him coming and is able to quickly slip past him and use his momentum against him so that he falls to the ground. He very fluidly transitions from evading the right guard to spinning away from the right tackle. Jordan's spin move is too fast and tight for the right tackle to keep him contained.
Rob Ryan will likely continue to move Jordan around the field. His flexibility and versatility is valuable to the Saints defense, but keeping his powerful play on the interior of the line would likely be better moving forward. Jordan has to move around now because the Saints don't have the edge-rushers to consistently penetrate the pocket. If the Saints can add some more potent edge-rushers to their recently revamped front, then Jordan's production could skyrocket.
9 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2013, 6:11pm by Alexander333