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02 Sep 2016

Film Room: Deone Bucannon

by Cian Fahey

"It's kind of weird when people say I'm a point guard. And then they say I'm a shooting guard. Then they say I'm a [small forward], I'm an undersized small forward... They've tried and tried. They still can't come up with a position for me."

Those are the words of Marcus Smart. Smart plays for the Boston Celtics, but he gave this quote to Myron Medcalf of ESPN back in 2013 when he was still playing in college. Smart's words reflected and still reflect the direction of basketball as a sport.

Position labels in basketball no longer matter like they used to because the sport is becoming more fluid than ever before. It's less about filling out your starting lineup with specific body types and skill sets and more about finding out how you can take advantage of space while putting the best five players you have on the court. Your shooting guard or small forward can be your primary ball-handler now. Your center might stand out on the perimeter, waiting to knock down an open three. Your point guard might do the same, only touching the ball otherwise when he has stolen it on the other end of the court. The terms used to separate players remain more as a teaching tool for newcomers rather than something more meaningful.

Basketball in general is a more fluid sport than football, but the NFL is moving in that direction. Arizona Cardinals player Deone Bucannon highlights this. Bucannon bristles at the idea that he is a linebacker. Just this week he told teammate Tony Jefferson, "I'm a rover. Moneybacker. I don't consider myself a linebacker." He told Robert Mays of the Ringer, "When you say linebacker, people think that means I can't cover receivers, I can't do what a safety does. I can do all those things. I don't like limiting myself or putting myself in one category."

Bucannon entered the 2014 NFL draft as a safety -- an oversized safety but a safety nonetheless. When the Cardinals drafted him, they didn't want him to be a safety. The Cardinals drafted Bucannon and immediately put him at inside linebacker. He has played 32 games over the first two seasons of his career, and every single one has seen him play linebacker.

NFL teams largely have similar levels of talent. Rosters are stronger in different areas, but their overall quality mostly evens out. The exceptions come at the very bottom and at the very top. Because the draft and free agency pushes each roster towards parity, coaching staffs become more decisive. Coaches who put their available talent in the best positions to succeed are the ones who are more likely to sustain success.

If there's one thing Bruce Arians has done since taking over as the Cardinals head coach in 2013, it's put players in position to succeed.

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Bucannon is right in that he doesn't have a linebacker's skill set. He lacks the size and strength at the point of contact to fight through blockers in a controlled fashion. When he does fit run gaps or force his way through contact, he does so by being reckless with his body. That can work in specific situations, but it also limits his effectiveness when he needs to play with more technique and patience. Watch tight end Benjamin Watson (No. 82) in the above play. Watson is known more for his receiving ability than his blocking ability but he's not necessarily a bad blocker. Regardless of his reputation, as a tight end he is someone that Bucannon should expect to get the better of at the point of attack -- at least, he should if he is an inside linebacker.

Bucannon's approach to the point of contact isn't bad initially. He attacks Watson and tries to engage him with his hands. Watson wins at the point of contact with his power though. Bucannon is immediately knocked back, and as a result his hips turn. Ideally he would win at the point of contact before using his hands to control the tight end and react to the running back from there. Instead, Bucannon is pushed completely out of the play and finishes it with his ass on the ground as Watson comes crashing over him.

This was the first game of 2015, and it was the worst looking play for Bucannon all year. Bucannon is still a developing player, so that must be taken into account, but it's also indicative of problems he had all throughout the season.

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Compare the two plays above. While not exactly the same situations, the differences between how NaVorro Bowman and Bucannon approach contact are obvious. The first GIF is Bucannon. Bucannon is a gap shooter. He wants to close on the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible when he recognizes running plays. This is a positive-negative approach because it can lead to tackles for loss and aggressive run fits, but it can also put him in bad positions. He may have even been blitzing on this play. Regardless, he accelerates forward at the snap so he is immediately in the crosshairs of the Ravens center. The play freezes at the point of the play when Bucannon beats himself. He turns from the blocker and extends one hand as if he were trying to turn the corner as a pass rusher coming off the edge. With his hips turned and just one hand available to fight the lineman's strength, Bucannon is easily pushed out of the play.

In contrast, the second GIF shows Bowman's willingness to stay straight. His body shape when engaging the blocker he ultimately meets is made possible by how he moves up until that point. Bowman doesn't turn his feet or look to sprint around contact. He reads the cutback and is able to shuffle sideways into position. Both of his hands are available to establish a foundation against the blocker while his eyes are on the running back in the backfield. Bowman barely engages the blocker, but he does meet him. That allows him to ultimately push off of him to tackle the running back.

Bucannon still approaches the run game like a safety coming from deep, sprinting to the line of scrimmage because he has ground to make up.

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That inability to establish and work against blockers means Bucannon always attempts to penetrate past them to make plays. Like a defensive lineman too eager to get to the quarterback, he regularly drops his shoulder in an attempt to swing around rather than work through blockers. The above play against the Minnesota Vikings shows off his lack of patience. With Teddy Bridgewater only just having taken the ball from his center, Bucannon has already abandoned his straight-on stance. The extension of his right foot downfield highlights his mistake and also sets him up to try and dip beneath a block he needs to establish himself against. Even if Bucannon had been defeated by the blocker, he would have forced Adrian Peterson to either accelerate through a smaller gap or slow him down to allow the defense to close on him quicker.

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In the above play from midway through the season, Bucannon is easily taken out by right guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler is a very good player, but even considering that this play shows off why Bucannon can't really be called a linebacker. He is beaten at the point of contact by Zeitler's combination of size and power. Bucannon's reaction to this is to turn his back. While the rest of the defense chases after the ball carrier, Bucannon is being escorted in the opposite direction and finishes the play more than 10 yards away from the ball.

The negatives that come with Bucannon playing linebacker don't derail the Cardinals defense. Why? Because he found his fit.

Bucannon doesn't need to be a great run defender -- he's surrounded by them. The Cardinals had the second-ranked run defense by DVOA last year despite playing a traditional base defense (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) just 10 percent of the time. All run defenses are split into three levels, the first, the second, and the third. The first level of the defense is the defensive line, players who line up on the line of scrimmage either between the tackles or just outside of them. The second level is the linebacker group, players who line up off the line of scrimmage but not deep. The third level is the secondary. If you have a great first level on defense, you don't need to have a great second or third level. The Cardinals defense is built on having a first level that is dominant against the run, with a serviceable second level and one of the best third levels in the league.

The first level is led by Calais Campbell.

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Campbell (93) is one of the best defenders in the NFL and has been for a long time. You wouldn't know it by the speed he shows here, but he measures 6-foot-8 and is roughly 300 pounds. In the above play, Campbell is left unblocked and he chases down the running back from the backside of the play as if he were 50 pounds lighter and 3 inches shorter. Like J.J. Watt, he is a huge body at 3-4 end who moves like an edge defender. His ability to make plays like the one above means that there is less pressure on Bucannon to get to the football. Campbell had 61 tackles and five sacks last year. Typically, 3-4 defensive linemen spend their time swallowing up space and fighting double-teams rather than getting sacks. Campbell is one of the best defenders in the league at taking on double-teams and disrupting the designs of plays with his presence alone. He's so good that he is able to produce tackle numbers consistently in a role where he's not supposed to.

Like a great quarterback, Campbell elevates the whole front seven and makes the jobs of those around him significantly easier. While he stands out on the defensive line, he's not alone in his quality run defense.

In this next GIF, don't watch Bucannon at first, watch defensive end Frostee Rucker (92).

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Rucker moves with the snap. He doesn't react to it as much as he mirrors it. That allows him to instantly penetrate past the right tackle, whose assignment was already difficult based on where each player aligned. Rucker brings the right tackle with him as he advances forward. The Rams fullback then stonewalls Rucker. The defensive lineman got crushed, but he did his job. He took out two blockers while forcing Todd Gurley to jump over his fullback while moving laterally.

Now watch the play again and focus on Bucannon. He does a good job to stay disciplined and not run himself out of the play, but as far as plays for a linebacker go, this one was simple.

Cory Redding makes a similar play here against the Ravens.

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Here we see Red Bryant (71) taking on a double-team.

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While Bryant clogs the middle, Josh Mauro (97) penetrates upfield and Tony Jefferson (22) comes off the edge. Peterson is forced to cut outside. Bucannon has a relatively easy job of cleaning the play up.

Bucannon isn't a complete liability against the run. He is generally disciplined and will disrupt plays with his ability to shoot through gaps. His value on outside zone runs is particularly notable. He can be taken advantage of by misdirection though. The Cardinals seemingly only ask him to read backfield action, so if a tight end works across the formation while the running back goes in the opposite direction, Bucannon will take himself out of the play more often than not.

When Arizona did give up chunks of yardage last year, Bucannon often had to share some of the blame. The Cardinals gave up 3.63 adjusted line yards (eighth-best in the league) against runs that went up the middle, and 2.36 adjusted line yards (best in the NFL) against runs that went off tackle or to either end. This lines up with where Bucannon hurts and helps them the most as a run defender.

If anything, Bucannon is highlighting the value of dominant run defenders in today's pass-obsessed league. His fit with those defenders allows him to stay on the field to showcase his skill set against the pass.

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Ever since Bruce Arians has been in Arizona, the Cardinals have been extremely aggressive on defense. In 2016, his defense rushed five defenders after the quarterback on 32.9 percent of its snaps, fourth-most often in the league. They rushed six or more 13.4 percent of the time, second-most often. Furthermore, the Cardinals blitzed a defensive back 17 percent of the time, fourth-most often in the league. In 2014 they led the league in blitzing defensive backs. Not only do the Cardinals go after the quarterback often, they do so while disguising their coverages and blitzing from different levels of the defense. Having a linebacker like Bucannon with the range of a safety makes him hugely valuable in this philosophy with this supporting cast.

In the above GIF, Bucannon initially lines up in the A-Gap threatening to blitz, alongside fellow linebacker Kevin Minter. Even though the offense can safely assume that Bucannon is more likely to drop than Minter because of their respective skill sets, they have no way of knowing for certain if Bucannon will drop, or where he will drop to. Amazingly, Bucannon covers a seam route and does so with relative ease. When Joe Flacco releases the ball, Bucannon is in perfect coverage, and he continues to play perfect coverage as the receiver continues his route downfield after the play has already ended.

The options this range provides and the unpredictability it forces the offense to face allows the defense to be as aggressive as it wants to be without over-exposing inferior defenders in space.

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In man coverage, Bucannon isn't blanketing anyone. He's not Darrelle Revis, no matter how much better he is than your typical NFL linebacker. Rarely ever do tight ends create big separation against him though. Bucannon has the athleticism, footwork, and body control to track tight ends through their routes. He doesn't play aggressive coverage, but he is aggressive at the catch point. By mirroring rather than trying to challenge tight ends, he plays to his advantages while also allowing himself to be aggressive at the catch point. In the above play, you can see how Bucannon threatens to blitz and is on the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. On the other side of the play, the Cardinals send a safety and linebacker after the quarterback to try and overload that side. Meanwhile, Bucannon draws Jimmy Graham in one-on-one coverage.

Bucannon covers Graham about as well as he could have hoped to. He sticks on his hip through the route. He falls asleep for a moment at the very end, which gives Graham a chance to turn back across the field, but considering the blitz the Cardinals sent it was unlikely the quarterback was ever going to have the chance to throw to the tight end.

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Playing in the NFC West means playing against Russell Wilson twice a year. It's hard to gameplan against Wilson. He can beat you in so many ways, and even when you do everything right he might still escape to create a big play outside of structure. An option you'd like to have is someone who can spy him. Bucannon's athletic profile makes him the perfect option to spy Wilson. In the above play he does this even though it's not clear that it was his assignment (the play-action essentially turns three defenders into spies). Bucannon initially lines up across from the center and reacts to the run action in the backfield. He recognizes Wilson has the ball and the tight end is caught in traffic, allowing him to stay in line with the quarterback. From there, it's all about tracking the ball and closing on it with his speed in space.

For the most part, Bucannon is a player who plays with discipline in every phase of the game. His contributions in disguising blitzes and coverages are rarer attributes, but his greatest contribution to the defense is his ability in zone coverage.

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Great zone defense isn't hugely exciting. It's about positioning and reaction in space rather than mirroring and finding the football while playing the receiver tightly. There are a lot of positive elements to Bucannon in zone coverage.

He works from sideline to sideline as fast as any linebacker in the league who isn't named Luke Kuechly. He is disciplined in reading and reacting to what happens in front of him. Bucannon transitions from reading running plays to dropping into coverage smoothly. He is primarily a "clean-up" coverage defender when the ball is thrown in his direction. Bucannon had just one interception and three pass deflections last year. That's not necessarily a negative, even for a defender whose primary value comes in coverage. The Cardinals don't just use Bucannon in your typical drop-into-the-middle-of-the-field-and-hit-anything-that-comes-near-you coverage. He will drop into either flat and work deeper downfield in different coverages. He can do that because of his discipline and athleticism.

In the above play you can see the different stages of Bucannon's process. He initially puts himself in position to react to the run without being too aggressive. When he recognizes a tight end crossing his face to release into a route, he plants his right foot and sinks his hips so he can quickly turn and accelerate back downfield. Bucannon's quickness of thought and body allow him to get in the passing lane between Drew Brees and Brandin Cooks. That forces Brees to throw the ball outside, where his other receiver is tightly covered.

The NFL is a league where teams try to copy what works. The danger in trying to copy the Cardinals' success with Bucannon is that not every team is built to accommodate his weaknesses while showing off his strengths. The Cardinals didn't force this into their defense because they saw someone else do it -- they recognized a skill set and evaluated its weaknesses and strengths, while understanding how that skill set would fit into what they already had. Former defensive coordinator and now New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles is hoping to replicate the Cardinals success with Bucannon by using Darron Lee in a similar role. Lee had a major issue with physicality at the college level, so even though the Jets have the dominant defensive line in front of him it's a move that should draw some skepticism.

Bucannon is a good player. But he's not a great one. He's not a transcendent talent who should be framed as an example of a new-age linebacker. It would be an insult to the well-rounded quality that players such as Luke Kuechly, NaVorro Bowman, and the now-retired Patrick Willis offered. Bucannon is closer to a fifth defensive back on the field rather than a linebacker. He himself has acknowledged that.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 02 Sep 2016

3 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2016, 11:10am by Aaron Brooks Good Twin

Comments

1
by Never Surrender :: Thu, 09/01/2016 - 1:44pm

It'll be interesting to see how the Redskins are able to use Su'a Cravens, a rookie hybrid S-LB type that has been lining up at ILB all training camp and preseason. He's got many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Bucannon: shooting through a gap to make a fantastic tackle one play but getting swallowed whole by a guard the next.

2
by Dan :: Thu, 09/01/2016 - 7:10pm

I really liked this article. It's a great example of how the NFL is adjusting to the shift from running to passing.

3
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 09/02/2016 - 11:10am

Is what Bucannon does a copy of how the Giants used Grant/Phillips/Rolle, as a second SS who plays in the box?