"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
16 Apr 2014
by Matt Waldman
He can’t catch, he’s had numerous injuries, and a well-executed read-option keeper can trip him up. But if these are the only damning aspects of middle linebacker C.J. Mosley’s game, and his injuries don’t present a long-term concern, there aren’t 10 players in this class I want more.
Mosley’s game is instructive to playing middle linebacker:
He’s not the best middle linebacker you’ll ever see, but the Alabama defender should become a stalwart for an effective NFL unit. The more I study middle linebackers, the more I see the commonalities between them and their natural adversary the running back.
I have always seen a running back’s vision as a skill with numerous facets:
The last two are of monumental importance if a runner wants to succeed in the NFL. And in many ways, all of these points of vision apply to a good middle linebacker like Mosley.
Some people lean too hard on tackle totals to judge the talent of a middle linebacker, when the position often asks the player to account for a gap and give his teammate the glory. Mosley is good at remaining disciplined to the scheme, doing his job, and giving his teammates a chance to do theirs.
This I-formation run with a fullback lead is a good example. Mosley identifies the play before the snap and knows he must attack the fullback and force the running back outside to the safety.
If Mosley tries to be the hero and run around the blocker -- highly unlikely here -- the runner dips inside and scores because of the guard’s block on the backside linebacker at the second level. LSU earns five yards on this run, but Mosley does what’s necessary to keep the offense out of the end zone.
Sometimes maintaining gap discipline forces runners into making poor decisions. Here, Mosley does a fine job of avoiding the guard’s foray into the second level so he can slide inside, meet the runner at the line of scrimmage, and force the runner to bounce the play outside.
The runner would have been smarter to keep his pads downhill and take what was available, but Mosley’s vision to identify the correct gap and weave through traffic forces the immature decision and shortens the potential gain of 3-to-4 to less than yard. Landon Collins gets the glory, but Mosley serves it up.
This five-yard gain by Jeremy Hill may not seem like a successful stop for Alabama, but it’s a good example of three things that good middle linebackers do: stacking, shedding, and tackling.
Mosley understands the nature of the play before the snap, which enables him to attack the fullback early in the run. He meets the lead blocker with good intensity at the line of scrimmage (stacking) and pushes off the fullback to get inside position on the ball carrier (shedding).
Mosley gets his arms around Hill and wraps the runner, forcing Hill to the ground two yards later. Because he's tackling a big back with downhill momentum, Mosley’s wrap-up to limit this gain is a good one. Based on Mosley’s angle of attack, I would have expected a big back like Hill to break an arm tackle or drag the linebacker for more yards.
Sometimes the best way to address a lineman is not to hit, but to remain patient and allow the blocker to declare his position. Mosley identifies this draw early enough as a run that he focuses on the right guard working towards him. The middle linebacker raises his hands as the guard closes, but dips inside after the guard is too close to change angle.
Just like a running back, this is an excellent display of patience and burst to the correct crease. The only difference is that Mosley’s "first down" is a hard, downhill hit that stops the back in his tracks for minimal gain.
Watch the replay at 2:28 on the video and you’ll see Mosley bait the guard with small steps to the right before cutting back to the left. These are false steps; he might as well be pressing the hole and cutting back like a runner to set up the guard.
Once Mosley gets a clean lane to the runner, he accelerates into contact and stones the ballcarrier. I see consistent examples throughout Mosley’s tape where the middle linebacker hits, wraps, and drives his opponent to the ground.
And then there’s the judgment to read the play and know that a decisive burst with the correct angle can take the offense off-schedule. This 3-yard loss on second down is a great example. This is a zone scheme with the receiver working to the backside to take on the pursuit.
The left guard will slant inside and the fullback is supposed to clear the path for the runner. Mosley anticipates the play, bursts inside the guard untouched, lowers his pads to sift through the receiver’s backside attack, and avoids the linebacker to wrap the runner in the backfield.
I love watching the replay from the end zone angle at 3:44 of the video. Mosley attacks the crease hard but then slides to his left with enough control to avoid the lead block and maintain a strong angle to finish the runner. It’s a beautiful play with good fundamentals.
Just like a runner has to stay alive after initial contact, a linebacker has to display the same skill. Although Mosley doesn’t make the tackle on this pass play against Ole Miss, he does a fine job of maintaining his footing when the left guard attacks with a cut block in the flat.
Mosley keeps his pads low, uses his hands to address the block, but keeps his feet away from contact to shed the block and force the action outside where there’s help.
The one weakness I see consistently with Mosley in the run game is a tendency to over-pursue the running back on read-option plays. One of the examples is a quarterback keeper for a long touchdown.
However, I’m inclined to give Mosley a pass on this play because it’s an excellent fake that I think most NFL linebackers would have bit on. Watch the replay at the 1:18 mark and you’ll see how much patience the quarterback and running back have with this exchange and it forces Mosley to slide to the back.
A good exchange, but also note that half of Mosley’s vision is obscured by the line. That makes this a difficult play to defend.
Once Mosley accounts for the back, this play is effectively over.
However, this quarterback keeper against Ole Miss isn’t as well-executed and Mosley still over-pursues to the runner.
Mosley spots the quarterback keeping the exchange, but he continues to slide inside. There’s a chance he’s trying to account for his middle gap, but if that’s the case he didn’t trust his teammate DuPriest to get the job done.
But as you’ll see below and in the next section, it’s difficult for an offense to fool Mosley repeatedly. The read, the patience to maintain the gap, and the ability to close once he sees the tackle struggle to peel off his double team -- those turn this run into a game-sealing safety.
The Arkansas game is a good illustration of Mosley one-on-one with a tight end. Mosley begins this series of matchups with an aggressive approach, sticking tight and getting physical on a delay route to the flat.
Although the quarterback earns a first down by keeping the ball, Mosley makes the opponent earn it the hard way. The next time Mosley is paired with the tight end, he takes a false step towards the pocket and gets beat up the seam.
Not much of a run fake here, but it was enough for Mosley to react, and at that point he lacked the speed to work across the flat to stay with the tight end. A perfect throw and nice catch inside earns Arkansas the first down.
But like I said, it’s tough to pick on Mosley. Here’s another attempt up the seam that results in an interception.
Mosley takes no false steps, maintains good underneath position with help over top, and tips the ball to his teammate.
Mosley’s ability to account for multiple receivers in zone coverage is one of the skills that stand out most about the middle linebacker’s game. Watch the Crimson Tide defender account for two routes on this play and give his teammates enough time to collapse the pocket.
He accounts for the cross from right to left, but maintains enough depth for the receiver working left to right.
One of my favorite plays is this safety-corner blitz off the right side. Mosley calls for the pressure, waving his teammates to attack before the snap, but does a fantastic job of covering the slot man and preventing the hot read.
There are times Mosley gets beat because he spends a little too much time eye-balling the quarterback and not accounting for the receiver, but he’s still among the best in college football at maintaining the balance between sticking to his zone assignment and reading the passer.
I believe this aspect of Mosley’s game will only improve as he transitions to the pro game.
If only Mosley could catch the football.
Of course, that's why he’s a linebacker -- a pretty darn good one -- instead of a ball carrier or tight end.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The 1284-page guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.