"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.
12 Feb 2014
by Matt Waldman
One of my favorite football players of the past 15 years began his college career as a corner, but finished it playing both safety positions and earned a first-team All-America selection. The 39th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, he started all 16 games a rookie. Although he lost the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award to teammate Brian Urlacher, the linebacker often said that it was Mike Brown who was the true leader of the Bears’ vaunted defense.
Brown will turn 36 tomorrow. Due to a series of leg injuries, the two-time All-Pro didn’t have the career longevity that will earn his former teammate Urlacher a good shot at the Hall of Fame. However, Brown had all the tools of a fine NFL pro: intensity, intelligence, and the versatility to play in the box or patrol the deepest outposts of the passing game.
So when a player earns a comparison to Brown, it gets my attention. Current Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was Brown’s position coach from 2000-2004. Before Bedford moved with Charlie Strong to Austin, he was the defensive coordinator at Louisville working with junior safety Calvin Pryor, a player Bedford compares favorably to the former Bear.
"He had three games in a row where he hit somebody and they did not finish the game," Bedford told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He doesn’t want to injure anybody, but he brings a certain physicality that if you’re going to throw the ball down the middle of the field, you’re going to pay a price ... Calvin Pryor reminds me of a bigger Mike Brown ... [Brown] was a coach on the field ... That’s what makes great players. Understanding the entire defense. Calvin Pryor is a lot like that."
I read this quote from Bradford after watching the 6-foot-2 Pryor against Central Florida, Rutgers, and Connecticut. A colleague of mine recommended I watch Pryor in September and I’m late to the draftnik party. However, I understand why there are teams that have Pryor ranked higher than Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The asset I value the most from Pryor’s game is aggression. He treads the fine line between disruption and recklessness, which can scare some evaluators.
However, good safeties take great angles in a hurry. It’s a skill rooted in confidence and belief in what the player sees on the field.
With notable exceptions where a player demonstrates a lack of overall football intelligence, I prefer an aggressive player with diagnostic skills that a coach can refine over a player who sees valuable keys but doesn’t trust his eyes. When considering the past path towards assertive play, I’d pick aggression over passivity as a football player’s behavioral baseline a majority of the time.
See this patch of green in Louisville? It’s the unincorporated village of Pryor. Watch this Rutgers runner encounter the welcoming committee.
It’s a lighter welcome than it appears, but the downhill angle and use of the pads on the replay make a fine first impression.
One of the first things I notice with Pryor in open space is how fast he moves. He might not be the fastest player in shorts with a stopwatch keeping time, but his direct, aggressive flights to the ball carrier and skill at dropping said opponent remind me of Troy Polamalu.
He makes contact, the player goes down –- its a recurring theme with his tackling anywhere on the field. In addition to the play above, watch most any play against Rutgers and UCF and Pryor’s hits aren’t the kind where he aims high, slides low, and the runner drags the defender for a few years.
When Pryor tackles, it’s hit-boom-down. With the exception of the welcome wagon hit to begin the Rutgers game, the majority of Pryor’s tackles feature arms that lock on and stay in place.
Because Pryor lacks top speed, teams will likely see him as a strong safety. Although there isn’t as much distinction between the two safety positions in many NFL defenses these days, Pryor’s skill in the box is a compelling reason he’ll earn that role even if he can handle some of the work in the deep outposts that we see from free safeties.
Pryor understands that his main responsibility on the play above is to keep the runner inside so his teammates can make the play. He does this with a terrific cut of the fullback. The placement and impact of the hit drives the blocker into the backfield and the pile-up drops the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
The only way Pryor accomplishes this feat is sacrificing his body with an aggressive, focused tactic as soon as the play begins.
It’s not a unique play, either. Here’s a similar play behind the line of scrimmage at the end of the third quarter.
The technique to get his pads under the fullback and explode through contact to earn an angle on the runner is excellent. He’s four yards into the backfield due to the pad level and punches at the legs of the ball carrier to generate a tackle for loss.
Recognition and action are the two buzz words for Pryor. Watch him fly to the line of scrimmage before the snap of this first-and-10 play with 6:14 in the half and recognize where the runner is heading and the path required to meet the ball carrier.
There’s a slight pause of movement to read the play, but as soon as Pryor begins moving it’s a straight path to the runner. It’s a fine indicator that while Pryor is an aggressive player prone to recklessness (more on this later), he reacts to what he sees. Additional film study, coaching, and practice of reading keys will help him refine that aggressiveness with greater discrimination.
Even when he misses the direct hit, his agility and coordination is good enough to find the leg or angle and still make the tackle.
The reason Pryor can play this interchangeable role of free safety-strong safety in certain schemes is his diagnostic skill and aggressive mentality to get the jump on a quarterback. Here’s Pryor covering half the field to intercept a pass at the left sideline in the mid-fourth quarter
The former running back also displays the hands and sideline awareness for a tricky catch at the boundary. The second replay also shows Pryor’s footwork to flow inside-out while back-pedaling and reading the quarterback. As I’ve pointed out with quarterbacks, fluid feet –- fluid mind.
Pryor’s ball skills are worth seeing in a different context, because he flashes a big-play mindset. This near-interception below isn’t a catch, but the coordination on this attempt is worth a look.
Even if Pryor doesn’t integrate it all, there’s good vertical explosion, excellent hand-eye coordination, footwork, and boundary awareness all on display.
As a pass defender, Pryor is good at dropping from the line or playing off his man and anticipating the throw.
His drops are quick and decisive, forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere
When playing off the man, he possesses good timing.
This is a quick drop and immediate drive on the ball while still avoiding contact with the receiver.
When manning the middle, he has enough recovery speed and intensity to make a receiver pay at the point of contact with the ball. Although the receiver makes the catch on this play below, Pryor comes across the field with great timing to punish the opponent.
It’s the type of play where I believe half of the receivers in the NFL in this situation would drop the ball after the contact.
Where Pryor experiences failure is when he’s reckless. On this read-option run, the defensive end plays the outside to account for the quarterback while Pryor bursts inside the right tackle with an aim to foil the runner.
Pryor creeps to the line, timing his burst with the snap. However, he approaches the lineman with a dipped outside shoulder to get under the blocker and into the backfield.
It’s a good technique for avoiding contact, but it also allows the tackle to use that momentum against Pryor and push the safety inside to give the runner an outside lane.
If Pryor delivers the hit with a running start, he should have enough power to push the tackle into the backfield and force the runner towards Pryor’s inside help or to the defensive end. Pryor’s aggressiveness to get the big play in the backfield led to a reckless attempt that hurt his team on the play.
The unknown about Pryor is his lack of experience with single coverage. Based on what I’ve seen, he might struggle against receivers, but I think he can do good work against tight ends and running backs.
However I believe few teams will use Pryor in a scheme where he’ll have to see a lot of single coverage opportunities against a receiver. Put him in a Cover-2 or Cover-3 and let him hit or place him in the box as a disruptive force and he’ll develop into a valuable piece in a hard-hitting, play-making defense.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you available for pre-order. 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.
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