Film Room: Sen'Derrick Marks
by Cian Fahey
Blake Bortles got the first victory of his career last weekend. In the fourth start of the rookie quarterback's season, his Jacksonville Jaguars overcame the Cleveland Browns by a score of 24-6.
At least, that's the storyline if you buy into the idea that team victories should be attributed to the individuals who start at the quarterback position. For the first victory of his career, Bortles played arguably his worst game at this level. He completed just 17 of 31 passes with one touchdown and three interceptions that he couldn't blame on anyone but himself. While his supporting cast is usually limited, Bortles had all of his receivers available, and Denard Robinson had given life to the running game.
Even though the team as a whole scored 24 points, the offense was largely reliant on the play of the defense to get this first victory of the season.
Jaguars players are inevitably overlooked by casual NFL fans, the national media, and even at times by attentive, professional analysts. The simple fact is that they don't draw readers the way other teams with histories of winning do. As an offensive player, you can still be recognized because this is a league that regularly celebrates that side of the ball and because those players play prominent roles in fantasy football lineups on a weekly basis. If you're a defender on the Jaguars, however, chances are you're a relative unknown.
One of those relative unknowns is defensive lineman Sen'Derrick Marks. Marks was selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. After four underwhelming seasons with the Titans, he signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in 2013. He started 16 games and was impressive, if somewhat inconsistent. Marks has always been a talented player, but his consistency and mental acumen have never been put on show on the field.
So far this season, Marks appears to be moving in that direction. After the win over the Browns, Marks credited the defense's play as a whole to mental comfort. "Our game plan was not too much different," he explained, "It's the same exact thing we've been doing all these other weeks. It's just all above the neck and everybody being on the same page. There was a lot of communication going on, everybody was poised and everybody knew exactly what we had to do."
To Gus Bradley's credit, Marks has developed into an all-around player in Jacksonville.
As a defensive tackle on a team without many individual pass-rushing threats and a limited back seven, it's very difficult for Marks to sack the quarterback consistently. The former Auburn prospect had three total sacks during his four years with the Titans, but eclipsed that number in one season with the Jaguars. Last year he had four sacks in 16 games with eight pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and 34 tackles. So far this season, he has two sacks, two pass deflections and 23 tackles in seven games.
Marks has an opportunity to set another career-high in sacks despite going three games without a sack over the past three weeks.
Against the Cleveland Browns, Marks didn't have a single sack, but he did pressure the quarterback on a number of occasions while showing off his very impressive skill set. The problem with pass rushing against the Browns is that Kyle Shanahan's offense is built on play action passes and a zone running game that forces defensive linemen to move laterally on a regular basis. To compound those conditions, quarterback Brian Hoyer aggressively looks to get rid of the ball quickly when possible. As we can see on the above play, Marks has the ability to shoot through gaps and close on the quarterback in a hurry. He showed off exceptional quickness and balance for a player of his size with the acceleration to force Hoyer into a rushed throw.
As this game developed and the Jaguars' lead grew, Marks was able to be more aggressive against the Browns play-fakes.
On this play, Marks (99) is lined up to the right side of the defensive line. The Browns are running play action to the far side of the field, so Hoyer is faking to the running back in the flat on Marks' side of the field. The offense expects Marks to move left to respond to the play fake, but the design of the play isn't supposed to let him run free into the backfield from the start. That happens because Marks is too quick for Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who is regularly referred to as one of the best left tackles in the NFL.
Marks has the strength to fend Thomas off and the balance to control his movement as he advances towards the quarterback. Hoyer is able to escape from Marks with his athleticism as Marks is unable to turn with him, but the defensive lineman came just inches away from bringing the quarterback down because he continued to show effort until Thomas fell on top of him.
Finding versatile pass rushers in today's NFL is very difficult.
Marks continually beats offensive linemen in different ways from different alignments. He has impressive quickness and a burst to close on the quarterback over short areas, but he also has the power and technique to fend off bigger offensive linemen when engaged. On this play, Marks is running a stunt with the outside defensive end. He meets Mitchell Schwartz with such force that Schwartz is blown to the ground. Once past Schwartz, Marks forces Hoyer into a bad throw by diving at his feet.
As tough as it is to find a versatile pass rusher, it's nowhere near as difficult as finding a versatile pass rusher who can also be very effective against the run.
Against the Browns, Marks was regularly double-teamed. There were times when he was taken out of plays, but for the most part he held his own and freed up teammates by occupying the attention of both defenders effectively. On this play, Marks is lined up as the left defensive tackle directly across from the B-gap between the Browns' right guard and right tackle. At the snap, the Browns offensive line begins moving laterally to the left. Marks moves with them, drawing the attention of the right guard.
Based on how this play develops from start to finish, it appears that the Browns' right guard is attempting to check Marks before releasing him to the right tackle, who is working hard to get inside of Marks. This should keep Marks out of the play and allow the right guard to advance to the second level and take out a linebacker. Marks ruins this play with his quickness and strength. He immediately moves with the offensive line at the snap and gets to the body of the right guard before he can engage Marks properly on his outside shoulder.
The Jaguars defensive tackle makes such an impact on the Browns right guard that the guard is forced to turn his feet and establish a base to cut him off. Therefore, when the double team arrives from the right tackle, the right tackle is essentially doing nothing. By the time the right guard passes Marks off to the right tackle and turns downfield, the play has already come to an end with the free linebacker meeting the running back at the line of scrimmage.
If Marks hadn't reacted instantly at the start of this play, the right guard would have been able to simply bump him before letting his right tackle come between Marks and the running back. Instead, Marks was quick and fought at the point of contact. That forced the right guard to pay him more attention and it ruined the design of the play.
Double-teaming defensive tackles isn't uncommon, but against Marks in this game specifically, it became somewhat of a necessity.
On this play, Marks shows off outstanding technique to penetrate the backfield and take down the running back for a loss. He initially keeps the blocker's hands off of him by engaging him at the snap, before pushing his right arm inside the blocker's chest. Understanding that one extended arm keeps the blocker further away from him than two engaged arms, Marks uses his positioning and technique to wheel his way around the blocker and meet the running back in the backfield.
Hand usage in the trenches is all about getting the most out of a player's physical prowess. Getting your hands inside to a blocker's chest is always an ideal situation to be in. As Marks shows off on this play, his power in these situations can be overwhelming. In a one-on-one situation against the right guard, he is able to stack the attempted block before surging his power through his arms to throw the Browns player backwards. That allows him a clean opportunity to catch the back.
Run defense isn't always about how many tackles you make behind the line of scrimmage. Against the Browns rushing style in particular, it's important to get penetration in the backfield that redirects the running back and takes away preferred running lanes. That is what Marks did on this play as he walked the right guard back into the running back before bouncing off of him behind the line of scrimmage.
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Marks is able to consistently make plays in the backfield both against the run and the pass. For an interior defensive linemen, it would be unfair to ask him to do anything more.
At this stage of his career, it's very unlikely that Marks will ever become a Pro Bowl player or be voted to an All-Pro team. That doesn't mean that he is not a Pro Bowl caliber player or worthy of an All-Pro slot. It just means that he is playing on a less celebrated unit of an often overlooked team that is some distance from becoming a playoff contender
While quarterback wins and losses are used to unfairly highlight or undermine the talents of NFL quarterbacks, the plight of the individual defensive player is that their naturally curtailed impacts make it much tougher to gain attention.