Film Room: Greg Hardy

Film Room: Greg Hardy
Film Room: Greg Hardy
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

Greg Hardy is the most infamous NFL player around right now.

Hardy isn't infamous in the traditional sense. He isn't renowned for his dirty hits on the field or his comments against opponents in the media, though he has some history there. Hardy is infamous for much more serious reasons. He was one of the handful of players who were placed on the Commissioner's exempt list last year before serving a suspension to start this year due to a domestic violence incident off the field. Hardy became known outside of NFL circles because of the details of the report on the incident. The court case brought against him was eventually dismissed amid allegations that he paid off the woman involved.

For most players, this level of negative attention combined with a lack of outward remorse would be the end of their careers. NFL teams usually care too much about their images to invest in overly problematic players. Even a player who is widely viewed as showing remorse, such as Ray Rice, is likely to be determined too big of a PR headache to take on board.

Hardy is different. It was easy for NFL teams to move on from the idea of employing Rice, because he is an older running back, a past-his-prime player at a position that is relatively easily filled. Hardy isn't past his prime; he's entering it. He turned 27 just before the beginning of the season. He also plays a position of greater value than running back. He is a defensive end -- most importantly, a pass-rushing defensive end with as versatile a skill set as any other defensive end in the whole league.

If Hardy had hit the open market with no off-field incidents or character concerns this past offseason, he would have signed one of the biggest contracts in NFL history. Even though he is one of the most infamous players in the league, the Dallas Cowboys gave him more than $11 million on a one-year deal. The contract was structured so that it gave the franchise a huge amount of financial protection, but the Cowboys have since backed Hardy through further (albeit smaller) controversial confrontations, with a special teams coach and in interviews. So there is no reason to think that the Cowboys have any inclination to take advantage of the favorably structured deal. The Cowboys aren't going to cut Hardy because he's an integral part of their defense.

Through just three games, Hardy has three sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, and 12 tackles. He has been ever-present in opponents' backfields both as a pass-rusher and run defender. Although he didn't have a sack against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, he was a dominant force throughout all four quarters.

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Regular starting left tackle Russell Okung was absent from the game, pushing Alvin Bailey into a starting role. Okung is obviously a better player than Bailey, but neither left tackle was likely to contain Hardy. Against the Seahawks, it's always vitally important to stop the run. Hardy had four tackles, with two of those coming at or behind the line of scrimmage. More importantly, he was disciplined in his assignments to sustain gap integrity for the defense as a whole. When Wilson kept the ball on read-option plays, he did so against Demarcus Lawrence on the other side of the defensive line. He didn't keep it often, but when he did he was able to get yardage downfield.

Hardy can't impact those plays. It's not about his ability or his performance on the day; he is schemed out of those plays by design. Any defensive end on the opposite side of the formation for this play isn't going to have an immediate impact.

When Hardy did have opportunities to make an impact, he didn't pass them up.

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In the above play, Hardy is quick off the line of scrimmage before extending his arms to initiate contact with the left tackle. His hands are a little high, but he has the strength to control his blocker by his shoulders. Hardy is in complete control from this point of the play. As he drives Bailey (the left tackle) backwards he keeps his eyes in the backfield. He is playing the running back while controlling his blocker to both set the edge and put himself in position to crash down inside if the running back stays between the tackles. Once the running back has committed to the inside, Hardy uses one fully extended arm to push Bailey away before diving inside to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.

The ease with which he disengaged the defender was only matched by the speed at which he read the play. Few players in the league have this level of comfort in their movement at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds. When you combine that physical ability with refined technique and scheme discipline, you get one of the best run defenders in the NFL.

It's not just about winning at the point of attack when they run at you though.

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Players with character issues are often confused for players who don't care about football. Hardy is undoubtedly a character problem for the Cowboys, but his work rate on the field wasn't an issue. He plays the game with a sustained intensity that sees him chase plays down from behind or continue to work through blockers when initially stopped. On this play, the Seahawks leave him unblocked on the backside of the play on purpose. Hardy is supposed to be too far away from the ball to make a play on the ball carrier, but Marshawn Lynch isn't given a clean running lane to attack when he takes the ball from Russell Wilson. Lynch is forced to hesitate for a moment, giving Hardy an opportunity to catch him before he can reach the line of scrimmage.

The defensive end showed off an impressive burst of acceleration to begin this play that allowed him to close on Lynch so quickly. Had Lynch had a cleaner route to the second level of the defense, Hardy would still have put himself in position to pursue the star running back from behind. That burst is important for Hardy's ability to rush the passer.

On this play, Hardy's reaction time at the snap can be seen. He is anticipating the snap because of the silent count the Seahawks are using, but he doesn't move before the center twitches. Hardy explodes out of his stance to the point that he is upright and crossing the line of scrimmage before any of his teammates have even begun to leave their stances. His speed off the line and acceleration after getting upright puts him on the outside shoulder of Bailey. From there, he is able to shed Bailey's block attempt with ease before accelerating towards the quarterback in space. Hardy would have had a sack, but the Seahawks were running a screen play. Although it was a screen play, Hardy wasn't supposed to be left unblocked like other defensive linemen so his actions here weren't blurred by the offense's approach.

The Seahawks didn't give up a sack against the Cowboys, but that said more about Russell Wilson and their approach than the play of the offensive line. Hardy was unfortunate not to take the quarterback down on a number of occasions.

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Hardy doesn't necessarily bend the edge, but he does have a speed rush that can be devastating. He can't bend the edge because of his size, but that size serves him well as a power rusher. It's exceptionally difficult to prevent him from forcing his way into the backfield because of the myriad of ways he can beat you. Hardy can use his burst off the line to force you to overextend trying to play his speed rush before knocking you aside with his power. He can also square up to you from the start and drive you back into the quarterback or shift you out of the way with his hand usage. In the above play, Hardy is able to simply swat Bailey aside before continuing towards the quarterback.

Wilson did an excellent job of getting rid of the football to his quick outlet underneath. If he didn't have that option to make a quick decision, then Hardy would have taken him down. With the Seahawks using quick passes to negate Hardy's pass rush, the defender was forced to find another way to impact the passing game.

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On designed quick throws, offensive tackles will often be instructed to cut their defensive ends to the ground. This is because the quarterback doesn't need time in the pocket, he just needs a clear throwing lane. When Bailey attempted to cut Hardy late in the third quarter, the defensive end showed off outstanding awareness to evade it. He used his hands and feet together to push Bailey away before extending into the air to tip the ball to himself. The only surprising part of the play was Hardy's inability to get past Russell Wilson's tackle.

If you can't compartmentalize and judge the football player separately from the person off the field, this is a very inconvenient truth: Greg Hardy is one of the best players in the NFL right now. His value as a pass-rusher is huge to the Cowboys, and he is the kind of transcendent talent in which every single team in the league would be interested if he didn't come with so much baggage.

He has to be that good. If he wasn't, he wouldn't still be employed.


3 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2015, 3:32pm

1 Re: Film Room: Greg Hardy

Nice article Cian.

I wish Greg Hardy just beat QBs so I could cheer for his unrelenting play.

2 Re: Film Room: Greg Hardy

I knew the Pats had destroyed the Cowboys several weeks ago but I was curious how they dealt with Hardy since their line is in shambles at the moment and I was wondering if they schemed around Hardy to get their offense rolling.

Well, after reviewing only the highlights it seems like they weren't really able to handle him at all. Basically he was a wrecking ball the whole first half and then they started making sure they were scheming around him but he was still getting hits on Brady.

Given that the Pats DE Jones is also a strong blend of speed and power and doesn't really excel in either aspect I thought their LT would be more prepared for this kind of player but it seems like Hardy excels at both speed and power and really only lacks a bit of the agility that some other top flight DE's have that bend the edge. But who can blame him when he plays probably 25 lbs heavier than the smaller and speedier DE's.

The guy is unreal.

3 Re: Film Room: Greg Hardy

just curious, what happen to nfl soundfx when Hardy was going off, what happened to the mic, that's the stuff i want to hear, as he slaps clipboard out of special teams coach hands.