Film Room: Isaiah Simmons
Getting first-round pick Isaiah Simmons on the field has been a slow process for the Arizona Cardinals. Slow-playing rookie development has long been a staple of the Steve Keim era in the desert, but Simmons was seen by many as a transcendent prospect, someone who did not need that kind of babying. His athleticism and versatility for a 6-foot-4, 238-pound pseudo-safety was thought to be something not even the slowest, safest teams would keep off the field.
That has not been the case for most of 2020. Simmons saw just over one-quarter of the snaps in the season opener against San Francisco, but that did not last. Kyle Shanahan had Simmons' head spinning, which is a common occurrence for any linebacker facing Shanahan's offense. Simmons' snap percentage never rose beyond 25% again all the way through Week 7 against Seattle. Though he did have a game-sealing interception, Simmons saw just five snaps against the Seahawks, a season-low. It seemed like things were getting worse for Simmons, not better.
Since Arizona's Week 8 bye, however, things have turned around. The former Clemson do-it-all defensive Superman is finally getting his time to shine. Simmons has played an average of 55% of the Cardinals' defensive snaps since Week 9. He also played at least 44% of the snaps in all three of those games, climbing as high as 68% in a rematch against the Seahawks last week. What is fascinating is that Simmons' deployment in each game, and how the Cardinals ease him into the game, has been slightly different each time.
Against Miami in Week 9, Simmons was playing strongside linebacker out of base personnel, with a couple of snaps on the line of scrimmage (similar to how Haason Reddick is often used). He was off the field a bit as the Cardinals got into more Bear defensive fronts, but returned a fair amount in passing situations -- i.e., when the Cardinals wanted to flex someone out to cover against trips. Against Buffalo, Simmons came in primarily as an A-gap blitz threat and in a handful of instances when needing to cover a tight end from trips. Versus Seattle last week, Simmons played a fair amount in all of Arizona's packages, from base to red zone to facing trips -- close to a full-time player.
Admittedly, easing Simmons into base and red zone packages was probably for the best. Simmons' run defense from the box has been a roller coaster throughout this season. Granted, one could make the argument that all of Arizona's linebackers struggle fitting the run well, so Simmons' relative weaknesses matter less, but the team's coaches have not quite seen it that way until recently.
Again, that is probably for good reason.
Here is a good example of Simmons (48, on the left side of the screen) not fully understanding how to make his fit work, even if he starts with the right idea. Once the 4i defensive lineman in front of him gets worked into the C-gap outside, Simmons does a great job "falling back" into the B-gap. He knew where he needed to be. The problem is how poorly he took on this block, in part because Simmons is so tall for a linebacker that getting into a proper position to create leverage can be awkward. That has been Simmons' biggest struggle thus far. In this instance, Simmons gets too low and drops his knee to the grass, making it really tough to actually box this lead blocker and explode through the block. Simmons ends up dead in the water trying to balance himself on his knee, and the running back stumbles right through him for the score.
Seeing as Simmons is 6-foot-4 and has long limbs, natural leverage will always be tough for him to come by as an off-ball linebacker. How well he can adapt or begin to work around that is unknown, so his best course of action now is simply being faster to his spot than the blocker. That would help any linebacker, of course, but it's especially important for one who has an awkward body type for taking on blockers in tight spaces. At least against Buffalo, Simmons flashed that a little bit, with an assist from Arizona's scheme.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph helps Simmons out a bit here. Rather than have the defensive tackle to Simmons' side in a 1-technique, which would be the standard for an even front like this, that defensive tackle is in a 2i over the guard (66). If that defensive tackle were in a 1-tech spot in the A-gap or in a shade over the center, the center might be able to reach the defensive tackle by himself (depending on how good he is) with no help from the play-side guard. In a 2i, though, the defensive tackle is too far for the center to reach, so the guard has to pay him mind at the snap. The split-second in which the guard stalls after the snap to potentially help out on the defensive tackle is just enough for Simmons to win the angle. Simmons fires down, adjusts to a good angle on the guard's outside shoulder, and powers through into the B-gap to help shut this play down. This is also a fantastic play from the 2i defensive tackle, but this play shows Simmons doing everything he needs to on a fit like this.
The real value in putting Simmons on the field, of course, is what he does on passing downs. Simmons only really needs to become a competent run defender to help unlock what he brings in coverage. Like everything for him this season, Simmons' passing contributions were questionable early on, but he has started to grow into his own.
Cardinals double A gap w/ Isaiah Simmons pic.twitter.com/YbTWbmMJi2
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlassClips) November 25, 2020
As mentioned before, Joseph loves bringing Simmons onto the field for these double-A-gap pressure looks. The two defensive tackles fan out and vacate the gaps on either side of the center, which the two inside linebackers then step up to fill. Defenses can either send both linebackers, send one based off the protection (primarily which side the center slides to), or send neither and have both linebackers fall off into coverage for a fake pressure look. So far, Simmons has had a bit of success with all of the above.
In this play, Simmons tacks himself onto the pass rush while fellow linebacker Jordan Hicks falls back into coverage. It's possible Simmons was "green dogging" off either the tight end or running back, but plenty of teams like to let the linebackers decide which player drops based on the center's slide. The center (and the entire line) slide away from Simmons, therefore Simmons becomes the blitzer.
This clip features both linebackers bailing. Simmons drops to his right and correctly passes off the first crosser to the other linebacker before coming down to pick up the running back on the "check release" checkdown. Simmons could probably match this a bit more aggressively right away, but credit to the running back for also seeing his quarterback bail and immediately knowing to move across the field with him. Arizona's first-round linebacker just makes a great play to make up ground and take away the window.
Simmons can also carry vertical threats. He often did so in college, even against the likes of Ohio State. Simmons has unreal speed, especially for someone his size. Simmons ran a 4.39s 40-yard dash back in the spring and it shows on film.
This play is bittersweet for the Cardinals overall, but the sweet element comes from Simmons. Simmons is aligned over the No. 2 (middle) receiver to the trips side in what looks like match Cover-3 from the Cardinals. Simmons has all of No. 2 unless he is under right away. On this snap, No. 2 is vertical on a deep corner route and Simmons does a wonderful job getting into his hip, bumping him at the break, and "running the route" for him the rest of the way through. Unfortunately for Arizona, a Smash concept like this is a match Cover-3 beater, so they give up the completion anyway, but it is still encouraging to see Simmons look so smooth out there.
The Bills do not get so lucky in this clip. Simmons is now over the No. 3 (innermost) receiver instead of the No. 2. Arizona also look to be in a Cover-1 double look with the deep safety rolling to the strong side and the weak safety staying down to play inside/underneath leverage of the weak No. 1 (Stefon Diggs in this instance). In any event, despite a different alignment, route, and player type (Buffalo's No. 3 here is a tight end), Simmons does a fantastic job getting into the hips and running with his man down the field. Simmons forces a tight window 25-plus yards down the field. His coverage alone probably forces an incompletion here, but cornerback Patrick Peterson does a great job to peel off his assignment and snag this interception.
Joseph has even gone as far as to deploy Simmons as the point player against trips bunch looks. It is uncommon for a linebacker to play as the point defender against trips bunch formations for a couple reasons. For one, those formations almost always feature two or three wide receivers, which can be a bad matchup for a linebacker. Also, the traffic these formations often cause can be a problem for linebackers to sift through. In some spots, the Cardinals have shown faith that Simmons can handle it.
Seattle does not run a real route concept out of this trips bunch formation. Instead, they call a simple screen for wide receiver DK Metcalf. Simmons easily sheds the block, and then he and the rest of the Cardinals defense swarms to the ball instantly and brings Metcalf down for a loss. In all honesty, the clip itself does not say much about Simmons' skill set, but the fact that Joseph trusted him to be out there so they could roll down the weak safety on a blitz gives a peek into what kind of stuff Simmons opens up for the defense.
Simmons is a skeleton key still in production. Though it has been a slow process, Simmons is starting to prove he has everything necessary to be a versatile, explosive chess piece for the Cardinals defense. For now, though, what Simmons has shown is more of a blueprint for what the defense can be with him in the fold, not a sure thing.
The next step for Simmons is just ironing out the execution on a more consistent basis. It is becoming clearer now that the Cardinals put a lot on his plate, and that may be why it took him a while to get acclimated. Things are starting to click for him mentally, though, and it's exciting to think about what the Cardinals defense can be once he really feels comfortable. Whether that will be later on this season or next year, who knows, but Simmons finally showcasing why he was selected is a great sign for the defense moving forward.