by Matt Waldman
There was another game of note played in the shadow of the Super Bowl this weekend: Texas vs. The Nation. In a case where truth is stranger than fiction, the last of the January-February college all-star games has a title that echoes the state government’s desire for seccession. It's held at Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas -– a $60 million high school facility. Considering the monstrosity that Jerry Jones built down the road in Dallas, it all makes sense. You just have to understand a Texan’s priorities.
The most talked-about Texas vs. The Nation prospect this week was Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin. His play surprised some –- "those" being media who don’t pay attention to college football beyond the top 30 to 45 teams. Considering that I watched Griffin throw 66 passes against the Houston Cougars in November, I wasn’t among those who had their cherry popped Texas-Style.
The rite of passage I did experience while watching Griffin was that of another Texas vs. The Nation participant, Cougars linebacker Phillip Steward. The 6-foot-0, 230-pound, All-Conference USA defender had 11 sacks this year and he was ranked ninth in the country with 9.5 tackles for a loss. A good run defender, where Steward excels is pass coverage. He had nine interceptions over the past two seasons –- six of them last year, which was tops among linebackers in college football.
The Cougars often placed Stewart in the slot in its nickel package, and the linebacker claims that he has the best hands on a team that has historically been a pass-happy program. Big words, but when you see some of his highlights you’ll realize that, just like most things in Texas, it all makes crazy sense. Here are several plays that should give you an idea why Steward was not only a marquee commodity at Texas vs. The Nation, but also fared well as a late addition to the Senior Bowl.
Steward will thrive in a defense were he’s allowed to make plays in space. The Cougars linebacker may seem a little light at 230 pounds, but this may be the future of the position sooner than later. The current direction of NFL offenses is a spread game that forces linebackers to run sideline to sideline as well as make quick, deep drops, and Steward fits that mold. Steward is a decisive open-field tackler and there’s no better way to demonstrate that than a play where he’s responsible for a running back on a swing pass.
Tulane runs a lot of these 20-personnel shotgun, 2x1 receiver sets with the twin side tight to the formation. In this case, the Green Wave has its two receivers run routes to the flat to occupy the defense, setting up space for the running back on the swing pass. At any level of football, a running back is expected to make the first man miss in the open field.
The outside receiver from the twin side releases into his stem and Steward shows no hesitation reading the running back swinging to the flat. The linebacker takes an aggressive track, making first contact with the receiver with a punch to disrupt the pass-catcher’s balance and create an outside angle to the back working to the flat.
Steward now has an angle downhill to the running back with the ball still in the air. What I like about his decision to punch the receiver is that he conceptually understands that he needs to have an outside angle on the runner so if he misses the tackle, he likely forces the receiver inside where there’s a greater chance for help from his teammates. If he tries to use his speed to dip under the receiver, Steward puts himself in position where he’s trailing the runner and leaving the flat open for a bigger gain.
Linebackers and running backs both need good vision and I believe one component of vision is mature decision-making that doesn’t hurt your team. Just as young running backs often rely too much on their speed and try to bounce plays outside, young linebackers are prone to think they can run down opponents and take pursuit angles that give the ball carrier open space if they miss the tackle. I call the running back tendency the compulsion to “take it to the corner store,” because few things you get there are worth the price, or even good for you. I need to think of a similar euphemism for this linebacker tendency.
Steward delivers the hit high enough and with his shoulders into the body of the defender that he can slide down the runner and wrap the leg if needed. But in this case he’s strong enough to knock the runner off-balance and wrap the ball carrier to the turf for a minimal gain.
Hands, Reads, Pass Drops, and Range
These next three plays are why Steward was at two college all-star games this month. The first is a first-and-10 seam route to the slot receiver that the linebacker undercuts for an interception.
The receiver takes an outside release on what should be a mismatch in favor of Tulane. This is something that Green Wave quarterback Griffin understands. It’s a target any quarterback will take from this trips set versus a defensive alignment where the inside slot man is drawing attention from the safety inside the right hash. That leaves Steward on more of an island against the middle receiver than the coverage may indicate (see below).
Steward makes contact with the receiver to slow the pass catcher’s stem and then turns inside to get positioned on the receiver’s back hip.
The fact that Tulane’s inside slot man on the trips side is working to the middle of the field and drawing the safety means Steward is one-on-one with his opponent. This is the type of play that often ends in a touchdown -– even in the NFL. Steward flashes enough speed and skill in coverage to turn this mismatch inside-out.
With the ball in the air, the safety and the outside corner do a good job of peeling off their first responsibilities to converge on the seam route, which foils the idea of Griffin having the mismatch he saw during the pre-snap phase of this play. This also gives Steward a chance to play the ball and boast to his teammates that he can hang with the receiving corps.
Steward undercuts the throw with good timing on his leap, making the interception with full extension of his arms and his back to the receiver, attacking the ball with his hands. It’s a textbook reception that would make any receivers coach happy.
The next play is even more impressive even though he fails to complete the interception in the end zone. Steward makes a phenomenal read on this third-quarter flag route during a second-and-13 pass play.
This trips set has the outside receiver running a shallow cross, the middle receiver running a wheel route, and the inside receiver running the flag route.
After the snap, Steward’s responsibility to the wheel route becomes clear as he slides towards the flat in anticipation of the middle receiver’s break up the sideline, doing a good job of maintaining depth behind the crossing route to give his teammate room to cover and not giving the receiver a chance to rub Steward from his angle to the wheel route. Steward’s position also gives him time to read the quarterback’s eyes and a split-second later it becomes apparent that Griffin’s target will be the flag route.
Steward begins his drop to the flag route before the quarterback begins his release. By the time Griffin finishes his throw, the linebacker has already abandoned the wheel route and dropped three yards towards the inside slot man’s break to the flag. It’s a good thing, because the zone defender initially covering the flag route breaks on the crossing route by mistake and leaves the safety scrambling after the receiver who is breaking to the end zone five yards ahead.
Fortunately for Houston, the receiver slips as he turns to the ball so there’s little chance for a reception even if Steward didn’t get to the ball. However, the linebacker does a great job of making up ground and leaping for the pass, getting both hands on the ball. In this case, the pass is just out of his reach. I’m sure his teammates on offense were telling him that if he wants to earn that self-appointed, best-hands title then he has to catch the ball in the end zone when he can get his hands on the pass.
This final play of this segment is my favorite of the three, because of the range he displays. This play is a double-reverse pass to the receiver on a streak up the right sideline with 6:57 left in the first half versus UAB.
Stewart begins the play taking a step towards the line of scrimmage to react to the run. When he’s sees the first pitch, he plays disciplined football by widening his position outside the hash to account for the backside.
Note that Steward is only four yards off the line of scrimmage at the point the second receiver takes the pitch on the double-reverse. The linebacker has to contain the edge in case it’s a run, so dropping into coverage is not yet an option.
When the receiver makes his throw, Steward has dropped nearly 20 yards and makes another leaping interception with full extension and a nice vertical. The momentum of his drop and leap takes him another five yards downfield after going airborne to make the interception. As you can see, Steward’s hands and adjustment to the football are a consistent strength of his game. To drop 20 yards this fast to get this kind of position makes him more like a safety than a linebacker.
Steward’s performance against UAB also included 2.5 sacks. Both were products of his speed around the edge against a left tackle slow to get the edge.
The still of the play above doesn't result in a sack, but Steward displays promising technique around the corner, getting under the left tackle and bending at the angle that the good NFL edge rushers display. At 230 pounds, he’ll need to add another 15 pounds and display a lot better technique with his hands for anyone to mistake Steward for Von Miller. But the purpose of evaluating talent is to project where players have an opportunity to grow, and there is room for Steward to develop into an effective situational pass rusher.
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What I love most about Steward’s game is his effort. He shows up when adversity is high. There is a sequence in the final three minutes of the half where UAB completes a pass up the seam for a long gain. Steward is one of two defenders to chase down the receiver, tackling the ball carrier at the two. On the following play, Stewart penetrates under the right guard, hits the running back’s legs, and stuffs the run. The play after that, Steward sacks the quarterback. UAB settles for a field goal. The notion that big players play big at big moments is cliché, but when a player demonstrates hustle, awareness, and technique in an athletic package, he’s likely to have these moments.
Steward stylistically reminds me of former Southern Mississippi safety-turned-linebacker Michael Boley –- a speedy, versatile linebacker with the athleticism to make a roster on special teams until he can make the transition to the pro game as a weakside linebacker. I don’t think Von Miller upside is a fair label to put on Steward, especially for a linebacker with a scout’s grade that I would guess is mid-to-late-round quality, but he’s a player with specific skills that fit where NFL offenses are forcing NFL defenses to evolve.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.