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01 Dec 2016

Film Room: Clowney and Beasley

by Cian Fahey

It's not a big secret, nor does it require great insight, but defensive linemen and edge-rushers are really valuable in the NFL right now. The weight of Von Miller's wallet will attest to that. Miller got quarterback money in the offseason. He was rewarded with a six-year, $114.5 million contract from the Denver Broncos after finishing 2015 with 11 sacks in 16 regular season games and five more in three playoff games. He was also the MVP of the Super Bowl.

Miller's sacks are just the peak of his skill set. His value on the field is felt in many more ways. Miller is a scheme-breaker. He forces opposing teams to adjust their offenses because he can't be treated like any other player. He is a mismatch in a one-on-one situation with 99 percent of the linemen who play across from him. The only way you can rationally expect to contain him is if you shorten your quarterback's drop and your receivers' routes, or send a second (or third) blocker his way. Miller disrupts the design of passing plays with pressure and breaks the design of running plays with penetration. You can't run away from him and leave him unblocked on the backside, because he'll run the ball carrier down in the backfield. You can't run at him because he'll shed his blocker and be waiting for the running back at the line of scrimmage.

The league needs more Von Millers. It has a few. Players such as Aaron Donald, Michael Bennett, Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Cliff Avril, and Robert Quinn immediately come to mind. With the way the league is going, we're going to need even more of those kinds of players to create balance.

The NFL is imbalanced right now. It's much easier to create an offense that puts up big numbers than it is to create a defense that consistently contains its opponents. Defensive backs are expected to play coverage in such a way that it is almost impossible to execute legally. You will still have scheme-breaking defensive backs and off-ball linebackers, but those will continue to be extremely rare. The Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman types are harder to replicate than the Miller, Mack, Houston types. A big reason for that is the rules, but it's also that there is a conveyor belt supplying talented receivers to the league now, while there is no supply line of offensive linemen who can pass block. Depth on the offensive line doesn't exist at all, and many teams trot out inadequate starters upfront simply because they have no better option.

More than all other positions, defensive linemen are developmental pieces. Teams typically look for prospects with plus athleticism and work on their technique after drafting them to develop them into effective pass rushers. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally players at the position take time to produce consistently.

Right now there are two defensive linemen who have very different skill sets but are at very similar points in their developmental curves. Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans was the first overall pick in the 2014 draft; he is now 23 years old. Vic Beasley of the Atlanta Falcons was the eighth overall pick of the 2015 draft; he is now 24 years old. Both Clowney and Beasley struggled to produce good numbers as rookies, and both have dealt with various health issues. Both players have clear strengths and clear weaknesses at this point in their careers. What makes them different is where one is strong the other is weak, and where one is weak the other is strong.

First, let's look at Clowney. When the Raiders beat the Denver Broncos in Week 9, Oakland running backs ran for 215 yards on 39 carries (5.5 yards per attempt). The Raiders repeatedly used the same play design that helped to neutralize Miller while attacking the softer center of the Broncos front seven. Against the Houston Texans in their next game, Raiders running backs ran for 32 yards on 18 carries (1.8 yards per attempt). When asked after the game why the Raiders couldn't run the ball, head coach Jack Del Rio offered up a one word explanation: "Clowney."

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On the Raiders' very first attempt at running the ball, they left Clowney alone against a tight end. The Raiders were trying to run behind that tight end, so this was a foundational block for the design of the play. No tight end will comfortably block Clowney, and a receiving tight end has no shot.

Clowney lines up as the right defensive end in a 4-2 front. He doesn't have a linebacker outside of him, so he has to be aware of holding the edge. He never does, though, because he is able to quickly stack and shed the tight end while diagnosing the play in the backfield. Clowney easily shunts the tight end aside before exploding into the running back in the backfield. By not adjusting their play design to account for Clowney's presence, the Raiders ran themselves right into a 4-yard loss.

Beating a tight end may not be as impressive as beating a tackle, but beating anyone that badly is always an impressive play. You could see Clowney's sheer explosiveness and his overall strength. He concentrated that strength and set up his explosiveness with good footwork and extended, aggressive hands.

Clowney's explosiveness, fluidity, strength, and balance are all easy to see. He's an athletic marvel who can comfortably make plays that nobody else in the league even considers attempting. His recognition and reaction time is what allows him to consistently show off that physical talent.

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Before the snap, Clowney shifts inside so that he is square across from the left tackle, Donald Penn. Penn recognizes that Clowney is lining up inside a linebacker, so he anticipates the defensive end crashing down inside. Penn's inside foot shifts all of his weight inside. Clowney immediately sees this and adjusts his body so that he can knock Penn out of his way as he accelerates past his other shoulder. While the defender doesn't actually get near the football, he takes away any potential run up the middle or cutback opportunity, forcing the running back to keep pushing the ball in the other direction.

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Clowney's anticipation comes into play on this occasion. When the Raiders shift a tight end in from a wider position to line up across from him, Clowney knows that he can shoot the gap inside of the tight end. He moves with the snap and is pressing into the backfield as the running play is developing. The right tackle pulled away from him, but Clowney catches up to him and hits him from an unsighted position. He hits the right tackle so hard that he is knocked back into the running back before Clowney takes him down for a tackle for loss.

Penetrating past blockers and into the backfield to create chaos the way Clowney does is hugely valuable, but that alone doesn't make him a great run defender. What makes Clowney great is that he excels at penetrating, like in the above plays, but he also holds up against double-teams and can dominate blockers through contact.

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Take the above play for example. Clowney never touches the running back on this play, but he is the catalyst for the defense's success. Being so close to the goal line, the Raiders bring in a sixth offensive lineman and line him up across from Clowney. This gives Clowney a tougher challenge than the receiving tight end we previously watched him sweep past. The sixth lineman is able to engage Clowney and stay on his block. There's just one problem. Clowney pushes the blocker back so far that he closes the running lane the back was supposed to attack. Clowney forces the running back to stop his feet, and holds the block even after the back contacts the blocker he is engaged with.

At that point of the play Clowney is driven back and turned towards the ground. He had already done his job, though. Stopping the play at that point allowed multiple defenders to close on the ball and corral the running back before he could cross the line of scrimmage.

The violence, explosion, anticipation and control that Clowney shows off as a run blocker in every game is rarely exhibited when he's rushing the passer. Clowney can still create pressure and get to the quarterback at times, but he is a reactive player who appears to be slowed down by his own thought process and a lack of technique. If Clowney doesn't win with his first action, he will become submissive and stand on the wrong side of his blocker instead of trying to work his way around or through the block. It's not that Clowney is lazy, it's that he doesn't really know what he's doing. He plays too high and is too hesitant. If linebackers coach Mike Vrabel wants to live up to that bloated reputation he has been given, he needs to develop Clowney as a pass-rusher and turn him into someone who can get 10 sacks each season. It's blatantly obvious that he has all the physical traits required to be a dominant pass rusher.

Clowney has just three sacks on the season. Beasley had more sacks than that in one game this year, a 3.5 sack-effort against the Denver Broncos. Beasley's production in that game, though, was somewhat fraudulent. He was playing against a one-armed backup offensive tackle who had no response to Beasley's speed rush off the edge. Yet, in spite of that context, it was still a big game for Beasley's development. As a rookie, Beasley's strength was limited by a shoulder problem that haunted him throughout the year, but his bigger issue were his own efforts to sabotage his own success. Beasley fell in love with his spin move. Unless you are Dwight Freeney, spin moves should not be relied upon as the foundation of your pass rush, and Beasley's spin move was not Dwight Freeney's. Beasley was regularly just turning his back to tackles so they could punch him in the wrong direction.

That hasn't been the case this year. Beasley may not have beaten the best of opponents, but he is now playing like a disciplined rusher and the results have largely been positive.

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Beasley didn't have a sack against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, but he caused an intentional grounding penalty by bending around the edge against Jermaine Gresham, and he forced Carson Palmer into a panicked interception at the end of the game. While at Clemson, Beasley's speed off the edge terrified opposing tackles. He could beat blockers with his first step or with his ability to work his way around the edge if they matched his initial movement. That ability has begun to translate against NFL linemen as he is no longer hesitant or overly focused on trying to win with his spin move.

In the above GIF you can see Beasley's explosiveness as he gets off the line and presses vertically downfield. His first step puts him in position to attack either shoulder of the offensive tackle before he dips his inside shoulder to get underneath the taller player and leverage his way around the edge. John Ulrik is the right tackle on this play. Ulrik is a third-string backup. Beasley should be beating him this easily in an obvious passing situation.

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The combine was very important for Beasley when he was entering the draft. Despite his success in college and obvious explosiveness, there were major questions about his size and strength. Beasley didn't need to be an overpowering pass rusher who literally fit offensive linemen in his shadow. He did have to be strong enough to hold up against contact and take advantage of the positions his explosiveness put him in. Beasley ultimately proved to be a combine star. He fared well in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and 20-yard shuffle while weighing in at a hefty 246 pounds. There were some questions about Beasley's ability to retain that weight and strength on a weekly basis during the season, and those are still fair. Regardless, it hasn't been a debilitating problem so far.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 10, Beasley showed off his bulk and strength, as seen in the above GIF. The right tackle does a relatively good job of pushing Beasley, out of the play but Beasley is able to hold his ground long enough to get an opportunity to swat the ball out of Carson Wentz's hands. Without that resilience, Beasley would never have caused the fumble and created the turnover.

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The foundation of Beasley's pass-rushing ability will remain his speed. When he gets one-on-one matchups in space he will need to continue to show off precise footwork and change-of-direction ability to manipulate slower, more cumbersome linemen. Beasley has consistently shown flashes so far this year even if he hasn't consistently gotten pressure like some of his peers. Quite a few of his sacks were easy (coverage/clean-up) sacks. Even while playing off the line of scrimmage more often this year, Beasley is definitely heading in the right direction to become an impact edge rusher in the mold of Cameron Wake or Robert Quinn.

That development is key, though, and it can often be difficult for speed rushers. Wake spent the early stages of his career in the CFL. Quinn was a rotational player during his rookie season. Jerry Hughes, now a disruptive edge-rusher in Buffalo, had five sacks in his first three seasons before notching 20 during his fourth and fifth. Justis Mosqueda of Bleacher Report, a draft expert specializing in evaluating pass-rushers, suggests that Beasley's slow start was more about not people not understanding where he was as a prospect, rather than Beasley's own struggles. "The biggest factor with Vic Beasley's projection heading into this season was understanding what a pass-rusher of his age should be doing," Mosqueda writes. "He's always been on track for success. It did take him a while to trust his body. That could have been him adjusting to his new combine weight or working that weight off, but he's landing counter moves off initial speed rushes this year that he wasn't close to executing on in 2015."

As former top-10 picks, our expectations for Clowney and Beasley should already be very high. Their respective performances so far this season offer us more reasons to be excited surpassed their pedigree coming out of college.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 01 Dec 2016

6 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2017, 4:45am by jordanss123


by medelste :: Thu, 12/01/2016 - 3:34pm

Oh, I thought it was about Cole Beasley.

by jtr :: Fri, 12/02/2016 - 4:23pm

Good stuff as always Cian. If I may make one suggestion, it would have been nice have a play or two to show the weaknesses you discussed for each player, i.e. gifs of a bad Clowney pass rush rep and a lousy Beasley spin move.

by kathybrunt435 :: Thu, 12/08/2016 - 6:30am

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