Uncle A’Shawn will take care of it
What was once upon a time believed to be the strength of Teryl Austin’s unit—defensive line depth—turned very sour with injuries to stars Ziggy Ansah and Haloti Ngata. While Ziggy returned to action against the Rams in Week 6, Ngata will almost certainly sit out Week 7 against Washington. Wouldn’t it be great if the Lions had a grizzled veteran leader to take over some of those snaps?
I asked A'Shawn Robinson how old most people think he is when they meet him. "About 35 ... They think I'm a coach." pic.twitter.com/qEUJlfZEZy— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 29, 2015
When the most senior veteran anchoring the center of the defensive line against the run remains out with a shoulder injury, it certainly is nice to be able to plug in a rookie who is ready to take on NFL running backs. Our own Mike Payton thought the new guy could still use some technique work with Haloti Ngata and the coaching staff, so imagine my surprise when the tape shows Robinson already pulling off Ngata-like plays every now and then.
Half of our staff preseason predictions for Detroit’s rookie of the year (including that of fearless leader Jeremy Reisman) named the former ‘Bama beast. It is worth noting that Robinson is already averaging more than 20 defensive snaps per game in the line rotation and turning in steady, solid work. Although his one sack was indeed a dreaded clean-up sack and he only has seven tackles in six games, the true value of the Lions’ first-year run stopper does not show up in box scores; you really have to go to the tape to appreciate the subtle appeal of 47-year-old Uncle A’Shawn.
Occupying double-teams at the point of attack
First, let’s look at what a run stopper up front can do for the defense that may not register a countable stat. By keeping blockers at tied up at the first level on the line of scrimmage, a good defensive tackle can keep his linebackers and safeties mobile and clean so that they are able to read the play and move up to attack. Here is a third down play in the first quarter against the Rams to show Robinson clogging the middle.
2016 LOS, 1Q (6:33). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 27.
While the Lions did not successfully stop the Rams from converting on third down here, the defensive formation and action at the snap are useful for highlighting what is going on in the trenches. In the first screenshot, the Rams are in a double tight end box with 30 HB Todd Gurley as the single back behind 17 QB Case Keenum. The play call by the offense is inside zone, and all potential run gaps are labeled in yellow.
Defensively, the Lions have base 4-3 personnel on the field: three linebackers (50 OLB Thurston Armbrister, 59 MLB Tahir Whitehead, and 53 OLB Kyle Van Noy) are stacked behind the line with 32 SS Tavon Wilson floating to the Rams’ left. Labeled in blue are the run gaps that each of the defensive players are best positioned to fit into and plug.
At the snap, combo blocks by the linemen moving right to left engulf 69 DE Anthony Zettel on the left side of the image, 96 DT Stefan Charles in the middle, and Robinson boxed in red. It is very obvious where the most vulnerable gaps are, and the linebackers must be prepared to either step up into the hole to plug it or shoot through it to take down the ball-carrier from behind. In this case, Robinson collapses the center lane by dragging his double-team over to pile up in front of Gurley and Van Noy cleans it up from behind.
As long as the linebackers and safeties stay alert and read the holes right, the defense maintains gap integrity and prevents long runs. That’s a major qualifier, though! Even if the first level defensive linemen do their jobs well, a failure by the second level guys who must fill behind them will still yield big plays for the offense. Consider the following play from the end of the third quarter where A’Shawn Robinson takes on a double-team admirably, but a blown assignment gives up eight yards.
2016 LOS, 3Q (0:24). First-and-10 at the Detroit 17.
Again the Rams send in an inside zone run play, but this time have only one tight end to Keenum’s right. Gurley is next to his quarterback at run play depth out of the shotgun. Offensive run gaps are in maroon while natural defensive run fits are indicated by the blue letters. Robinson (boxed in red) is a 3-tech defensive tackle over 68 RG Jamon Brown’s outside shoulder.
At the snap, it is clear what went wrong: behind Robinson in the back side C-gap, there are two Lions. That means one gap is unaccounted for, and Gurley slants through that open back side A-gap at full speed. Van Noy started in good alignment, drifted back out to his left before the play started, but never shifted over to regain control of his gap and the defense paid for it.
Taking on double-teams like this did not suddenly start in Week 6; Robinson has been doing it pretty much the whole time under the radar. Consider the next two plays from Week 2 against the Titans.
2016 TEN, 2Q (6:42). First-and-10 at the Detroit 26.
Robinson consumes the double-team up front and maintains control of both blockers, freeing up Van Noy to read 22 HB Derrick Henry the whole way untouched. Shooting through the gap on the cut-back, Van Noy crushes the play in the backfield for no gain, but this is only possible due to the stout play up front at the point of attack.
2016 TEN, 4Q (3:55). Second-and-3 at the Tennessee 46.
There is a lot going on here, but the main people to pay attention to at the snap are 60 C Ben Jones, 67 LG Quinton Spain, and 89 TE Phillip Supernaw. The play call by the Titans is counter to their left, with 77 LT Taylor Lewan setting the edge against 61 DE Kerry Hyder while Supernaw comes back inside to lead block against the grain through the B-gap. What the Titans’ design did not count on was Uncle A’Shawn (lined up right in front of Spain).
First, Jones and Spain combo off the snap, but Robinson gets a hand on Jones and pushes the center to the ground. By the time 8 QB Marcus Mariota hands the ball to Henry, Supernaw is inside assisting Spain against Robinson. That leaves Whitehead a clear lane up the gut to force Henry outside and also frees Armbrister to scrape outside to take down Henry for a short gain.
Somehow, A’Shawn Robinson effectively took out three Tennessee blockers by himself. Mariota completed a pass on third-and-1 to move the chains, but this was still a marvelous individual effort by the rookie on second down.
Riding the double team into the screen
Some of the notable heads up plays by Robinson show up on the stat sheet: in particular, the fourth-and-1 stop on the road in Chicago was a credited tackle-for-loss and there were pass deflections against the Titans and Rams. This article is about non-stat credited plays, though, so let’s consider what else Uncle A’Shawn has done about double-teams. Specifically, what happens when he diagnoses a screen pass?
2016 at CHI, 4Q (11:01). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 12.
The Bears run a screen play to the offense’s left, releasing both rookie 65 C Cody Whitehair and former Packer all-pro 71 LG Josh Sitton to block in space for 24 HB Jordan Howard. However, Robinson (boxed in red) instantly realizes what is going on when both Whitehair and Sitton try to disengage after the initial punch. Instead of thinking there’s an easy path to the quarterback (which is what the Bears want), Robinson latches onto both linemen and keeps running with them.
In this second screenshot, 2 QB Brian Hoyer is looking for his running back to toss the screen pass, but there’s a bizarre traffic jam brewing. Robinson appears to be trying to drive the blockers into Howard’s route, and he succeeds in messing up the timing and angles for the Bears. Hoyer’s pass went wide, and fell harmlessly to the turf past Howard’s outstretched arm:
Lest you think this was an isolated lucky play, the second-round draft pick did it again against the Eagles. Instead of taking the bait to chase the quarterback, he felt the flow of the play and put himself in position to disrupt its design.
2016 PHI, 3Q (3:26). Second-and-3 at the Philadelphia 26.
Robinson boxed in red will be met at the snap by an initial double team from 62 C Jason Kelce and 76 LG Allen Barbre. Mirroring on the play action, Detroit’s young defensive tackle stays on task and keeps both blockers occupied and off his linebackers even after 11 QB Carson Wentz comes up to look for 24 HB Ryan Mathews on the screen:
Look how congested that space near the red box is with bodies: three Lions defenders are in the area while three Eagles blockers and Mathews are crammed in. Visible in the screenshot is Robinson employing a somewhat-less-than-legal “veteran move” to control Barbre by grabbing the front of his collar. This gives Armbrister enough time to read the play and maneuver to the edge where Mathews gets pushed by all the traffic.
At the very end of the GIF, we can briefly see that Mathews catches the screen right in front of Armbrister; he was tackled immediately at the Philadelphia 20-yard line. This play went in the books as a six-yard tackle for loss credited to Thurston Armbrister, but we know it was really the product of A’Shawn Robinson’s instinctive attack against the screen blockers.
Silent but violent
Back during the preseason, Jeremy Reisman wrote a film breakdown on the first look everyone got of Robinson against the Steelers. The article title stated the rookie was “quietly dominant in (his) NFL debut,” and I feel that is still a relevant phrase. Examples like these plays showing A’Shawn Robinson exerting huge influence on play outcomes without receiving statistical tick marks should reassure anyone wondering why they never hear his name. As a space eater inside whose job is largely to swallow up blockers and keep the playmakers behind him free to operate, Robinson’s contributions are not well captured by stats.
No, it’s not exactly the same as having a 100% healthy Haloti Ngata ready to go, but it’s still pretty damn good. Just think: if he’s playing this well now, how high can the ceiling go when Robinson develops even more refined technique and awareness as an actual old time veteran instead of merely looking like one?