Next man up is a series of articles examining players further down the depth chart, particularly young players being developed for larger roles.
This time, we are looking at defensive tackle Gabe Wright.
For the first article in this series, see Next man up: Gabe Wright (Part one)
Ineffective Bull Rushing
A recurring issue with Gabe Wright I saw while watching the seven regular season games where he played defensive snaps was that he doesn't break free after a blocker locks onto him. This is not a major problem if we actually want him to tie up blockers -- especially two-for-one exchanges against double teams -- but it's terrible if he's one-on-one in a pass rush situation or one-gapping against the run.
To be fair to Wright, I am throwing out situations where he is stonewalled by a double-team because there aren't many rookies who are going to regularly beat that. I do think we should expect to see some kind of move set against single blockers, though. Moreover, I think it is fair to expect that at least some of the time a rusher ought to be able to break free from a single blocker, even if only to push the pocket for other pass rushers.
2015 at GBY, 1Q (12:09). First-and-10 at the 50 yard line.
On first down with most of the starters off the field, Wright is facing 70 RG TJ Lang and 63 C Corey Linsley from the 3-technique spot. Wright gets pushed from the side by Lang to line up square on Linsley after the snap:
For about four seconds, Wright gets no push, gets no action from his hands, and is steered around by Linsley. Nobody else on the entire Detroit line got any kind of pressure on 12 QB Aaron Rodgers, and the only reason the defense was bailed out here was due to an uncharacteristic bad throw from Rodgers. Rodgers had 17 WR Davante Adams clear to the inside with no pressure coming and simply missed the throw to bring up second-and-10.
2015 at GBY, 1Q (1:45). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 21.
Lined up again at the 3-technique, Wright is working one-on-one against 70 RG Lang with most of the first-string DL in the game. 97 DT Caraun Reid is lined up slightly shaded to the inside of his man, and eventually draws the double-team from 71 LG Josh Sitton and 63 C Linsley. In such situations, it is on the 3-technique to win his match-up and get pressure.
The Packers run a standard shotgun pass play with vertical releases on the outsides, a dig-drag combination over the middle, and a delayed chip release valve to the flat. Unlike an NCAA/Shallow Cross post-dig-drag combo play, the outside routes are not being used to pin the deep safety and hit the underneath crosser. Instead, Rodgers is treating this like a shot play that forces 42 SS Isa Abdul-Quddus to choose between two verticals hitting on opposite sides of the field. Just so happens that both 23 CB Darius Slay and 24 CB Nevin Lawson play such good loose man down the sidelines that IAQ stays uncommitted down the middle and available to help on either side.
From the overhead All-22 angle, we can see the Lions are solid in coverage across the middle of the field as well, and Rodgers holds the ball for four seconds while cycling through his reads. First, he checks off 89 WR James Jones (the front stacked WR to Rodgers' right side) on the vertical to the right. Second, Rodgers looks to his far left at the backside vertical: it is covered well by Nevin Lawson. Third, he comes back to the inside break by 18 WR Randall Cobb (the guy who came in motion and set up as the back WR in the stack to Rodgers' right). No go again, since 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch is patrolling the middle and ready to annihilate Cobb. On his fourth read, Rodgers comes back to 80 TE Justin Perillo leaking off a chip on Ziggy shallow to the left for decent yards.
Now come back up to the tackle box and look at the pass rush. Three of the four rushers push the pocket. The last one, who stops moving forward around the 19-yard line, is Wright. Lang absorbs the initial bull rush to stop Wright's momentum, and then keeps resetting. You can see Lang hop and re-plant his feet a couple of times to continually recover leverage on Wright. Instead of trying a move to the inside or outside, Wright stubbornly keeps trying to plow through Lang unsuccessfully.
2015 at SEA, 3Q (5:42). First-and-20 at the Seattle 17.
Following a holding call on 68 LG Justin Britt, Seattle comes out in an Empty Gun set to try and get back on schedule. Again, Wright is one-on-one from the 3-technique. this time against RG JR Sweezy. With no running back in the formation with 3 QB Russell Wilson, this is a pure pass rush situation and our penetrator must win his match-up.
Unfortunately, Wright plows into Sweezy after an initial slap attempt and is erased from the play entirely. From the time the ball is snapped to the time Wilson actually makes his throw, Sweezy is in complete control. The above screenshot was taken about six seconds after the snap, and Wright is the only Detroit pass rusher still locked up with his blocker.
In college, Wright was more athletic and stronger than many of the opposing blockers he faced, so a straight ahead bum rush with no secondary move would suffice. At the NFL level, though, it is just not enough because everybody able to make the field as a professional starter will have some minimum level of strength and technique.
Taking Agility Over Power
This is not to say that Wright is incapable of executing rush moves other than a bull rush. In fact in the uncommon instances where we see him doing something different, it tends to work quite well thanks to his natural quickness and agility. The issue is getting him to instinctively use a more varied toolbox of moves instead of reverting to an "all bull rush all the time" mode.
2015 Preseason at JAX, 3Q (9:49). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.
Here we have Wright matched up against backup 69 RG Tyler Shatley in a preseason game against Jacksonville. Yes, this is a preseason game against non-starter talent, but it shows Wright is capable of doing something other than bull rushing. Slapping Shatley's hands to the side, Wright dips his left shoulder to get a rip move under his blocker to apply inside pressure. This is the way we want to see our 3-technique get it done.
2015 at SEA, 2Q (1:18). Second-and-23 at the Detroit 23.
Finally we come to Wright against 68 LG Justin Britt on the road in Seattle. This time an over arm swim move gets past the blocker with ease. Although Wright narrowly misses a chance to blow the play up in the backfield (due to an uncalled hold), the penetration still slows 22 HB Fred Jackson enough for Ziggy and Bynes to stop him after picking up just one yard.
Next time: Awareness
Gabe Wright definitely has the explosiveness needed to attack inside, but he must work on staying active to keep clean. Too often blockers will latch on and ride him for the entire play. When he goes for the side of the blocker with a rip or swim move, it's apparent how good of a pass rusher he can become. I think this statement by South Dakota State defensive line coach Jesse Currier makes sense when applied to Gabe Wright:
I see it as a wasted opportunity any time we get a one-on-one match-up on the inside and the first thing the rusher does is go right down the middle of the blocker. The pass rusher should be a better athlete than the blocker, so I continually coach guys to try to attack the edge of the blocker.
Comparing Wright to the guys lining up in front of him, he might not be bigger or stronger but will often be faster off the line. Instead of playing for power with a bull rush, his advantage is on the edge, going around rather than through. Hopefully Wright continues to work his hands to the point where he doesn't have to think about trying to hit the blocker with a move and simply hits him with the full range.
The last item on our list is to look in on the ability to locate the ball and read plays as they develop. Next time we'll take a look at game tape highlighting Wright diagnosing and processing what he sees.