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Next man up: Kyle Van Noy (Part one)

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Kent was right, Van Noy sucks.

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Detroit Lions Rookie Minicamp Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

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 linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

Draft Flashback

NFL.com Draft Profile:

Average instincts and diagnose. Still developing eye discipline. Needs to cultivate a more sophisticated arsenal of pass-rush moves. Leaves some production on the field. Leaves his feet to tackle and slips off the ball carrier. Hit-or-miss run defender. Could stand to improve his upper-body strength and stack-and-shed ability. Average motor -- could pursue with more urgency.

CBSsports.com:

Impressed at the Senior Bowl with his fluidity and instincts in coverage by closing quickly to bat away multiple passes during practices.

Shows excellent play recognition, taking on blockers with the correct shoulder (allowing him to slide off would-be blockers and into ballcarriers easily) and is equally effective slipping into coverage or sliding past offensive linemen on his way toward a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

A bit slow to 'shoot his gun' when ballcarriers are running at him and relies too much on a simple bull-rush when coming off the edge. Wasn't as disruptive as a senior, in part due to opponents game-planning to avoid him.

Relies on instincts and efficiency, rather than physicality.

Vanquish the Foe — Russell Cragan’s Van Noy preview:

He has a very good football intellect and knows how to read offenses.

Van Noy also has a bad habit of leaving his feet when making tackles which could be more costly in the NFL than at the college level.

This is very strange. We have some previews saying Van Noy has "excellent play recognition" and "a very good football intellect", but then another spot saying "average instincts and diagnose" and criticizing his eye discipline. A couple mentioned bad tackling technique (in particular, diving for ball-carriers).

LovemeTateme wrote a detailed Fanpost about the absolutely horrible preseason game in 2015 that Van Noy turned in against Washington. This is probably going to look a little lazy because I’m just going to lift from a comment I’d left on that Fanpost, but my thinking on Kyle Van Noy has not really changed in the last year. The best way to make sense of Van Noy comes from Football Outsiders. I am not going to drop the full comment into this article, but I suggest reading the entire comment to get the sense of why I arrive at this:

Essentially, Van Noy was using instincts and anticipation at BYU to commit early in a direction to set up an advantageous angle – and the risk is he can overcommit in the wrong direction and take himself out of the play entirely.

So the gambling style that took Van Noy out of position a lot of times against Washington in preseason game 2 is something he’s done his whole career since at least college and probably high school. At the NFL level, it’s going to make him inconsistent at best and subject to giving up really ugly plays unless we believe he’s going to become so good at anticipating everything that he always guesses right on his multiple move combos (which I do not believe is possible for any player). That makes this a deeply ingrained "bad habit" the coaches need to break him of. The 64 dollar question: can Van Noy learn to be disciplined within the system and stop relying on his physical gifts?

The other big issue with Van Noy is that he was a 3-4 Will at BYU, and did not really develop the full range of traditional linebacker skills. It has been said he is essentially learning a new position:

Unfortunately, another physical setback will affect Van Noy's transition into the Lions' defense, where he's working to learn the strong-side linebacker spot after playing a hybrid linebacker-defensive end role in BYU's 3-4 defense.

Before injury held him out of practice this week, Van Noy thought he'd shown improvement but "wasn't really extremely happy" with his play. He thinks being at practice taking mental reps will help him avoid falling behind any more.

The difference is pretty big, since in a base 3-4 defense you expect the defensive ends to be two-gapping at least some of the time. The rush linebacker (i.e. not the SOLB in front of the tight end) typically does not have as much coverage responsibilities as the other outside linebacker, and because there is no TE to create an extra gap, he has less run defense responsibility. The position Van Noy played at BYU gave him opportunities to gamble and rush upfield without worrying about quite as many other assignments: "they are the primary pass-rushers in that defensive scheme." But Austin’s combination multiple 4-3 defense (I would argue it’s "multiple" between 4-3 varieties: base 4-3 and Stunt 4-3) requires its outside linebackers to bear a heavier burden of non-rush duties.

This is why we’ll concentrate on two main ideas: can Van Noy play smart with proper tackling technique, angles, and scheme discipline, and then does Van Noy display the necessary coverage skills to play linebacker the way Austin’s defense needs him to? These are the things I believe we need to see out of Kyle Van Noy to validate the kind of praise he’s been getting from the coaches during this offseason. Kyle Meinke at MLive wrote an article about Van Noy impressing the coaches with his progress at the start of June:

"I think what he's doing is, now he's a little bit more familiar with playing off the ball, where his eyes should be, what he should be seeing all the time," Austin said. "That's why I think he's made some strides."

And that means Van Noy is in better position to make plays.

"He's in much better position now than he was last year, in terms of once the ball's snapped," Austin said. "So I think that's good. Again, we'll see how he does in the preseason, but right now I'm pleased with where his development is."

All of that comes back to the eye discipline, instincts and diagnosis, and understanding of scheme and fundamentals. We heard about Van Noy looking good in practices last year, which amounted to nothing when the real games started. It’s one thing to make the play of the day in practice, but another to deliver that in an NFL game. As others have pointed out, this is really the last chance for Van Noy to demonstrate actual improvement to make a difference for the Lions.

Creating big plays, but for us or them?

The first thing we’ll look at is the most straight-forward class of unsound gambler fundamentals: poor tackling angles and diving for ball-carriers. Cutting up the field early can result in a tackle-for-loss that makes SportsCenter highlights if it works out, but entails surrendering your gap or edge containment. In other words, if you assume you can get the guy with the ball down in the backfield and dive at him, you better be correct. Similarly, leaving your feet to make the tackle means giving up the ability to continue stringing out a play and keeping the runner moving east-west: a diving defender on an overly-aggressive angle either makes the big splash play or takes himself out of the play.

2015 Preseason at WAS, 3Q (8:46). First-and-10 at the Detroit 41.

We start with some material from the Washington preseason game that LovemeTateme also pointed out. First, here is Van Noy blowing edge contain as a stand up outside linebacker. The defensive call has the line pinching and all rushing the middle; the linebackers are the edge contain. This means Van Noy is a force defender that needs to widen and push the ball-carrier back to the middle where his help is: there is nobody outside of him near the line of scrimmage.

Instead, Van Noy acts like he is a spill defender and attacks straight up the field. By the time he starts to turn, he has no chance at changing his angle fast enough to hit the target. 25 HB Chris Thompson starts the play running almost parallel to the line of scrimmage on the toss sweep, nearly perpendicular to Van Noy’s initial approach vector. While Thompson is running straight line to the corner, Van Noy is forced to execute a continuous turn, losing speed as he tries to continually adjust his angle to get to Thompson.

Instead of playing his assignment and widening to contain the run, Van Noy tries to advance as fast as possible to get a negative or short yardage stop. By blowing the outside contain, he is responsible for allowing the run to go for nine yards.

2015 Preseason at WAS, 3Q (8:09). Second-and-inches at the Detroit 31.

On the very next play, Washington goes inside zone with Thompson to the right side. Like the sweep play, Van Noy is once again unblocked and in position to make the stop. All he has to do here is move up to fill since 99 DE Corey Wootton is collapsing the edge and has control of the outside.

Instead, with the memory of being burned to the outside fresh from the previous play, Van Noy guesses and hops outside into the blocker already engaged with Wootton. His guess is wrong, and Thompson cuts up inside for four yards and a first down instead of a one or two yard loss:

By trying to play "guess so" run defense against NFL players, as Football Outsiders put it, Van Noy takes awful risks which his athleticism can no longer quite make up for. When he was faster than just about everyone else in the tackle box, he could recover and still have a shot at the play. But now that everyone on the field is the best guy from their college teams and pretty fast, that doesn't cut it anymore.

2015 Preseason at NYJ, 2Q (10:35). Second-and-7 at the New York 25.

The Jets run split zone on second-and-medium, with a motion H-back 47 FB Kellen Davis providing the backside slice block. On the front side edge, the Lions stunt with 98 DE Devin Taylor looping to the middle and 90 DT Gabe Wright attacking outside. 53 LB Kyle Van Noy is behind them boxed in orange.

Rather than backing up the stunt, which is vulnerable to being split between the angling rushers, Van Noy moves up and commits outside to the same rush lane as Gabe Wright. He pushes so hard up the field that 71 LT Ben Ijalana tries in vain to chase him down to start blocking: Van Noy runs himself out of his run fit, leaving a clear lane for 29 HB Bilal Powell to break through the second level of the defense.

Powell ended up gaining 19 yards before being forced out of bounds by 26 S Don Carey. Now, these are ugly plays, and a fair criticism is that this was early in the year before the season even started. It could have been possible that Van Noy improved as the year went on. Let’s go to two plays from Thanksgiving against the Eagles to check that out.

2015 PHI, 4Q (5:38). Second-and-4 at the Detroit 49.

Philadelphia runs a sweep with two pulling offensive linemen to lead block. Van Noy is boxed in orange here, and the only man to his right is 24 CB Nevin Lawson in man coverage getting blocked on the perimeter. For whatever reason, Van Noy decides that instead of trying to fill that outside lane and regain the edge to keep 34 HB Kenjon Barner going sideways, he’s going to cut it upfield and try to "make something happen."

Of course, the pullers are moving too fast laterally, and Van Noy gave up a ton of speed by planting and cutting upfield. He actually ends up only getting a piece of 62 C Jason Kelce’s back shoulder as Kelce ran by. Let’s be clear, he’s attacking upfield against a sweep and only barely makes it in time to briefly clip the back puller.

The hop and clap at the end like "oh shucks" for some reason really irritated me. This particular gamble is not even close, but fortunately support got there in time to make a stop for just three yards.

2015 PHI, 4Q (4:05). First-and-10 at the Detroit 44.

Philadelphia runs Power O at the Detroit defense, pulling the left guard with little success: you can see above there is almost no hole because 67 DT Khyri Thornton is collapsing it from the inside. This forces Barner to stall and bounce to the outside. Van Noy boxed in orange has Barner dead to rights for a four or five yard loss. Guess what happens next:

16-yard pickup for Barner to move into field goal range. This was a guaranteed negative play at the sideline thrown away by an unnecessary diving tackle.

Next time: This is not how you earn more PT

Although there’s no way to prove it, a lot of what Kyle Van Noy does on the field strikes me as a burning desire to make gaudy highlight reel plays. I don’t know if this is something that carried over from his big play days at BYU playing the glamour 3-4 Will position or a feeling that he needs to produce impact plays to move up the depth chart. As I was reviewing preseason games, I came across an interesting exchange about Larry Webster near the end of the Buffalo preseason game:

Matt Shepard: And you're right Rubes, you can tell the athleticism. The question some people may have about him — does he have the football athleticism?

Rob Rubick: Is he a one trick pony? Is he just an athlete who can kind of edge rush, and teams will figure that out? This is a team that will figure, or league that rather, that will figure you out. They will watch film on you, they’ll say ‘you’re an outside rusher — okay, we can tell our tackle, he can take care of that.’

Listening to that made me wonder if Van Noy feeling like he has to prove he can play induces him to take dumb chances and makes it even harder for the coaching staff to get him to play smart in the scheme. Instead of playing his assignment, does he go for a big play to show his quality?

2015 Preseason at WAS, 4Q (13:50). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 36.

99 DE Corey Wootton misses a tackle in the backfield, then 28 CB Quandre Diggs misses a tackle in the backfield, and then look what Van Noy does here. Kyle Van Noy does not make a tackle, but he maintains contain on the outside and forces 30 HB Trey Williams back inside. 62 DT Roy Philon also misses a tackle after Van Noy takes away Williams’ escape route, but what I want to focus on is that this is the type of play Van Noy needs to make. He is playing smart assignment football and helping his teammates: Williams is still brought down for a loss here despite three guys whiffing on tackles. Van Noy doesn’t get a stat sheet tick mark here, but he did the right thing. He did the smart thing. That’s how I think he earns his way up the depth chart.

Next time we’ll look at Kyle Van Noy in pass coverage. This will be split between fundamental techniques in man and zone coverage and then checking how he carries out his scheme assignments in coverage.