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.
For the first article in this series, see Next man up: Kyle Van Noy (Part one)
Much of the material in the terminology review sections for this article are based on the relevant technique and tactical skill sections in the ASEP/AFCA book Coaching Football Technical and Tactical Skills. The book is used as a companion resource in their coaching certification programs, so I consider it to be reliable and authoritative. Also consulted, since this is about the linebacker position, was Complete Linebacking 2nd Edition by Lou Tepper.
Terminology Review: Zone Drops
- Shakin the Southland - Linebacker Fundamentals: Zone Coverage
- USA Football - Miami Dolphins linebacker drills with Mark Duffner
- LevelUpFootball - Zone Coverage Necessities for LBs with Pat Schiller
- LB Pass Reaction Drill: 45
- CanesAllAccess GoPro Video - Playing Defense: Through the Eyes of the Linebacker
When playing zone coverage, the first thing the linebacker is supposed to do is read his key to determine run or pass. Once pass is confirmed, the linebacker must look to the quarterback to see if it is a three step or five step pass play. For example, here’s Pat Schiller about 25 seconds into the video linked above:
The best read that you can get on a pass is by reading the quarterback. Once you read that it’s pass, you key step and see that it’s not a run play, you’re going to read what either called a three step drop or a five step drop.
In the three step quick game, the quarterback will bring the ball up immediately to deliver on a rapidly developing route. Once the quarterback takes his non-throwing hand off the ball, he’s committed to whatever he's looking at, and is about to make the throw. This is why zone defenders must read the eyes of the quarterback: it shows them which way to break on the ball.
If the quarterback does not immediately bring the ball up to throw but takes more steps, it is a five step drop and the linebacker needs to get depth. If the linebacker is assigned an interior underneath zone (e.g. a Hook-Curl zone), he will backpedal into his zone with a drift to a particular spot. If an outside linebacker is assigned to the perimeter, the drop is a 45 degree retreat with eyes on the quarterback — see the LB Pass Reaction Drill: 45 video for what that looks like. These landmark spots distribute the defenders across the field to get sound coverage across the width of the formation as well as depth between the deep and underneath zones. Therefore, it is crucial that linebackers drop to an appropriate depth and in the correct direction to get a good coverage spread by the defense as a whole.
As long as the quarterback is holding the ball with both hands dropping back and not looking to throw, the linebacker must continue to gain depth. The longer receivers are running, the more time they have to get deeper and threaten bigger gains. In Complete Linebacking, Tepper says that:
when the quarterback stops his drop and sets to throw, the linebacker must pull up. Pulling up means to be square to the offensive line in a bent football position, focused on the quarterback and ready to break on the first indication of the throw.
Similarly, here’s Schiller:
On a five step drop, when you're dropping in zone coverage, get the cadence — set — hit — on the quarterback. You get to your landmark and you settle once the quarterback settles.
How far are they likely to drop? Here’s Tepper (p.84):
The initial depth of all out zone undercoverage depends on the drop of the quarterback. On a short three-step drop, we immediately break for the nearest outside receiver at a 5-yard depth. With the popular five-step drop, we expect our undercoverage to get 10 yards deep. On the classic seven-step drop, all the linebackers should have excellent depth. Obviously, the route depth is often tied to the depth of the quarterback’s drop.
Keeping eyes and receivers in zone forward
What does this look like? Check out the Miami Through the Eyes of the Linebacker video linked earlier. Watch Denzel Perryman key the HB to read pass (the runner releases into a route) then go back to the quarterback and read the backpedal as he himself zone drops. At the back foot plant, Perryman pulls up and breaks on the throw to smash the receiver to his right that he sees the quarterback targeting:
Notice that the receiver he ends up hitting is not the receiver who began to his left. Synced to the quarterback's drop, Perryman has enough depth on his own drop to have everything in front of him (he is moving forward at an angle to hit the receiver at the end). At no time prior to the throw did Perryman need to actually look at the guy who ended up catching the ball: this is purely done off reading the quarterback.
2015 at NOS, 1Q (7:14). First-and-10 at the New Orleans 27.
Here we are in December 2015 on the road at New Orleans. The pass will go away from Van Noy, but what we’re more interested in here is his individual technique as Detroit runs Cover-2 Sink out of a single high look. 42 S Isa Abdul-Quddus starts near the linebackers, but immediately falls back to a deep zone at the snap. Both 24 CB Nevin Lawson at the top and 23 CB Darius Slay near the bottom will zone drop, as will the linebackers.
For starters, watch 57 OLB Josh Bynes and 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch. Bynes does the 45 degree drop we saw above and keeps getting depth. Tulloch reads support then backs up and visibly pulls up to move up on the throw:
So we can be pretty sure Cover-2 is really what we’re looking at here: Lawson, Slay, Tulloch, and Bynes can't all be wrong. Now look at Van Noy. Remember, the correct sequence is to key your run/pass, then get eyes on the QB for the three or five step read, then drop to landmark and pull up as the QB hits his back foot and goes for the throw.
Here’s what Van Noy does: first, he looks at Brees, who is probably not his run/pass key. Second, he looks at the slot receiver 83 WR Willie Snead and actually takes his initial step to the inside and shuffles as if pulling up. Third, he jams Snead and releases, continuing to shuffle and look back at Brees while Snead runs past him:
Look at the difference in drop depth by the three linebackers. Bynes is a little further back than he really needs to be, but that’s okay. Tulloch is already pulling up because he sees Brees looking at the checkdown back. Van Noy for some reason is way in front of Snead. This violates a basic principle of zone coverage, which is to keep everything in front of you. From Coaching Football Technical and Tactical Skills (p.117):
Some defenders will be assigned to deep zones, and some will be assigned to underneath zones. Deep defenders must gain enough depth on their drops to defend a deep ball in their assigned areas and then react to help defend on a pass to an intermediate route. Underneath defenders must gain enough depth on their drops to take away throwing lanes to the intermediate routes in the their assigned areas and then react to help defend on a pass to a shallow route.
The idea is to take away the deepest threat in the area of responsibility and make the offense take the smaller gain if possible — then stop that shorter gain if they successfully complete a pass. Here Van Noy is aggressively playing up and trying to rely on being able to move side to side fast enough or jump high enough to cover whatever throw may come his way. This is extremely dangerous, and an overhead view will make it clearer why:
Snead didn’t keep running deeper, but Van Noy didn’t know that. What if Snead had run about four or five yards deeper? That’s a huge hole that Van Noy is leaving between himself and 27 FS Glover Quin. On the other hand, look at the short gap between Bynes and IAQ at the top. This is the kind of thing you might expect an in-game adjustment or game plan scouting report to alert a good QB like Brees to exploit. Van Noy is not reacting to any bait in front of him (or as Schiller calls it, the "cheese"), but let’s now look at an example of that from preseason.
2015 Preseason BUF, 3Q (3:01). Third-and-10 at the Buffalo 31.
Kyle Van Noy here is playing the "middle" linebacker spot in the nickel package against a regular 11 personnel shotgun formation from Buffalo. The play call from the offense is a standard dagger route combination: the slot receiver vertical carries away the seam defender while the shallow crossing TE sucks up the underneath linebackers to create a space for the split end wide left to cross into open space. Against man coverage, the flanker wide right one-on-one is the man beater, but against the Cover-4 zone call by Detroit here, the critical defender is Van Noy.
Since the shallow cross runs to 28 CB Quandre Diggs’ zone, Van Noy should hang back and let Buffalo throw it if they want to. Remember, this is third-and-long, so a shallow cross is not going to help them anyway. Situational awareness ought to tell Van Noy he needs to drop deep to the sticks and defend the first down distance. At point A marked on the TE shallow cross, the split end is at the top of his stem to run the dig at the other point A marked on the screenshot.
Instead of playing the down and distance situation, Van Noy bites on the shallow cross cheese and takes himself out of the throwing lane to the deep dig. Buffalo picked up 28 yards and a first down.
2015 Preseason at WAS, 3Q (6:00). Second-and-15 at the Detroit 19.
On this play, the slot receiver is going to put a double move on Diggs: first he fakes the quick slant, turns back upfield, and then bends to the post behind Diggs. The defense is in two high zone coverage. Notice both outside corners are turned hips inward and looking at the quarterback. As with the last play we looked at, Van Noy is the critical defender here because he is in the middle underneath zone.
Diggs bites on the slant, but Van Noy ought to be zone dropping to the middle and reading 16 QB Colt McCoy. Except he's not — at the snap, check out where Van Noy is looking and where McCoy is looking:
Van Noy for some reason is moving over into 50 LB Travis Lewis’ zone even though Lewis has both the curl and corner guys running up the seam accounted for until the corner releases to the deep safety IAQ. Van Noy appears to be guessing where McCoy is going with the ball and trying to move over to give himself a shot at making a play on the right side instead of playing his center assignment.
Man coverage: Read the receiver, not the QB
- Shakin the Southland - Linebacker Fundamentals: Man Coverage
- LevelUpFootball - Man to Man Coverage for LBs with Pat Schiller
- AllGBP.com - Xs and Os: Phases of Man-to-Man Coverage
- Bleacher Report - NFL 101: Breaking Down the Basics of 2-Man Coverage by Matt Bowen
- Cripes Get Back to Fundamentals - Catch-Man Technique
The most important part of man coverage for the linebacker — especially linebackers who are not great in pass coverage — is to always stick with the man. Consider the teaching points in Coaching Football Technical and Tactical Skills to watch out for in "Finishing Plays in Man Pass Coverage" (p.244)":
Looking back at the quarterback during the route. If the defender takes his eyes off the receiver, he will lose track of him and the receiver will gain good separation from the defender.
Looking for the ball before the receiver does. The defender must stay focused on the receiver without worrying about the ball, until the receiver looks for the ball and puts his hands up in preparation for a catch. Then the defender can turn and find the ball.
Pat Schiller in the linked video on man coverage above agrees that this is central to playing successful man coverage. Starting at around 53 seconds into the video:
What’s important on man coverage and what coaches emphasize, is keeping your eyes on the man. What a lot of guys do, what a lot of players do, is they take their eyes off their man to try to see what the quarterback is doing. As soon as you take your eyes off your man, what that does is that creates what’s called separation. Separation in man coverage is the worst thing that you can do.
2015 SFO, 2Q (14:06). First-and-10 at the San Francisco 18.
In Week 16 of the 2015 regular season, the Niners take the field with 12 personnel but flex one of the tight ends (84 TE Blake Bell) and line up in the shotgun. To match up with the personnel, the Lions had base 4-3 in the game: 57 OLB Josh Bynes, 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch, and 53 OLB Kyle Van Noy plus the usual secondary starters. The offensive call is a hi-lo pattern with 81 WR Anquan Boldin clearing out the shallow coverage on a whip route under the two tight ends coming across the field at varying depths. The deeper cross by Bell pins any deep safety in the middle of the field for 89 TE Vance McDonald to work one-on-one against whatever coverage he faces in the middle of the field.
In this case, the Lions are in Cover-1 with Quin in deep center. The man-to-man assignments are Tulloch on 38 HB Jarryd Hayne, IAQ on 84 TE Blake Bell, Slay on 81 WR Anquan Boldin, and Lawson on 82 WR Torrey Smith. The last route — the intermediate TE cross by 89 TE Vance McDonald — is Van Noy’s assignment.
Instead of sticking to his man, Van Noy tries to peek back at 2 QB Blaine Gabbert. Presumably Van Noy is a good enough athlete to run with McDonald, but look how much separation is created by this lapse in judgement. A poor coverage decision allowed McDonald to break free for an easy throw yielding big yards by Gabbert:
Quin was able to bring McDonald down, but not before a huge 26 yard gain. From the overhead all-22 angle, you can really see the point at which McDonald pulls away from Van Noy. It is worrisome to see fundamental technique problems like this so late in the season, when clearly there is no rust left to work off and months of regular full time practice should show progress.
Next time: Compounding cover skill issues with blown assignments
The challenge for Van Noy to get up to speed and deliver capable 4-3 linebacker play at an NFL level is huge. This is the highest level of the profession, and many players coming in with seven or eight years of experience at their respective positions through high school and even the toughest college conferences still end up failing in the pros despite being phenomenal athletes.
With Van Noy, he’s trying to learn state-of-the-art NFL schemes while also playing remedial catch-up on basics of this new position. It is an awful lot to ask of any player at any position. We already know he's a good athlete with gobs of speed; it's a matter of developing the skills and instincts to actually put that athleticism to productive use. Even the best athletes in the world can be outperformed if they have not adequately trained to master the details of whatever it is they are doing.
It’s entirely possible that his eye discipline and understanding of stand up linebacker techniques are indeed improving, but are they improving fast enough to matter? Detroit has just two years remaining on Van Noy’s rookie deal, and there are so many things that need fixing. Another part of the overall package that needs major work is Van Noy’s ability to carry out his coverage assignments in a schematic sense as opposed to the basic technique sense that we’ve looked at here. Next time, we’ll review some examples of busted coverage plays that must be corrected.