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.
Paul Rhoads and the Five Phases of the Play
At the 2013 Louisville Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, then-Iowa State head coach (now Arkansas DB coach) Paul Rhoads gave a seminar which included a segment he titled the "Five Phases of the Play." Coach Rhoads explained this was something that came down to him from his time as a graduate assistant in 1991 to Ohio State defensive backs coach Larry Coyer. At the 1:15 mark in the video:
This is how I install defenses, uh, as a secondary coach... as a linebacker, I went through these five phases every time I put in a defense. When I have a young man that’s struggling -- he’s not playing as well, I go right back to this in a meeting instead of putting on the film and going through all of it. I go back to the basics, back to the fundamentals. And every talk that i’ve given on defense, i’ve used this.
The five phases he cites from Larry Coyle are as follows:
1. Call — Know and Understand
How many times you come in and watch film whatever day that is, Saturday morning, Monday morning, whatever it is and Johnny says ‘well, I didn’t know what we were playing.’ Didn’t know what we were playing?!?! Okay, you had another guy standing right next to you, didn’t you? It’s the the first phase of the play: Hey, what are we playing? What’s the call? What’s the coverage? What are we in? Okay, everybody’s got to know the call first to have a chance to be successful.
2. Recognize the Formation
3. Align Properly
60 percent of the play’s been played. Okay, three out of five phases; what hasn’t taken place yet? Ball hasn’t been snapped. Okay, ball hasn’t been snapped and we’ve already played mentally 60 percent of the play: I know and understand the call, I recognize the formation what I got coming, and I get myself aligned properly. I’ve got an opportunity for defensive success right now.
4. Keys — Run or Pass
They’ve got run keys, they’ve got pass keys, but that’s where their eyes got to be.
But if you’ve got a kid that you don’t know if he’s looking where he’s supposed to look, you better get yourself on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage every now and then and look at his eyes and make sure his ass is looking at that tight end or that guard or that wide receiver and not being a High School Harry and looking at the quarterback every snap and just going wherever the brown goes, the brown ball goes to start with the play and never leave it okay?
You’ve got keys for a reason, okay? Whatever yours are, make sure that’s where your guy’s eyes are so they can play the game faster, okay? They think they can play the game faster by staying with the football the whole time, okay? We know that that’s different.
Do your job. Another three word phrase that I love. Do your job. Be accountable to the football team.
Think about what we’ve been talking about with regards to Kyle Van Noy and how the problems which need fixing go back to fundamentals. Most of the stuff we’ve seen so far have dealt with the post-snap execution in phases 4 and 5.
Today we’re going to look at phase 1. Every player needs to both know and understand the call and what his assignments are before the team can be successful. All coverage is part of a team defensive scheme. Whatever the call is, Van Noy has a job and owes it to his other ten teammates on the field to be accountable and get it done.
Combo Coverage Switching
Similar to Nevin Lawson’s issues getting mixed up on which receiver to cover when they cross routes, Van Noy has difficulty switching assignments on the fly in combo coverage. This is not surprising since it is more complex than straight up man coverage or spot zone coverage. However, the problems are at a more fundamental level here: sometimes it is not clear if Van Noy knows if the call is for straight up versus combo coverage techniques.
2015 Preseason at WAS, 4Q (10:53). Third-and-goal at the Detroit 4.
The touchdown throw from 8 QB Kirk Cousins is along the back of the end zone to 19 WR Rashad Ross, but the coverage of interest for this article is happening underneath. 50 LB Travis Lewis (pointing in the picture) and 53 LB Kyle Van Noy (standing in front of the "S" in the end zone) are responsible for the two crossing routes directly in front of the tackle box. 83 TE Chase Dixon comes from Cousins’ right to left with 25 HB Chris Thompson cutting left to right under him out of the backfield.
Detroit is in a combo cover-2 defense with everyone underneath pattern matching. After the snap when Cousins’ back foot hits, check where everyone is looking on defense:
29 CB Crezdon Butler at the top near the helmet painted in the end zone, 34 S Nate Ness standing on the "R", Lewis at the goal line next to Van Noy, and 45 S Brian Suite at the bottom right are all reading the QB as zone defenders. Only one player not battling with a receiver making a move is not looking at the quarterback: Van Noy is completely locked on to the tight end running past Lewis.
The problem is that Lewis by assignment will switch as Thompson crosses out of his zone and Dixon crosses into his zone. When Van Noy fails to switch as well, both he and Lewis run with Dixon and nobody takes Thompson:
At the release, Cousins is throwing for Ross at the back of the end zone, but you can see he had an even easier touchdown available on the check down. Had Ness been in position to take away Ross, Cousins would have dumped the ball to Thompson for the score anyway.
From behind the offense it is much more obvious that Van Noy is playing straight man coverage here, staring at the tight end the whole way.
2015 Preseason at WAS, 4Q (13:07). Third-and-8 at the Detroit 37.
Once again, Washington will have action at the line of scrimmage to cross the routes of the front (83 TE Chase Dixon) and inside (15 WR Colin Lockett) receivers in the bunch to Cousins’ left. Lockett angles out and up to end up outside of Dixon, who runs a crossing route over the middle. Detroit’s match man coverage needs Van Noy to switch off of Lockett, pass him to 28 CB Quandre Diggs, and take over on Dixon’s crossing route from Diggs.
Diggs registers the switch and passes Dixon to Van Noy, but Van Noy continues to follow Lockett instead of moving to Dixon. Both Diggs and Van Noy go with Lockett, leaving Dixon wide open. How open? Look how much separation was created before Van Noy (boxed in orange) realized what had happened and turned around: Dixon has about five yards of space as the ball arrives.
When you watch Van Noy and Diggs in the zoomed replay angle, Diggs takes a second to read the route breaks by Dixon and Lockett. Van Noy, on the other hand, immediately starts running with Lockett, allowing Dixon to get inside of him before going vertical up the seam for a big 21 yard play on third down.
The next two plays focus on how Van Noy registers his zone coverage assignment in situations more complicated than your typical straight spot zone drop. We’ll see a double A gap zone blitz drop and a run/pass read against non-rollout play action.
2015 Preseason NYJ, 3Q (6:24). Third-and-4 at the New York 26.
The Jets have a flat-7 combo to 9 QB Bryce Petty’s left, and the throw is an incompletion to the corner on that side. What we’re going to focus on here is Kyle Van Noy in the center of the formation as one of the two double A gap aligned linebackers. The called defense is a two deep, four under zone blitz:
28 CB Quandre Diggs over the slot receiver and 57 LB Josh Bynes are rushing the passer while 53 LB Kyle Van Noy and 79 DE Larry Webster drop to the interior underneath zones. Take note of where the Jets’ receivers are lined up. Since Diggs is blitzing, Van Noy’s assigned zone will be loaded and have at least two receivers to track. It is a difficult zone coverage assignment. Here’s what Van Noy actually did:
For some reason Van Noy turned and ran to get over to the wrong side of the field, where the flat guy in the flat-7 combo was running to. This left not one but two receivers completely uncovered on the back side. By the time Van Noy even turns his head to look at his assigned zone, it would have been too late for him to get in position to stop a pass to either receiver.
18 WR Walter Powell running the drag from the split end wide right spot is so open that he started waving for the ball pretty much immediately. On third-and-4, this is a guaranteed first down if the quarterback is not Bryce Petty (well, or Geno Smith). I am not sure if Van Noy thought he was supposed to get to Webster’s zone and someone else would be dropping to the other side or if he thought he had man coverage on the slot to that side; either way, it is pretty clear he did not carry out his assignment.
2015 at STL, 3Q (14:00). First-and-10 at the St. Louis 29.
The Rams are doing something similar to the fun play action Z cross in the Lions’ playbook that I love: 30 HB Todd Gurley will fake the dive play to draw up the underneath coverage for 83 WR Brian Quick to sneak behind. The wrinkle they add to the play is that there is not one but two short dump options (TE Cook and TE Kendricks) leaking to the flat after an initial block and release.
What’s odd is that the play works pretty well and 17 QB Case Keenum is not pressured, but decides to immediately hit 89 TE Jared Cook in the flat instead of Quick over the middle. Why did he do that? Because Cook was all alone:
Now, the 64 dollar question is how Cook could be that wide open when the ball was thrown? Surely someone was supposed to cover him, right? Let’s go to the full play and watch the edge of the formation:
Reminiscent of the strange back and forth hop near the line on the play against New Orleans in the last article, Van Noy just sort of stands there as Cook runs to the flat. It’s possible he thought there was someone in coverage further to the outside, but that doesn’t really match what we see out of 32 SS James Ihedigbo at the bottom. If I had to guess, I think this is a cover-3 shell with both Lawson and Slay carrying to their deep assignments but passing anyone breaking laterally — which is why Quick is open coming across the middle (until Slay comes down on his route from the outside at the end). Had this been man coverage, Slay would have followed Quick.
So someone had to pick up the underneath zone, and it had to be Van Noy. Yes, there was play action to draw up the second level defenders, but look at Ihedigbo backpedal and turn his hips to get depth once he realizes it’s play action. Then look at Van Noy stop and hop. Either he didn’t know the call or didn’t understand his responsibility in the call (he has to account for the TE). No matter which one it was, it would have been responsible for a 20 yard pickup for Cook if not for the chop block on 97 DT Caraun Reid bringing it back.
The Most Explosive Player on the Field
Just in these three articles posted for this "Next man up" series, we identified five big regular season plays in which Van Noy played a major role. Now consider that he was only on the field for 80 total defensive snaps for the 2015 season. Suppose Van Noy had been a starter with comparable snaps to someone like say Josh Bynes, who played 816 defensive snaps in 2015. Enabling big plays at a rate like 4 or 5 per 80 plays over ten times (800) as many defensive snaps means something like 30 additional (they would have got some of them anyway) big plays by opponents.
To give you an idea of how valuable this would be to opponents, consider the total number of big plays in the toxic differential type statistics for full seasons by team: The top teams in the league generate around 90-100 explosive plays of 20+ yards per season and the least explosive teams get around 50-60 explosive plays per season. Van Noy by himself, playing about 80 percent of the defensive snaps, could have been conservatively expected to generate somewhere on the order of 30 extra explosive plays for opponents through mistakes and blown assignments.
Although the coaches cannot say it, they knew the situation was that bad. When DeAndre Levy was injured, Detroit didn’t start Van Noy. They went to Josh Bynes and Travis Lewis. When Lewis was eventually replaced in the lineup, it was by Tahir Whitehead and not Kyle Van Noy. This is like revealed preferences theory; we don’t need the coaches to actually tell us they didn’t think Van Noy was ready to be a contributor. The fact they refused to put him in the lineup except in rare packages or garbage time (e.g. Thanksgiving blowout end of game drives) when shorthanded at linebacker says it all.
Many of the plays used in the analysis were from the preseason, which is why only five of the plays are counted above. But those preseason bad plays may be even more revealing because those are mistakes being made against second or third string players, some of whom do not survive roster cuts. Solid players with good skills and superior athleticism ought to be dominating such inferior competition. To paraphrase the opening line from Rounders, if you aren’t dominating the inferior competition, then you are the inferior competition.
Kyle Van Noy needs to dominate whoever he faces in the preseason in every phase of the game to avoid becoming a cautionary tale in Detroit Lions draft lore. What to watch for? Forget splash plays. We want no mistakes, solid mechanics, playing under control with good reads and reactions, and above all put the team in position to succeed.