The NFL Education Of Rookie Linebacker Mychal Kendricks: Part 1BREAKING NEWS, Eagles, Linebackers, News Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
During my eleven years in the NFL, I learned that prior to the game, as a linebacker you’re kind of like a criminal detective, who is looking for information about your suspects. You must look at hours and hours of tape and study endless computer stat sheets about your suspects’ behavior in order to anticipate when, where and what their next attempted crime will be.
During the game, you’re like a hired assassin, who has the job of processing all that information about your targets and their associates. This morning the linebackers got an extensive scouting report and game plan for the Browns offense. They’ve been studying this team and the plays they run for a few months because of the way Andy Reid starts preparing for the first game and battles against the three NFC East opponents during OTA’s in the offseason.
On Monday, I talked to Eagles rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks and asked him about how much he knew about NFL game planning. He talked about his last couple of years at Cal and how he had been introduced to intense scouting and game planning.
I was pleased to get that information because it’s what playing defensive football on the NFL level is all about. You can’t just rely on your physical skills like former Eagles outside linebacker, Ernie Sims and other star college players, who think they can succeed in the NFL with great physical schools alone.
You have to get pre-snap reads and play anticipatory football if you want to stay in the NFL for a long career. Kendricks seems to understand that. DeMeco Ryans has talked about how intensely he listens and the young man has no problem asking questions if he doesn’t understand something. Those are very good traits for rookies.
He was following Ryans around during training camp. If you saw Ryans, Kendricks was a step behind him. The youngster has tried to suck up as much information as he can in this short period of time. Now he gets to educate himself about the Browns.
I’m sure they have information in this week’s scouting report about Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress and his love for the running game. A strong running game and play action passes would take the pressure off of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.
The Browns are sure to go after Kendricks on Sunday with play action passes in his matchup with tight end Ben Watson. The main weakness in the youngster’s game right now is his inability to read play action passes. It’s not unusual because rookies have problems with play action passes because they’re so amped up and eager to be aggressive. They are prone to biting on fakes.
A young linebacker will attack a run fake and many times find themselves deep in the offensive backfield. If they’re covering a running back, that running back won’t be that far away from them, so they can get to their coverage. But if they’re supposed to be covering the tight end, that tight end would be deep in the secondary running wide open. That’s one of the reasons Kendricks should be lining up at WILL linebacker and not SAM.
I think Eagles coaches are putting the former Cal stat in an impossible situation. The youngster will be lined up in the bubble off the line of scrimmage on the tight end side over the offensive tackle. The tight end will be outside of him with a defensive end lined up over him. Kendricks will be asked to key the tackle in front of him and read through him into the backfield to the running backs.
Remember the Eagles play a wide nine defensive alignment, so Kendricks will have the pressure on him to get off of blocks and make tackles on running plays. Many times Kendricks will have a big six-five or bigger offensive tackle firing out on him with a running play coming right at him. He could have the tackle trying to hook him with play going outside. That’s an easier play because the tackles aren’t as strong when they’re on the move.
He’s got to honor any run fake with that big tackle coming at him. The tackle will tell him pass when he drops to pass block on the defensive end.
If the tackle blocks down, the rookie knows he’ll have a fullback or guard coming through that hole to get him, so he must attack if he sees the tackle block down.
Every time the Browns show a running play, Kendricks has to honor the run fake, which will get him to take a step or two forward. Once he’s sure it’s a fake, he’ll have to find out where Watson is. That’s a very difficult job.
Years ago when I was playing SAM, I used to change the defensive alignment on my own and move the defensive end inside, so I could move up on the tight end face to face. When the ball was snapped I would snatch the tight end then look inside to see what was happening in the backfield. If I felt the tight end attacking me and the quarterback handing off the ball, I knew it was a running play.
On the other hand, if I felt the tight end trying to escape and the quarterback drop back past the running backs, I knew it was a pass play. The only way you can read the play action fakes properly, when you’re lined up in the bubble position over the tackle, is by getting great pre-snap reads. You have to read formations and stances of the offensive linemen to get an idea whether you’re going to be facing a run or pass.
Any time Kendricks is in man-to-man coverage, he has to make looking for the tight end his number one priority. That’s why SAM linebacker isn’t a good position overall for a youngster like Kendricks because it requires so much patience. If I were running things, I would have turned him loose at WILL, so he could use his speed and instincts to run all over the field making tackles. I would tell him to hit everything moving and do everything full speed because that’s where a young man with his talent belongs.
At the SAM spot, you have to be slower to attack. It’s against the instincts of a young player like a Kendricks. He’s playing out of position on regular defense, but he’s just where he needs to be on nickel. In nickel situations, the rookie is playing WILL and that’s why you will see him making more plays on nickel than on regular downs.
He will be helped by veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans because the veteran will see things before the play starts which could help the rookie. Kendricks told me on Monday that they had already started watching tape of the Browns and putting in their game plan.
Game planning in the NFL is where you zero in on the tendencies of your opponent. You focus on their favorite formations and favorite plays. You have to study what they like to do out of each formation and what they like to do on each down and distance.
For example, the I formation might be the Browns favorite running formation. They might have run 50 plays out of I formation in the last three games and 40 or them are running plays while ten of them are play action passes. They might have three favorite running plays out of those 40 plays. You have to know each of them and exactly how to stop them.
The entire defense needs to know what those running plays are especially the linebackers. You must know where your help is and how you’re supposed to attack the blocking pattern on each of those plays. All week you must do mental reps and imagine yourself reacting to those plays then making the tackle.
Every time you see I formation, you’re going to expect one of those running plays. You’re going to react to the play action pass when you get it, but it’s easier to read play action passes if you’re a veteran because you’ve seen them so many times before. It’s more difficult for a rookie and I’ve seen it negate the aggressiveness of a rookie, when they fool him a couple of times.
Kendricks will need to study Watson and the way he runs his routes. How fast is he? Is he fast enough to run away from Kendricks? I doubt it.
What does Watson do during play action passes? Does he attack as a blocker then turns into a receiver? Or. Does he simply release and try to get downfield into his route?
Does Watson tip off anything when he’s going to release inside and go across the field? A lot of times, tight ends will line up further outside to give themselves more room to escape the jams and get inside. Kendricks has to read it.
He has to study Watson and see if he tips off the corner route by chopping his steps when he’s getting ready to cut. How deep does he run the corner route before cuts outside? How deep is he on the curl route before he cuts? What move does he like to use to escape a jam? Perhaps it’s arm under or arm over or both.
Today is offensive day, so the defense does get as much time to work on its game plan as the offense does. Thursday is defense day, so they get more time tomorrow to work on the defensive game plan.
Kendricks is one of the Eagles starting nickel linebackers, so he must know what to expect from the Browns and exactly how the Eagles plan on reacting to it. Again he’s got to study tape and try to get any pre-snap reads that might give him an idea of where Weeden is going with the throw.
On Friday, they will work on short yardage, goalline, two-minute and other special situations. Kendricks will need to know what the Browns offense likes to do in these specific situations and what is the game plan to stop it. Many times a game is decided in these situations, so the youngster has to memorize this information.
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