A look at one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the game.
Whether it’s offense or defense, you can often spot the best players on the field based on the economy of their movement.
Even if that player has a variety of flashy moves and strings them together in mind-blowing ways, they only do so because it’s necessary. Dig deeper into those examples and you’ll usually discover that what’s underpinning this flash is a deep-rooted efficiency and control.
It’s antithetical to what impresses a lot of people who watch football. They confuse the raw tools of great athletic ability with good players.
A great athlete possesses some or all of these qualities: size, speed, strength, hand-eye coordination, and/or flexibility. A good practitioner of his profession understands how to use these raw tools in a variety of situations.
A great athlete that lacks a baseline technical facility at his position can do some incredible things based on his reaction to what’s immediately in front of him. But it’s a limited and often dangerous proposition for him long-term.
Because he lacks a strong library of experiences, technique, and mental understanding of the game, he’s in a vulnerable position on the field far too often. Good players with these skills have greater success dictating the game within the game.
When they cannot, these skills help them maintain control of their bodies to a degree that they’re more often in a position to protect themselves when their opponent wins the match up. Don’t get me wrong, good players get hurt all the time, but there is a difference between freak injuries, injuries caused by situations a player cannot anticipate no matter how good they are, and injuries due to a player’s lack of skill or preparation.
Kevin Clark’s piece at The Ringer, The NFL Has an Age Problem, covers this topic in greater detail. If you want a better understanding of the challenges that teams and players face when transitioning from college football to the pros, you should read it.
Michael Bennett got hurt the week before the play I’m about to share with you. Jake Matthews cut him at the knees, an act that embodies the fine line between the need to have awareness and understanding of the game and not letting this knowledge limit your aggression. While I have no proof, based on my experience studying the game, I’d bet Bennett’s injury would have been much worse if he wasn’t as experienced and technically sound at his craft.
Seattle’s defensive lineman is no doubt a great athlete. What stands out most to me is the economy of his actions. This hand-off to David Johnson is a great illustration of Bennett harnessing his athletic ability and technique with an economy to beat right guard Earl Watford and disrupt the play.
Note Bennett’s stance. It’s compact. The arm on the ground is nearly touching his knee. His back is flat. His head is up. His knees and hips are cocked and ready to explode from his stance.
I’m not saying that Bennett’s stance is the ideal, only sharing the details and that it works for him. And it does.
While he should be the first to react to the snap because of his proximity to the center, it’s good to see that his hands are already off the ground and he’s mid-way through his first move before Jarran Reed and Frank Clark. In this case, Bennett’s pad level is high with the purpose of swimming over the guard.
What you don’t see in the lapse of time between these two still photos is how Bennett moves his feet. You’ll have to watch the Instagram clip a few times to see what I’m about to share: Bennett’s feet move into position to execute this swim, but the steps are incredibly short.
The economy of his steps is vital to getting into position and maintaining as much space as possible from the charging Watford. But remember, “economy” is about good management of resources. While Bennett’s feet barely move, the dramatic turn of his shoulders and chest underscores the point that economy is less about smaller movements and more about moving as necessary .
Once Bennett clears the guard, he gets his pads square to the target as fast as possible.
Again, the feet barely move between the picture above and the picture below. Two steps cover a yard. Otherwise, he overruns his angle.
We inherently think about quickness as the ability to cover a wide patch of space in a short period of time that we don’t consider that the game often demands a far more harnessed movement or that athletic ability goes to waste. Bennett’s economy of movement is the reason his position forces Johnson to cut to the right.
Although Bennett ultimately misses the running back (and he is pushed in the back just as he leans to the engagement point), his skills force Johnson into an area where he’s met by two Seahawks defenders and dropped for no gain.
The beauty of good defensive play lies in the quality of the teamwork. Bennett’s intention to protect his gap first and make the tackle second forces Johnson into a place he doesn’t want to go.
Less experienced athletes will author fantastic displays of speed, strength, and agility in a similar situation. It happens a lot in college football. They’ll drop the runner 3-5 yards behind the scrimmage. When they enter the NFL, they discover that the same athletic ability leads to them abandoning their gap, missing the runner, and giving up a big gain.
An important lesson I’ve gleaned from plays like these is how to study economy of movement. Regardless of the position, I look for situations where the player is doing something that he’s technically sound at.
Even if he’s as raw and uncut as Chris Rock riffing in a comedy club, he should have at least 1-2 technical things that he has learned at his position. If that player displays an economy of movement with those 1-2 things in a variety of situations then I feel good about his promise to develop into more.
It doesn’t always happen because there are so many mental, emotional, and political factors that come into play with young talent, but based on what I can account for, it’s a valuable thing to study.