Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: LB Reuben Foster And Coverage Responsibilities In Context

Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio examines a pass breakup by 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster and reveals why it’s a play that’s more expected than amazing. 

A friend of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio contacted me today. He understands defenses as well as anyone that I know and has an impressive football resume. We often discuss why analysis requires proper context.

For example, an analyst can examine data and film and say that a running back shouldn’t be used as an inside runner. However, if he or she doesn’t understand that the runs he or she is highlighting are designed to go to the outside and the back chose to cut them inside due to the way the plays unfolded,  that analyst is delivering analysis that’s fundamentally incorrect.

What’s even more troublesome is that the analyst may believe he or she is correct because the data backing up their argument classified the attempt as an “inside run,” when the design was clearly an outside run. This happens when a team of charters is instructed to track the direction of the runner and not the design of the play.

The design of the play is an important consideration because it considers the variables of how the offense runs the play, how the defense response to defend it, and the actual decisions a back has available to him that context.

If you’re tracking a play as an inside run that wasn’t designed as an inside run, then you’re failing to deliver the context of appropriate decision making that helps determine the effectiveness of the runner.

This is true with any position on the field. Here’s a play that my friend sent me that highlights Reuben Foster defending a target intended for Tavon Austin.  He shared the play from two angles and I re-recorded it to loop multiple times with each angle. His thoughts about this play are below:

This is a great and concrete example of how someone might inflate the value of a play because they aren’t considering the context of the player’s responsibility. This is Cover 3 and Foster is responsible for the hook zone.

The play looks amazing to those unfamiliar with Cover 3 because they see a bigger defender covering what appears to be a wide range of field against a small and quick receiver. However, carrying the crossing route in this situation is pretty normal despite the fact that the play looks amazing on the surface.

The play appears even more impressive because Foster is initially slow to react to the route. Foster bit hard on the play fake (view the broadcast angle to really see it) and then uses sound fundamentals to help him get back under the route in time.

It actually takes a great route from the receiver to remain in the throwing lane as long a possible so the quarterback can complete the pass. This also should have been a completion with a well-timed throw with better placement ahead of the receiver and at helmet level. The quarterback should know this route will have a linebacker covering it from this angle and it’s the passer’s responsibility to deliver a well-timed/targeted throw.

Maybe in 2005, this isn’t a normal play, but these days nearly all linebackers are expected to cover this wide of a range in buzz or hook zone. It sounds derogatory, but it’s a pretty good example of why Madden-level schematics knowledge applied to football analysis is dangerous. The little yellow circle on the video game is just a landmark.

Every week in practice, the scout team will run the opposing offense’s favorite route combinations at the defense. Preparing what you should carry versus the pass offense is part of the knowledge instilled into the defense for that week’s game plan.

As the NFL has evolved into a more passing-oriented league, underneath defenders often became targets of short passing attacks due to their limitations with lateral quickness. So what do teams do in response to this? They seek quicker defenders underneath.

Nick is pretty close to the base defense these days. Weakside linebackers are asked to cover huge chunks of ground and get underneath digs and carry crossers. These principles haven’t changed for zone: Cover a man, not grass, but the demands have increased dramatically.

A good example of expectations placed on linebackers these days include Christian Kirksey in Cleveland and Telvin Smith in Jacksonville. They have roles where they’re expected to cover with the range of a strong safety during early incarnations of the game.

Technically, Foster is a 4-3 middle linebacker but the general theme still applies: Linebackers are asked to cover a lot of ground. While weakside linebackers are easy examples, Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are 4-3 MLBs who are rangy. Wagner is a huge part of Seattle’s recent success with the Cover 3 defense. Deion Jones is another.

Ultimately, I look at this play and if I were an offensive coordinator I’d ask myself how many times out of 10 does Foster get back to make this play? Do I avoid calling his look or a similar one later as a result of my answer to the first question?

Based on what we see, Foster still recovered in time to a heavy bite on the play action to defend the play. It means the quarterback and receiver need to execute the crosser to perfection in a difficult scenario and that’s just not worth doing.

Foster makes a good play, but it’s a good example of how we’re prone to giving more credit to a player performing to expectation because we’re not playing close enough to the expectation.

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Categories: 2017 NFL Draft, Linebacker, Players, The NFL LensTags: , , ,

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