Aaron Donald vs the world; how the defensive tackle terrorized the Falcons

Game Film, Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

The Los Angeles Rams saw their wonderful run this season came to an abrupt end when they fell to the Atlanta Falcons in the opening game of the NFC playoffs. Their offense was inefficient and could not get by a stiff Falcons defense. Despite troubles on offense they managed to stay in the game until the end due to an incredible job by the Rams defense.

Los Angeles was able to hold the Falcons to field goals for a majority of the game, not allowing Atlanta to fully pull away from a struggling Rams team. Quarterback Matt Ryan was forced to operate under pressure almost all game, and they had trouble running between guards.

Much of this was the doing of defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

If you care enough about football to be reading a film breakdown in the first place you have heard of Aaron Donald and know his reputation around the league. Donald is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, and was recently named a near unanimous first team all pro. Saturday night was his first shot at putting his skills to test in the postseason, and he showed why he is regarded so highly around the NFL.

Pro Football Focus credits Donald with 10 hurries and a sack during the game, 9 of the hurries coming during the first half. He was consistently in Ryan’s face and the interior pressure he created helped his edge rushers create pressure of their own.

It did not take the Rams star interior lineman long to get going. He registered pressures on the first two defensive snaps of the game and kept Ryan on his heels near his own goal line.

Donald showed his versatility on those plays. While he usually lines up on the interior of the defensive line, where his brute force and strength allow him to bully the quarterback and push him out of the pocket. Despite his incredible size and strength, Donald still manages the speed necessary to become a dangerous edge rusher, where he can close around the pocket fast to land hits on the quarterback. He can line up anywhere on the defensive front and be an absolute terror for an opposing offense.

The Falcons offense was seemingly stuck in the mud for the early stages of the game. They only managed 16 yards on their first three possessions, as they could not get by Donald and Los Angeles’s defense.

On this play later in the first quarter of the Rams wild-card matchup, Donald gets the defense off the field on third down.

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Donald is lined up as a defensive tackle as a part of Los Angeles five-man front on the play. His first punch deflects the hands of the guard in front of him. He catches a slap to the head, but is virtually unbothered as he blows by his opponent. Falcons center Alex Mack (No. 51), who was named first-team All-Pro by Bird Breakdowns last week, can not react in time switching on to Donald. Mack is late because he was distracted by the feigned blitz from one of the linebackers. Donald gets through the Falcons ranks with ease and barrels towards Ryan. The quarterback see’s him and attempts to slide away. With the defensive tackle breathing down his neck he is forced to throw an off balanced pass to his running back, which falls incomplete.

The ability to dispatch of blocks like they are nothing more than just speed bumps on the way to the quarterback make Donald a terror. He has incredible technique and can hand fight in the trenches better than anyone. He is a smart pass rusher and knows how to counter the first move of an offensive lineman as well as anyone, as he did on this second quarter play.

On this play, Donald is lined up in a similar spot in the same five-man front. Wes Schweitzer (No. 71) is the guard across from Donald here. The offensive lineman takes a few steps back off of the snap and eventually makes his first move to the defender. He leans in for the initial punch, and Donald embarrasses him. Donald uses a great swim move on Schweitzer’s shoulder and flings him to side with ease. Mack comes around to help, but the defensive tackle brute forces through him en route to the quarterback. Donald meets a teammate in the backfield as they join together to take down Ryan for a sack.

While Donald has a knack to stuff the box score himself, his pressure on the interior also creates plays for his teammates.

On this play, Donald is again lined up on the interior. He paths wide of his pass rush, helping the defensive end of the side overload the left side of the line of scrimmage, and open up space for a stunt on the inside. The overload from Donald, combined with the edge rusher from the other side, helps push Ryan into the pocket. With the pass rush behind him, the quarterback tries to make a play with his feet, and end up getting chased down from behind by the pass rushers.

While a majority of the plays that Donald makes are in pass rush, he is also an amazing run stuffer.

Tevin Coleman (No. 26) takes the handoff from Ryan on this second quarter play. He heads into the right side a gap. The Falcons pull a guard to help block on the play, and Coleman uses his agility to dodge the first potential tackler. Schweitzer is yet again on Donald and does a decent job creating space for Coleman. As the running back reaches his gap, Donald manages to shed his block and wrap his arms around the running back from behind and just tear him to the ground.

Donald’s run stuffing ability does not fill up the stat sheet the same way his pass rushing does, but he may be better against the run than he is when rushing the passer. His great instinct allows him always shed blockers and leverage himself to be in position to attack the runner.

While he had a great game, all of these plays by Donald were made during the first half. He was still an active pass rusher in the second half but was not as fearsome. He only registered one pressure after half time and had trouble getting to the quarterback. He was facing double teams pretty much all night, and while he managed to tear through them early on in the game he wore down. Just the pure gravity of having him stuffing up the middle allows his teammates more opportunity, but after Michael Brockers left the game with an injury the entire Rams defense began to slowly falter.

Donald is only 26 and should only get better over the next few years. He has a year left on his rookie contract with the Rams, and there are questions as to whether he will return in 2019. He held out of the early stages of training camp last summer, and if he does not receive an extension this year one of the most attractive free agents in the league may hit the market Spring 2019.

If Los Angeles does retain him, though, then they have found a centerpiece of what is a young, budding and exciting defense that can terrorize the NFL for years to come.

 

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Adrian Clayborn dominated the Dallas Cowboys

Game Film, Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

“I only have one move and it worked,” Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after six sacks during the Falcons huge 27-7 victory against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Clayborn became the first player in Falcons history to record six sacks in a single game. Nearly all of his sacks all came in similar fashion, just as he admitted after the game.

On every one of those four sacks, he did the same thing. He used a bull rush while also using his hands to counter the punch of the tackle in front of him. The offensive linemen gave him little trouble, and he might as well had not even been there on a few of these plays.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith missed the game with a groin injury and an offensive line that is known to be among the elite in the league were forced to start Chaz Green.

Green was entirely outmatched by the Falcons defensive end and got worked all day. He was eventually benched for Byron Bell in what Troy Aikman referred to as one of the worst performances he had ever seen from an NFL player. Even against the worst of opposition, netting six sacks is still a near impossible feat, though, especially when the quarterback is as mobile as Dak Prescott.

While his sacks did show up on the stat sheet, some of his contributions Sunday won’t show up in the box score. Clayborn easily could have had three or four more sacks if he had just been a second faster or Prescott a second slower.

He consistently got to Prescott and managed to disrupt his passes. On one of those plays Clayborn even forced Prescott into an interception (it was called back because Vic Beasley was offsides on the other side of the play).

Two of his sacks really stood out, though, and did not come as easy as the rest of them. This second quarter sack saw him come out of coverage to take down Prescott.

Clayborn is lined up as a nickel corner almost on this play. He drops back into zone coverage as the tight end in front of him runs a crossing route. He stays back as a QB spy as the play develops. Beasley (No. 44) beats the Cowboys right tackle and forces Prescott to bail out of the pocket. The quarterback steps up into the pocket and tries to scramble. Clayborn stays disciplined and does not fall for his pump fake and takes down Prescott at the line of scrimmage for a sack.

His first of his two strip sacks of the day was the only one of his sacks where he showed a move other than “counter bull rush around the edge.”

Clayborn comes from his wide position and builds up speed to crash into the tackle hard on the edge. He begins a bull rush to get through him and eventually gets inside leverage. He uses a spin move to break free of the block and get inside. Clayborn gets to the quarterback and snatches the ball away from him.

Prescott was tormented all day by the Falcons pass rush, but he was able to counter punch a few times. He is great on his feet and would occasionally take advantage of how quickly the rush would get into the backfield. Similar to how screen passes work against a team that blitzes heavily when your edge rushers are able to burst into the backfield with ease it leaves the edge without any sort of contain.

On this play, both Beasley and Clayborn quickly and easily beat the tackle they are taking on and sandwich Prescott in the pocket. The quarterback manages to escape them for a moment though. Since nobody is near the line of scrimmage anymore, and there is not QB spy Prescott has a wide-open running lane to take off.

Prescott had six rushing attempts on the day, one of the highest totals of his career. Five of the six of his rushes were not designed and were just passing plays where he bailed out of the pocket. He seemed gassed at one point, and there was one play towards the end of the first half where he practically walked the ball out of bounds.

Clayborn’ssix-sackk day was incredible, especially so when you realize that he has been a below average pass rusher at best the past few seasons. His big day was more of a failure of the Cowboys than his amazing play, though.

Dallas must figure out how to fix this issue, though. They take on the Philadelphia Eagles and their powerful front seven next week. Smith will most likely miss another game, and neither Green nor Bell looked good enough to handle the duties at left tackle last Sunday. They need to change their pass protection scheme to better protect Dak and give more help. Whether it is lining up tight ends on that side and keeping them back for protection, or just leaving your running backs in the backfield to block they need to provide more help for their left tackle.

 

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The Bills defense makes them a legitimate playoff threat

Game Film, Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

The Buffalo Bills pulled off a shocking upset last Sunday, knocking off the undefeated Atlanta Falcons and improving to 3-1 on the season. As good as quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy are the team’s strength lies within their defense.

Buffalo has forced seven turnovers in four games this season, all seven coming during their three wins. They have not allowed a single team to score more than 17 points yet. In their week two loss to the Panthers they only allowed nine points to the Cam Newton led offense, keeping them out of the end zone all game.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had one of worst games in years against this defense. He posted a 61.8 passer rating, his worst rating since the Falcons week 5 matchup against the Washington Redskins way back in 2015 where he posted a 57.14 rating, and his worst in a loss since the 47.2 rating he put up against the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. The reigning NFL MVP was responsible for all three of Atlanta’s turnovers on the day and shutting him down was key to the Bills victory.

Both the Bills pass rush and pass defense were huge all game. Ryan had trouble all day finding open receivers downfield and the fierce Bills pass rush forced him to make many ill-advised throws.

On this play, Atlanta attempted to use a rub play to free a receiver out of the slot on the right side. Buffalo’s defenders do a great job taking angles to avoid each other and get to their receiver in man coverage. Ryan’s first read is the Falcons tight end and slot receiver on that side who both have defenders on them. The quarterback makes his next read on the other side of the field, but he has already run out of time as the four-man rush is already rounding his protection. There is only one receiver on the other side of the field who his being smothered by a defensive back. Ryan has to get the ball away, though, and just throws it over his head out of bounds and into safety.

Buffalo only rushed four on this play but their defensive line was still able to easily beat the Falcons protection. When they did send more rushers, though, they overwhelmed Ryan’s protection and even forced his most costly turnover of the day.

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The Bills rush six and sent both linebackers through the strong side B-gap. Matt Milano (No. 58) almost gets through but his burst through the Falcons offensive line clears out room for linebacker Preston Brown (No. 52) who is coming up behind him. Meanwhile, both Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) and Jerry Hughes (No. 55) have both beaten the tackle on the edges and close on Ryan. Alexander, Hughes and Brown all reach Ryan almost simultaneously and force the ball to be popped upfield for a fumble. TreDavious White (No. 27) picks up the ball and takes it the other way for a touchdown.

Upon further review, whether it was actually a forward pass on a fumble by the quarterback is not clear. The end result is all that matters though, and the Bills amazing pass rush earned them a crucial touchdown in a competitive game.

The Bills secondary made plays on their own even without the help of the pass rush at times. They forced errors out of Ryan with their discipline and not allowing any Falcons receivers to get beyond them.

On this play, the Falcons are backed up within their own five-yard line. They try to catch the Bills off guard and run a play action into a deep pass to Julio Jones. This is a dangerous play, as a sack or holding call in the end zone leads to a safety, but it can also quickly change the entire game in the Falcons favor. The Bills initially bite but are quick to get back into coverage. Jones runs a vertical route and gets trapped in a double team. Ryan has a clean pocket, but his primary receiver is removed from the play. He has another receiver wide open in the flat but is forced to rid of the ball fast not wanting to risk dealing with the oncoming rush and overthrows for an incompletion.

The Falcons quarterback’s first interception of the day came on a play where there was no pass rush.

On this play, Atlanta rushed 4 and dropped 7 into zone coverage. Their linebackers show amazing discipline not biting on the play action and quickly getting back into their zones when they realize it is a pass play. Buffalo’s linebackers cover up all of the shallower options for Ryan, but he does see a man in single coverage deep. He lets it fly deep towards Taylor Gabriel, but Micah Hyde makes a great play to undercut him for an interception.

Ryan should have thrown a better pass, but you cannot fault him for going deep here. None of his receivers could gain any separation and he had been harassed by the Bills pass rush all game by this point. The clock in his head was running out of time so he threw the safest pass possible to the receiver with a best chance to make a play on the ball. Hyde makes an athletic play to snag it away, though, and the Bills managed to extend their lead from 4 to 7 on the ensuing possesion.

Late in the game, the Falcons offense went into a panic mode despite having enough time to tie a one possession game. His second interception of the day came on a pass affected by the rush.

The Bills were in cover-2 man against a five receiver set from Atlanta. They rushed four and yet again got to Ryan’s blindside with ease. Hughes gets to Ryan as he throws and forces him to throw to far in front of his receiver. Nick Williams has a step on his man over the middle and this should have been a huge completion for the Falcons to get a potential game tying drive on the move. He has to dive to get it though and ends up tipping it into the air to Hyde for his second interception of the game.

Buffalo’s secondary held the Falcons pass attack in check all game. Obviously, both Julio Jones and Muhammad Sanu leaving the game with injuries helped them out a lot but they got the job done. Ryan was forced to through to shorter underneath routes throughout the game and rarely connected on deep passes. Last years MVP only completed 24 of his 42 attempts of the day, for an underwhelming 242 yards in a losing effort.

The Bills were not supposed to be a very good team entering 2017. They made a few huge moves right before the season started to bring in the likes of Jordan Matthews and a few future draft picks. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year after a bad 2016 campaign.

They are in first place right now though. The Miami Dolphins look lost with Jay Cutler at quarterback, the New England Patriots defense is one of the worst in the league and the New York Jets are going nowhere this year. New England will most likely get it together and it is hard to bet against Tom Brady, but the Bills may give their longtime rivals a real fight this year and maybe even compete for a wild-card spot. They will be led by their elite defense that looks like they can take on anyone, but their offense needs to start doing their part is they hope to have continued success this season.

 

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