For a couple of years now, I've tried to preach that the main issue in the run game isn't the fact that the Chargers no longer have Jamaal Williams at nose tackle, it's the fact that they have below average inside linebackers that do not know how to play the position. My proclamations had fallen on deaf ears until the team decided to bench a certain someone for their second round pick, Denzel Perryman. What I'm going to go over today is how Perryman is progressing as a rookie and why having a competent linebacker is the key to stopping a running attack; a dominant defensive lineman is not a requirement.
Let's just keep it simple and throw some numbers out. When Perryman and Manti Te'o were in the game, the Jaguars ran the ball 11 times for 36 yards and one of those was a 21 yard gain that went away from Perryman. When Perryman and Donald Butler were in the game together, on just 3 run plays, the Jags had consecutive running plays for 10 and 19 yards, and finally a 4 yard gain. So if I cherry pick and take out the 21 yard gain, Jacksonville averaged a yard in a half running the ball on 10 carries. Even with the 21 yard gain, 3.2 yards per carry is pretty damn good. The same defensive line was in to play, all they did was take one guy out and put another guy in. Let's go over the differences in the styles of play.
Pressing the line of scrimmage
One thing that has really hurt Butler's ability to make plays over the past couple of seasons is his inability to attack the line of scrimmage.
Look at the play below. Here's what Butler is taught to do: attack the oncoming guard with his left shoulder, keep his right shoulder free, and make the tackle or at least slow the running back down.
Butler doesn't do any of these things. Instead of taking on the blocker he tries to run around him and creates an even bigger running lane. Inexcusable, but it's been dismissed for years now.
In a similar situation, Perryman is faced with an oncoming blocker, but unlike Butler, Perryman plays it perfectly. He presses the line of scrimmage, doesn't shy away from contact, keeps his outside arm free and makes the tackle for a gain of 2.
This is how you football. Crazy things happen when you do what you're coached and don't freelance.
Sorting through the trash
Being aggressive is half the battle as a linebacker. You also have to be able to "sort through the trash." You're going to be in constant contact with offensive linemen and even your own players. You will need to manage your way through traffic while not only keeping yourself clean but keeping an eye on the running back and locating him. This is known as "scraping" down the line of scrimmage. It's much easier said than done and not all linebackers possess this skill. This is an area where Perryman has been quite impressive.
In this first example it would be so easy for Perryman to get lost in the shuffle of the play and either get too far outside and over-pursue, or get caught up fighting off the guard and not make it to the running back. He does neither.
The thing that I like about Perryman is that he's seemingly always under control when he plays. Here, once he came in contact with the first lineman, he could've easily panicked and made a break for the sideline to make up for not having a free track to the RB. Instead, he kept his eyes on the prize and did a great job of sifting through traffic for a nice stop.
Here's what I mean about playing under control. There were 2 times Sunday where Perryman let the offensive lineman take themselves out of the play. Below, he lets the playside guard block Te'o and the pulling guard block Attaochu, which leaves him free to make the stop. Smart, heads-up, under control play by Perryman.
These may not blow you away, but since Telesco has been here there hasn't been this kind of linebacker play. Never. I understand it's the Jags, but we're looking at traits. This was the best game a linebacker has defended the run since Telesco took over.
Finishing what you started
In this defense, Perryman's job is to keep Te'o clean and force the run back Te'o's way. Perryman isn't settling for that role, though. Perryman is picking up a "stop" on 21% of his plays. To put that into perspective, Te'o is picking up a stop on just 8.6% of his snaps (in an easier position where he's kept clean and allowed to run free the majority of the time), and Butler registers a stop on 3.6% of his snaps. What's maybe equally as impressive is Perryman has missed just one tackle in the run game this year.
It comes down to his aggressive mentality. The Chargers have been plagued by linebackers who would rather dance around and avoid contact. With Perryman, that couldn't be further from the truth. Let's look at one final example below. Look at the linebacker on the left, the tight end comes to block him and the linebacker retreats, taking himself out of the play. You'd like to see him attack there.
Now look at the linebacker on the right. Read, react, seek, destroy.
Earlier in the year this play probably goes for a long gain and the thought process is to blame the defensive line. As you can see above, Attaochu does a great job of resetting the line of scrimmage and the other two linemen on this side of the ball hold their ground. Inserting a linebacker that plays downhill was really all it took. Perryman is also the only linebacker on the team that's explosive on contact, so once he hits you, you're more than likely going down. Another big difference, and it's a shame it took so long.
Perryman isn't perfect, by any means. He's a player that you want coming downhill. Teams can isolate him in space and throw the ball at him. He'll just have to get better with route recognition and being able to see both the receiver and the quarterback. That's sure to come with more reps as he gets a better feel for the game. You can already tell in the running game he's a difference-maker that the Chargers desperately need. Let's see if he can develop into a 3-down linebacker down the stretch.