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Solak | Run Fits and Aggressiveness with Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor

Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

Solak | Run Fits and Aggressiveness with Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor

In 2016, the Washington Huskies captured their first ever Pac-12 title and first conference title since the turn of the century (and that was a co-championship, but I digress). They became the eighth team to qualify for the newly minted College Football Playoff, joining Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Michigan State, Oregon, Florida State, and Oklahoma. The team also fielded two ESPN First Team All-Americans in S Budda Baker (now with Arizona) and WR John Ross (in Cincinnati), plus nine First Team All-Pac-12 performers.

In other words? Pretty good season.

The Huskies largely relied on a fearsome defense, which led the nation with 33 takeaways, during their 2016 rise. The defensive line, anchored by powerhouses like Vita Vea and Elijah Qualls and turbocharged by edge rushers Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis, stymied offensive lines on any given Saturday. But only Vea returns to school this year. The secondary posted a Pac-12 leading 19 interceptions but likewise loses standout pieces in Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, and Kevin King. Only Freshman All-American Taylor Rapp remains on the back end.

To the linebacking corps, however, return two redshirt seniors: Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor. Victor hopes to string together a full season, having foregone the Draft after his promising 2016 campaign ended prematurely with a leg injury. Bierria looks to continue blossoming into the expanded role he saw last season, as he stepped up in Victor’s absence.

Many predict Washington’s defense will see a regression, given the talent exodus of the 2017 NFL Draft. To avoid losing a step, Bierria and Victor must not only lead a younger unit, but make bigger plays, and make them more often.

Turning to the tape, you’ll find two players with some translatable skills and some concerning red flags. Specifically, Bierria plays with as strong a see-ball-get-ball mentality as you’ll find. He’s a disruptive force at the line, but his plays often come at the cost of the Huskies’ defensive integrity. On the other hand, Victor shows a harrowing unwillingness to attack. He regularly allows for linemen to meet him at the second level and win the leverage battle, relying on his considerable athleticism to work him back into the play.

Our objective: investigate how these Washington linebackers, with their contrasting styles, execute run fits in the Husky defense–and how those styles may translate to the NFL. We’ll use exclusively Stanford tape: With a mix of zone and gap looks, and a propensity for pulling linemen, the Stanford offense presents a great case study for defensive play. Washington held the Cardinals’ potent rushing attack to 29 yards on 30 attempts on their way to a 44-6 victory.

Here, we see the harmony between Bierria’s aggression and Victor’s patience. Bierria and Victor both key on the guard, who pulls to the strong side. Victor takes a step forward–a rare occurrence for him–but as the defensive line and blitzing corner eat up the pullers, he has no lineman to strike. He nicely maintains outside leverage on the running back before closing down the edge and making the tackle.

Bierria also does his part in filling against the linemen and funneling the play to Victor. He scrapes with the puller to the play side, and as the tight end climbs to the second level, Bierria meets him with power, adding to the traffic through which the runner hopelessly picks. By taking on this final blocker, Bierria ensures Victor will have a clean look at the ball-carrier. Ideally, Bierria ends up shedding this block to the other side–but all in all, it’s a fine play.

However, you can quickly see how issues with these play styles may creep onto the tape. We’ll start by checking out Bierria’s struggles: because he plays with such aggression, he often foregoes the appropriate run fit and puts his defense in jeopardy.

Contrasting Styles: Keishawn Bierria

A perfect example: Victor does well reading through the line, finding the puller and attacking downhill. He fills with the appropriate form and leverage, though he could stay tighter to the line. By bubbling out, as you see below, he allows for a crease to develop behind his puller. Should the RB identify this alley, the hope is that Bierria–the back side ‘backer on this play–has scraped over the top of the play and filled the lane to make the tackle.

At a cursory glance, Bierria plays this okay. He’s seeing through the trees and mirroring the actions of the running back. But, watching the action of the guard and the fullback, Bierria needs to recognize that the offense is generating gaps to the strong side of the formation–gaps that must be filled by defenders. Instead, he attacks already occupied gaps and gets lost in traffic.

Turn your eyes to the action of the play side. The closing nickel defender (#32 Budda Baker) decides to shoot underneath the puller for the runner’s ankles. Meanwhile, Victor allows for that small alley, while edge defender Psalm Wooching gets blown to kingdom come by the fullback. Should Baker fail to wrap up McCaffrey, Christian is gone for 6.

The attack-first mindset also puts Bierria in a tough spot when plays move laterally. On this swing pass look, Victor is quick to read and react. He rips through the crackback block with nice physicality, maintaining the appropriate leverage and angle on McCaffrey even as the wideout drives him to the sideline.

Bierria lags far behind and out of position–the initial surge of the linemen has sucked him in. He moves downhill at the snap despite the back’s immediate release out of the backfield. Now stuck behind the climbing guard, he cuts underneath the block, and as a result, removes himself from a good pursuit position.

If not for the excellent read and close by Wooching, McCaffrey would not have been so delayed in getting upfield, and Bierria would have been nowhere near making the play.

Contrasting Styles: Azeem Victor

That’s enough ripping on Bierria, who I have ranked (on 2016 play) slightly higher than the painfully passive Victor. On both of the previous plays, Bierria was the back side linebacker. His job fell more in the ‘chase and pursue’ category than the ‘see that lineman? Destroy that lineman’ one. When, as the play side linebacker, he was asked to do exactly that:

Much better. Bierria is fast to flow, works downhill, and strikes the climbing linemen with intention. His initial jolt narrows, though it doesn’t close, the alley for the running back–but he continues to play through contact and picks up a second blocker. 2 for 1? Good deal.

Problem is, Victor isn’t there to fill for Bierria. When presented with the climbing center, Victor must attack the lineman, either scraping over the top or ripping through the block, to close on the runner. Instead, Victor decides to juke out the lineman and cut underneath–a cardinal sin. While he has impressive quickness, Victor is not nearly the athlete that can close on time to make this tackle. McCaffrey enters the second level for a big gain.

In the event that Victor must take on contact, he’s dead in the water. On this rep, he’s slow to flow, stacks with incorrect leverage, and gets bodied by a tight end. The blocker grabs inside of Victor’s shoulder pads and rag-dolls him to and fro. Victor can’t anchor, disengage the hands, redirect–nothing. Yuck.

Bierria is nowhere near the ball–why? Because he made a dang good read. He initially flows to the play side with the action of the line, but when the defensive tackle in front of him crosses the face of the center and fills the play side A-gap, Bierria makes him correct by returning to the back side and filling the gap the DT vacated. That’s a smart, aware play. It may seem Bierria is out of position, but he did well to remain in his cog of the defensive wheel, while still playing fast and assertively.

Though Bierria was nowhere near the ball, this play encourages me for his pro outlook. He tends to sacrifice gap integrity for the sake of his instincts, tracking the ball instead of fulfilling his chalkboard responsibility. Here, he proves that he can balance his headhunter predilections with disciplined football. That’s promising.

Conclusion

Understanding run fits–and watching them unfold on film–is a tricky business. When players fit into a certain mold or expectation, it’s all too easy to whitewash their film with that assumption (e.g.: the Bierria play above). It’s a trap all evaluators must avoid. Bierria is aggressive, but still flashes good reads; Victor tends to wait, but can play downhill. In 2017, both players must tend toward the other: Victor, in his decision-making and willingness to fill with authority; Bierria, in his mental processing and gap discipline.

But that discussion is of the individual prospects–it will come into play in the spring. For the team, Bierria and Victor will likely continue their symbiosis of aggressive and passive, reckless and disciplined play. And the Washington defense should be all the better for it.

Benjamin Solak

Ben Solak has been a football fan and film junkie for all of his life, and has the pleasure of serving as a National Scout for NDT Scouting. He also covers the Philadelphia Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and co-hosts the Locked On Eagles podcast. Ben takes many things far too seriously, including fishing, Captain America, grammar, and Game Of Thrones.

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