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MNF Review: Run-stopping linebackers

10/22/2013


The New York Giants shut out the Minnesota Vikings’ offense and held RB Adrian Peterson to 28 yards on 13 carries Monday night for their first win of the season. Why did the Minnesota ground game sputter? A few reasons: QB Josh Freeman getting his first start with the Vikings since signing midseason, a poor offensive line performance and poor receiver play. Add in Peterson’s hamstring injury and you're going to get an offense that looks like this one did Monday night.

Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell took advantage of these vulnerabilities with an excellent game plan that included eight- and nine-man fronts that made it tougher for the Vikings to get blockers on bodies. He also got a three-level effort from his players. The defensive line, led by left defensive end Justin Tuck, won one-on-one battles; the linebackers, led by middle linebacker Jon Beason, played downhill; and the secondary, led by strong safety Antrel Rolle, was highly involved.

Let’s focus on Beason, who led the Giants with nine tackles. Beason did a nice job of diagnosing plays and quickly getting to the ball when his defensive line prevented the Minnesota interior offensive linemen from getting a clean release and a body on him. Although he got pushed back by FB Jerome Felton on one isolation run, he showed good power at the point of attack and he took on blocks with the proper shoulder, making it tough for Peterson to bounce outside. He took sound angles and showed adequate range on perimeter runs. Finally, he tackled well. He broke down, wrapped up and showed good strength in getting Peterson to the ground.

Which linebackers in this year's draft class are similar to Beason? Cincinnati Bearcat Greg Blair and Wisconsin Badger Chris Borland are two inside linebacker prospects who have the ability to bolster a team’s run defense.

At 6-foot-2, 252 pounds, Blair has the size to anchor when teams try to isolate him with a lead blocker, and he has enough strength to hold his ground against offensive linemen when he keeps his pads down. He’s not just a space eater, either. He has the active hands to slip blocks in time to get in on the play. Although he doesn’t have the closing burst to regularly chase backs down from behind, he can make plays outside the tackle box. His effort and sound angles mean he has better range than top-end speed. He’s also a heavy hitter who can stop backs in their tracks and jar the ball loose.

Even though he is a liability in certain man-to-man matchups in coverage, Blair has some value on third down. His positioning in zone coverage is often sound, and he has flashed good ball skills for the position. He also is an adequate pass-rusher who can push the pocket and move quarterbacks off the spot.

At 5-foot-11 and 248 pounds, Borland is on the shorter side for a linebacker prospect, and, on film, he appears to have short arms. His height and length are concerns because they hinder his ability to maintain separation from blockers and track the ball. He overcomes these deficiencies in two ways.

The first way is he uses his instincts. He reads his keys and diagnoses plays so fast that he can beat bigger blockers to the point. Borland also has a good feel for which direction the back will cut when he loses sight of the ball. The second is he is stout for his size, thanks to his above-average explosive power and low center of gravity. He uncoils on lead blockers in the phone booth, and he even flashes the ability to lift them off their feet. One area where he can improve is his open-field tackling, as he tends to break down and could show better body control at times.

Borland has more to offer on third down than Blair does. He is a relentless and quick edge-rusher who can get under offensive tackles and bend back inside. His timing and ability to shake backs with hesitation moves make him an effective interior pass-rusher. Although he can get exposed in certain man-to-man matchups, he has enough range to get depth in a Tampa 2 defense and he flashes the ability to get an early break on the ball in underneath zone.

It is worth pointing out that frame isn’t the only reasons Blair grades out slightly higher than Borland even though he isn’t as effective on passing downs. There are concerns about Borland's ability to stay healthy, as he missed the bulk of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury and has been slowed by hamstring injuries over the past two years.