Vonn Bell was drafted in Round 2 of the 2016 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He received a second-round grade from most media and analysts around the country, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his share of detractors. Saints fans have been pleasantly surprised with Bell’s play, which even led to him usurping high-priced free agent pickup Jairus Byrd form his starting position at free safety. (This was coupled with Byrd’s poor showing against Atlanta in Week 3)
One thing Bell is not is a player who is going to amaze you with his physical stature and measurables. He posted a 4.5-second 40-yard dash time at Ohio State’s pro day, and only managed 16 bench reps at the NFL Scouting combine while officially being listed at 5-foot-11, 205-lbs. While on paper those figures might not jump off the page, his ability to read and react on defense is how he made his mark at Ohio State. So far this season, he’s managed to translate that to the NFL.
Vonn Bell - Kansas City Run Stuff
This first play is against the Chiefs in Week 7. It’s a 3rd and 2 deep inside Saints territory. What I love about this play is Bell’s ability to read and react to a run play, from the second level, and have the vision to maneuver through traffic to make a strong stop. It goes against what one AFC Scout said about him at the NFL Scouting combine, and showcases the read-react ability we are discussing:
“He's not special, but he's solid. I needed to go see him in person because he looked so small on tape and he looks the same in person. You can't play him around the line of scrimmage, but he's got instincts in coverage." -- AFC scout
If you recall our film study of Sheldon Rankins last week, you’ll take notice that once again Dennis Allen is showing a variation of a 3-4 Okie front. For most teams, this is the type of box you want to run against. The Saints only have four men inside the tackles with two linebackers on contain on the outside. Bell is lined up as the MLB over the 0-tech nose tackle.
After the ball is snapped, you’ll notice the center is attempting to move up to the second level to block Bell out of the play. You can begin to see the running lanes developing for Charcandrick West of the Chiefs. Cameron Jordan has been turned towards the inside, effectively negating any potential for him to make a play.
Nick Fairley does a good job of helping soak up the blocks from the center and guard to allow Bell to read the play and make his move to the RB.
Squeezing through a tight window, Bell pierces through the mass of 300-pound linemen to emerge to cut off not one, but both rushing lanes. This play should have gone for 5+ yards, and is stopped for no gain due to Bell’s excellent vision to stop the ball carrier. This is not the play you expect your free safety to make, and for a rookie, it’s very encouraging to see this level of football IQ.
Vonn Bell - Los Angeles Zone Coverage
New Orleans has employed their three-safety sets for a few years now, even before Dennis Allen rejoined the coaching staff. Bell’s ability in coverage looks to be an ability that will continue to improve, and it helps make this set so successful every game. Whether the team will continue with this play calling next season when they (hopefully) have a set of healthy corners is unknown, but for now it has allowed Bell to see more time on the field.
We find the Saints defense lined up in a four-man front and a Cover 3 zone defense. For any of you who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of zone vs. man coverages, here is the simplest way I can break it down and you can build from there. In man coverage, you play your man. I.E., you stick “hip to hip” to the guy you line across from to prevent him from making a play.
In a zone coverage, as you’ll see here, you’re taught to play the ball. You have a zone (an allotted area of the field) that you’re responsible for defending instead of a particular player. You pick your spot, watch the quarterback’s eyes and you must be aware of the players around you to make an effective stop. The above and below graphics show Bell defending the shallow zone above the receiver. Remember, man defense, play the man. Zone defense, play the ball.
Even with Dannell Ellerbe coming in on the blitz, Jared Goff is going to get off a good pass. It is a bit high, but most teams will expect their larger receivers and tight ends to make this kind of play. In the above graphic you can see that Bell is moving into his zone, trailing Lance Kendricks, but his eyes are focused on the quarterback. He is playing the ball.
The Saints have had issues before, where a player would pass through their zone, and the defender would then trail, often times leaving his zone. That would be an example of playing the man in a zone defense, which, while at some points acceptable, overall can lead to a lot of big plays for the opposing offense. Bell’s zone awareness and his zone assignment discipline leads to an incompletion.
Vonn Bell - Tampa Bay Man Coverage
While the Saints haven’t placed Bell in a large number of man coverage plays, we did see him in a couple this past Sunday against Tampa. The upcoming play was not only a great read by Bell, but also by the entire defense that snuffed out a short bubble screen attempt that never had any chance to develop.
As you can see, Bell is lined up in man-to-man coverage in the slot above Tampa Bay receiver Josh Huff. Tampa is going to bring a receiver in motion, dragging Sterling Moore along with him, in an attempt to get more blockers. Multiple linemen are going to try and pull to block for Huff, which will allow the Saints defensive linemen to get quick pressure on Jameis Winston. The combination of pressure and a great read and react positioning by Bell lead to an errant throw.
As you can see, multiple Saints made a good read of the play preventing the completion, but Bell in particular is key on sniffing out the attempted screen. If Bell is slow to recover on his back step, and is blocked, Huff as a chance to move in a tight window and make a catch. Due to Bell’s great read, however, this potential completion is averted.
Vonn Bell - Tampa Bay Zone Coverage
We’ve already gone over zone coverage in a frame by frame, but I felt this play from Sunday’s loss was simply too good to leave out. Bell not only contains proper zone discipline with the underneath receiver, but watches Winston’s eyes and almost makes a great interception at the top of his zone. The ability to cover his entire allotted area makes him a valued player on every Saints defensive drive.
Towards the end of the season, we’ll jump back and look again and some more plays Bell shined in. Many inside Saints media and fans are pretty high on this young safety, and for good reason. Hope you enjoyed the article. I encourage you to let me know what you thought, and what you would like to see in future film studies. God bless, and Who Dat Saints fans.