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New Orleans Saints 2016 Year In Review: Stephone Anthony Film Study

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Can Stephone Anthony improve for the Saints and return in 2017 as a starter?

Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Defensively, one of the biggest question marks coming into the 2016 season was: How was Stephone Anthony going to adjust to not only a new defensive scheme under Dennis Allen, but also how would he adjust to a new position? After all, he was the planned strong side linebacker. While most will agree and grade Anthony’s 2016 campaign as a poor one, what matters moving forward is if there’s reason to believe he can adapt and be a factor in the Saints future.

To do this, we need to understand the type of player Anthony is. Before breaking down this year’s film under Dennis Allen, we’re actually going to go back to the days of Rob Ryan to see how he was originally deployed on the field.

Scouting Profile

Coming into the 2015 draft, Anthony was rated by most as a second-round grade. Mel Kiper rated Anthony at 57th overall. Todd McShay had him a bit higher, at 50th overall. New Orleans selected Anthony 31st overall.

While one might not necessarily consider this a “reach” (the Saints were in desperate need of a young ILB), there certainly were some examples of Anthony’s film at Clemson that indicated there were areas he could struggle with coming into the NFL.

Here is how I described Anthony coming out of college, and I’d say it’s still fairly accurate:

Strengths

He is an A and B gap, downhill attacker. Works well with the ball in front of him. Displays good vision and good technique when tackling. I like his burst after the diagnose, and has a high motor. Doesn’t give up on the play. Serviceable in short zone, but needs improvement. Elite speed and prototypical size for NFL middle linebacker. If you’re unfamiliar with the NFL gap system, I’ve provided a graphic below for you to reference.

Weaknesses

Liability in coverage. Struggles with knowing what’s behind him. When playing man coverage against speedier backs seems very unsure of himself. In zone, lacks ability to know what’s going on behind him. Play action biter. Will get drawn down into the box on play action on more plays than he doesn’t, usually causing him to miss his coverage assignment.

Defensive line techniques and gap assignments.

2015 Film - The Good

In 2015, Anthony saw a total of 990 defensive snaps and led the Saints in tackles with 112. Under Ryan, Anthony spent more time doing what his scouting profile says he’s good at, attacking the line of scrimmage, than he’s been able to do this past season under Allen.

One of the first plays we’re going to take a look at is a tackle against Dallas. On this play, Anthony shows a patient read, as he’s able to maneuver through bodies to stop the ball carrier on a carry to the outside. Stretch runs are one of the more difficult ones for a linebacker to defend. It’s very easy to get caught up in the mass of 300-pound lineman and become unable to reach the ball carrier.

What adds to the impressive play for Anthony here is that the defensive line as a whole has been beaten off their blocks and are being pushed back. Dallas has good blocking across the line and there is only one player who can prevent this from being a 5-7 yard gain, and that is Anthony. It’s never good when your 1 Technique Defensive Tackle (#92 John Jenkins) ends up behind your Mike linebacker.

Here is another play that shows Anthony’s ability to attack the inside against the run and make a nice stop. Against Carolina, the Saints rookie MLB forces a fumble and recovers it, taking it all the way back for a touchdown. The strip-tackle was an example of the A and B gap attacking described earlier in the scouting profile.

We’ve seen examples of Anthony’s range against the run, and an example of his ability to read the blocks, find the appropriate running lane and make a play on the ball carrier that leads to a turnover. The play above is one that happened more than once during the 2015 season. This next play will showcase his ability to penetrate into the backfield to make a stop from a run blitz.

The key to a successful run blitz is timing your attack with the snap. Unlike a blitz designed to sack the quarterback, a run blitz is designed to fill every gap. What you might find in some blitz situations on a passing down is multiple players attacking a certain gap. This isn’t the case with run blitzing.

In the above play, you’ll see Anthony attacking the A gap on the aforementioned blitz. He dips in under the guard’s attempted block and snags the running back for a loss of five yards. What is just as important as the stop itself is that Anthony’s speed prevents the running back from seeing the open cut back lane, let alone allowing him the opportunity to run through it.

Finally, Anthony also showed an ability to sniff out the screen plays quite a few times during his rookie season. In today’s NFL, running backs have become just as much of a threat as receivers in the open field. Get some blockers in front of them, and as Saints fans will attest, you can see the offense put up big numbers.

With the offense in front of him, Anthony seems to make the play more often than not. Within the first five yards both in front, and behind, the line of scrimmage Anthony was a terror in 2015. The issue we run into, as you’re about to see, is what happens once Anthony is forced to read what’s behind him.

2015 Film - The Bad

They say you can’t teach speed, and they’re right. But, speed is only good when you know where you’re going. With Anthony, when it comes to coverage he simply doesn’t always know where he’s going.

In the above film piece, most would expect a linebacker with Anthony’s elite speed and quickness (4.56 40-yard dash, 4.03 shuttle) to keep up with a running back running a simple out route in the flats. Yet, with a simple move, Anthony is put out of place, caught flat-footed and a relatively easy touchdown is made after the cornerback is cleared out by the outside receiver’s route. This is a play where you would expect Anthony to have the advantage in coverage.

What you’ll begin to notice, and it’s something I’m going to go into more depth here in a moment, is Anthony not only struggles with his initial coverage read, but also with switching over to his player. This is something offenses began to target Anthony on last season. The upcoming play is against the Washington Redskins.

New Orleans comes out in a 5-2 variant of the 5-2 Okie defense. This play is a 3rd and 1 inside the Saints red zone. Expecting run, Ryan comes out with a heavy front backed by three linebackers, two safeties, and a corner on the outside. This is what you would call a ‘stacked box’, as the Saints have nine defensive players down close the line of scrimmage.

We can determine the coverage assignments by how they are lined up. They are in Cover 1 with Jairus Byrd as the lone backside defender covering the middle zone. Kenny Vaccaro is in man coverage, as are Michael Mauti and Delvin Breaux. Washington is going to bring their tight end Jordan Reed in motion. For Anthony, this means his coverage assignment is going to change, and as you’ll see in the next screenshot, he is late to react.

Washington uses another tool that was successful against Anthony by multiple teams: the play action pass. What Anthony must realize is, while it is of course important to make the tackle on the running back, his assignment has changed. You’ll notice the weak (left) side of the offensive line doesn’t have enough blockers to block all Saints defenders if it were a run play.

What ends up happening is Anthony’s eyes are on the ball carrier which causes him to miss, and be late to react, to Reed crossing the field behind the line of scrimmage. At this point the play is a guaranteed first down for Washington, assuming Reed catches the ball. Due to Anthony’s late (and as you’ll see poor) reaction, the Redskins are actually able to score.

As mentioned, Anthony should have switched from run to pass when Reed begins to motion to the other side of the field. Mauti has been lured out of the play due to his coverage of the receiver that was previously occupying the place on the field Anthony’s receiver currently is. Anthony begins to drop back into coverage, instead of attacking Reed as a receiver. This mistake leaves six yards between them with the ball already halfway to the receiver. In the NFL, even with elite speed, there is no chance for him to make a play.

Let me preface the next piece by saying I can’t guarantee the next touchdown was solely on Anthony. Two Saints linebackers are caught on the line by play action. This is one of those plays where only the coach themselves would be able to tell you whose coverage was actually broken, but it appears both players play the running back, and fail to drop back to defend the tight end.

Whether Jo-Lonn Dunbar or Anthony are the designed defenders here, one thing is clear, both bit on the play action and at least one is guilty of over-committing. Most coaches will teach you that gap awareness and gap discipline are two keys that will follow you throughout your career as a linebacker. Anthony’s over-commitment to his gaps, and lack of dependency in coverage, are what forced Dennis Allen to make a change going into 2016.

2016 Film - The Good

"Absolutely not, absolutely not, I think we still have confidence in Steph and we have to continue developing him." This was Allen’s response when asked after four games into the season if the Saints defensive staff had lost confidence in the young linebacker.

Anthony saw his defensive snaps drop from 990 in 2015 to 133 in 2016. He only started three games and ended the season on injured reserve. With this in mind, please understand the sample size for Anthony’s play was much smaller, so there isn’t the variety by team as in my study of 2015. This made studying his 2016 film, and his progression (if any) a bit more difficult.

Also, note that in the beginning of the season Allen and company had moved Anthony to the strong side linebacker position. Towards the end of the year, they had moved him back to his more natural position of middle linebacker.

Anthony still has things he does well. In run support, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he is our best run defender at the second level. He consistently reads blocks well, and manages to make a tackle when many other players get washed out of the play. Above Anthony is lined up on the strong side guarding the outside C and D gaps.

From this position, he sniffs out the attempted outside run and stops it for a very short gain. Cameron Jordan helps Anthony out by blowing up his blocker and preventing a push to the second level. If there is any critique on Anthony’s ability to attack the run, it’s that there are still a few plays here and there where he is unable to get off blocks. Overall, he does a very good job in this capacity.

Here we see Anthony doing what Anthony does best. His speed makes it near impossible for offensive linemen to reach him on a block to the second level. He cuts inside to stop the running back for a loss of two yards. By now, I believe it has been well established that Anthony has the instincts and ability to be a force as a downhill run stopper.

As a pass defender, I do believe we saw slight improvement from him this year. It’s very difficult to make a proper assessment, as there simply wasn’t a lot of film to get a good bearing from. He only played 30 snaps or more defensively in two games (Atlanta and Tampa, first game against both). Against Tampa, we saw him record over 60 snaps, which leads us to our next play.

Yes, I do realize this is a completed pass. However, if you watch it from start to finish I don’t believe you can really place the blame on Anthony. This is simply a moment where a quarterback makes a perfect throw and a receiver makes a great catch. Were Anthony one step closer, he might be able to bat the ball away, but overall this is very good coverage from a linebacker who we’ve considered a liability for two seasons.

2016 Film - The Bad

Obviously, everything from the Tampa game wasn’t a great display of athletic ability and defensive awareness. In this next play, you’ll notice Anthony is slow to react to what is happening behind him. While the completion doesn’t go to the receiver in his zone, you’ll clearly see he is open over the middle as Anthony fails to close down the passing lane.

Even with pressure to Jameis Winston, he has two easy options to go to while escaping the pressure. This was the type of play that plagued New Orleans all year. Either they would find themselves with solid coverage downfield, or they would bring extra pressure but leave receivers open for easy passed in the short to intermediate routes.

Anthony consistently struggled in knowing what’s going on behind him and the previous play is a good example of that. The next is an example of a lack of communication, and switching off players, in a zone scheme.

We finish with what might be the most egregious example of poor coverage I could find on Anthony from the 2016 season. On level with his bite on the play action pass against Washington in 2015, Anthony fails to maintain his assignment discipline and completely abandons his zone. This leaves the middle of the field open.

After the play is completed, he and fellow player Vonn Bell exchange words on who blew their assignment. In this case, it would seem Anthony was one the who fouled up.

Conclusion

Though it was a small sample size, I do believe I saw improvement in Anthony’s ability to defend the pass as 2016 progressed. Tampa was by far his best game in that regard, and while I showcased more missed coverages than good ones, overall I’d give him a non-failing grade.

This upcoming offseason will be the most important of Anthony’s young career. He must increase his understanding of zone defense, including working on his peripheral vision. Too often, he gets “tunnel eye’d” and keys in on one part of the field. Doing this prevents him from reading what is going on with receivers who are constantly entering in and out of his assigned zone.

Not only must he improve his vision to see what is going on around him, but he also must be able to process and predict what his teammates are doing on the field. Bell in the above play is an example of this need. The Buccaneers are running dual crossing patterns in an attempt to “pull apart” the Saints defense. As we see with Anthony, it works.

Trusting your teammates to take in the receiver from your zone to theirs allows you to stay with your assignment. If you leave it, most quarterbacks in the NFL will take advantage of you. If you show a tendency to struggle with certain parts of your game, you will be targeted. Possession of such incredible athletic ability alone will probably cause the Saints to keep Anthony with the team at least one more season. With that ability, he is able to make plays such as these:

It’s easy to chalk up the 2016 campaign as a failure. Improvement was made, but it’s also tough to argue against the expectations of a first round pick. The scheme he is being asked to play doesn’t fit what he has done his entire football career, yet the staple of any great football player is the ability to adapt.

Alignments aren’t his problem. He has excelled as a run stopping MLB and SLB in multiple formations. Base 4-3, 4-3 under, 4-3 over, 3-4, Nickel and even some time with heavy fronts such as the rare 5-2 above. When your opponents only run the ball against you 40 percent of the time (396 rushes out of 978 total plays in 2016) it simply isn’t logical to place a player of his position on the field who isn’t as good as another when it comes to defending the pass.

Ultimately, whether or not he is able to adapt to playing the field behind him and becoming a dual threat as a defender could be determined by who the Saints bring in to help coach the linebacking corp now that the position is vacant. We’ll have to wait and see what Anthony, and the Saints, can do in 2017. God bless, and Who Dat Saints fans.