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Kwon Alexander impresses in first Saints appearance

There were Ups and downs in his first start, but a lot to like from Kwon Alexander early Saints reps.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the New Orleans Saints made the move to trade for Kwon Alexander at the trade deadline, head coach Sean Payton quickly put him in the running for the weakside linebacker spot. This put him in immediately in competition with fourth-year Saint Alex Anzalone. During Sunday’s win against Alexander’s former team the San Francisco 49ers, we saw why.

Alexander outsnapped Anzalone right away 43 defensive snaps to one. Alexander showed a lot of what we expected. He had some nice plays in coverage and in the run game, but also showed his propensity to miss tackles. He had, as should have been expected, an up and down day on the field. But despite any downs, there are still many reasons to look forward to what Alexander brings to the team and how it opens up opportunities for players around him.

In this film study, we’ll look at the former 49ers ups and downs, discuss what to expect against the Atlanta Falcons, and consider why the Dirty Birds are a good matchup for his second game with the Saints.

Coverage

Two of the areas we expected to see Kwon Alexander get involved in early were covering tight ends and covering running backs. Particularly when it came to running backs, coverage in the flat particularly on bootleg plays. New Orleans struggled against those calls early on in the season and the hope for many of us was that Alexander’s processing, speed, and energy would be helpful. Here is an example of just how quickly he impacted that very important area of the game.

On this play, you can see not only Alexander making a good play, but the secondary as a whole holding their assignments. But it all starts with the former LSU Tiger. If he bites took hard on the play flow and play action, the flat gets left open and one of the other defenders may have abandoned their positioning on their downfield receivers to try and lessen any yards after catch by the Niners’ fullback in the flats.

Had that happened, Mullens could have completed a nice pass to either the intermediate or deep options. If a defended did not close in on the dumpoff, Kyle Juszczyk would have had some comfortable yards to add after the pass.

However, Alexander and the defense remain disciplined. No eyes in the backfield and missing the leaking back. No getting pulled in by all the pre- and post-snap motion in the backfield. That motion, by the way, is built to challenge exactly the previous shortcomings of the Saints defense. But this time around... None of that. Discipline, composure, and range. All great traits for the young LB and this defense.

Here’s another example that is really simply brought upon by the pass rush, but Alexander does get himself in good position. Watch him here carry the tight end up the sean and to the outside on the corner route. Had safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson not put that lick on Mullens, there’s a chance Alexander gets his first pick in his first game as his positioning and technique might have allowed him to make a play on the ball.

As we’ve mentioned, there were good and bad things for the linebacker in this win. Here’s a play that he drops in coverage after running back Jerick McKinnon slips and falls out of his break. If Alexander doesn’t get caught flat-footed after McKinnon’s fall, there is nowhere for Mullens to go. Instead, he loses track of his assignment and McKinnon gets a good gain.

Tackling

While Alexander did make some nice plays in the run game including run fits, good read and react skills, and getting involved on tackles, there were instanced in which he struggled to close out plays on his own.

In this play, he has good positioning at the catch point when 49ers tight end Jordan Reed reels in the pass. Unfortunately, he’s not able to finish the play right away, misses the tackle, and gives chase to bring Reed down.

This was a second and 10. Had Alexander made that tackle, it would have forced a third and nine at worst. instead, San Francisco had the great benefit of a third and two.

Next, we’ll look at a missed tackle in the run game. In this one, he gets himself in position, but is a little over-aggressive which costs him at contact.

After putting such a nice move on San Francisco left guard Laken Tomlinson (#75) with the quick jab step to the outside before attacking back inside. You can really see it in the slowed down endzone view. Despite the missed tackle, the former 49ers still disrupts this play and it gets cleaned up by the Saints ongoing emphasis around getting to the ball. That culture will continue to help Alexander as he acclimates.

Run Defense

After showing the missed tackle above, it’s only right to show one of the positive plays in the run game. This was an element of Alexander’s game that Sean Payton mentioned right away in his media availability following the trade. One of the qualities that stands out most about the 26-year-old backer is his confidence. This plays into his energy, which is always described as infectious, as well as he play style.

He often gets dinged for overpursuing in evaluations. Here is an example of keying in on the run play, filling his responsibility with confidence, and helping to make a play in the backfield on a goal-to-go run. This drive would eventually result in only a field goal at the top of the second quarter.

Kwon Alexander’s 43 snaps were split evenly in coverage and run defense 20/20. The remaining three snaps were clocked in the pass rush where he did add one hurry per PFF. That pass rusher role is one that Alexander has filled effectively over his career. In his next matchup against the Falcons, we could potentially see more of that in action.

Against the 49ers, Alexander was only on the field for two of seventeen fourth quarter downs. Plus one if you count a penalized no-play. Instead, the Saints relied on dime packages with four down linemen or three down linemen and Davenport as an interior stand up rusher.

While those were obvious passing downs and a good chance to pin ears back and get after the quarterback, the saints opt not to include their new linebacker in that equation. Next week against Atlanta there are a few good reasons to expect a shift in his pass rush involvement.

So far this season, Matt Ryan has completed 65.2% of his passes when blitzed and only 47.3% when pressured. He’s also thrown at least three of his five interceptions under the combination of those dropbacks as well. Additionally, Matt Ryan’s average time to throw is at 2.66 seconds per PFF while Nick Mullens is 2.42 seconds. That nearly quarter of a second difference could be all it takes to bear down on Ryan and force mistakes. Perhaps that is where Alexander’s role continues to deepen on Sunday.

He may be freed up a bit more in this game as well considering the Falcons target their running backs at the 20th least percentage (17%) so for this season in the passing game. They have a similarly low target share for tight ends at only 17.5%, also 20th in the NFL. Though Hayden Hurst is no slouch in this offense. The Falcons target their wide receivers in the passing game at the T-7th highest rate.

The more responsibilities Alexander takes on and proves efficient handling, the more it frees up Demario Davis who had a phenomenal game against San Francisco. Davis piled on the stat sheet with 12 combined tackles, three for a loss, one sack, two quarterback hits, and a pass defensed. Meanwhile Alexander added a modest four combined tackles.

I’m looking for the Saints to continue to utilize Alexander in those coverage and run defense roles. Especially considering the talent at the running back and tight end positions as well as the Falcons’ third-worst yard per carry mark at 3.7. But thanks to Atlanta’s low target share for backs and tight ends, seeing his role expand more into the pass rushing game may be possible.

Either way, the Saints went out to go and get an improved presence beside Demario Davis and through just one game, things look promising for the newly acquired second-level defender.


What did you think of the Saints’ win? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC , “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.