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Dion Jordan's Pass Rushing Struggles: A Film Breakdown

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Dion Jordan had what was in effect a "redshirt" year as a rookie to focus on recovering from pre-draft shoulder surgery, gaining strength, and improving his technique. So why was he invisible in the first preseason game despite playing for half the game?

Al Bello

Since the day Dion Jordan was drafted by the Dolphins, there has been a lively debate about how to use him best. Because Cameron Wake remains an excellent when healthy and Olivier Vernon had a breakout season at defensive end last season, fan opinion has shifted in favor of giving Jordan more snaps at linebacker as a means to get him on the field more and potentially improve pass coverage against tight ends.

However, as previously reported earlier this offseason, the Dolphins coaching staff debated giving Dion Jordan snaps at outside linebacker before deciding against it because, as head coach Joe Philbin himself said, they wanted Jordan to be able to "focus" on developing as a defensive end first before adding linebacker duties to his list of responsibilities. So far in this offseason, he hasn't received regular snaps at outside linebacker in practices.  There was hope that allowing Jordan to "focus" on his defensive end responsibilities, namely stopping the run and rushing the passer, could lead to him blooming into a pass rushing ace as a sophomore given his physical tools.

The results so far, after 1 preseason game?

Jordan's statsheet is 1 "assisted" tackle according to NFL.com. That's all he produced in the first game.

Looking at a Pro Football Focus statsheet makes Jordan's performance look a bit better with 1 QB hit and 1 QB hurry to his credit in 32 snaps (11 run defense snaps, 18 pass rush attempts, 3 drop backs in coverage).

That's a disappointing statline, especially because of how he generated his 1 QB hit.

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(Move your mouse over the animated image to begin the animation)

He was completely unblocked because the Dolphins blitzed, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan still made a good pass for a first down before he could be hit by either Jordan or the equally unblocked Phillip Wheeler, whom rookie right tackle Jake Matthews failed to pick up. So in terms of snaps where Jordan went up against an actual blocker, Jordan earned 0 sacks, 0 QB hits, and 1 hurry in 17 pass rush attempts. That's a disappointing statline for a guy who played a lot of snaps (33) in the first preseason game. While head coach Joe Philbin voiced support for Jordan's performance after the game, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle admitted, "I think we can get more out of [Dion Jordan] in the pass rush."

So was Jordan really as bad as his statline? I decided to go and re-watch every single one of his snaps to find out.

Before I begin that breakdown, I'd like to mention that I thought Jordan did a some good things this game in run defense (protecting his legs well on an attempted cut block, setting the edge nicely on a couple of times), as well as a couple of bad things. However, with just 11 total plays against the run, and with half of the runs not being in his direction, I decided to hold off on evaluating his defense against the run until we see him at the point of attack more often.

Putting Those (Disappointing) Numbers in Context

With Vernon sitting out the game to rest his back, Jared Odrick started at defensive end opposite Cameron Wake, so Jordan was not a starter. Despite not starting, over half Jordan's snaps (19 of 32) came against the Falcons' starting left tackle, Sam Baker, while the remainder came against his backup Lamar Holmes. When healthy, Baker has generally been either below average or average for most his career, so he's a fair test for Jordan - not an elite tackle like Joe Thomas who shuts down pretty much everyone but not truly terrible either.  Baker kept playing even after Matt Ryan and other starters left, likely to give Baker extra reps to help him get back into rhythm after missing most of last season with injury.

In addition, Falcons backup left tackle Lamar Holmes was the tackle that Jordan faced last year in the game against the Falcons. Back then, Jordan did well against Holmes, who was a sophomore former 3rd round pick making his first career start at LT due to Baker's injury. So this preseason game was a unique opportunity to see how Jordan did against an "average at best" starting tackle in Baker and a backup tackle in Holmes whom, a year ago, Jordan beat for 5 total pass pressures, including a pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan that led to a game-winning interception by Jimmy Wilson.

First, the good news. Jordan did have a couple of good moments against Baker, including beating Baker with a bull-rush to earn a QB hurry.

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It was nice to see the extra weight Dion Jordan has put on pay off, at least for that one snap (more on that later).

In addition, Jordan was asked to jam a tight end on one occasion before proceeding to rush the passer:

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It's hard to reach the QB if you're first asked to jam a tight end before starting to rush the passer. Also, coach Philbin mentioned after the game that he felt Jordan had to deal with chips, and the Falcons did in fact regularly line up the first team running back on Jordan's side of defense to help, even with Wake still on the field.

Once the second team offense came on, Jordan dealt with 2 double teams on passing plays, one intentional and one accidental. The intentional double team was when a tight end helped Holmes out before slipping to the outside to catch a pass on third and long (12:16 left in 3rd Quarter). The unintentional double team occurred on a stunt in which both the offensive guard and tackle blocked Jordan as Dolphins defensive tackle Isaako Aaitui was left unblocked (6:13 left in 3rd Quarter). Additionally, Jordan bailed on a pass rush opportunity in the second half when he correctly diagnosed a play-action bootleg and began dropping back and moving laterally to mirror the QB's movements rather than pursuing the running back who didn't have the ball (4:46 left in 3rd Quarter).

So out of 17 pass rush attempts in which he was blocked, Jordan was chipped or doubled on 3 (1 RB, 1 TE, and 1 stunt), and he was correct to abandon his pass rush on a fourth snap (bootleg to the opposite side), and he was asked to jam a tight end before attempting his pass rush on a fifth snap. Those are all extremely difficult situations to successfully get a sack, bringing him down to at most 12 decent opportunities. I also felt that on 2 additional plays, the pass was simply out of the quarterback's hands too quickly for Jordan to have a realistic attempt of reaching him (though that's a subjective assessment). All this information should help put Jordan's lackluster production in perspective.

Despite all that, it is fair to say Dion Jordan was shut down as a pass rusher in 10 legitimate pass rush attempts mostly against Sam Baker, who is once again an "average at best" starting tackle. On snaps with no built-in "excuses" and when someone tried to block him (excluding the free QB hit), Jordan failed to accomplish more than 1 QB hurry.

Causes for Poor Results

Complete Ineffectiveness against Double Teams/Chips

In fairness, no pass rusher is "great" at defeating double teams, which is why teams use them to slow down most good pass rushers. However, you generally want your 3rd overall pick to remain standing after being chipped.

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Falling down against a pure pocket QB like Matt Ryan isn't a huge deal, but it could allow a mobile QB to escape pressure and run for a first down in a real game. Beyond just this play, Jordan never got close to the QB when he was double teamed, but I didn't really expect Jordan to defeat double teams this early in his development.

Poor Timing of the Snap

However, even when he was single-teamed, he didn't have much success. Let's take a look at a few screenshots.

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The ball has been snapped and is in the QB's hands, and you can see the Dolphins defensive tackles have begun engaging the offensive linemen, yet Jordan is still in his stance.

There are worse examples.

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If you look closely, the ball has been snapped and is in mid-flight to the QB. The Dolphins defensive end and defensive tackle opposite Jordan have already sprung out of their stances. Jordan is still in his 3-point stance.

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Half a second later in the same play, the ball is completely in the QB's hands, and every single Dolphins defensive linemen except Jordan has engaged an offensive linemen. Jordan has only JUST begun making his move upfield, where tackle Sam Baker patiently awaits. Jordan was bailed out on this play because it was ultimately a handoff instead of a pass, so his sluggishness didn't hurt his pass rushing productivity numbers, but Jordan's mindset on 2nd or 3rd down and 20 should be, "This is a great opportunity to get after the QB."

Pass rushing is a race in which the "winner" usually HAS TO WIN in under 3 seconds because that's when the vast majority of NFL passes are thrown. Jordan, time after time, starts the race a half second behind his competition, which dooms him to failure for that play. It's impossible to always be the first guy to burst upfield after the snap, but too often, Jordan was either the last or second to last on the line to move.

Inability to Consistently "Threaten" with Either Speed or Power

No pass rusher in the NFL gets pass pressure on every play. However, most good pass rushers consistently "threaten" with either speed or power. By that, I mean that while they may not get a sack, QB hit, or even a "hurry," they make the offensive tackle work hard. For example, what you see with Cameron Wake is that he often comes very close to beating an offensive tackle around the edge, at which point, the offensive tackle is scrambling to keep him at bay (with a fair amount of holding that goes un-penalized). When you watch Wake rush the passer, you almost always get the sense that he's getting close to making something happen, even when he's successfully held blocked. On the play that Jordan fell down, Wake managed to come close to the QB (though not close enough for a QB hurry).

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By threatening to reach the edge time after time, Wake "sets up" the offensive tackle to be defeated by a surprise switch to his bullrush.

When I watched Jordan closely this game, I saw example after example of Jordan failing to come close to beating an offensive tackle around the edge when using his speed, or failing to generate any sort of push when attempting to use power, aside from his 1 semi-successful bull rush against Baker for his 1 QB hurry. He maybe came close on a bull rush attempt against Holmes (1:40 left in the 2nd quarter), but that was the only other time he threatened to generate pressure when blocked. He was routinely stonewalled one-on-one.

Again, I'm not expecting him to beat the offensive tackle consistently, but you'd like the see the offensive tackle be forced to take a couple of steps back on a bull rush, or have to really work hard to cut Jordan off when Jordan tries to go around the edge. Baker and Holmes were able to block Jordan without any "sneaky holding" or any other type of subtle "tricks" that offensive linemen use when they're struggling to contain a good pass rusher.

I was hoping to find examples I could post here of Jordan being held, but I honestly couldn't find any snaps where Jordan was unfairly prevented from reaching the QB. He was handled "cleanly" for the most part, and that's concerning since, less than a year ago, Lamar Holmes couldn't handle Dion Jordan one-on-one. So what's changed?

A Potential Underlying Issue...



Dion Jordan's Weight

2012 college football season - 240 pounds (CBS Sports)

2013 NFL combine - 248 pounds (official NFL combine website)

2013 NFL season - 260 pounds (Miami Herald)

2014 NFL training camp - 275 pounds (directly from NFL.com)

That's 35 pounds gained in about a year and a half.

My worry is that the combination of Jordan's poor timing of the snap plus the extra weight has robbed Jordan of the speed advantage he should have against most offensive tackles. Without a speed rush threatening enough to intimidate tackles into over-committing to the outside, that makes it easier for the tackles to settle in and defend Jordan's bullrush. Philbin praised Dion Jordan's "get off" at the post game conference, but I frankly didn't see examples of Jordan seriously threatening to beat either Falcons offensive tackle to the edge soon after the snap.

This failure to develop as a pass rusher (so far) is potentially a big deal given the implications of Jordan's weight gain on his coverage ability. Jordan has only dropped into coverage 46 times as an NFL player in a regular season game, and many of those dropbacks were in zone coverage. The only film demonstrating Dion Jordan can consistently cover tight ends in man coverage dates back to his college career, when he was a comparatively svelte 240 pounds. The vast majority of the top coverage linebackers in the NFL weigh between 235 and 255 pounds, which makes sense given that most receiving tight ends fall in the 245-265 pound range. Brian Urlacher and Demarcus Ware, both athletic freaks of nature for their sizes, were very good at coverage in their athletic primes when they weighed around 260 pounds, and that's the weight that I expected Jordan to settle in as a pro. However, Jordan is already up into the 275+ pound range, and I can't think of an example of a good coverage linebacker who weighs close to 280 pounds.

Conclusion

I'll be the first to admit that we shouldn't overreact to 18 pass rushing snaps in the first preseason game, but keep in mind that only once in those snaps did he give the opposing offensive tackle enough trouble to generate a pressure. Of his 2 total QB disruptions (QB sack, QB hit, or QB hurry), 1 was a QB hit on a play in which he was completely unblocked. Also, and most crucially, Jordan is very unlikely to get much more than 20-25 pass rushing opportunities per game this upcoming season given the talent we have at defensive end unless there's an injury to Wake, Vernon, or Shelby. The average NFL game features around 35 passes per QB, so getting 25 pass rushing snaps would mean Jordan would have to be on the field for 71% of the opponent's passing plays, which is a good proportion for a guy coming off the bench.

In those snaps, he'll be up against starting offensive tackles, many of whom on the Dolphins' schedule are a lot better than Baker and Holmes. For reference, Cameron Wake plays a heavy load of snaps each game, and he averages 1 QB disruption (QB sack, QB hit, or QB hurry) once every 5.9 pass rushing snaps despite facing regular double teams/chips by opposing tight ends and running backs. Even when only looking at snaps when Jordan was up against a blocker one-on-one, he generated just 1 QB hurry once in 10 tries (excluding the time he was unblocked). It may seem unfair to compare Jordan to Wake, except that for Jordan to provide value as a pass rushing specialist being brought off the bench, he really needs to be very good at rushing the passer.

There are decent excuses for Jordan's lackluster production, like the occasional double teams/jamming responsibilities, but it's still disappointing Jordan couldn't make much happen despite playing for around what will likely be his regular season average number of snaps per game (33) once he starts playing in in October. Dolphins fans should watch him closely for the next 3 preseason games since he'll be on an NFL-mandated suspension for the first 4 regular season games of the season, and Jordan needs to show some growth by the end of preseason for us to have a real reason to be optimistic about Jordan's ability to contribute once he returns.

If Jordan shows in the next 3 preseason games that he can defeat quality offensive tackles one-on-one and drop into man-coverage successfully despite his heavier frame, that proves I am wrong to worry about his weight gain. If Jordan continues to struggle as a pass rusher and isn't able to drop into man-coverage anymore, then that raises questions about whether the Dolphins coaching staff has hindered Jordan's development by asking him to pack on enough weight to play as a traditional defensive end when he should instead be a hybrid coverage linebacker/defensive end who sometimes rushes the passer with his hand in the ground and sometimes lines up as a linebacker to track tight ends in man coverage.