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More than ever, versatility isn’t a plus for NFL players, it’s a requirement. In 2015, NFL teams ran sub-packages—defenses with five or more defensive backs—on 65% of snaps. Nickel and dime are the new base defenses, and with that fundamental change has come the advent of the multi-position, multi-gap player: the three-down, run-stuffing linebacker with limited ability to cover has been replaced by 225-pound linebackers who can do everything from helping with the run to screaming up the seams and covering elite tight ends.
Last season, the Cardinals featured former safety Deone Bucannon in a moneybacker or ‘$LB’ role, basically shifting their sub-package to regular personnel and throwing Bucannon into the fire in a safety/linebacker hybrid. Bucannon responded very well, as did the Rams’ Mark Barron, the ex-box safety who was tasked with a similar hybrid role. This is the wave of the future, and an NFL that used to dismiss ‘tweeners’ and hybrid guys as sub-starter material has had to change its collective mind.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this particular shift is USC safety/linebacker Su’a Cravens. A star at Vista Murietta High School south of Los Angeles, Cravens graduated high school early to jump-start his career as a Trojan, and amassed 39 solo tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles as a freshman pure strong safety (through the USC defense at the time had interchangeable safety roles).
But when USC fired Lane Kiffin as coach and hired Steve Sarkisian after the 2013 season, Cravens knew he was in for a major shift. As he told me, Sarkisian—then the coach of the Washington Huskies—had recruited him out of high school to play the Shaq Thompson hybrid safety-backer role. When Sarkisian took the Trojans’ job, he finally got his way, moving Cravens far closer to the line of scrimmage—an adaptation that did not meet Cravens’ initial approval.
“Obviously, I was surprised at first, because I was a Freshman All-American and I didn’t know why I was getting moved,” he recalled. “So, I knew that when that staff came down, that was going to happen. It was frustrating at first, but once I got the playbook down and learned the ins and outs of the position, it really helped me a lot.”
So, when Cravens watched the 6' 0", 228-pound Thompson do his thing, what were his thoughts about filling that spot?
“Well, I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a lot bigger than I am.’ He seemed more like a true linebacker, but he was more versatile. When they moved me to that position, I think they wanted me more as a safety playing linebacker—more a guy who can make plays in open space.”
He’s become that guy, unquestionably. In 2014, he put up 49 solo tackles, five sacks, 17 tackles for loss, three interceptions and nine passes defensed. Last season, he added 46 solo tackles, 5.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, two picks and six passes defensed. Aside from a bit of linebacker work in high school, Cravens practically switched his concepts overnight without a hitch.
Still, as is the case for a lot of tweeners, Cravens has noticed that some in the know don’t see everything he can do. He said that half of the NFL teams he’s talked to see him as a linebacker, and the other half as a safety. Generally, those designations will move based on overall defensive concepts—4–3 teams view him as a WILL linebacker, and 3–4 base teams would generally like to move him back.
But again, this is the new NFL, where versatility rules the day. In 2015, Cravens allowed 21 of the 33 passes thrown in his area to be completed, per Pro Football Focus, for 186 yards, one touchdown, those two picks and an opposing quarterback rating of 63.4. But Cravens doesn’t think he gets his due as a safety (or pure pass defender if we want to do away with stifling positional designations), and he’s probably right.
“I think people have seen a little bit—I covered the tight end in man coverage both my sophomore and junior years, and I did a pretty good job of that,” he said. “I think people just want to see whether I can cover the slot, or cover the half, or the deep third.”
It’s Cravens’ versatility that had me wanting to watch tape with him, and he didn’t disappoint—on the field and when talking about his game.
Play 1, vs. Stanford: Second-and-one from the USC 45-yard line, 9:04 1Q
Doug Farrar: This is one of the plays that really stood out to me, because you’re beating tackle Kyle Murphy and guard Josh Garnett using an inside counter for a sack of Kevin Hogan, and that kind of counter is something many college linemen and linebackers haven’t figured out. How much do you work on refining your specific pass-rush moves, and where do you think you need to improve?
Su’a Cravens: At USC, they gave me a lot of flexibility when it came to blitzing. I could run stunt games with the defensive end, or I could go one-on-one with the tackle. On that particular play, I called a stunt game with the end [Claude Pelon], because I saw that the tackle was kicking out fast, and I told the end to get off the ball. If he gets off the ball fast enough, it will make the guard turn his shoulders and clear the inside. I can make my inside move a little more quickly than usual. That play was really just looking at the offensive line’s tendencies.
When it comes to improving what I want to do as a blitzer, I want to have a variety of different moves coming off the edge. I don’t want to just be a speed rusher—that way, a lineman doesn’t know what I’m doing.
DF: Here, the end is on the guard and you’re making a beeline to the tackle—how do you both know exactly how to time that stunt?
SC: It all depends how fast the end’s get-off is, how fast the tackle kicks and how the guard gets his shoulders turned. If the end isn’t kicking off fast, and the guard’s shoulder doesn’t turn, I’m going to run into a wall. They’re just going to switch off the stunt [to block the stunting players]. So, it’s a timing play, but it’s also a read-and-react.
Play 2, vs. Stanford: Second-and-seven from the Stanford 25-yard line, 1:07 2Q
DF: I’m watching you do three things on this play: taking TE Austin Hooper out in coverage from the slot, watching Hogan as he was running and then closing on receiver Michael Rector. Walk me through your responsibilities on this play.
SC: This is quarters coverage, so I’m going to take Hooper unless he goes vertical. He went vertical, so I jammed him outside to give the safety a little more time to stay in his backpedal and not have to open up. I dropped back and went with my new No. 2 [Rector], which was the [No.3 receiver] who ran underneath. When Kevin started to scramble out of the pocket, we have what we call a ‘plaster’ technique, which means that zone goes into man. When the quarterback leaves the pocket, whoever’s in their zone, you’ve got to take them in man. Once he left the pocket, I’m in man, and I’m not going to run up on Kevin until he’s past the point of no return, which means he can’t throw the ball anymore. Unfortunately, he let the ball go to the open guy in the middle of the field [Hooper], and then it’s just transitioning. I broke for the ball and tried to make a strip, but made the tackle.
DF: That’s a pretty NFL-ready concept. You guys weren’t just dropping into quarters and hanging around.
SC: Well, you have to be smart to play defense—especially in the PAC-12, with all the different spread looks and different personnel. You can’t just be out there with one defensive mindset. You have to be ready to switch to the audible, run with motion and do a lot of things on the fly. At USC, we did that.
Play 3, vs. Cal: Third-and-one from the Cal 22-yard line, 11:21 1Q
DF: Against Cal last season, you played at the linebacker level at time, especially inside, and they moved their center, Dominic Granato, up to the second level to deal with you. How do you manage those power situations, where you’re basically playing weak-side, and you need to square off with guys who outweigh you by 60 or 70 pounds?
SC: Right here, they have me at the WILL position, and I hadn’t played a lot of WILL. We had an injury in this game, and they needed me to play on the inside. I just needed to read and react. They faked a counter and gave it up straight up the middle, and I just wanted to read my keys and beat the block before he got to me and climbed up too far. I got washed out of the play, and I think playing inside backer is something I really need to work on, because I haven’t had too many looks at it. Reading and playing inside isn’t as much about how fast you react to the linemen; it’s more about reading your keys and making sure you’re in the right gap.
DF: What was your key on that play?
SC: Right here, I’m reading through the back and reading through the guard. Once I saw that they were in two-back and the second back came down and the tight end pulled back across the line of scrimmage, they were going back inside. I wanted to stay inside and make sure I clogged the B-gap.
DF: How do you make up for the size disadvantage?
SC: It’s all a mentality. It’s all about how fast you play, and how physical you play, and how you carry yourself. Me, I don’t care how big you are—you’re not going to bully me, you’re not going to punk me, you’re not going to throw me around. It’s going to be a fight every play. I’m going to be an athlete in space when I can, but when I need to be physical, I’m going to be physical. Of course, guys are bigger than me, and they’re going to be stronger than me, but to me, that doesn’t matter. I have the mentality that nobody is going to push me out of the way because you’re bigger. At linebacker, it helps to be aggressive.
Play 4, vs. Cal: Third-and-11 from the USC 40-yard line, 4:29 2Q
DF: Let’s go back to your pass rush for a minute. Here’s a nice example of how you bend the edge from a second-level blitz. I’ll see you doing delayed blitzes through multiple gaps, taking the edge around tackles—it seems like pass rush is a big part of your game. How much do you work on that from a technique perspective?
SC: I like to work with Kenechi Udeze [USC’s defensive line coach]. He would help me a lot with my edge blitzes, and just timing things. I think I have a knack for it, but when it comes to edge blitzing, I like to get skinny and fast, and try to be the smallest possible target a tackle can block. That way, he has to reach for me, and I can get him off balance. If I try to bull-rush him... of course he’s bigger than me. He’s just going to sit down there, and that’s going to be the end of the play. So, when it comes to blitzes, I can be effective just by being an athlete. I think that’s where the ‘tweener’ status that everyone thinks of negatively really helps, because if you’re too big, it’s hard to get skinny and bend the edge. But if you’re too small, it’s hard to present a presence and be powerful. I think it’s really helped my blitzing. He helped me a lot with the dip-and-rip.
DF: With those delayed and second-level blitzes, what are you looking for? What are your keys? Is it as simple as “Find the open gap and go?” Are there specific ways you time those, based on what the blockers are doing?
SC: It all depends on the stunt, but if I have the freedom where I have a two-way go and can go inside or outside, it’s really just me studying the tendencies of the tackle throughout the game, and seeing what he falls for—if he reaches, or if he sets heavy on the speed rush, or if he’s always on his toes. It really depends on who the player is.
DF: So, after looking at tape and watching a tackle’s first and second moves in a game, you’re able to act accordingly?
SC: I can get a pretty good assessment after a couple blitzes to see if a guy is quick enough to kick-step as fast and keep his shoulders square. Like, Ronnie Stanley from Notre Dame—he’s a crazy athlete. He’s going to kick-step as fast as you can run, and stay square. It’s hard to open him up and try to bend that edge on him, because he’s going to grab you as soon as you come close. With a guy like that, you have to run stunts, because he’s hard to beat as a speed rusher. It all depends on who you’re going against.
DF: Well, speaking of Notre Dame, they’re up next.
Play 5, vs. Notre Dame: 8:41 left in the second quarter
DF: Here’s something I would have liked to see you do more -- taking tight ends and slot guys up the chute. Is this something you had to put down a bit when you went from safety to hybrid linebacker, and how much do NFL teams talk to you about pure coverage as a safety?
SC: I don’t think I had to put it down at all. Even though I had to move to the linebacker position, my team still had me in coverage responsibilities as a safety. Whenever any team had a dominant tight end or a big receiver, they would make sure I was guarding him in man -- so he didn’t get off the line of scrimmage [with a free release] and I was physical with him. When it comes to playing man against tight ends, that’s not something I shied away from, or didn’t get to do. I didn’t get to practice it much; I was always going 9-on-7 with the linebackers and the D-line, but when it came to the games, I accepted the challenge.
DF: Right. On this play, you’re taking him right away, three steps in, establishing inside position to the seam and walling him off—that’s good stuff.
SC: You’ve got to play with confidence. In college, they let you get your hands on him a little bit, and I’m going to use that to my advantage.
DF: Have you played a lot of man outside to the boundary?
SC: When they motioned out a big receiver or tight end, you could see... Stanford, they’d do it most times, motioning Hooper outside. I’d get him one-on-one, and I’d take him.
Cravens and I finished our tape session with one final question: what would he say to people who see him as a ‘tweener’ in that old-school sense, when it’s pretty clear that the NFL is moving quickly in a direction that is highly advantageous to his type of player?
“I would say, ‘the game changes.’ You can’t be stuck in your ways when it comes to the different athletes out there. With how the game is played, it’s a passing league, and the big linebacker who can only stop the run isn’t really what you need. Of course, you need run-stoppers, but you need a guy who can stay out there on third down and be an athlete in open space and cover in the slot or in zone. I’m a guy who’s big enough to come into the box and be a force at the line, and I’m also athletic enough and fluid enough to go up and guard a tight end and go into a backpedal.
“For me, I think I’m just the best of both worlds.”
The tape doesn’t lie.