Saints linebacker Craig Robertson is one of those players who keeps finding his way onto the field. Undrafted in 2011 out of North Texas, he spent his first NFL season on Cleveland’s practice squad before getting a chance to become a situational backup and special teamer in 2012. He started three games for the Browns in 2012 and then 61 of his next 73 games, including 27 of 31 since signing with the Saints in ’16. Initially a safety in college, Robertson is a finesse linebacker with speed, though he’d never be confused for Deion Jones or Telvin Smith.
Guys like Robertson must play faster than their athleticism. That demands an aptitude for diagnosing plays. We think of this as reading and reacting, but for a linebacker, much of the game takes place before the snap, at the line of scrimmage. Watching his 2017 game against the Rams, Robertson showed me how he sniffs out plays before the snap.
13:33 FIRST QUARTER, SECOND-AND-6
Craig Robertson: We knew when Tavon Austin was in the backfield, he had his small book of plays that he ran. The tight end’s stance [Tyler Higbee] gave a lot of those plays away. Right here, his feet are even. On other plays, his feet will be kind of staggered, but not much. It was a slight but telling difference. Our defensive ends would look at his feet and make certain calls off it.
Andy Benoit: So the defensive ends knew that “even feet” meant a split-zone block, where Higbee would work back across the formation and block the opposite edge defender?
Robertson: Yeah. But the Rams would pass from this look, too. [Right defensive end Cam Jordan] knew that Higbee, from this stance, would be chip-blocking him [if it’s a pass]. That’s why Jordan widened his pass rush initially.
The result: Todd Gurley was stopped for a 1-yard gain.
11:38 FIRST QUARTER, SECOND-AND-1
Robertson: Here WR Cooper Kupp is at No. 3. [This is football-speak for saying Kupp is the third widest-aligned receiver on his side of the field. The widest guy, Austin, is No. 1. The second widest guy, Josh Reynolds, is No. 2.] Being at No. 3 and up on the line of scrimmage, with the two outside guys off the ball, we know Kupp won’t run a route to the flat. [Visualize it: if Kupp did run to the flat, his route would collide with any route that Austin or Reynolds ran, unless they both also ran flat routes, which would be a nonsensical play design.] So Kupp will run either a Corner route, a Go route or an Over route. [All are routes that go vertical off the snap.]
Of course, with more limited route options from this alignment, the defense must be on higher alert for a run play, especially given it was second-and-1. Indeed, it was a misdirection toss to Todd Gurley.
Robertson: I thought Gurley was going to cut inside. I bounced outside first [correctly], but I peeked back. I needed to just get outside all the way.
The result: A five-yard gain for Gurley.
5:31 FIRST QUARTER, THIRD-AND-1
Robertson: We knew what this play was. Just by formation, down-and-distance and tendency.
Benoit: How, and at what point, did you know for sure?
Robertson: Simple: right there [points to Gurley]. He’s five yards deep, not the usual seven or eight. I’m thinking Gurley—big, strong guy—he’s going to dive into me inside. So I’m gearing up to make the tackle or get him to bounce it. I turned to Von Bell and said, ‘Make sure you Go!’
The result: Gurley is stuffed for no gain.
4:36 FIRST QUARTER, FIRST-AND-10
Robertson: The blitz! We changed this blitz. A.J. Klein was supposed to go first, but then they motioned. So I was like, "I’m goin’, I’m goin!" A.J. was blitzing from the passing strength of the formation. But once the guy goes motion, the passing strength changes.
Benoit: How’d you get the timing down so well on this one?
Robertson: Just watching the television copy, listening to the Rams’ cadence on it. And they were at home this game, so you could hear the cadence. And their cadence is their cadence—it’s the same one they’ve been doing since training camp. Once you hear the TV copy, you start to understand what words they use. What code words: colors, animals, cities, states—every team is different. But you listen to it and you get a beat on it.
When I was in Cleveland, every time we played Joe Flacco, he said the same colors, same cadence, everything was the same. So when you got certain colors, especially on first down when you get a lot of run plays [which draw a lot of extra cadence verbiage since teams check in and out of run plays so much], you knew. Plus, on this alignment here, there was a lot of space in the A-gap.
Benoit: Yeah, there’s a little extra width between the center and guard on your side. You see that sometimes between a guard and tackle, you don’t see it often between a guard and a center.
Robertson: Nope. Most times when an O-line gives you that wide split, they’re trying to widen everything out and handle the outside rushers.
Benoit: And just by the structure of where everyone is aligned, it’s you and DT Tyler Davidson 2-on-1 against the guard. From there only Gurley can help.
Robertson: And the hardest block for a running back is when he’s in the dot [directly behind the center—like “dotting the i”] and a blitzer flashes immediately. Because the running back has to go around the quarterback to get to his block, and he must not hit the quarterback.
The result: Robertson gets in for a clean sack.
13:31 SECOND QUARTER, FIRST-AND-10
Robertson: With Tavon Austin at five yards in the backfield, we’re thinking a trap play. And sure enough, they run trap. So the right guard fakes a block on Tyler Davidson and then gets up to the next level. When you get “trap” as an inside ’backer, you gotta come downhill. I was thinking it was a pull block coming from the left because [LG Rodger Saffold] was light on his hands in his stance. [A lineman being light on his hands is an indication that he is going to move east and west, as opposed to firing off the ball north and south.] I got lucky that the right tackle [Rob Havenstein] was a little sloppy, that allowed me to get back in there.
The result: Austin gains four yards
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