The Giants found a starting level linebacker in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Unfortunately for the Giants, and especially for Ryan Connelly, the linebacker himself, his season was cut significantly short by a torn ACL suffered in Week 4 against Washington after he had recorded 14 tackles, a sack, and two interceptions in his abbreviated rookie campaign.
The 6’2, 242-pound, Big Ten linebacker out of Wisconsin didn’t thrive in the spotlight at the combine. Still, Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman saw superior diagnosing skills, due to mental processing, and a quick first step once his keys were identified. Let’s go through some quick film on the player who showed so much promise in such a short amount of time.
The Good: First Step
Connelly’s quick first step and his football intelligence go hand in hand with each other. The motion gives Connelly little pause when he sees the running back heading into the mesh point, while also recognizing the lineman start to flow outside.
This allows Connelly to get outside, avoid the block from Jason Witten, and then find the running back just beyond the line of scrimmage. Connelly is well on his way towards Witten once the veteran tight end positions himself to block; Connelly easily slips inside and still gets to the tackle point in his first-ever NFL game.
Connelly doesn’t always avoid the backside blocker when the run is away from him, but his quick first step allows him to make the plays as he does in the video above.
The backside guard climbs to the second level but has no angle whatsoever because of Connelly’s quick first step and diagnosing skills. The young linebacker sees the strong-side run and the pin-pull combination while scraping over the top of his lineman and making a clutch tackle in the backfield.
There are no stats for Connelly on this play, but he’s able to take on the pulling lineman in this gap/power concept almost immediately. Watch how quick the young linebacker is to shoot the C-Gap off the down blocking double team of the play-side guard and tackle.
Connelly meets the backside pulling guard behind the line of scrimmage, which makes the hole very narrow for the running back. This is a testament to Connelly’s quick first step and his decisiveness, and the result is a minimal gain for the offense.
The Great: Key & Diagnose
The play above doesn’t seem like much at all, but it’s a smart plug to force the running back off his desired path, which in turn leads to a negative play for the offense. Connelly is stacked over Dexter Lawrence No. 97 at the 3-technique position.
Once he sees Josh Allen, No. 17, turn his back on the hand-off, and then sees the guard chip & climb, he instantaneously plugs his run responsibility (the A-Gap) and meets the guard right at the line of scrimmage, closing the A-Gap and spilling the running back outside.
As the backside linebacker on the play, Connelly reads the double pulling lineman and follows them to the point of attack before the ball is even in the running backs gut.
The play is a misdirection weakside run, and Connelly doesn’t bite at all on the misdirection; he trusted his keys and read the play like a seasoned veteran. Connelly showed this several times throughout his brief rookie season.
In the under front, against the pistol formation, with Connelly slightly closer to the 3-technique, the young linebacker is able to diagnose the pin-pull concept towards the strength of the offensive formation and then undercut the pullers to trip up Tony Pollard, No. 20, in the backfield for a loss of yardage.
He directs the defensive line to readjust after the bluff motion, beats the backside guard to the play-side, and avoids being blocked to record the tackle. Quick, decisive, and smart.
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These three plays against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers show Connelly’s decisive nature, excellent decision-making, and football intelligence to read, scrape, and flow towards the running back’s path, while not leaving his gap responsibility vulnerable. He quickly keys & diagnoses the play while trusting his keys, and reacting promptly.
Here we see Connelly on the quarterback run drop into coverage and then be placed into a precarious situation with Josh Allen given a two way go behind a hulking offensive guard. Connelly does something simple but essential in this play.
He doesn’t tackle Allen, but he boxes him back inside towards his teammates, which doesn’t allow the run to break outside.
Connelly sees Allen direct himself outside where he has a lineman blocking Alec Ogletree, No. 47, and a clear path, so he shoots to the outside portion of the guard, and positions himself to force Allen’s momentum to slow down and go back inside towards the waiting deep safety.
Another play that seems simple, but it maintains the continuity of the defense. Connelly is aware that Grant Haley, No. 34, is the force defender. Connelly is also mindful that Haley is coming hard downhill, so he takes the block from Witten and takes the entire C-Gap away from the offense.
This allows Haley to be unblocked with an easier path towards the running back. It’s a simple play from Connelly, but one that limits the success of the offense.
The Ugly: Lateral Movement
I was incredibly impressed with Connelly’s short stint as a New York Giant in 2019. I think there’s a lot to like about the young player. Somethings that did stand out negatively, which isn’t a huge deal, but did stand out on a few plays; those were when he is moving laterally and trying to avoid backside blocks.
We see blocking tight end Lee Smith, No. 85, get to Connelly, who was a bit late seeing the running path due to the misdirection and push him out of the running path in the gap/power concept. The Bills blocked down so heavily with a pulling backside guard and H-Back that it was hard for Connelly to identify the offense's intentions by reading his keys.
This allowed Smith to locate Connelly, and the young linebacker was at an attainable depth for the backside tight end to locate him. I don’t think this is a huge issue for Connelly, but it reared its head on a touchdown run in this same game.
The pre-snap motion forced Connelly to be aware of a play-side outside run or RPO type of play. This forced Connelly to move in that direction before the snap, which means he had a late start to the far-side gap/power run. This allowed the backside tackle to get up towards Connelly and cut him at the knees.
It would have been great to see Connelly avoid this backside block and get to the ball carrier’s pathway, for it would have mitigated the opportunity of the offense scoring a touchdown, but that did not happen. Connelly can’t get outside, and a pulling lineman is isolated against rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker, No. 27. The result was a touchdown for the Bills.
Dave Gettleman did an excellent job finding Connelly in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. I think he has a bright future with the Giants, and his mental processing ability should result in some frustrating rushing games for opposing offenses.
His coverage skills are solid, he puts himself in a good position against the run, and he can hopefully only grow from here. Let’s hope his recovery goes well.