Film Breakdown: Evaluating Seahawks LB Jordyn Brooks' Coverage Skills

Matty F. Brown

This is the first article in a five-part Jordyn Brooks film breakdown:

Nobody does first-round shocks grander than the Seahawks. The selection of Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks took this drafting surprise to new proportions, leaving fans speechless. Not for the first time, the Pacific Northwest was left wondering what John Schneider was thinking. Seattle needed pass rush, especially with no Jadeveon Clowney; Seattle needed to give Russell Wilson weapons and the draft was deep at wide receiver; Seattle needed to protect their quarterback, with an abundance of athletic offensive tackles still available.

Instead, they went with an off-ball linebacker, a perceived reach, with the miasma of being a throwback player to the bygone era of pounding the rock. Brooks can’t cover, run fits don’t matter, and you must pass to win: aren’t the Seahawks silly and isn’t Pete Carroll old? Please like and retweet as I tell you why Seattle stinks and the Schneider-Carroll combo is washed and why every member of the organization should be fired. Acknowledge my character-limited outrage.

The critics were damning too.

“I don't like Brooks in coverage, and that's where NFC West linebackers will get left in the dust if they're not careful." Eric Edholm, Yahoo Sports—‘Round 1 Instant Grades’

"I'm at a loss. Do the Seahawks not realize what year it is? Did Dave Gettleman hack into their war room? Seattle took a run-stuffing linebacker who struggled in coverage... in 2020. Just what you need in a pass-happy NFL. This is an inexplicable pick with Patrick Queen still on the board." Steven Ruiz , USA Today—‘Live Grades for every first round pick’

“[Brooks] represents the embodiment of the cautionary tale that if the first thing you mention is “run defense,” the player probably isn’t worth a really high pick. He’s an incredibly sure tackler and maybe the best run defender at the position in the draft, and if this were the 1990s instead of 2020, a first-round pick would be where he belongs.” Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus—‘Replacing the biggest reaches in the draft with better prospects’

In Carroll’s football universe, much importance is given to running the football and stopping the run. The fears surrounding this run-driven mindset, and the damage it can cause, were heightened by the immediately available analysis on Brooks.

Coverage

Let’s therefore start with Brooks’ much-mentioned coverage ability. This is essential for a successful NFL linebacker, especially in a NFC West division where the offensive play-calling talent places in the highest echelon. The league’s attacks enjoy most of their passing success targeting the intermediate areas of the field, conflicting linebackers with play-action and RPOs. The second-level often looks like a poorly trained doggo.

Similarly to the post-draft condemnation of Seattle, pre-draft scouting reports were littered with concerns over Brooks’ ability to play pass defense. Oh no, the Seahawks are entering a Dark Age of taking first rounders who can only stop rushing, an element which doesn’t matter in football anyway.

“Wouldn’t put a lot of turn and run reps or man coverage on his plate,” noted Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network.

The Ringer’s Danny Kelly and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlien took their criticisms a step further, suggesting Brooks’ struggles would restrict him to a rotational NFL role only.

“His man coverage instincts are a big question mark at the next level and could hold him off the field or limit him to early down duties only.” (Kelly) 

“Concerns with coverage duties could impact how teams see him as an every-down linebacker.” (Zierlien)

Schneider, the man responsible for the Brooks decision, made a point of disagreeing with another member of draft media, ESPN’s Louis Riddick. “I already sent Louis Riddick a text like ‘really, he struggles in coverage?’” Schneider revealed in his post-Day 1 press conference.

And yet the football data companies produced numbers that matched the widely-held opinion of Brooks not being able to cover. PFF gave him a 2019 coverage grade of 57.9. For that season, Sports Info Solutions charted Brooks as allowing 10.7 yards per target on 12 targets.

That 12-target sample size is one hint that the pass coverage question has a more complicated answer. Indeed, while Schneider was clearly not on the same page as his former colleague Riddick, the pair might not have been reading from even the same book.

In 2019, Texas Tech hired an entirely new coaching staff that did not task Brooks with many pass coverage responsibilities. However, the linebackers were coached better technique. Rather than asking them to continue their old ways of dropping back, visioning the quarterback, and having no real landmark, the new way was to actually scan for receivers and take eyes off the passer in order to play more effective zone-matching coverage. Brooks’ underneath zone defense unsurprisingly benefited, but the opportunities were limited. We’ll get to explaining this.

In the three seasons before Matt Wells and company arrived in Lubbock, Brooks had more coverage reps in larger spaces but the footage was often useless for evaluative purposes due to funky technique which insisted on the underneath zone defenders always visioning the quarterback with no distinct landmark in their drop. 

The result was poor spacing and an inability to properly feel routes behind the zone. The Red Raiders had a hopeless underneath layer of coverage that often looked like traffic cones placed in the wrong locations. It was one massive car wreck. Quarterbacks had no trouble looking this off. Worse, the most common assignment was a low-hole responsibility heavily focused on spying opposing passers.

However, piecing together the available tape proves that Brooks can execute successful pass coverage. Draftniks have so many players to watch and only so many hours. For instance, after watching three of Brooks’ games, the limited coverage reps could feasibly lead to some negative conclusions. Yet pro departments can watch cut-ups of every single ‘actual’ pass coverage rep from Brooks. Doing this shows that Brooks can be elite in this area.

What the Seahawks will ask from him in pass defense is simple for the NFL. In their favorite zone coverage, Cover 3, the linebackers will play in the underneath zones. It is a three-deep, four-under zone coverage. The SAM linebacker is often a “buzz” defender, aiming for a spot that is 8 to 10 yards back, to and through the numbers. This is one of the two outside underneath zones. The WILL linebacker can also be given a “buzz” assignment.

But the WILL, like the MIKE, will also be assigned a “hook” role, one of the two middle underneath zones that runs 10 to 12 yards back, 1 yard outside the hash. The Seahawks are a landmark-based zone team that primarily visions the quarterback. They melt from their spot with the quarterback’s eyes, never melting past a check down. Brooks will benefit massively from this clearly defined structure, communication, and increased depth. It will sharpen his process, one already used to keeping one eye on the check down.

The pre-Wells scheme created more hook-curl, buzz-esque opportunities for Brooks. 

“My first three years, I was middle linebacker but the way we adjusted to formations was I would have to be out, apex position, outside linebacker,” Brooks told reporters in his post-draft media media appearance.

Brooks had decent outside zone spacing and showed an ability to rally to the check down. Learning how to play with his butt to the sideline and work top down will be the next steps in the Seattle system. The last cut-up in this video, where the coaching improved, is more of an example of what he can do on the Seahawks. He removes multiple routes while being more alert in his scanning and turning his back to the sideline. If asked to cover in more space, Brooks can do it.

Playing in interior underneath zones - akin to a Seattle hook - Brooks had excellent feel for routes passing over the top of him when the receiver started in the immediate vicinity. He recognized route concepts as well. For instance, screens to his zone saw him trigger quickly downhill, showing tantalizing glimpses of his potential when allowed to start from greater depth.

Then 2019 arrived. The turning to locate receivers and scanning saw Brooks’ over-merging and overrunning stop. He was more controlled and able to leverage routes better. Most excitingly, Brooks showed an ability to ROBOT (rob and get underneath) play-action crossing routes - this is a vital skill for any NFL linebacker. That senior season showed he is fine versus play fakes and doesn't overreact.

What takes the Seahawks away from their spot-drop style is “indicators” that turn the coverage technique into a more aggressive pattern-matching approach. Indicators can be either pre- or post-snap. One simple post-snap indicator is the quarterback key of quick game, where if the defense gets a three-step drop the defenders look to set up as soon as the quarterback does, pushing for width and not depth – in college, Brooks was able to rapidly discern quick game versus drop back.

Seattle coaches the underneath zones in terms of strong hook issues, weak hook issues, and buzz issues. A running back screen would be an "issue," particularly for hook zones. Another issue would be deep over or bender routes, where the Seahawks would expect their underneath coverage to man turn the route and ride the hip pocket of the receiver. It’s more extreme version of that Brooks ROBOT against Kansas State in the last video.

Against 3 x 1 formations, Seattle uses the weak hook in Cover 3 to match the No. 3 receiver if the No. 3 receiver is up into their seam. Both an “issue” and an “indicator," the technique is a flat-footed read that once more asks for the defender to open and trail the receiver down the field.

It’s this ROBOT technique where Brooks was able to show his coverage potential as elite. This is the stuff the very best in the NFL can execute to a high standard - players like Eric Kendricks, Fred Warner, and Bobby Wagner. Brooks excelled at this too. He finessed his angle to the point of being aggressive with receivers, denying them space while being able to succeed in large areas. He can easily ride hip pockets.

Brooks’ fluidity of motion jumps off the tape. It’s everything that you would want in a linebacker, heck everything you’d want in a cover guy full stop. He is able to cover a lot of ground with control and be a multiple route defender.

The comfortable movement skills Brooks possesses will help in man coverage too. Seahawks linebackers are expected to match up one-on-one with running backs or tight ends, and the blend of speed, agility, and control Brooks possesses makes him a natural for these assignments. He has slot cornerback footwork, calm patience, and an ability to identify routes.

“He can react very quickly, he’s got great feet,” assessed Schneider after the first round.

Additionally in Seattle’s man pass defenses, one linebacker can be assigned a “rat” role that asks them to play zone in the low hole and disrupt routes that threaten that area, like slants or drags. Brooks has strength to execute these "collisions" and spots his target quickly.

Another year of sound technique with more reps, while in an NFL defense, will only help Brooks. Occasional moments of inefficient movement will be further reduced as familiarity increases. He’ll also gain the confidence needed to break more aggressively on the quarterback’s shoulder, resulting in more plays.

This was a rare play on the ball in pass defense, in a situation which could arise from the Seahawks running one of their man defenses or their Red 2 coverage – asking the linebacker to wall the No. 2 receiver:

“He’s got great ball skills,” Schneider praised. Maybe the general manager was thinking of this play?

The Seahawks will require Brooks to learn their rules and methods, but that’s not a unique challenge. A lot of guys come into the league not knowing how to play professional Cover 3. Furthermore, Brooks has super promising foundations.

Here’s a ‘could do better’ rep, matching the “elephants on parade” indicator the Seahawks use for bootlegs. Brooks was uncharacteristically slow to recognize the threat and the target, seeing him beat to the flats. This issue wasn't unique to him, with KSU repeating their success later. This is the kind of play the 49ers love. Brooks will learn the Seahawks' split-flow coverage rules.

If you want to watch all of Brooks’ ‘actual’ coverage reps from the games I studied, watch this supercut:

You’ll notice some of the targets he gave up (thinking back to the charting numbers) were underneath his zone and he rallied up to make the tackle. The data was misleading.

Ultimately, Brooks should be a go-to example for a valuable evaluation lesson: Just because a player is not asked to do something does not mean they cannot do it. The first-rounder has all of the traits to suggest he can be one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL. So why didn’t Texas Tech utilize this ability more often? In college, Brooks was used by the Red Raiders to solve a different issue, which I will cover in part two of this film breakdown series.

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