Zach Brown's playtime has been increasing for most of the season after the Titans selected him in the second round of this year's draft. First he played weakside linebacker against the Chargers when Will Witherspoon shifted to the middle against the Chargers. Then, beginning in the Vikings game he took away some of Witherspoon's snaps at inside linebacker and eventually got them all. Finally, in the last two weeks, he's displaced Akeem Ayers in the nickel.
Against the Bears last week, Brown played every snap except two (one of them the first snap of the game, which shows the oddity of valuing all players by starts) and led all linebackers in snaps for the first time this season. In addition to time on the field, he also hit the statsheet, leading the Titans with 10 credited tackles (7 solo), two of them for a loss, and also recovered a fumble.
Because I was interested in how Brown was developing, and whether some traits I saw in his earlier play were still present, I decided to take an in-depth look at Brown's play against the Bears. What I found was, well, after the jump.
He played every play but two: the first play of the game, when the Titans were in their nickel package, and one play later in the game, in what I believe was the only snap of Ruby (3-2-6) personnel the Titans played. That includes 36 snaps of base personnel, 26 snaps of nickel, and 2 snaps in goalline (I didn't count the kneeldowns).
Brown's most alignment spot in base formations and in nickel was off the line scrimmage a couple yards. When the Titans lined up in their customary 4-3 Under look, Akeem Ayers, not Brown, was the linebacker on the line of scrimmage. Brown did, however, line up a few times as the end man in the line of scrimmage when the Titans showed a 6-man front when the Bears had two tight ends inline and a back (or two) in the backfield. Most often in nickel, but also a couple times in base, Brown lined up not off the line of scrimmage but was sugaring one of the gaps. Sometimes, though not always, this was a prelude to a rush.
How frequently Brown rushed was one of my surprises, though perhaps it shouldn't have been. In the Jim Schwartz (and beyond) years, I grew used to the Will linebacker hardly ever rushing. In nickel, though, Brown is playing more or less the same role Akeem Ayers played last year, and, as I chronicled when I broke down Ayers over the summer, he spent some time rushing nickel; not as much as I expected, given what the Titans said about Ayers, but some. Such was the case with Brown. It wasn't just on pass plays in nickel that Brown's assignment was to attack downhill. Here's one of his signature plays, where he tackled Michael Bush for a 3-yard loss on first-and-goal. First, the presnap look:
I went ahead and highlighted Brown with a blue circle. The play is a run to the left side, with right guard #60 Lance Louis pulling. Brown is going to attack downhill aggressively and beat Louis's attempt at a block. Here's Louis (highlighted in red) and Brown with a clear path to Bush.
This wasn't the only play where that happened, but I felt like it was a nice example of the phenomenon. Another case came where he stopped Matt Forte for no gain on first-and-19 in the second quarter. One thing I noticed that play I saw a fair amount of was Colin McCarty talking to Brown before the snap, appearing to point out something or another. You'd have to be in the defensive meeting room to know if McCarthy was just making sure they had their alignments clear or if he saw something that made him want to convert Brown into a rusher who could beat a pulling guard and blow up a run play.
On the whole, I'd say Brown against the run was at his best on plays like these, where he had a clear path to the ball carrier and could just run forward. Rarely did I see him engage and beat a blocker on a run play; a more common sight was seeing him picked up by a pulling guard or an offensive lineman coming off a double team of the defensive lineman (which, sometimes, yes, is a demerit to the D-lineman).
In pass coverage, I wasn't too worried about his job in man coverage; Brandon Marshall is the only (other) star in Jay Cutler's firmament, and there's no player who really could fill the role Gregg Olsen did of key pass receiving pass even if Cutler was interested. There was only one play where Brown's coverage was likely targeted, and that pass was tipped at the line.
At the same time, one of the things I was concerned about was Brown's discipline in zone drops. I noticed this on one play in the Minnesota game in particular, where he appared to almost completely vacate his area of responsibility and gave Christian Ponder a free rushing lane for a conversion.
The only play I saw where I thought he was close to that badly out of position was actually the safety; the penalty gave the Titans two points, but on the play as it happened Jay Cutler scrambled and found Matt Forte for a 15-yard gain on second-and-14. Brown initially took a zone drop to the offensive left, and when Cutler scrambled in the middle of the field, went after him. That gave plenty of open space to Forte; he tipped the pass, but it still made it to Forte, who made a defensive back (coming up from his deeper area of resonsibility) miss and got the first down. As I said, with the penalty it didn't hurt the Titans, but I still think Brown gets a minus for that play in the film room.
Here's another example of where I think he was out of position-not nearly as far out of position, but just a little bit and enough to turn a defensive stop into a good Bears completion. First, the presnap look. This is one of the half-dozen or so plays where the Titans were in their 6-man front against a Bears 2-TE set.
The Titans will drop six defenders into coverage, in what appears to be a 3-deep, 3-under look, while it's only a 2-man route for the Bears. Nevertheless, Cutler ends up with an unobstructed lane to throw to an open Brandon Marshall. Here's what it looks like when Cutler starts to throw.
I've highlighted Brown in blue, Marshall in red, and every Titans defender in coverage in yellow. Note Brown's position relative to the other defenders. Colin McCarthy is in almost the dead center of the field two yards further downfield, while the other underneath defender is at the 30, a full seven yards deeper downfield, and closer to the numbers. If Brown is where I think he should be, a little deeper downfield and closer to the numbers, he's standing in Cutler's throwing lane. Instead, it's an easy pitch-and-catch and Marshall picks up 18 yards after slipping a tackle.
Here's one more pass play, though I freely admit I'm including it more because I think it's cool than it says anything particularly insightiful about Brown. First, here's what it looks like presnap, with the routes for every Bears receiver identified. The red route belongs to Brandon Marshall, who catches a touchdown on this play. Brown is again in the blue circle.
Shortly after the snap, when the routes become clear, Brown and McCarthy seem to exchange a look and have a brief moment of confusion. My guess is that McCarthy had the back in man coverage, while Brown had the tight end. With the tight end running the inside route and the back going outside, it creates natural favorable leverage. The end result is something not too surprising when you players not used to playing together-the back's flat route draws both players to the outside. The DBs pick up the tight end, but the back's route and possible miscommunication pulling McCarthy, plus the natural pick action created by the two crossing routes, leave this for Jay Cutler.
Brown is highlighted in his normal blue, McCarthy in yellow, and Marshall in red. It's an easy read and throw for Jay Cutler, and Marshall has his third and final touchdown of the afternoon.
Despite the two plays I highlighted, on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with Brown's level of play. I thought he was still out of position a couple times, but overall I thought he was much less frenetic and more disciplined in coverage than I expected him to be. Against the run, the plays he got downhill and attacked aggressively were the plays where getting downhill aggressively was his pre-snap assignment; he didn't seem to be reading the plays, nor would I really expect him to do so in the ninth game of his career.
A modern weakside linebacker such as Brown does not necessarily take on and defeat, say, an offensive lineman; he beats him to his spot or runs around him. Right now when the happens for Brown it's the result of good fortune or a similar such rock-paper-scissors-type advantage rather than the result of intelligent play. The result is that sometimes all he does is soak up a blocker. That certainly has some value, but it's not and probably never will be Brown's strength.
Given the Bears' overall offensive tendencies, one thing I didn't really get a good feel for was Brown's performance in man coverage. Later in the year, I hope to revisit his performance, at least in coverage against a team where tight ends and other players Brown might reasonbly be assigned against are more than just an afterthought.