Linebackers in Sean McDermott’s defensive schemes have always fit certain measureable profiles and have been some of the most athletic players in his scheme. He has adjusted the scheme learned under the late Jim Johnson. It was a scheme that had big run stopping linebackers and man cover corners on the back end. That was tweaked in Carolina, into a defensive structure that utilizes athletic linebackers and bigger zone defenders on the back end.
The switch to zone coverage is one that many Bills fans can get behind after suffering through two seasons of defensive coaching that failed to adjust to its personnel. The transition for McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frasier will not be seamless. The Bills lack upper echelon athleticism and range at the linebacker level.
One linebacker that would upgrade athleticism and also fits the ‘McDermott’ profile as outlined by Rob Quinn of the Billswire is LSU linebacker Duke Riley.
Riley is a one year starter after the departure of linebacker Deion Jones, a second round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in last years draft. The first three years of his career were spent on special teams a role that he excelled at.
Fun project tonight– watching LSU LB Duke Riley cover kicks in 2015 pic.twitter.com/FkXIJdpdOY
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 26, 2017
When given the opportunity to start he seized it. He quickly became a team captain and immediate leader on and off the field. He was well received by coaches and teammates alike, in fact he was named the 2016 most valuable player. An accolade that is quite special when you think about the talent that was on the Tiger’s squad.
Most will look at his measureables and think he is just an athlete playing defense, but that is the furthest from the truth. He is a well balanced player; he is just as good against the run as he is the pass. He finished with 93 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and 1 interception.
Riley is going to be a really good player for years to come due to his mental processing. His key and diagnose skills are very good for a player who only started 14 career games. Sometimes that trait is exemplified by making a play but sometimes its as simple as executing his assignment so that others can make plays. A role that he is completely content on playing. On this play the Rebels attempt to run a quarterback keeper with gap blocking up front.
Riley diagnoses it quickly, gets downhill, inserts himself into his gap and takes on the tight end who is leading the play. The sound execution by Riley opens up the opportunity for star safety Jamal Adams to attack the quarterback Chad Kelly. The hit causes a fumble and it is picked up and converted into six points for the defense.
Riley is much more sound in his run gap assignments than I thought. Good key and diagnose skills, not just an athlete. pic.twitter.com/pY4i8msoUA
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) April 4, 2017
He absolutely shut down gap runs in the game versus Ole Miss, again, he displays his football intelligence.
For those that don’t know, gap plays can be difficult for defenders to process because the offense is creating/adding more gaps to defend by blocking down and pulling lineman. As the ball is snapped and the offensive line blocks down on the front side, the defenders must adjust their angles and assignments. LSU, much like the McDermott and the Bills, utilize the spill technique. As the defensive end #49 recognizes the down block by the tackle and the guard pulling at him, he is taught to ‘spill’ the play, or force the running back to bounce. So he does, now Riley and linebacker Beckwith are supposed to flow over the top and fill. Riley is responsible for the gap that is created just inside the tight end. He wants to have his helmet and leverage in that gap.
As Riley makes contact with the tight end he does so with force and really good pad level which forces the running back to bounce it. The play by Riley goes unnoticed by most but leads to the big hit on the back!
Defenders in one gap schemes like Buffalo, must have quick diagnose skills but also must utilize good technique and maintain discipline. If they fail to execute their simple assignment versus the run, the structure of the play can be compromised.
All gaps accounted for, very good run fits and gap integrity.
Duke is a sound defensive player and will excel at the point of attack if teams want to run downhill at him. At LSU, when kept clean, he was a tackling machine. He has the instincts and quick twitch abilities to ‘fire his gun’. He can shoot gaps quickly and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. This would be quite easy for him if put behind a pretty talented defensive line in Buffalo. One that includes Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, two defenders that will require a double team on atleast one of them on every play.
The left tackle and left guard double the defensive tackle and Riley is left free, play over.
The senior is a competitive player and is never intimidated by opponents. That includes Bo Scarborough, the big tailback from Alabama. Riley is tight to the line of scrimmage, leverages the running back, squares him up and shows off his tackling technique.
Without question he has the range to stick with most running backs at the next level. His feet and change of direction are utilized very well on outside runs. He uses his athleticism and quickness in short areas to avoid blocks or the ability to quickly disengage from lineman and get to top speed to chase down running backs.
The NFL is a passing league and linebackers that are going to be on the field for three downs must possess the ability to rush the passer. Defenses are in nickel a majority of the game so Riley will need to show that he can rush the passer. Riley was asked to rush the QB at a decent clip. In 2016, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Riley rushed the passer 13.9 percent of the snaps. He registered 11 total pressures which included 2 sacks (actually 1.5, PFF doesn’t track 1/2 sacks).
Riley was their primary coverage linebacker so most of his pressures came off of “green dog” blitzes. Plays where he was responsible for a running back in coverage and if that running back didn’t go into a route, he was given the “green light” to blitz. That is exactly what happens on this play.
Blitz coming from left side. Protection slides right. Putting two backs on Key & blitzing LB pic.twitter.com/KketFd4n0R
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 24, 2016
Due to limitations in coverage exhibited by LB Kendall Beckwith, Riley was the linebacker that was relied upon the most in pass coverage. Typically he was responsible for the tight end and running backs. As far as statistics go, he didn’t make many plays on the ball. For his career, he only got his hands on one interception and one pass deflection.
Although he lacks plays on the ball in the passing game, he shows very good fluidity and comfort while in space. Traits that will translate well.
That fluidity is perfectly illustrated in the following play. Riley is in man coverage on the running back. It’s 3rd and 5 and the Rebels attempt a hitch/wheel combination to the boundary. It’s an easy read for Chad Kelly but the play is shut down by sound man coverage. The hitch is taken away by the corner, and Riley quickly flows over the top to meet the running back. As he meets the running back he squares up. The back stutters as if he is going to run some kind of option route so Riley transitions into a back pedal with his eyes on the QB with the running back still in his peripheral. The back continues up the sideline so Riley opens his hips and runs. Kelly is forced to pull the ball down and attempt to get the first down with his legs. I mean as a coverage linebacker, it doesn’t get anymore sound than that.
His athleticism gave the defensive coordinator the freedom to have Riley cover a large amount of green. On this play Riley is responsible for the hook/curl/flats. As QB Kelly runs play action, the linebacker takes his read steps then recognizes Engram running the under route across the formation to the flats. Riley closes the gap and eliminates him as an option. Kelly is again forced to pull the ball down.
Riley is a heck of an athlete, when kept clean. If the offensive line is able to get their hands on him he doesn’t possess the play strength to disengage quickly versus NFL talent. Left tackle Cam Robinson is able to target Riley in space and lock on leading to a 3rd down conversion by the QB.
When playing the run, his ability to avoid blocks and work through traffic can get him into trouble. If he is a half click slow to recognize the play, he will make up by avoiding the blocks and that will sometimes get him caught up in trash at his feet, thus hurting the angle of his pursuit. Doesn’t happen often, but given his style of play, it will rear its head more at the next level.
Potential Bills Fit:
Given the way the Buffalo Bills roster is currently constructed, they will have to draft a linebacker come April 27th. If the Bills choose to put off addressing the position until the 2nd or 3rd round, Riley will likely be one of their targets. His leadership, athleticism and abilities versus the pass are exactly what the Bills need along the second level.
The four linebackers vying for starting reps; Lorenzo Alexander, Reggie Ragland, Preston Brown and Ramon Humber are all players that defend the run well, rush the passer at varying degrees but do not possess the athleticism or range that the Bills lost when Zach Brown signed with the Washington Redskins.
Brown was tasked with covering tight ends or running backs on just about every pass play. The Bills need a new Will linebacker, someone who is dependable in coverage. Riley fits the Bill, he is fluid in space, shuts down passing lanes in zone and can run with just about any tight end or running back.
If stacked behind Dareus and Williams in McDermott’s 4-3 scheme, he will be kept clean and afforded the opportunity to make plays.
Riley checks all of the boxes as a linebacker in McDermott’s scheme. He has the measureables, the athleticism, football IQ and leadership qualities that this staff is trying to inject into the organization.
Overall Grade 81.818-2nd round grade
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