After winning a national championship with the Alabama Crimson Tide, linebacker Reggie Ragland was set to enter the NFL. However, after being flagged for an enlarged aorta he fell from a projected mid-first round draft pick to an early second round pick. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 2016 NFL draft to fill a need at inside linebacker, Ragland suffered a torn ACL early on during 2016 training camp, an injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2016-2017 season. Coming into 2017, the Bills have changed coaches and defensive schemes, moving from Rex Ryan’s multiple defense to Sean McDermott’s 4-3 over. Ryan’s defense included many four-linebacker fronts that would have allowed Ragland to play his natural role of 3-4 inside linebacker, whereas McDermott’s defense will ask Ragland to play as a 4-3 middle linebacker.
The range and coverage assignments asked of a 4-3 MLB are more taxing and require greater speed and quicker recognition than that of a 3-4 ILB. After getting a chance to look at the all-22 film of the Arkansas vs Alabama game in 2015, there are three plays we are going to examine in this article: one with Ragland as a pass rusher, one against the run, and one when he was asked to drop back into coverage.
Rushing the Passer
Nick Saban’s defense lines up in a 4-3 front with Alabama’s dime personnel on the field. This means that Alabama has 4 down linemen, with Ragland lined up as the weak side defensive end, and with one linebacker on the field and 6 defensive backs.
Coming from the 5 spot, Ragland exhibits excellent pass rushing technique to hit the quarterback and force a hurried throw. Going against Arkansas’s left tackle Denver Kirkland, Ragland takes advantage of some bad technique by the junior offensive lineman.
Kirkland doesn’t keep his base wide enough, which allows Ragland to land an initial blow as a bullrusher. Now that Ragland has his hands on the chest plate of Kirkland’s pads, he presses with his inside hand to turn the offensive lineman. The move works to perfection, and Kirkland opens his hips, allowing Ragland to gain leverage to the inside. Ragland getting inside means that he avoids the double team from the running back, who was the 6th man in pass protection, tasked with helping the left side. Ragland now has control of the situation. Because he forced Kirkland to open his inside leg, Ragland earns a free path to the quarterback. Ragland uses a swim move to shed the block and hits the passer, forcing a hurried throw and an incompletion.
Defending the Run
Reggie Ragland is at his best when he’s playing against the run. On this play, both he and DT A’Shawn Robinson (now with the Detroit Lions) get a clean shot at the running back. Arkansas is in a heavy single-back set with an extra offensive tackle on the field lined up the right side and an H-back lined up offset to him. The call is for a dive up the middle that would be set up by the center and guard opening a lane for the running back to punch through
Alabama shows a 3-4 under front. This alignment worked perfectly against what the Razorbacks were trying to accomplish. Ragland is responsible for reading and filling the B gap when playing against the run. On this play, Ragland shows great football IQ in the path he takes. He sees that the B gap is closed due to the defensive end and defensive tackle pinching the right guard and two tackles on the right side. This opens up the A gap. Ragland shoots the gap and arrives at the same time as Robinson to tackle him in the backfield. This kind of assessment and decisiveness can help Ragland go a long way as a middle linebacker for the Buffalo Bills.
Dropping into Coverage
Arkansas shows the defense an I formation H-Twins, which essentially means that there are two wide receivers to the weak side and an in-line tight end dictating the strong side. Alabama responds with a 3-4 Okie front, which has the defensive line two gapping while the outside linebackers are responsible for the cutback lane and playing contain against the run, depending on which side the run goes to. Due to the formation of the defensive backfield, it is a safe bet that the Crimson Tide are playing either cover 3 or cover 1, based on the single deep safety look.
After the snap, Alabama is playing cover 3, which is a zone defense designed to keep everything in front of the 3 deep defenders (2 cornerbacks and a safety), while providing enough players in or near the box to effectively play the run. Cover 3 is predicated upon every defender being able to tackle well, which limits yards after the catch and means the cornerbacks can help with playing contain and countering the cutback. Ragland is tasked with playing the curl zone on the strong side as the middle linebacker.
From the I-Form H Twins alignment, Arkansas runs a “levels” route concept. This means that the weak side slot receiver runs a post route, the strong side tight end runs a ten yard out, and the outside receiver runs a delayed drag across the formation, acting as the shallow dump off option for his quarterback. This concept is effective at forcing the defense to cover all three levels of the field and means that there should be space within one of them for a receiver to come open. If all else fails, the drag route is there as a quick dump off.
Ragland does an excellent job of letting the play develop and not biting on the play action to the running back. He gets into his curl zone and reads the receiver coming across on the drag route. The ball is placed behind the receiver, as the quarterback thinks that he will sit the route down. Ragland does an excellent job of breaking on the ball as it is thrown and getting his hands inside the receiver’s hands to force an incompletion. Quick recognition and reaction like this will be key to Ragland’s success in the NFL.
Despite being drafted to play in Rex Ryan’s hybrid scheme featuring a large amount of 3-4 defensive looks, Ragland has all the skills necessary to play middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. The most apparent point of weakness for him going into 2017 will be his sideline-to-sideline speed when in coverage. At times, the task of processing information from the quarterback and covering a receiver seemed to be too much for Ragland, causing him to slow down as he was trying to make sense of all the information. As training camp starts, Ragland is second on the depth chart behind veteran linebacker Preston Brown. However, Ragland has been the subject of praise from the coaching staff and has a great shot at starting for the Bills. He has extremely high upside that is contingent upon the proper coaching and right attitude. Along with every other Bills fan, I’m truly excited to see Ragland on the field this season.