Terrel Bernard: the Bills’ new triple-threat

05/10/2022
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Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have proven over the years that they value linebackers higher than most fans. This is to be expected because they know the scheme, techniques, and assignments they want to be executed on a play-by-play basis. Their selection of linebacker of Terrel Bernard in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft caught many fans off-guard, including myself.

Bernard, by league standards, is undersized, but that didn’t stop the Bills from drafting linebacker Matt Milano, who is actually a player comparable per PlayerProfiler.com.

There aren’t many Bills fans who will dispute Milano’s importance and impact on the Bills’ defense, which is one reason I believe the Bills drafted Bernard, who may have trouble seeing the field in year one. Bernard will likely be Milano’s handcuff or insurance because in many ways he is the triple-threat that Milano is.

Run-Defense

Bernard is an intelligent player, his former head coach Dave Aranda a close confidant of Sean McDermott said that when I think of the heart, soul, and character of our team, I think of him (Bernard), he’s just a great football mind.” His football IQ is tremendous and it allows him to play fast, but it’s so fast it can look chaotic. 

On this play, the offense is running an RPO with Bernard responsible for the ‘dive’ or running back if it is handed off. Bernard executes a ‘Run-Through’ through the B-gap.

The guard is forced to slow play his block to Bernard’s teammate (#5) because he has to help the tackle secure the gap.

The guard turns Bernard, but he just ricochets off of the block and reacquires the ball.

Bernard waits for the running back to commit to the weakside of the formation, then he disengages and makes the tackle. An assignment sound play with a dash of chaos.

Bernard has some unique body control and strength that allows him to play free and the ability to ricochet off of blocks like Milano.

Many of us love how Milano ‘fires his gun’ and creates run stops or tackles for loss.

Bernard makes similar plays, such as this tackle for loss against TCU. The Horned Frogs attempt to run an Outside Zone run to the left side of the Bears’ defense. The defensive lineman absorbs the combination block which keeps Bernard clean as long as he doesn’t hesitate.

Bernard reads the running back’s initial track towards the edge of the defense, then looks out ahead to the tight end to find some daylight.

The tight end and receiver are working on LB Blake Lynch (#2), with the guard and tackles responsible for the DE and Bernard. Bernard finds that the alley is clear and he hits it running.

While Bernard has short arms (30 1/4 inches) compared to Milano (32 inches), I do think Bernard was further along in defeating blocks than Milano was coming out of Boston College. At BC, Milano played in the slot and on the perimeter much more, whereas Bernard was primarily a box player. So Bernard got more reps at avoiding and destroying blocks. Bernard uses very good hand placement and leverage as an undersized linebacker, which we can see on this play against Texas.

The tackle helps the guard secure the defensive end, then climbs to Bernard.

The tackle has an obvious advantage, but Bernard lowers his pad level and widens his base while getting his hands in place to control the lineman. Then he gets his helmet in his gap to deter the running back from entering the C-gap.

Once the running back commits up inside, Bernard disengages from the tackle.

Last season Bernard led a well-coached and talented defense in run stops with 34 and in run-stop percentage (11.6%) and he makes all of the same splash plays that Bills fans expect from Milano.

Pass Rusher

One of my favorite parts of Bernard’s game is when he is attacking downhill as a pass rusher, something he did 27.3% of his snaps in 2021. Bernard was tied for fourth in total pressures for linebackers in 2021 with 36 pressures, including seven sacks, 10 QB hits, and 19 QB hurries (among the 2022 LB draft class).  When he attacks the QB, he brings a physical brand of football and he is looking to knock the QB out and anyone that stands in the way.

As an outside linebacker in the Bills scheme, you must be able to rush the passer because it’s a scheme that runs a lot of Simulated and Creeper pressures. These are plays that send only four rushers at the QB, but generally, the Bills will send Milano as a rusher and drop out a defensive end. It’s a way to disguise yet still attack the offensive line protections without sacrificing a defender in coverage. So linebackers in the Bills scheme, especially at the SAM/WILL spots must be able to rush the passer.

Simulated and Creeper pressures are ways for defensive coordinators to scheme up pressure by getting one blocker isolated. Dave Aranda and his staff are some of the best at doing this. Much like on the play above where Milano was matched up vs. a running back, Bernard gets the same opportunity below. Prior to the snap, the Bears defense shows six possible rushers.

Post-snap, the Bears drop their edge rushers into coverage and send Bernard.

So they drop a traditional pass rusher into coverage and send a non-traditional position at the QB. In the end, it’s still a four-man rush.

Bernard uses his suddenness, change of direction, and motor to beat the block and bring down the quarterback.

 

The Bears’ staff did it once again on this sack by Bernard. But this time, they use a traditional blitz or five-man pressure.

The staff has the defensive line slant to their left and then loop Bernard over the top, this movement is perfect against the Full-Slide protection of Texas. It puts Bernard 1-on-1 with the running back.

Bernard has a full head of steam and decides to transition from speed to power.

The scouting by the defensive staff, play call, and execution by Bernard all led to another sack.

The NFL is a matchup league and that includes the defensive side. The defensive coordinator’s job on passing downs is to affect the QB, and Bernard can be used as a Chess-piece when Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier wants to get the QB off of ‘the spot.’

On this play, the Bears run a three-man game with Bernard. The defensive linemen slant to the offenses’ right, with Bernard looping into the A-gap.

This puts Bernard 1-on-1 with the running back once again.

Just prior to the contact point, Bernard gives a head fake to his right, suddenly changes direction, executes a swim move to beat the block, and finishes.

This is the type of athleticism and play speed the Bills want from their linebackers when they rush the QB, something Milano did 15% of his snaps in 2021. A season where he finished with 16 total pressures including three sacks, four QB hits, and nine QB hurries.

Coverage

When it comes to coverage, I don’t think Bernard is on the level of Milano. He hasn’t shown to be a ‘matchup linebacker,’ but we need to take into account how much time Milano spent out in space or matched up versus running backs and tight ends.

Milano vs TE Jordan Leggett (2015)

Once in the Bills scheme, Leslie Frazier has used Milano in a multitude of ways.

Frazier has zero worries when Milano gets matched up with some of the best players in the league.

I believe Bernard has the mental processing to diagnose route concepts and fully understands how offenses are going to attack the coverages, but I don’t think he is on par with Milano. I don’t expect him to be the guy the Bills use to match up vs. Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, or Mark Andrews. When the Bills go to Man Coverage, especially in their Base defense looks, I still believe that will be Milano’s job. But if Bernard beats out Tyrel Dodson for linebacker three, Bernard would be able to help in and around the box to free up Milano.

With all of that said, Bernard is absolutely not a liability in coverage especially when it comes to Zone and Pattern matching coverages, which the Bills love to employ. On this play against TCU, Bernard drops into Zone coverage.

He’s technically sound when dropping, too. He opens to the wide or field side and gets his eyes on the nearest threat.

Once his teammate gets in position to take the slot target away, he flips his hips and gets his eyes on the QB.

With the QB looking to the short side of the field, Bernard then acquires the nearest threat running into his zone.

He doesn’t just jump the route, he tries baiting the QB, but the QB doesn’t take the cheese. But the target is eliminated.

The QB goes into scramble mode to his left so Bernard covers down.

The QB attempts to check it down to his running back but the back drops it.

If you do your job, sometimes you are rewarded for being in the right place at the right time. He’s always around the ball and that doesn’t happen by accident.

Dave Aranda runs a complex defense, especially when it comes to coverages. He puts a lot of responsibility on his players, especially when it comes to pattern reading or pattern matching. He uses an array of coverages that helps the defense maintain a numbers or spatial advantage. Much like on this play against Oklahoma. The defense puts the cornerback to the trips side (passing strength) in Man Coverage. So the Safety, Slot corner, and Bernard are working a 3 over 2 coverage. So the Bears have three defenders to pattern match the two innermost Sooners receivers.

On the snap, the #3 receiver runs a diagonal route to the flats.

So Bernard passes him to the slot corner and then acquires the next possible threat.

Usually, when a route breaks out, another route will be breaking in.

Bernard leverages that route so well with his back to the QB, which can cause some defenders to panic.

Bernard flips his hips to get underneath the receiver and then gets his eyes on the QB. The coverage is tight and the QB decides to go elsewhere with the ball.

Bender or Over routes are a staple in many NFL offenses as a way to attack Two-High Safety coverages and or Man Coverage. Bernard is able to match these routes with ease.

Bernard offers very good support to his safeties on these sorts of routes. He routinely becomes the underneath/trail defender helping to take away the easy pass, with the safeties able to play over the top. In order to complete this throw QBs will have to throw it up and over Bernard but in front of the safety.

When the Bills go to Man Coverage, they don’t like their defenders having to chase their assignments through traffic. So to prevent that from happening they have techniques in place, as does Dave Aranda. Techniques like this ‘Push’ call by Bernard. The Bears dial-up Man Coverage.

The Kansas State offense has a simple Spot concept dialed up from a two-tight end set

Bernard has the running back out of the backfield, but because the back releases outside of the tackle Bernard executes a ‘Push’ call.

This just means he is pushing that route/target to his teammates so that he doesn’t have to work through traffic or get out leveraged. So now he takes over the innermost tight end.

Bernard once again reads it perfectly and then gets underneath the route by the tight end.

The ‘Push’ call was executed perfectly and the defense took away all of the QB’s options which leads to a sack.

While I didn’t necessarily agree with the round that the Bills drafted Bernard, after going through his film and projecting what he did in Aranda’s defense into Frazier’s defense, I understand why they liked him. Bernard displays a lot of the same traits the Bills love in Milano. He is a triple-threat who can stop the run, rush the passer and play coverage at a high level. Early on he may just be insurance for Milano, who tends to get banged up from time to time. But if Bernard can beat out linebacker Tyrel Dodson, we could see him on the field sooner rather than later which would validate the early selection.

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