The Fine Line Between Athleticism and Competitive Toughness


The Buffalo Bills have many free agent decisions to come to terms with and the Personnel Department and the coaching staff are at One Bills Drive scouring the roster, trying to determine who they want to resign. One of the most gifted talents on the defensive side of the ball is linebacker Zach Brown. Brown displays very good athletic ability including elite speed, very good agility and explosiveness.

Whaley hit a home run by bringing him in on a one year deal last season. He had been a productive starter with the Titans as an inside linebacker in their base 3-4 scheme and Buffalo needed a low cost option for that same position prior to 2016 seeing as how Rex was ‘all in’ on his scheme.

Brown didn’t disappoint, once first round draft pick Reggie Ragland went down, Zach was ready and he took the league by storm. By seasons end he was 6th in total tackles with 107 solo tackles which was 36 more than he has ever produced.

Sixty two of those tackles were versus the run and that includes 38 run stops which according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) were the 4th most for inside linebackers in both statistics. Early on in the season he was seeing the field well, look at him read the flow of the split flow zone in conjunction diagnosing Corbin Bryant covering the strongside A gap, he sees a small window in the backside A gap so he shoots it and brings Forte down.

Brown doesn’t just have very good straight line speed, he has good play speed. Play speed is the combination of straight line speed and mental processing. Zach does a good job on the following play of diagnosing the offensive tackles intentions, the counter steps by Blount and the bend back run coming right for Brown’s window. He shoots the gap and uses his arms to make the tackle on the back.

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Brown’s tackling is good. He doesn’t load his hips and uncoil them to help him bring force behind his tackles, he is more of a chase and tackle kind of defender. Which works well versus outside runs because then he can use his athletic ability to sift through traffic and make the tackle.

Did he help in the passing game? You bet he did, he allowed the defensive staff to match him versus opposing running backs, receivers and tight ends. Brown is matched up here versus RB James White which helps the coordinators scheme the ‘box’ coverage to the trips bunch side. Being able to man up a LB vs. a RB like White nearly shuts half of the field down versus this offensive look.

Brown shows off his play speed again as he bails out the secondary. On the snap he reads high hats from the offensive lineman signifying pass. He finds Bell and confirms that he is not receiving the handoff and not going out for a pass, so he finds possible receiving options, closes the gap as he tracks the ball for the interception.

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With his physical tools he is an asset anyway you look at it. He can run, is a good tackler, and solid blitzer and very good pass defender in man and zone situations.


But his problem has been the lack of consistency, especially read and diagnose skills which is something that I covered when the Bills signed him. He has all of the tools to execute but his overall mental processing is solid or average. The inside backer is undisciplined when it comes to sticking to his keys and maintaining proper leverage of the running back. At times he over pursues or just takes bad angles to the ball. This causes huge cutback lanes, which leads to big plays.


As the season wore on, stats padded and the losses piled up, Zach Brown’s play and competitive toughness diminished. Early on when the season was young and he needed to make plays to help him get a long term contract he was passionate and aggressive when carrying out his assignments. Was he always consistent? No, but he was putting forth the effort and playing physical….


Remember these plays?


There is no denying he was putting out effort to make plays on a few of those clips, but was he playing at 110% or just enough to get by? On that first play, was he pursuing the whole play or did he turn it on near midfield? Go back and watch.

I took a poll a couple weeks ago regarding resigning Zach Brown and 71% believe they should. Most fans will look at his stats, remember the splash plays he made and say, “yeah the Bills should definitely resign him.” I was one of them, til I studied him.

The reason I bring this up is because in my opinion fans undervalue competitive toughness, and I think that along with mental processing, these are some of his weaknesses. He is adequate or below average in competitive toughness. Coaches have trouble keeping him mentally engaged the whole game and season and that is what leads to his inconsistencies.

Is he being physically aggressive? Is he doing everything in his power to get off the block?

In my opinion the lack of competitive toughness across the board has perpetuated the drought. The Bills have talent, but do they have players that are competitively tough? It’s been missing and Pro Personnel Department needs to bring in more players that posses high levels of competitive toughness if anything is going to change.

Under the umbrella of competitive toughness lies mental toughness, physical toughness and competitive toughness. In 1 on 1 situations, in critical moments, throughout a game, does the player rise to the occasion mentally and physically?

On a 1-7 scale, where would Tom Brady rank? SEVEN, he is at an elite level when it comes to competitive toughness, especially in big games. How about their team? Do they have players that possess high levels of competitive toughness? Do they value that trait over athleticism? Think about the Jamie Collins trade…

Lets flashback to week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know when the Bills needed to win to remain in the hunt, do you remember Brown’s play? Well, much like the team as a whole, his “effort” and competitive toughness were nonexistent.

Brown blew several run assignments, utilized bad technique and was dominated physically (physical toughness) by fullback Roosevelt Nix. Zach takes on Nix with the improper shoulder, allowing him to be sealed inside and a 2 for 1 occurs because Preston Brown is also blocked. Zach displays adequate or below average ability versus the run at the point of attack.

It didn’t end there, on the following play Brown reads the play well, but again uses improper technique to attack LeVeon Bell. Being able to execute your assignment, to elevate your game against better competition has to happen.

Can Brown be counted on to fill his gap utilizing the proper technique, force and play strength necessary to stop the run?

Brown also gave up 68 yards in this game on five catches. He ended 2016 season surrendering 53 receptions on 66 targets for 539 yards, 342 of which were YAC. That is not good enough.

Think I’m cherry picking one bad game? No, this is a trait, a tendency shown by him over the course of his career at the college and NFL level.

Draft Profile per ESPN

When you look at the good teams, the teams that win consistently they have players that are not just talented, but guys that are smart, mentally tough and display high levels of competitive toughness. How many of those players do the Bills have? How many players gave it 110% the whole season?

Based on the production that he put together in 2016, there is no doubt that he will be getting a raise and there are rumors flying that the Bills are looking to extend him. What will it cost? Five to seven million a year? I’ll make it easier, what is your ceiling for his contract? Will putting Brown back into a one gap scheme help minimize his thinking and let him play fast? These questions are being asked at OBD, they are going to measure his cost vs. what he brings to the field.

What traits or values will Head Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Doug Whaley hold higher?

Athleticism or competitive toughness?