Ball Reads/Tackle Reads

Recently, I was a guest on Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room to watch Tyrone Holmes’ game against North Dakota State. Whenever I’m asked how to learn about scouting, I always point people to Matt’s series. I don’t think there’s anything that you can read that will supplement for the visual learning of the sport, and there are very few accessible paths into player evaluation.

A topic which was brought up during the talk was snap reads for defensive linemen. There are really only three types of reads. There are ball reads, tackle reads and cadence jumps. Identifying these are key for evaluating defensive line positions.

If you grew up playing football, there’s a good chance that you flipped between coached ball reads, moving when you see the ball move, and freelanced cadence jumps, “snap jumping” based on repetitive counts. Not all defenses run that way, though, particularly at the college level.

Some defenses, like the Oregon Ducks’ 3-4 under Don Pellum, don’t even field a pass-rusher. Teams can take a more passive approach to front seven football than shooting gaps constantly. This is where tackle reads come in handy. If you want to clog running lanes, instead of shooting gaps, does getting off the ball at the same time as the offensive linemen even help you?

As a defensive lineman, you want to replace the feet of an offensive lineman in terms of depth in the ground game. If you’re getting into the backfield and not making an agressive tackle for loss against the run, you’re likely running yourself out of the play. Holding your point at the line of scrimmage, instead of gambling on athleticism to be a hero, is the purpose of tackle reads.

This isn’t a technique used exclusively for 3-4 defenses, either. For the most part, Holmes and his even front linemates used tackle reads, meaning they didn’t move until the offensive linemen in front of them moved, on first and second down. There was a noticeable difference between his burst off of the line of scrimmage when he was and wasn’t looking at the ball pre-snap. Tackle reads are often misdiagnosed as a player being “slow of the line.”

Two prospects in last draft class who were credited with inconsistent explosion out of their stances were Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and LSU’s Danielle Hunter. They both tested like great athletes in terms of measurables, but why did they disappear as pass-rushers for stretches?

It’s simple: They just weren’t asked to be primary pass-rushers on every down. Bo Pelini was the defensive coordinator at LSU from 2005 to 2007. In 2008, when Pelini left to take over the Nebraska program, Bradley Dale and Doug Mallory, two former Pelini assistants, split the defensive coordinator title. The next year, John Chavis was awarded the job, and he kept the Pelini-style defense, which included plenty of early down tackle reads.

Gregory and Hunter played for Pelini and Chavis, who coached them to slow down their explosion based on the situation. The first two plays of Gregory’s Draft Breakdown cut against USC are different reads.

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The first play in the video was a third and six, a pass-rushing situation. It goes by quick, but if you pause the video, you’ll notice that all four Nebraska defensive linemen are looking at the ball. When it’s snapped, they react quickly and Gregory hits Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler in a decent rush attempt.

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The second play in the video was a second and three, a run-stuffing situation. If you pause the play pre-snap, you’ll notice that the linemen aren’t cocking their heads or turning their bodies inside to look at the ball, but are instead staring directly forward. This time, there’s more of a delay from the defenders between the ball being snapped and when they take their first step, and it’s purposeful.

If defensive linemen are staring at a ball on third down, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re going to get a clear read on how fast the players can get out of their stances at full effort. If the defensive linemen are staring at tackles, guards and centers in front of them on first down, there’s a 95 percent chance they’re going to look “slow,” since the queue to move is after the offensive line moves after the offensive line is queued to move by the cadence.

Another benefit to tackle reads is that a lineman’s eyes are already pointed toward their opponent, which in theory makes it easier for lineman to identify which types of blocks are coming his way and from where.

Last year, I brought up the split between ball reads and tackle reads when evaluating both Gregory and Hunter. Hunter was tabbed as an on paper athlete. The majority of LSU’s plays were tackle reads and he only posted 4.5 sacks in his college career. It laid out an easy narrative. You could have convinced yourself that he wasn’t as athletic on the field as he was in Dri-FIT gear.

Hunter was drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings, and, last year, he posted six sacks, more than in his entire college career. He also did so against better competition. He finished second in sacks for NFL rookies in 2015.

In the RSP Film Room session with Matt, I noted several times when Holmes was doing tackle reads and ball reads. When Holmes is told to rush after the passer, he’s the first Grizzly in the backfield. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, based off of his FCS-leading sack production and his insane pro day numbers.

Still, if you’re just judging Holmes’ get-off on a snap-by-snap basis, instead of splitting his ball reads and tackle reads into two categories, his consistently impactful but limited in volume explosive attempts are just another data point in your personal evaluation process.

Another player who seems to fall victim to ball reads is Shaq Lawson. Earlier this month, I noted that the only first-round edge defenders selected over the last decade who are clearly better athletes than Lawson are Von Miller, Melvin Ingram and Bruce Irvin. Despite that, some, like ESPN’s Todd McShay, have said Lawson is limited athletically.

On paper, based on the numbers off of the NFL’s combine “master recording sheet,” which is sent to every franchise, Lawson is Ezekiel Ansah.

Ansah, on a per year basis, is one of the top 10 edge defenders drafted in the last decade. Interestingly enough, Ansah was viewed as “just an athlete” coming out of BYU. Lawson is being discussed as solely a technical edge-setter, when his upside says he has 10-sack potential. If you happen to rewatch Lawson between now and the draft,  with the different types of get-off reads in mind, you might have a moment of clarity, avoiding a potential misevaluation.

Justis Mosqueda

Veteran media hack with coaching experience and several vices. I know how to use Excel better than you.

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