We all have our favorite football prototypes. Some of you love the physical running back. Others fawn over the dynamic edge rusher. Others still pine for the two gapping run stuffing defensive lineman. Me? I'm a sucker for a playmaking safety. I love the guys who fly over the field. They line up all over the place. They mess with the quarterback's head. The quarterback always has to know where they are. If he is lined up somewhere unusual, the quarterback has to figure out where the guy who typically lines up there is. He has to pay extra attention, but football plays happen so fast that there is no time to pay anybody extra attention. Doing that increases the chance somebody else will make a play.
Watching a great safety is like listening to football Bach or Mozart. What kind of an impact can a top safety have? The legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau once said the following of his great safety, Troy Polamalu:
"Probably Troy has the most versatility of any of the [defensive] backs that I've coached. He literally could do anything. You ask him to blitz, he's going to be a great blitzer. If you ask him to cover a wide receiver, he's probably going to do a good job there. If you ask him to play in the linebacker area and chase down the runner, he'll do that well, and he can coordinate the coverage from behind. He has a great knowledge of the defense. I couldn't find a weakness in Troy, and that's a true blessing from a defensive coordinator's standpoint. He just kind of opens the playbook to anything you want to do. It's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."
Calvin Pryor is never going to be a great as Troy Polamalu. Polamalu is a generational talent, and even that might be selling him short. He has an incredible package of speed, athleticism, instincts, and playmaking ability.
After Saturday night's game, though, there is ample reason to be really excited about what Pryor brings to the table. He doesn't have to be Polamalu to be an impact player. He has a coach who loves to make use of players with diverse skillsets like Pryor and line them up with all kinds of different roles. Let's take a look at some of the things I loved seeing from Pryor against the Bengals.
Cleaning up messes
One of the key jobs of a safety is to serve as the last line of defense. It's their job to shut down potential big plays or at the very least prevent nice gains from turning into monster ones. On back to back plays Saturday night, Pryor did this.
The first was perhaps Pryor's most memorable play. Unfortunately I don't have access to the all 22 footage that shows us the whole field, but I think I can piece together what happens. From the looks of how the play develops, it appears the Jets are playing man coverage underneath, and Antonio Allen fails to get his jam down on Coby Hamilton. Hamilton is open, and it looks to be an easy completion.
Then Pryor flies in and delivers a thumping as Hamilton is trying to secure the ball. Pryor puts his helmet on the ball to knock it away.
One of my pet peeves as an NFL fan is when defenders go for big hits trying to end up on Sportscenter instead of wrapping up the tackler. This frequently results in a blown tackle and a big gain.
THIS is the time and the place to try and deliver the big blow. The receiver is focused completely on trying to haul the ball in. The big thumping can knock it out and cause an incompletion.
On the very next play the Bengals complete a pass to Jeremy Hill. Demario Davis loses his coverage assignment. He regroups to get in front of Hill but misses a tackle 10 yards down the field, but Pryor is right in behind him to clean up and limit the gain to 16.
When a coach is designing a game plan this is the kind of thing that matters a lot conceptually. Do you have a safety you can trust back there? Does he have the instincts, range, and command of the playbook to be able to identify when something is breaking down and get over there to stop catastrophe? When a guy on the last line of defense can, the defense can get more aggressive. You can blitz more. You can have the cornerbacks play more physically. You can gamble to take away the short and moderate gains and try to make the game-changing play. Why? Because even if everything breaks down, the safety will be in the back of the defense to save the day.
The best safeties turn the tide by making big plays. You never know where they will end up on the field.
Pryor is creeping up here right before the snap. He looks like he's going to come on a blitz, and he does. It's difficult to say with only this angle, but it looks to me like the Bengals are in what is known as a slide protection on the right side of their line. Think of it as kind of like pass blockers playing zone where each player is responsible for the gap or area to one of his sides no matter whom comes through. Pryor times his blitz perfectly, firing off the snap and blazing through the gap before Trey Hopkins can get there to block him. Just as impressively, as he has nothing but daylight between him and the quarterback, Pryor gets his arm up knowing exactly what the trajectory of the pass will be and deflects it.
These are the kinds of instincts that really cannot be taught.
Then we have the tackle for the loss in the fourth quarter. Again, it's tough to judge completely, but it looks like the Bengals are blocking this run man to man. Everybody has somebody to block. It doesn't look like anybody is assigned to Pryor because the hole Rex Burkhead is running to is far away. There's no reason to think a guy lined up where Pryor is will fire off the snap and get around the edge quick enough to finish off Burkhead before the back gets to his hole. That is exactly what happens, though.
Pryor drills Burkhead behind the line. Burkhead ends up getting knocked out of the game.
Now Pryor isn't out to hurt anybody, and we certainly do not celebrate a young man getting hurt here. What I will say is being more physical and hitting harder than your opponent can handle is a part of winning football.
The play that got me most excited wasn't even one Pryor made. It just showed how crazy his instincts are.
He's coming off the edge on a blitz. First of all he's hiding behind the much bigger Leger Douzable so maybe the blockers won't see him, and he can slip through a crease before the blockers can see him.
Then he takes a truly absurd (in a good way) path to the quarterback seeing that the right tackle's momentum is going to create a crease inside when he jumps out to block Pryor.
In any sport one of the things that sets truly great players apart from LeBron James to Sidney Crosby to Lionel Messi is their vision. They can see angles developing on the entire field. Even more, they see angles develop in advance and are able to anticipate them. (Note to guy who is going to take these comparisons too literally: I am not in any way suggesting Pryor is on the level of any of those three after one preseason game against backups)
This sense of anticipation is where game-changing plays happen.
Obviously it is a mistake to put too much on a rookie. One preseason game against backups a bust in Canton does not create. Despite the level of competition and the fact it was preseason, Pryor displayed certain attributes that should translate at least some degree to any level of competition.
In conclusion, if he keeps playing like that I'm going to have a new favorite player soon. Also I'm all for making rookies earn their spot in the starting lineup. Rex, Pryor has earned it. Play Pryor a lot.