No position group on the current Colts roster appears more wide-open from a competition perspective than inside linebacker. Which of the team’s returning players has a the best chance to make the squad again in 2017? Does Edwin Jackson or Antonio Morrison have a legitimate chance to start in their second seasons?
The answer to these question is still weeks away but one thing has become relatively clear. No player has been so quickly cast aside by the fan base as not only having no chance to start, but as a likely candidate to get cut, than second-year inside linebacker Antonio Morrison.
Morrison has been labeled as too slow to play defense in the NFL and his teammate Edwin Jackson has been granted the edge over him due primarily to this single characteristic. Rather than simply accept these assertions as true, I thought it best to break down film to see how this perceived weakness impacts Morrison individually — and more broadly — how it impacts the outcome of the game.
In this play, Morrison (#44) reads the counter and moves into position to plug the running lane. Once in position, he bursts through the tight end Clive Walford (#88) and blows up Latavius Murray (#28) for no gain.
This clip displays that Morrison drives through blockers and ball carriers and carries something behind his shoulder pads — a trait that shows regularly in the film.
Once again, in this clip Morrison does an excellent job of reading the play direction and staying home to take away the cut back. It is pretty easy for linebackers to over-pursue here and get out of position.
Every defensive player on the field can’t be blindly pursuing the play direction. He keeps the Jaguars from breaking off a much more considerable run if he wasn’t disciplined.
In this clip Morrison does two things that were also common watching the film. First, he stuffs the blocker. While he didn’t drive the player backward he also maintained control and fills the running lane with the blocker’s body. He then uses his hands to disengage the block and helps brings down the ball carrier.
Here Morrison takes on a Vikings guard Joe Berger (#61) as he released into the second level. He generates power at contact and gets his hands under the Berger’s shoulder pads. This sits the lineman back on his heels and allows Morrison to meet Jerrick McKinnon (#21) in the hole.
On this play, Morrison displays the same attribute that makes me like him so much as a run defender — he flows to the hole and does not waste a great deal of motion to get where he needs to go. This is often referred to as either good vision, good instincts, or a combination of the two.
In this case, he sees the ball carrier, moves down the line to the hole and bursts through it to make a goal line stop.
This is another example of how his instincts and his timing assist in making an impact on the play. Morrison read the flow of the play, quickly recognized the hole and burst through it to get a hit on Blake Bortles — and nearly forces a turnover.
Another aspect of Morrison’s game that has already been on display that he does not quit.
In this play, he is not in a position to make a play as the ball goes away from him but his eyes stay active and he finds the ball. Once he tracks the ball down, he quickly gets over to help and makes the tackle when Mike Adams (#29) whiffs and both David Parry (#54) and Hassan Rideway (#91) were taken out of of the play at the line of scrimmage. If he doesn’t come back, the rusher could get all the way to Darius Butler for additional yards.
Much has been made of Morrison’s speed, suggesting that it is the reason that he may never fit in an NFL defense. While I think it is fair to say that Morrison is not a linebacker who will out-run the majority of NFL running backs and will likely get torched by NFL receivers, this clip shows that he isn’t painfully slow.
He uses his angle to track Adrian Peterson (#28) down and does not allow him to turn the corner. What could have been a 7 or 8 yard gain was limited to 3 or 4 yards.
Now, where Morrison will get absolutely abused is on plays like this one. In a raw foot speed race in one direction, he can hold his own but when he has to change speeds or stop and start, he is in trouble.
Additionally, while he is able to “keep up” with Bryan Walters (#81), he will not often catch up to a player who has a few steps on him. From the snap, through the pass, and to the edge, Morrison was not able to close meaningful ground.
While this clip displays something that occurred only once in the three games I reviewed, this is an example of what happens with your inside linebackers misread the play from the snap and get out of position. Morrison gets too aggressive toward the line of scrimmage and find himself in the grasp of Raiders offensive lineman Menelik Watson (#71). Game over.
Another uncommon characteristic is Morrison missing the tackle on this play. Note the difference between the hard-nosed, gritty tackling on the interior against the run and making tackles in space on an island. Morrison is aware that he has a much faster athlete in space in front of him and he leaves his feet a bit too soon, fails to wrap up, and slides off of the ball carrier’s ankles.
There is no doubt that inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has some athletic limitations that may limit his ability to ever be a great NFL player. However, watching him on film also makes it quite clear that he has football IQ characteristics that can help make up for those deficiencies. His vision, strength taking on blocks, and his uncanny ability to flow to the hole to make a stop as a run defender are traits any NFL team would like to see in an inside linebacker.
While a significant portion of the Colts fan community has written off Morrison’s chances to compete for defensive reps, and possibly to even make the team, don’t be surprised if that tune changes once training camp and preseason rolls around.