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Film Room: Matthew Adams is earning his spot

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Rookie Adams started this season slow but is becoming a good contributor of late.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

GM Chris Ballard seemingly struck gold with his 2018 NFL Draft class as he added seven players who are key contributors to this team. Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, and Quenton Nelson all look to be long term starters at their positions while Nyheim Hines, Tyquan Lewis, and Kemoko Turay all have played very well in their rotational roles. One player who has really come along in recent weeks though is rookie 7th round pick Matthew Adams.

Adams is a 7th round rookie out of Houston where he was a key 4-year player for the team. He logged 256 total tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks in 43 games played for the Cougars. Despite putting together a solid collegiate career, Adams did not receive an invite to the NFL combine. At his pro day however, Adams did post a pretty solid 4.63 40 time and a 33.5 vertical jump.

Adams started the season purely as a special teamer, logging a grand total of 0 snaps on defense through five games. Free agent linebacker Najee Goode started as the SAM backer opposite of Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard. After the Colts seemingly discovered that Goode was simply not “Goode” at all, they went to more of a rotation between Adams and other 7th round rookie Zaire Franklin. In recent weeks though, Adams has seemed to have locked up the SAM role, as he posted a season high 24 snaps (41.4% of defensive snaps) in the Colts’ 6-0 loss.

Adams has been a very solid special teams player for the Colts all year but as he has transitioned to starting SAM backer, he has made plenty of splash plays. Today I will be diving into this surprising rookie’s film and see how well he has really played in recent weeks.


Strengths

Special Teams

Now I’m not going to throw a thousand clips in here showing kick offs and punts where Adams made a positive play. I just wanted to throw this section in here because Adams was drafted mainly because of his strengths in this area. I’d argue that he has been the second best coverage specialist on the team outside of George Odum. Adams brings his speed, motor, and hit power all together to really dominate in this area of the field. It’s a dying art but as long as special teams are still in the NFL, Adams will always have a place on an NFL roster for at least this reason.

Adams— towards the middle of the field— is able to shed a blocker in the open field and help bring down the return man here.

Adams—third player from the left— is able to shed a double team and crush the return man in the open field.


Run defense/ Setting the edge

With Walker as the Mike of the defense and Leonard as the Will, the Colts needed someone to step up as the starting Sam linebacker. It is a very unflattering position, as whoever starts at Sam is likely looking at only 40% of the defensive snaps and mostly setting the edge in the run game. There is a lot of dirty work as the Sam and Adams excels in this area. He is very strong in taking on lead blockers—he noticeably bulked up a bit for this reason— and when he is left unblocked, he is rather quick and explosive on the edge. Overall he has been a plus run defender in the games that he has started.

This first rep is a good one from Adams as he takes on the fullback in the hole. Adams’ job as the Sam backer and as the first linebacker in is to establish outside position and take on the lead blocker to allow the other linebackers to clean up the run. Adams executes this perfectly as he sets a strong edge and knocks the fullback back into the runner with a good solid hit. The play is blown up as the runner has nowhere to go and the rest of the defense cleans up the play.

Here Adams is left unblocked off of a play-action and gets a huge hit on the quarterback as a result. Adams is a faster linebacker who bulked up to fill more of a need for the Colts. At his roots though, he is an athletic guy who can fly when given the chance. When he is left unblocked, he is a nightmare for running backs and quarterbacks who don’t see him coming. Here he initially steps inside on the play fake as he anticipates a run play. Once he sees the quarterback fake it though, he redirects quickly and is able to get his first QB hit of the season. Adams has gotten a few free rushes like this is recent weeks and I expect his first career sack to come sooner rather than later.

Here Adams again is in rush defense on the outside— left of the screen. Adams initially establishes outside position on the left tackle and forces the run back inside. Adams realizes that he is in good position to get around his block once the running back cuts back inside and he races past the left tackle. Once he gets around him, he turns up field and is able to chase down the running back on the play. His combination of power to set the edge and speed to chase down the running back on this play are exactly why Adams should be the starter at this position for the rest of the season.


Open Field Tackling/ Hitting

Every Colts fan who watched the preseason noticed one thing about Adams’ game— this guy is a hitter. Despite coming into the league as one of the new age “smaller” linebackers, Adams established a notable reputation among Colts fans and writers as a guy who likes to lay the wood. Although I personally love this aspect of his game, I’ve been mostly impressed with his ability to tackle in the open field. He does not get many opportunities due to his position and that he mostly comes out on passing situations, but when he gets a chance to make a play in open field he rarely misses.

Backed up near their own goal line in the fourth quarter of a tie game, the Dolphins went conservative with a receiver screen play. Typically this is a good call against the Colts as they like to drop into zone coverage in this down and distance. Adams however makes a great play here to disrupt the play. He flies downfield as soon as the ball leaves Tannehill’s hand and is in perfect position to make the tackle. He lays into the receiver and knocks him flat on his back. Huge momentum play that paved the way for the comeback victory.

This next rep is another one where Adams is left unblocked on the edge. The Jaguars run a play-action fake here and Adams is not fooled at all on the play. He flies past the right tackle and running back— who both obviously miss their assignment— and makes Cody Kessler pay with a gigantic hit. Five years ago and we’d be calling this Adams’ first sack of his career. Unfortunately he was flagged on the play though for leading with the head or something like that. Overall though, Adams showed nice burst and recognition off of the edge and crushed the quarterback on the play. He’ll learn from this and legally hit the quarterback next time (probably, who knows with today’s rules).

The last play here isn’t a highlight reel hit but it is a solid open field tackle. The Colts’ defense has played very well this season but even the best tacklers on the team suffer too much from missed open field tackles. It is refreshing to see such a good play made in space here on a running back. Adams sees the swing pass to the running back and reacts quickly. As he closes in on the back, he launches towards the running back’s hip and is able to bring him down for a loss. Adams’ athleticism and ability to target well when tackling make him very good in the open field.


Negatives

Little Things/ Nuances

Adams is a fast, tenacious dude who gets after it on every play. These traits are great but he still needs to improve upon the finer aspects of playing linebacker if he wants to really make a name for himself in this league. At Houston, he was more like a safety/ LB hybrid used all over the field to do what ever the defensive coordinator wanted. For the Colts though, he’s doing the dirty work and playing run defense most of the time. He needs to improve upon his anticipation when diagnosing a play. He could also get better at shedding blocks on the perimeter once he’s engaged and set the edge. These are little aspects of his game but if he can shore them up, his game will take off.

The first rep here shows Adams a bit late to react to the run play. Adams— to the left of Walker— does a great job of staying on his toes here as he reads the play but he is a little slow when reacting. In comparison, look how fast both Walker and Leonard are moving at the snap. Now for context purposes, Leonard and Walker are running a LB stunt so naturally they should be going forward but Adams is still a bit late with his diagnoses here. Not too much of a worry though as I expect this to improve with more playing time.

Last clip in the article here, but Adams does initially do a good job on this rep. He gets outside leverage on his blocker and forces the running back to hesitate until the help comes in— despite getting pushed back a few yards. Where I’d like to see Adams improve on plays like this— and on many other plays in his film— is shedding blockers rather than just forcing plays back inside. He does a great job of taking blockers on and setting the edge but the next step is establishing that outside position, keeping contain, and then shedding blocks to make plays. Once he learns to do that consistently, we’ll see his tackle numbers go up.


Final Thoughts

Matthew Adams coming on strong the last few weeks has been a very pleasant surprise for the Colts— the term “pleasant surprise” should be the Colts motto this season. He is a very strong player who combines his raw strength with athleticism to set strong edges and crush opposing players. He is an absolute killer when given the opportunity as he drives through ball carriers and makes them aware of his presence.

I came away from Adams’ film way more excited than I was going in. I knew he was making a couple splash plays but the overall impact he has had when in the game has really contributed to the Colts’ defense playing much better over the last few weeks. If Adams can build up his game and really improve on the nuances of playing linebacker in the NFL, I see a bright future for him with this team.

Overall though, Adams is one of the most fun players on this team to watch if you are a Colts’ fan. Hopefully he can continue his strong play of late against the surging Texans this weekend.