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Film Room: Quenton Nelson vs. the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Heading into the Week 1 match-up with the Cincinnati Bengals, fans were aware that there would be a real test for the offensive line. This is one of the most talented and deepest groups the team will face and Geno Atkins is a six-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All Pro defensive tackle.

Hey, Quenton Nelson? Welcome to the NFL.

There is no doubt that Andrew Luck experienced his share of pressure on Sunday. A number of the shots he took resulted in penalties that ended up helping Indianapolis but it is discouraging to see him take hits when there is so much concern about his surgically repaired throwing shoulder.

This film room piece will attempt to gauge how much of the pressure Luck faced was directly due to Quenton Nelson’s performance in his first regular season NFL game. I have already read in the comments on Stampede Blue that he did not have a stellar performance and the self-anointed “game graders” at Pro Football Focus have been pretty harsh on him to this point in his young career.

Let’s take a look ourselves, shall we?

When I watched the replay of this holding call on Quenton Nelson (#56) during the live television broadcast, I thought it was a bad call. It appeared that Atkins (#97) lost his balance when he attempted to spin, and when Nelson fell to the ground it was like pulling a chair out from behind him.

Looking at the All-22 film replays from both angles it is clear that he committed the hold. He gets beat badly to his inside and Ryan Kelly (#78) is no where to be found. He tries to recover but has given up so much leverage that he has no chance and wraps his left arm around the outside of Atkins to keep him from getting to the quarterback.

Welcome to the NFL.

For those who do not break down the film to determine responsibility on these plays, this is another example where Atkins gets pressure up the middle and is credited for a hit on Luck. It is easy to note that Atkins is lined up across Quenton Nelson pre-snap. It would also be easy to mistakenly believe that Nelson is responsible for the quarterback hit.

Instead, when we review the film we can identify a stunt on the second pause. This is a designed defensive play call where Atkins is tasked with slanting inside to get enough push, and keep enough attention, to allow Ryan Glasgow (#98) to twist across the quarterback’s face and pressure the quarterback.

Nelson identifies the stunt and attempts to pass Atkins off to Kelly. You can see that Kelly gets rocked back onto his heels by Atkins and ends up on roller skates. He is unable to meaningfully recover and allows a hit on Luck.

I want to be clear that this is a very difficult blocking assignment for interior offensive linemen, particularly with a talented defensive tackle like Atkins. However, if we’re being entirely fair here, Nelson did what he was supposed to do and even recovered quickly enough to keep Glasgow from getting to Luck. Kelly is primarily, if not solely, responsible for the quarterback hit.

I would be willing to bet a lot of pesos that PFF graded this against Nelson.

This should look familiar. Once again, Atkins slants to cross the face of Andrew Luck. Nelson gets a strong initial hit to relieve the pressure up the middle. Nelson identifies that Jordan Willis (#75) is attempting to stunt into his gap and get pressure on the quarterback.

At this point, Atkins becomes Kelly’s responsibility and Willis becomes Nelson’s. Nelson gets back into his gap and shoves Willis wide of his target, allowing Luck to get the pass away. Kelly gets shoved wide and allows a lane for Atkins into Andrew Luck’s face.

This is another tough blocking assignment and another example where the primary responsibility falls on Ryan Kelly’s shoulders.

It would be easy to come into the game with the expectation that Quenton Nelson would be primarily responsible for anything Geno Atkins does in the game. If Atkins has multiple quarterback hits and a sack, it must be on Nelson. Right?

As we have already seen, this is incorrect.

In this play, there is another example of a stunt. This time Atkins takes an outside lane in hopes of springing a gap for Carl Lawson (#58) as he stunts to the inside. Nelson recognizes the stunt after he drives Atkins wide of the pocket and into Joe Haeg. Haeg is off-balance, as Ryan Kelly was in our earlier clip, and is never able to gain leverage on Atkins.

You should note that Nelson had the quickness and strength to recover and get his arm extended to lock-out Lawson and force him wide of Luck. If Haeg is also able to win, Luck has a pocket to step into or a lane to escape.

Another difficult assignment for the offensive line and another instance where PFF likely credited Nelson for giving up a sack when the bulk of the responsibility has to be on Haeg.

This play is an easy illustration of one of Quenton Nelson’s biggest weaknesses and an area where he must improve. He has the tendency to swing and miss off of the line when a defender sets him up. He comes out quickly here and attempts to gain early control of the interaction with Atkins.

Instead of going directly into Nelson, Atkins takes an initial side-step with his right foot and avoids getting locked out. He utilizes a spin move and counter explosion to beat Nelson inside and blow up the running play.

Welcome to the NFL rookie.

We have analyzed multiple examples where stunts went wrong and how it resulted in pressure, hits, or sacks on Andrew Luck. We also pointed out that a lazy viewing of a play could lead to placing blame on the shoulders of the wrong offensive lineman.

This play is an example of how the offensive line should react to a stunt. Here, Nelson quickly passes off Atkins to Kelly who has his base set and is able to get leverage under his shoulder pads. Nelson neutralizes Glasgow and the play is over.

This is what you want every inside stunt to look like if you’re an offensive line coach.

Here is another example of winning on an inside stunt. The first example had Atkins coming over the top of Glasgow and this example has Glasgow coming over the top of Atkins. The result is the same on both plays. With continuity and experience playing next to each other, you have to hope that most inside stunts look like this.

This play is an example of Nelson engaging Atkins and sticking with him throughout the entire play. He is able to keep the pocket clean and leave a big gap up and to Andrew Luck’s left to escape the pocket and get positive yards. When we compare this play to the holding penalty at the beginning of this film review, we can see that Nelson is much better prepared to handle Atkins’ hand-fighting and his attempt to pressure the quarterback.

This is the only play in the film review that has someone other than Geno Atkins across from Nelson. On this play, massive nose tackle Andrew Billings (#99) gets completely neutralized. While this isn’t necessarily a spectacular piece of film, it helps to illustrate how effective Nelson was against other key rotational defensive linemen on one of the deepest and most talented lines the Colts will face this year.

I saved the best for last. At first glance, this play will look like nothing spectacular. In fact, I’ll tell you that there is pretty much nothing “text book” about how this looks. However, in the NFL, the reality is that things will happen in the blink of an eye and those who are able to make split-second adjustments will separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Nelson makes it a point to give Atkins a little extra shove to help safely transition him to Haeg before releasing to pick up a stunting Carl Lawon. This extra little push nearly ends in disaster.

Frankly, for the vast majority of NFL offensive linemen, this is either a sack, deflected pass, or a brutal blind-side hit. Nelson is aware enough and athletic enough to turn his back and serve as a wall protecting Luck from a straight shot. He is able to get enough of a push on Lawson to knock him off track and allow Luck to release the pass.


While Quenton Nelson certainly had a couple rookie moments, he did a solid job against Geno Atkins and one of the most talented defensive line groups he will face in 2018. If he had hopes for easing his way into the NFL, those were completely dashed on Sunday.

Nelson was in on all 82 — 82! — offensive snaps. There were certainly some snaps where Atkins drove him back a few yards but the plays included in this film review were the ones that I felt best illustrated his performance overall. If I include the recognition that he most certainly didn’t simply own Atkins throughout the day and give him a small handicap for being a rookie, I’d give him a “B” for the entire body of work.

There are a whole bunch of offensive linemen who will face Atkins this year and will head into the game hoping to be lucky enough to exit the game with a “B” grade. Not very many of them will get their wish.