After the Colts’ victory on Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals my friend Andre Weingarten, Rating adjuster for Madden, posed this question on Twitter.
Is Bobby Okereke the best coverage linebacker on the Colts? @ZachHicks2— Andre Weingarten (@Swami_EA) October 19, 2020
At first, I quickly brushed the question aside. Surely the best coverage linebacker on the team is still Darius Leonard right? The stats from Pro Football Focus surely backup the stance that Leonard is better in coverage as he has allowed a passer rating of just 78.1 when targeted in coverage and has only given up eight receptions on the year. Compare that to Okereke who has given up 30 receptions on the year and has allowed a passer rating of 102.8 when targeted in coverage and it shouldn’t even be a conversation right?
Well I wanted to dig a little deeper because I know PFF tends to struggle a bit with zone coverages in their grading and charting. The results of what I saw really surprised me and prompted me to write this article. Today I will make my case for why I think Bobby Okereke is excellent in coverage despite the rather pedestrian stat line.
The first thing that stood out to me was that the Colts trust Okereke more in man than any of their other linebackers. Yes, Leonard also trails his fair share of players in man too but the scheme is set up in a way that keeps Leonard close to the line of scrimmage so he can always be in attack mode. Okereke however occasionally is asked to do more as I’ve seen him run with slot receivers and tight ends down the field and pick up crossers on play-action plays numerous times.
Let’s start by looking at a few good reps in man coverage that still resulted in receptions. The first one comes against the Browns last week. Cleveland did a great job of utilizing the play-action game to exploit how aggressive the Colts are up front. This time, they play fake to the right and leak Jarvis Landry to the backside on the crosser. Okereke notices this and is able to easily pick up the route and run with the receiver. He could do a better job of playing through the hands on the pass but he is in perfect position and the receiver just makes an incredible catch. Sometimes a great play just beats really good coverage.
Looking over some coverage reps from Bobby Okereke the last two weeks. This is actually great coverage despite the catch allowed. Browns run a nice play-action that isolates Jarvis Landry with a linebacker in man. Okereke stays in the back hip, Landry just makes a great catch pic.twitter.com/IMW45rdSJw— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
This is where nuance is needed when stats rarely give you that. I am all for analytics but context is crucial on certain plays. For instance, this play below was charted a touchdown allowed by Okereke. While yes technically it was his receiver scoring, it’s tough to play this any better than he did. He is in off man coverage against a slot receiver and sticks to him for 5+ seconds on the play. Sam Darnold is able to make magic happen in the backfield and buys just enough time for the receiver to finally beat Okereke to the outside. This is where some stats can be a bit skewed to show a player is struggling when in reality he played this rep very well.
This is where it is hard to look at stats and judge performance. Okereke is charged with giving up a touchdown on this play. He is in off man vs a slot receiver and has great coverage for 5+ seconds. Pass rush fails on the play and Okereke gets penalized for it pic.twitter.com/kEcvkFCWSS— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
It is plays like the one above and this one here that keep me optimistic about Okereke in man coverage. Yes, the stats aren’t great but he is right there on almost every catch. Sometimes an offensive player just makes a really difficult play. Here he is in great position on Austin Hooper and even jumps in front of the route as the ball is thrown. Quarterback Baker Mayfield just threw a really good pass low and away so his tight end could make a play. Okereke does everything right but just misses getting the pass breakup or interception.
Good coverage again by Okereke on this third down throw. He undercuts the stick route but Mayfield throws a nice ball low and away. Great catch by Hooper too. These are plays you live with as a defense as there isn't much more you can do. pic.twitter.com/SDbapfsKUc— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
Overall though, I think he has the highest ceiling of this linebacker group in man. He has insane length and I personally think he is the fastest linebacker on the team as well. When you mix in that he has great eyes and can read play concepts, then you have something that can be special. This is one example of that as the Vikings try to leak a fullback vertically up the seam backside of the play-action. Okereke reads it all the way and takes away that option. His physical traits and his improving mental grasp of the game could really make him a special backer in coverage.
The Vikings tried to leak the fullback vertical on the backside of this play-action but Okereke sees it all the way and takes away that option. pic.twitter.com/ghisaDaHKS— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
This is now where I get excited. The Colts put a lot of pressure on Okereke in zone coverage as he is expected to take away those inside routes both at the intermediate level and underneath in the Colts’ typical cover two zone. He has improved drastically at understanding route combinations and this has led to more plays being made on the ball in year two.
Let’s start with his best play of the season, in my opinion. The Bengals are running a fairly typical zone beater as they switch release in the slot and have one receiver stop underneath and have another sit behind the linebacker’s zone. The goal is to get the linebacker to bite up on the underneath route and get the easy completion behind him for the first. Well Okereke understands this route combination. To combat this, he gets good depth that allows him to play both routes. He is ready to attack the underneath route if need be but he is watching the quarterback and his eyes. He stays in the middle lane the entire time and nearly makes a great play on the ball as rookie QB Joe Burrow tries to fit a tight pass behind him.
The club on his hand robbed us of a really nice interception by Okereke. He sits on the underneath route while keeping his eyes in the backfield. As Burrow tries to squeeze one in behind him, he jumps the route for the near pick. Great eyes here. pic.twitter.com/MtDuxGHSuT— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
That feel for route combinations also allows for him to make plays like this. He knows there isn’t a receiver behind him on this route so this allows him to attack downhill. He gets a very shallow drop and meets the quarterback’s eyes. As soon as the throwing motion begins, he breaks downhill and makes an excellent play on the ball. His ability to pre-diagnose plays before they happen in zone is what allows plays like this to happen.
Aggressive break on the ball here by Okereke. Confidently reads the route, gets his eyes back on the QB, and gets the pass deflection. pic.twitter.com/45tNhUDRtI— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
The benefit of understanding depth, route combinations, and reading opposing quarterbacks? Being able to capitalize on bad throws. Here he is yet again in great position as he slides vertically with the tight end in cover two. He gets his eyes back on the quarterback though as he knows he has deep help over the top. As soon as he gets to the top of his drop, Baker Mayfield throws a terrible pass that Okereke is able to jump because he is reading the backfield. This one is obviously a gifted pick but that’s the result of good positioning.
I have no clue where this pass from Mayfield is going but good job by Okereke to get his depth while keeping his eyes in the backfield. pic.twitter.com/Oli8T65DnG— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 20, 2020
Getting back to the question at the top of the article, it’s tough to truly answer. The Colts have two really good coverage linebackers who are asked to do completely different things on defense.
Okereke is asked to do so much more in terms of coverage. One play he will turn and run with a slot receiver in man while the next he will be reading a route combination in his mid zone. He does a lot when you also consider that he plays SAM backer on base downs and switches to more of a MIKE on passing downs.
Leonard is an attacking playmaker who shouldn’t be discounted at all. The Colts put him in positions to succeed by keeping most plays in front of him and allowing him to attack at all times. This is what has led to so many big plays by the WILL backer.
Overall I think I’d personally lean Okereke after film study just because he is asked to do so much but this is a great problem/debate to have. The Colts don’t only have a good linebacker core but they have two really solid pass defending backers in the most pass heavy NFL we have ever seen. The combination of Okereke and Leonard in coverage should bode well for this team in the near and distant future.