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Analysis

Can LB Nicholas Morrow Start for Oakland in 2018?

Can LB Nicholas Morrow Start for Oakland in 2018?

Last season got off with a bang for rookie undrafted free agent linebacker Nicholas Morrow. In the team’s opening-week win at Tennessee, the rookie shined and many thought he would work his way into a bigger role with the team. He appeared in all 16 games, but started just five. Does he have a chance to start in 2018?

Undrafted free agent Nicholas Morrow was one of the Raiders’ few bright spots in 2017. While the team fell short of expectations, the 6-foot, 225-pound rookie linebacker certainly made a name for himself and became a fan favorite while starting five games and playing in all 16.

With newly acquired veterans such as linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tahir Whitehead, Morrow will face much stiffer competition for playing time this year. Also, under new coach Jon Gruden and his staff, there is no guarantee holdovers will have a role in the new system. Does Morrow have the talent to become a full-time contributor, or will he be yet another one-year wonder? Let’s dive into the film and find out.

Play Action/Play Recognition

The first place any breakdown of the linebacker position should start is with the ability to diagnose plays. For instance, look for things like, “Will he oversell on play-action and leave an open zone?” Morrow was certainly fooled by play-action at times as clip No. 1 highlights. This is not uncommon, especially with younger players. He will get coached up and has a great veteran to learn from in Johnson.

“I’ve been taking Nick Morrow under my wing a little bit,” Johnson said after practice last Tuesday. “(He’s a) very athletic young linebacker, has all the skills. Mentally just trying to get him up to date so he can eventually play a lot more.

Morrow’s 2017 Week 1 stop against the Titans was a pivotal play in the Raiders victory.

Getting his mental game to peak will determine how much playing time Morrow sees. Offenses have used play-action and misdirection plays for decades. The linebackers are the main target of these schemes.

In the second play in this clip, Morrow did a good job of staying home, which is especially important against modern NFL offenses.

morrow oakland raidersMost people have heard of “run-pass option” or “RPOs.” It’s a play that gives the quarterback a choice to hand the ball off or the tow, usually to a tight end. The decision is made for him by the action of a specific defender, usually the weak-side linebacker. The Raiders utilized Morrow as their weak-side linebacker in their nickel packages and the lone linebacker dime packages. This means he was responsible for the tight end or wide receiver on the backside of the offense, which is the target on almost all RPOs. Here is a basic diagram of a Sweep/Post RPO vs. a typical double 3-tech nickel alignment:

The intent of this play is to create a situation where there is not a “correct answer” for the defense. If Morrow provides backside pursuit on the sweep action, the quarterback will throw the post route. If he stays home in coverage, the quarterback hands the ball off and has essentially blocked Morrow’s backside pursuit.

Defenses would rather force the offense to run the ball than give up an easy 8- to 15-yard completion. Of course, there are many things Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther can do if he anticipates an RPO, such as roll the weak-side safety down to man-cover the tight end and have the linebackers “funnel” the running back, which we will talk about in the “coverage” section. This is a basic example of why it’s important for Morrow to recognize offensive plays and tendencies.

Run Defense 

Although offenses throw far more than they run, a defense has to be able to stop the run. Morrow didn’t seem to have any issues getting the runner on the ground with 57 combined tackles last season.

His size limitations showed up at times — like in the first play in the clip. The fullback had no trouble clearing Morrow from the gap and providing the back with an open lane. Morrow will certainly grow with an offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program.

Lack of size gives Morrow great burst, which also shows up on film. He quickly reads the run in the second clip, navigates traffic, provides backside pursuit and makes the tackle. NFL defenses are making this adjustment and sacrificing size for speed. At his size, Morrow would have been a safety even as recently as 10 years ago.

The “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” days are long gone. The modern linebacker has to have speed and range to cover sideline to sideline. They have to have good reflexes, change of direction and burst to break on plays as they develop. Morrow fits that mold. Coaches will live with his lack of size.

Coverage

Morrow truly shined in pass coverage. The most difficult part of this project might have been deciding which coverage plays to highlight. The first play in the clip highlights Morrow’s range and explains a change we will likely see in the defense this season.

Morrow reads the screen and is able to cross the entire formation and get to the running back before the pass can be thrown. It’s a spectacular play and one a defensive coordinator should try to prevent from being required. Of course, the blitz by former Raiders linebacker Cory James leaves Morrow in man coverage and isn’t a planned scheme, so don’t overthink this particular play. It simply illustrates the advantage an offense can have using its running backs as receivers out of the backfield.

The Raiders will likely prevent this scenario by “funneling” the running back. In videos from this offseason, such as the one below, the linebackers tend to drop into short zones after their initial setup.

As they drop, depending on the coverage, one linebacker is responsible for the running back. “Funneling” makes the linebacker responsible for the back on the side of the field he releases, while the other will zone in the middle of the field. While this makes covering the back easier, it can also lead to interceptions.

The side of the field the running back releases to is typically the first side the quarterback will read, with the running back acting as a check-down option. If the quarterback starts to read the backside of the play, there’s a chance he won’t see the linebacker who is zoned up in the middle, often referred to as the “rat.”

Shifting his eyes from one side of the field to the other can lead the quarterback into throwing the ball to an unseen linebacker (rat) or close enough that a guy like Morrow can intercept the throw. A combination of great scheme and personnel can lead to turnovers, especially when you pressure the quarterback.

The first play in this clip shows Morrow’s ability to get vertical. A lot was made of the Raiders’ inability to cover tight ends. Even average tight ends were able to score and rack up yardage because they didn’t have a player who could cover vertical routes.

Depending on the coverage, the style of Cover-3 was susceptible to vertical routes in the seam, especially on the weak side, which is typically a tight end. Morrow was able to defend those routes and led him to playing as much as he did. That won’t be the case in Guenther’s system, as it doesn’t have the same vulnerability.

The second play emphasizes Morrow’s athleticism. He keys on the running back, has great burst when he reads the pass, and his closing speed forces an incompletion. This is the perfect example of what Morrow really brings to the defense. He is undersized, but has the range and explosiveness to defend the pass.

In a new system with veterans in front of him, there’s no guarantee Morrow will play as much, but he has a lot going for him. From a new defensive coordinator known for getting the most out of inexperienced linebackers, to the guidance Morrow is receiving from a great mentor, perhaps wily veteran Johnson will wind up watching his young protege from the sidelines.

Chris Reed is the former Senior NFL analyst for Silver and Black Today.

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