The Linebacker position has been one that has seen non-stop twists and turns this offseason. One minute, the gang is all here. The next, a veteran free agent tears his ACL on the same day the team trade Mychal Kendricks. But even now, after an offseason battle between Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry, we still find ourselves asking yet more questions.
Nigel Bradham is set to miss Thursday’s clash with Atlanta due to a suspension for his off-the-field incidents in the 2016 offseason, leaving Jordan Hicks as the lone returning starter to face a Falcons team who were pipped at the post of their Wildcard showdown in January.
Playing on both sides of Hicks will be the tandem of Grugier-Hill and Gerry, who have the strongest opportunity of their careers so far to not only play a substantial amount of first team snaps, but to face an offense that they could be perfectly poised to stop.
“They are one of the few teams that actually employs a fullback. So they do run some two-back sets.” Jim Schwartz explained earlier this week.
You’ll see probably six different personnel groups with us, matching what they do offensively. They use two tight end packages. They use two-back packages. They have two backs where it’s two halfbacks, not a fullback. They have four-wide packages. The traditional three-wide, extra offensive linemen. Substitutions, personnel matching was a big part of the games we played the last two years against them and I would expect the same thing to be in this game.”
This plays perfectly into the hands of Philadelphia, who if forced into a base formation, have an array of talent to matchup to what the offense presents. 2017 draftee Nate Gerry is built in the ‘Kurt Coleman’ mold as a hybrid Safety, while Grugier-Hill’s sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability make him far better suited to picking up screens and blowing up plays that stretch the field. On one hand, you have a linebacker who is extremely reminiscent of an explosive linebacker with the ballskills of a safety and on the other, a special-teams ace who led the team in tackles on that front last season and also has incredible speed.
“We’ll try to compartmentalize some guys.” The defensive coordinator told reporters when asked about dealing with the suspension. “Our numbers are down just a little bit. We have a new guy coming in, so we’ll have guys covering up a lot of different roles up there. [The] whole goal is not to have any drop off in production. We have confidence in those guys. There were games last year that we had to do that, also. [LB] Jordan [Hicks] missed most of, well just about all of, the Washington game. Carolina, we lost some guys and guys stepped in and got wins for us and we expect the same in this game.”
For both Gerry and Grugier-Hill, this is a huge chance to stand up and make the weakside spot their own. As I alluded to on a recent episode of ‘The Outside Insider Podcast’, the plan for Schwartz may simply be to use whichever linebacker suits that particular situation. There is no designated starter or linebacker who ran away with the positional battle and the same goes for the war in the slot. However, the speed and consistent tackling of Grugier-Hill could be clinical in getting to the outside to stop those pesky zonal concepts in which Coleman takes flight, while Gerry can focus on knocking the snot out of Freeman and anyone else who crosses his path. One year ago, special teams was the ceiling for this tandem and now they have the chance to flip the fortunes of the season opener on its head.
If the Falcons insist on blending the skillsets of Tevin Coleman and the returning Devonta Freeman, they will be met with a linebacker trio that although lacks its heart and soul, still has plenty of juice pumping through its veins.
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