We got a problem that we need to address off the top. I’m a big fan of the Five Toughest series, and I’ve wanted to do one of these for a while now, but there’s a small issue with me doing it.
I play for the Steelers. I have two Top 5 guys on my own squad. It’s not even up for debate. Antonio Brown: best receiver I’ve ever faced. Le’Veon Bell: best running back I’ve ever faced. That’s not me gassing them up. That’s just facts.
Now, I already know everybody on the Internet is going to come after me for doing them. So we’ll make a deal here. You gotta let me include my guys. But I’ll give you two trade-offs.
- I promise you I’m going to give you some real nitty-gritty football insight.
- I’m also going to include a Cowboy and a Raven. A Raven, man. That’s how serious I am.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s roll.
Toughest O-Lineman: Tyron Smith (and the rest of the Cowboys)
Ezekiel Elliott is a beast. He ran all over us last season. But I can’t mention him without mentioning the guys in front of him, because they’re flat-out amazing. Tyron Smith is a freaking Sasquatch out there playing football. He’s huge and he’s super quick, and when he gets his hands on you, forget it. It’s like they’re glued to you. You’re not getting out of his grasp. In my opinion, he’s the best tackle in the game.
But with Dallas, it’s really about the whole group. They have the most in-sync offensive line I’ve seen in the league. They move in unison, and they’re all in the perfect technique on every play, even in the pre-snap. See, there’s usually a tell with offensive linemen. Some guys will tip the run or the pass just by doing little things that you’d never notice on TV. Some guys will have their hand on the ground a certain way if it’s a run. Or their body weight will be shifted to the back foot just a little bit if it’s a pass. I swear, with some guys — you can just look down at their hand in the grass, and if their wrist isn’t as flexed as it normally is, or if you don’t see the veins bulging in their forearms, that means they’re not putting as much weight on their hand. Their weight is on their back foot, because they’re trying to cheat to get a quick first step back in pass protection.
Tyron Smith is a freaking Sasquatch out there playing football.
Some guys will even be looking at the quarterback all the way up until the moment the ball is about to be snapped. That’s a run.
Hand on the knee? That’s a pass.
There’s a ton of different tells.
But Dallas’ guys never tip you off with their pre-snap setup. Those guys are a well-oiled machine. When the ball snaps, they all have a consistent technique when it comes to their zone blocking. It’s one thing to block your man and open a hole. It’s another level to block your man and stick to him and move him upfield. More often than not, you’ll see their linemen finish the play four or five yards past the line of scrimmage.
The easiest way for a fan to tell if an offensive line is great is to watch how long their feet stay chopping. This play got a lot of attention for Zeke’s leap, but watch the linemen here.
All five guys are driving their feet for the whole play. Watch how far up the field 72 sticks with his block, to make sure he seals the outside for Zeke.
As a linebacker, when you get heavy guys like Zeke and Le’Veon in open space, they run so hard that you don’t even want to tackle them as the game goes on. Every tackle costs you a little bit of punishment. Zeke is a heavy, heavy, heavy runner, and he wears defenses down.
Toughest Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown
Not the biggest guy. Not the strongest guy. Not the fastest guy. So why is he so good?
It’s his WANT TO.
He wants to beat you more than anybody I know in the NFL. Way more. Way, way, way more. There is something inside of him that I’ve never seen in another player. After practice, you’ll see all the guys running in, and AB will be out there catching balls on the Jugs machine. Boom. Boom. Boom.
But. But! There’s levels to this. A lot of guys will stay out an extra 20 minutes hitting the sled or the Jugs or the bag just to show the coaches that they’re putting in the work. The difference with AB is that every single rep, he’s going 100%.
He comes off the line like The T-1000.
On the field, the work shows. Ben is comfortable throwing into double teams because of how confident he is in AB’s route awareness. With a huge go-up-and-get-it guy like Julio Jones, throwing into a double makes sense. Julio can rise up over the defenders and catch the ball at the high point. With AB, there’s no vertical advantage. It’s just pure route running.
Watching AB run routes is such a weird spectacle because … well, let’s take a guy like Randy Moss. He ran like a gazelle. Long, perfect strides. AB isn’t gliding. When he comes off the line, he’s got an upright running style that looks kind of choppy. He’s like a machine. He runs like The Terminator. I’m not talking about Arnold — I’m talking about the cop. He comes off the line like The T-1000.
The key is his breakdown. Y’all know what a breakdown is? It’s the moment when a receiver has to wind down his full-speed run so he can change direction.
Unless you’re running a straight Go down the sideline, there’s always going to be a breakdown to the route. And when there’s a breakdown, there’s a chance for a DB or linebacker to pounce and lock up the receiver.
With most guys, even the best receivers, you can sense when the breakdown is coming. Even if it’s a half-second of hesitation, or a hitch in their stride, or a slight change in their body language (or, seriously, in their eyes), you can feel that they’re about to breakdown.
But AB is not normal. AB is an alien. His breakdown is so smooth and so quick that it’s basically just one hard plant and boom — he’s changing direction at full speed.
It’s hard to explain on paper. Because it’s easier to describe it as a tempo or a sound. The only way I can explain it is that the sharpest route runners — guys like AB, Emmanuel Sanders, T.Y. Hilton — they don’t “elaborate” on their breakdowns. They don’t sell it. They’re economical. There’s no exaggeration. They just plant one foot, and it’s like they teleport two steps away from you.
Look at this break on Janoris Jenkins.
It’s like …
Tap, tap, tap, tap, plant, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, tap … tap … tap … plant … tap.
I know it sounds weird, but the route you see in a playbook is not set in stone. There’s a lot of interpretation to it. There’s a lot of art to it. There’s like a rhythm to it. If AB is double teamed (which he always is), he doesn’t just have to get separation at some point and then turn and look for the ball. He has to get separation at the exact second that Ben has already put the ball in the air.
And if he hits you with a double move?
Then once he makes his break, he’s really good at using his body to create a buffer between the DBs and the ball. He might even give the DB a subtle little push-off every now and then to get that extra inch of separation. Not a shove. Just a little tap on the hip to throw their momentum off. Then he’ll catch it and pop up smiling at the DB, like, “Who, me? What I do?”
Toughest Running Back: Le’Veon Bell
He’s not just a running back, though. He’s a wide receiver and a running back. Le’Veon is going to get his rushing yards, but if you start stacking up the box, he’ll motion out of you and start playing receiver. But he’s not a decoy — he’s killing you out there. There’s only one other back who can do that, and that’s David Johnson. Any other running back motions out? As a defense you’re thinking: O.K., cool. But you’re not hurting us. Most linebackers will just jam the running back at the line and they’re done. But you’re not jamming those guys. Those two can hurt you like any top slot receiver.
I can’t stress enough how much this matters. All week long, we watch film for like three or four hours a day. By the time Sunday rolls around, no matter how creative a team tries to get, you pretty much know the sets. You know what they like to run. But if you can flex out a guy like Le’Veon or DJ on the fly? It puts you on the backfoot.
From a rushing perspective, Le’Veon’s patience is game-changing. I mean, it literally changes how the game looks on TV. Most running backs are grabbing the ball and running straight into the back of their linemen. Levon gets it and stands up damn near straight, and kind of tip-toes around until he sees his lane.
Like I said, as a linebacker, most of the time you know your opponent’s blocking schemes. And yeah, some teams might pull their guards or get cute with something every once in awhile, but if you watch enough film, you know the gap you want to shoot.
With Le’Veon, that’s a really dangerous proposition. There’s an unpredictability to him. We’ll call a certain play, but he’s going to take a second to scan the field and see how the play develops. Le’Veon waits for what seems like a ridiculously long time to make his cut, because he has the patience to let his linemen open up the holes.
… even if it takes, like, three full seconds.
You’re probably like, “Alright, but why doesn’t every running back do that then?”
The difference is that Le’Veon has the vision and the patience, but he also has the physical tools to stop-and-start like nobody else in the NFL. Most running backs don’t want to stop their feet and load back up behind the line of scrimmage. But with Le’Veon, he can be almost standing still, then do his jump-cut and slip through a tiny hole at full speed.
He’s changing the position. In 10 years, I bet you’re going to have a whole new generation of backs running just like him.
Toughest Tight End: Travis Kelce
I really respect Gronk and Jordan Reed because they’re like receivers and tight ends combined. But I’m going to put Travis Kelce here, but he’s got all the tools, and he talks some pretty good smack, too.
The guy is 260 and running routes as precise as a slot receiver.
A lot of X receivers will talk smack, but they’ll be doing it after they caught a ball on the sidelines. They won’t be in the middle of the field talking smack. Respect to Kelce, because he’s talking to you knowing that he’s gotta go over the middle again the very next play.
The special thing about Kelce is his versatility. He can motion out and run the same route trees as most wide receivers. The guy is 260 and running routes as precise as a slot receiver. This is a DB on him here, not a linebacker.
When you’re a great route runner as a tight end, you deserve a lot of credit. Because think about it: Let’s go back to what I said about AB’s breakdowns. When you have a low center of gravity like AB or TY Hilton, it going to be easier for you to change direction without telegraphing your breakdown. But try to change momentum when you’re 6′ 6″, 260. That’s a whole different challenge. That’s why Gronk will kill you with the seam route. He doesn’t really have to change momentum drastically. He just goes up and gets it.
But with Kelce, he can run everything on you. Ins, Deep Overs, Posts — he can do it all without telegraphing it. He can get separation on both DBs and linebackers, and he doesn’t drop anything.
Watch the little headfake on the DB here.
I remember during our playoff game at Arrowhead last year, the ground was so terrible. The grass was all chopped up, and it was super tough to make any cuts, especially for the heavier guys. But Kelce still grabbed five catches for 77 in that muck. I thought that was really impressive.
He likes to run a bunch of deep Over routes across the field, because he can use his speed to get past the linebackers pretty easily, then if he can catch it in enough space, he can punish the safeties coming over the top with the stiff arm.
He’s a YAC machine, because his stiff arm is pretty cold.
Toughest Middle Linebacker: C.J. Mosley
There are so many inside linebackers I admire: Sean Lee, Bobby Wagner, Dont’a Hightower, Luke Kuechly. But if I’m thinking about a guy who I really respect, it’s C.J. Mosley.
We’ve been compared to one another since I was at OSU and he was at Alabama, and then we got drafted by the Steelers and Ravens respectively, so there’s no escaping it. We always have heated battles, and I think we bring out the best in each other. I know for me, coming into the middle linebacker position in Pittsburgh, it was a huge responsibility. You’re stepping into history. And the same goes for him in Baltimore. But he responded by making two Pro Bowls in three seasons.
Baltimore plays exactly the same way we play. They play a little more man, but the philosophies are the same. As an MLB in our schemes, you have to be able to blitz, stop the run, and cover. It’s a three-tool position. C.J. has to play out in deep coverage a lot, and he does a great job.
This one-handed interception shows you everything you need to know.
If you watch how the play develops, C.J. has to cover a deep Over route by a receiver. That’s a long way from home. He tracks him 25 yards downfield and pulls it down on the backpedal.
For me, though, the MLB position is not about splash plays, and it’s not about stats. It’s about being the heartbeat of a team defense. Ever since C.J. came into the NFL three seasons ago, Baltimore’s defense has been in the Top 8. You have to respect that, because when you’re the MLB, you’re the anchor. You’re like the symphony conductor. To come in and run a defense like that at 22 years old is special.
I always say, Ray Lewis had some great years on paper, for sure. But some years, if you just looked at the stats? They didn’t jump off the page. It didn’t matter, though. Baltimore was always a Top 5 defense, and he got respect for that. Same thing with Mike Singletary or Patrick Willis. Maybe their stats weren’t always the best, but they were the glue. Ask any guy in the league, and they’d tell you.
C.J. has the potential to make that defense click for a long time.
We got Lev and AB though 🙂