On the first day of free agency, the New York Giants made Olivier Vernon the richest 4-3 defensive end in league history with a contract that set several records.
Given the dearth of defensive ends and pass rushers on the Giants' roster, going after the top End on the market was a move they had to make. Vernon was impressive in his introductory conference call and has dedicated himself to restoring the Giants' defense to what the franchise expects from itself.
The play starts with the Dolphins lined up in their base four-man front, Vernon -- highlighted in red -- is lined up at the 7-technique outside of left tackle Tyron Smith's left shoulder (or if you can imagine an in-line tight end, Vernon would be lined up across from his right shoulder).
The Cowboys are lined up in their base "I" formation, with a tight end next to the right tackle.
This turns out to be a play-action pass, and Vernon stays patient, working for position with Smith. He has his pad level low and -- though you can't see it in the still -- his hands are active, keeping Smith from using his reach advantage to take him out of the play. Because of that, when the play fake is completed, Vernon is still able to act.
Now that he knows exactly what's going on, Vernon uses a nice arm-over move to get Smith off balance and push him to the ground. At the same time, the running back moves up to account for the defensive back who has a clear run into the backfield. Elsewhere on the line the protection is solid. The Cowboys have double teams on the inside, and the right tackle is fairing well enough on the other edge.
At the finish of the play we see the payoff as Vernon takes Romo down. It isn't a clean sack -- Giants fans know all too well how hard those are to get on Tony Romo -- but it's a sack. Behind Vernon you can see Tyron Smith picking himself up off the ground.
Despite one of the best left tackles ending the play on the ground, this wasn't a physical domination. Vernon set this sack up with technique, patience, and then decisive suddenness. He had a plan for this play and executed it well.
Olivier Vernon vs Tyron Smith.....that's pretty pic.twitter.com/bG9OaCqAvN— Collin (@Cook98C) March 10, 2016
For our second play, Vernon doesn't get the sack, but the play, and result, are almost as good.
The Dolphins start the play lined up in their base 4-3, with Vernon lined up across Smith's left shoulder. He gets a good jump off the ball, starting as though he will be taking an inside route to Romo. He even sells it by bringing his right arm over as though he were getting ready to use a rip move.
As Smith moves to counter the inside rush, Vernon shows off his quickness that sends Smith reeling and opens up a free run to the quarterback. He hits Romo just as he releases the ball, forcing an errant throw and possibly saving the touchdown.
But as pretty and satisfying as watching that move is, that isn't what I want to focus on specifically.
Vernon's bend as he finishes the spin move and hunts down Romo is the part that was particularly impressive to me. To make it easier to see, I highlighted Vernon in red and the angle between his body and the ground in black.
Being able to bend like that shortens the route Vernon can take to get to the quarterback, while also being more difficult to block. The balance, body control, and flexibility it takes to maintain that angle as he accelerates towards Romo are impressive and rare. This is the kind of thing you see from Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora.
This play started with Jason Witten lined up on the right side of the line, but he motioned to the left just before the snap. Vernon is lined up as a stand-up rusher, outside of the tight end.
This is an outside zone run designed to either get the running back to the outside or stress the defense, opening up a cut-back lane. Defending the zone run depends on the defensive line being disciplined and holding their gaps, and the defensive end -- Vernon in this case -- setting the edge.
After the snap we get a better look at the blocking scheme, and what the various assignments are. For our purposes, Vernon's job is to hold the edge against Witten and keep the back running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
He sets up with a nice base and gets good leverage on Witten, controlling him from the start of the snap. Because this is a still, it's difficult to tell, but Vernon sustains the block, forcing the running back from turning upfield, and keeping him in the backfield until the blocking breaks down.
At this point the blocking has broken down, Vernon has discarded Witten and is in fantastic position to make the tackle. Because of the discipline of the Miami line, the running back doesn't have an escape route. Once again, it was a combination of technique, patience, discipline, and using his physical tools when the time is right, that allowed Vernon to make the play.