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Cardinals still trying to find the right role for rookie Isaiah Simmons

Many Giants fans were hoping the team would pick the versatile defender, so let’s look at the film and see how Simmons is transitioning to the NFL

Buffalo Bills v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The New York Giants owned the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Giants 41-35 overtime victory over Washington sealed the fate for Chase Young and put an even bigger onus on the selection of an offensive tackle. Luckily for the Giants, they had their pick of Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton or Jedrick Wills.

There was little question that tackle was a priority, but a chasm in the fanbase percolated around Clemson hybrid linebacker Isaiah Simmons. The 2019 Butkus Award winner and ACC Defensive Player of the Year was coming off a phenomenal 2019 campaign of 104 tackles, 7 sacks, 8 passes defended, and 3 interceptions. His athletic testing was also off the charts.

Given the state of the Giants 2019 defense that surrendered 377 yards a game, ranking 26th in the league, the notion to consider Simmons was plausible. I certainly believe the Giants made the correct decision on the position, and Andrew Thomas, despite struggling mightily through the first eight weeks, has looked very promising since the 25-23 loss against the Buccaneers. Simmons, however, has had an up and down opening season in Vance Joseph’s defense in the desert.

The eighth overall pick will square up against the fourth overall pick this Sunday in a pivotal battle for playoff position. The Cardinals were 5-2 and now find themselves struggling at 6-6. They’re a Hail Mary completion to DeAndre Hopkins away from not winning a game since October 25th. Although the team is struggling in recent weeks, they’ve done a better job implementing the skill set of Simmons.

Simmons is known for his versatility. He’s played 125 snaps in the box (in many different spots), 53 on the defensive line, 48 at slot corner, and 5 at free safety. He’s played 240 total defensive snaps without any injuries; for reference, Devante Downs played 215 snaps while missing a game. What’s wrong with that picture?

Vance Joseph knew Simmons was going to be an intriguing addition that may be more of a project. There was no offseason and Simmons wears many hats, so it could take some time for him to adapt to the NFL. However, the struggles were so evident in week one that they were just difficult to ignore.

Despite wearing a terrible number like 48 (sorry Tae Crowder), we see just how overwhelmed he is on his first defensive NFL snap. Taking a horse collar penalty is not the greatest way to start one’s career. Excuses can certainly be made, and they’re warranted - I mean that is George Kittle (85) opposite of Simmons, but the game gets even worse …

The very next play, he’s on the backside shaded off Kittle, and the Pro Bowl tight end just drives him off the line of scrimmage in a certain Welcome to the NFL Moment. But still, this play isn’t bench worthy or anything of the sort. It’s not a great look, but Simmons started the game and was slated to play snaps. He only ended up playing 18 defensive snaps, after his next mistake on the ensuing drive ...

Simmons aggressively attacks the flat against Raheem Mostert (31), giving him an inside ally for the arrow route that led to a touchdown. Bad awareness, recognition, reaction, and processing from Simmons led to a deficit for the Cardinals. He took a couple plays off and reentered the game in an attempt to guard Kittle …

Jimmy Garoppolo is sacked on this play, but Simmons attempts to press Kittle and it results in the 22-year-old getting tossed backwards and out of contention to defend his assignment. The touchdown to Mostert wasn’t the only assignment blown by Simmons against the 49ers in Week 1 ...

The 49ers take advantage of the Cardinals in man coverage by creating traffic, using up-tempo, and releasing two tight ends vertical to allow Jerick McKinnon (28) to release into the flat. McKinnon is Simmons’ responsibility, and he engages the tight end off the line of scrimmage instead of noticing McKinnon. It would have been a tough cover nonetheless, but he may have been confused with his assignment. There were definitely some “Uh-Oh” moments in the game, but it wasn’t all bad for Simmons …

It takes him a bit to diagnose the power/gap concept, but he’s still able to avoid the guard, keep his chest clean, locate Mostert, and then deliver a big shot which is something that he does well.

The coaching staff took note of these struggles. In the next three weeks, Simmons only played 28 defensive snaps. That’s almost inexcusable for a linebacker drafted in the top 10, but Simmons seemed to struggle with the play speed (more from a mental standpoint, obviously) and from a strength perspective. In the next two weeks he played 34 collective defensive snaps, and then he played only 5 snaps in the first Seattle matchup. He did come away with a key play in that game which helped propel the Cardinals to an important come from behind victory …

In a third-and-14 situation, the Cardinals crowd the line of scrimmage and bail. Simmons undercuts Tyler Lockett’s route and uses every bit of his incredible 33 ⅜” length to intercept Russell Wilson’s pass. It seemed like Wilson and Lockett may not have been on the same page, and I don’t know if Wilson thought he was throwing hot there or not, but it did not work out of Seattle. Arizona carried this win into the bye week and Simmons has been playing a bit more consistent snaps ever since.

  • Week 9 vs MIA: 32 Defensive Snaps
  • Week 10 vs BUF: 32 Defensive Snaps
  • Week 11 @ SEA: 45 Defensive Snaps
  • Week 12 @ NE: 16 Defensive Snaps
  • Week 13 vs LAR: 32 Defensive Snaps

Simmons offers a ton of upside. He’s a great athlete who hustles, is versatile, and hits very hard. However, mental errors still arise on film for Simmons.

This is a Cover 3 type of defense with Simmons being the flat defender to the field. Patrick Peterson (21) is using man type of techniques against DeVante Parker (11), but he still has slight outside leverage until Parker certainly pushes him off and to the inside. Simmons gets to a solid depth but has little feel for Parker’s route and doesn’t expand to the numbers, let alone passed them. He does a good job eyeing down the quarterback, but ends up abandoning Peterson and running towards the middle of the field with Tua Tagovailoa (1) looking like he was going to scramble. It ends up being an easy completion, and while I understand what Simmons was trying to do here, he also had defenders to handle Tua; abandoning the assignment and not having a feel for the route itself seemed to be a bit concerning. It was still a good play on him to go and make the tackle.

He makes another mistake in man coverage a bit later in the game against Mike Gesicki (88). It’s a nicely sold play action pass with two pullers to his backside, but Simmons bites too hard inside and doesn’t see Gesicki’s lethargic fake blocking attempt. Simmons ends up getting sucked inside of Gesicki in man coverage, giving the athletic tight end an easy release outside with room to run. It’s an easy catch, but credit is deserved from Simmons to quickly close width and hit Gesicki with power.

Here we see the Cardinals bring an overload blitz to the field with the apex defender and the strong side linebacker. This is a dead give away for Russell Wilson to throw hot to the #3 receiver (tight end Greg Olsen 88). It presents itself as an excellent opportunity for Simmons to quickly cover ground from one hash to the other, but he hesitates and allows Olsen to make an easy catch. Simmons knows the play and the tendencies of Wilson to throw hot. This isn’t an egregious mistake, but a missed opportunity in my estimation. A better feel for the route and situation could have been utilized by the young player.

I’ve alluded to Simmons ability to hit players hard in space, which makes him an effective sure tackler. Here are a couple plays that substantiate that claim.

Simmons also excels as a backside pursuit defender and he’s a good open field tackler. His quickness, lateral agility, foot speed, and overall movement skills are still excellent for a linebacker. As a tackler, he goes low, keeps his shoulders square when he has to, and he packs a punch.

Another part of his game where he has shown flashes of promise is his ability to operate and make tackles in the interior gaps. In the Dallas game, he came up huge with two consecutive tackles on a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1 to halt a Cowboys drive.

The first play is a bit more impressive; he takes a good angle to avoid the block, attacks downhill at the appropriate time to give him that leverage on the lineman, then he dips his outside shoulder, absorbs the contact, and continues down the line of scrimmage to tackle Tony Pollard (20). In the fourth down play, he just uses strength to attack the outside shoulder of a climbing tackle and then he finds Pollard for an assisted tackle and a turnover on downs.

Against the Bills, he has another nice interior rushing rep. Simmons does a really good job getting to the outside of the guard, dipping his inside shoulder and readjusting his back to make the block ineffective, while still keeping his track to the running backs path. Hard to tell if this play happens, if the Cardinals defensive lineman doesn’t blow up the play, but it was still solid execution from Simmons.

This is another good play from Simmons scraping over the top of blocks and putting himself directly in his A-Gap to make the tackle. Very good avoidance and vision from Simmons.

As a pass rusher, I expected a bit more from Simmons to be honest. He has 6 pressures on the year and 2 sacks, both more of a product of scheme, albeit I don’t want to take anything away from Simmons; here’s one of them against Seattle where he does pick his hole well and shows good timing.

Final thoughts

Isaiah Simmons isn’t a bad player or a bust. He’s a raw, young athlete who is still learning the game. He has a ton of potential, but he’s been struggling. In coverage, he’s been targeted 22 times, surrendering 16 catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns. His snaps were scaled back after the poor start to the season, but he’s playing around 40 percent of the snaps a game (the most he’s had in a game is 68 percent).

It hasn’t been a great opening season for Simmons, but I do feel he would thrive with a defensive coordinator like Patrick Graham. This isn’t a referendum on Vance Joseph, but rather a declaration of Graham’s ability to have a plan, teach it, and employ it. If that doesn’t work, then he adjusts said plan and reacts accordingly. With that said, the Giants made the correct decision when they passed on Simmons. Carter Coughlin, a seventh-round hybrid linebacker like Simmons, has 8 pressures on 47 pass rushing reps. Simmons has 6 pressures on 36 pass rushing reps. One was a top 10 pick, the other barely got drafted. Is this sample size small - absolutely, but the Giants needed to bolster their offensive line and that’s paying dividends.