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Azeez Ojulari film study: Breaking down breakout game vs. Carolina Panthers

Rookie edge defender had a dominant performance

Carolina Panthers v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2018, B.J. Hill set the New York Giants rookie record with 5.5 sacks through 16 games. In Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season, rookie pass rusher Azeez Ojulari tied Hill’s record. The Giants were fortunate to land Ojulari in the second round at pick 50.

The former Georgia Bulldog reportedly had a knee issue heading into the draft, which forced a slide down many team’s draft boards. He was a productive pass rusher at Georgia. Ojularie had 37 and 38 pressures in the last two seasons, respectively.

He has 18 pressures this season, and he’s coming off an eight-pressure, 2.5-sack game against the Carolina Panthers. It is true, the Panthers’ offensive line isn’t great, but some of Ojulari’s production came against Taylor Moton up the pass-rushing arc. Moton, a former draft selection of Dave Gettleman, is the fourth-highest paid right tackle in the NFL (average annual salary).

The Giants have seemingly found a quality speed pass rusher who has a ton of upside. He can be a bit stronger at the point of attack as a run defender, but he’s not a liability in that area. Ojulari is only 21 years old with tons of room to develop and expand his already impressive arsenal. Let’s get into his film.

Azeez Ojulari is #51

Sack time

Ojulari’s 5.5 sacks put him near the top of the NFL. He technically ranks in the top 12; several players are tied with 6.5 and 6.0 sacks, with Ojulari tying Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett and Chicago’s Robert Quinn. Here are the rankings of individual sack totals, per ESPN:

Here is his half-sack, split with Leonard Williams:

Carolina runs an RPO with split zone action from Ian Thomas (80) in the flat and D.J. Moore (2) running a quick snag route. Sam Darnold (14) is reading Lorenzo Carter (59), and the Giants’ EDGE bits down the line of scrimmage aggressively, which prompts Darnold to throw. However, the Giants have two defenders to account for Thomas and Moore: Adoree’ Jackson (22) in the flat and Logan Ryan (23) in the curl area.

Thomas ends up stumbling as he crosses Carter, and Darnold is swarmed by the 3-Technique Leonard Williams (99). Darnold has to be quick here - bang, bang - after not handing the ball off. I guess he suspected that Thomas could cross into the flat, but the Giants were all over the play.

Ojulari has to play his run responsibility first as Darnold and running back Chuba Hubbard (30) go into the mesh point. That’s why he stabs Taylor Moton (72) with his inside hand as he drops his body weight to set the edge. He sees that Darnold’s reading a defender on the opposite side - signifying a possible pass.

Ojulari uses his outside arm to break the grasp of Moton and then lifts his inside arm up and through the contact area while getting his hips in a position to attack the pocket. Moton, who was still acting like a run play, wasn’t deep enough to account for Ojulari’s path. The rookie separated from Moton and then cleaned up Williams’ sack on a third-and-2 to force a punt.

Ojulari’s two solo sacks both came near garbage time when the rookie had the ability to ignore the run and get after the quarterback. His opponent was fellow rookie Brady Christensen (70). Ojualri is in a wide alignment, and the tight end Thomas doesn’t alter his release; this gives Ojulari an advantage.

This is a speed rush with a violent outside arm chop at the top of the arc - the move that Ojulari had so much success with at Georgia. It’s all about timing and placement. He uses his natural athletic ability to put stress on the tackle before stabbing with his inside arm to create some space while simultaneously using his outside arm to win the edge by breaking any contact the tackle attempts to make.

He does all of this while getting his shoulders square to the pocket and orienting his hips inward. There wasn’t much contact from Christensen, but Ojulari is in a position to bend through said contact if it was delivered. The hand usage on this play is quick; it’s violent ... and it’s beautiful.

The angle isn’t as advantageous here for Ojulari against Christenson. He uses that same pass-rushing technique; only we really see the hop he sometimes puts into the violent outside arm chop. He gets up the arc and stabs with the inside hand to create separation, giving him easier access to the half-man relationship. He then breaks the contact of Christenson’s outside arm while dipping his own inside shoulder to rip through the tackle’s outside shoulder. Chop-dip-rip, bend through contact - finish the play.

Under pressure

I love this adjustment from Ojulari on Taylor Moton. Ian Thomas does nothing to alter Ojulari’s rush, leaving Moton on an island to block the rookie pass rusher with a wide-angle. Ojulari uses speed to win up the arc and get Moton’s hips flipped up the arc. Once Ojulari plants his inside foot in the ground, he takes his inside arm and assists Moton’s momentum further up the arc. A lot of young pass rushers would try and bend/rip through the outside shoulder of Moton on this play; it’s not a terrible strategy, but typically tackles can recover from this position and get enough of a pass rusher to shove him up the arc, allowing the quarterback to step up in the pocket.

What’s most impressive about this play is Ojulari’s awareness to understand Moton’s body positioning and momentum. Ojulari anticipated the inside move and pulled it off well against a very good offensive tackle. It’s a great display of reactive quickness, processing, hand usage, and understanding angles to go back underneath Moton and put pressure on Darnold. The final leap by Ojulari gets enough of Darnold’s arm to alter the pass.

Does this move look familiar? Ojulari swiftly jets past Christensen on this play, causing a leg whip and everything. He uses the stab/outside chop/rip combination, along with his impressive quickness to corner at the top of the arc, but I also love the bend he shows through Christensen’s contact once he gets his hips pointed at P.J. Walker (6). It has been too long since we’ve seen a Giants’ pass rusher who could consistently win in this manner. Ojulari has only played in seven games, but he’s off to a fantastic start.

Tackle for loss

Ojulari is developing as a run defender - there’s still room for growth, which is understandable and fine. New York is in a TITE front, 3-3-5 with defensive back Jabrill Peppers (21) aligned in a SAM position to the strength of Carolina’s formation. Reggie Ragland (55) stacks behind Austin Johnson (98), but the Giants favor their alignment, and personnel, towards the strength with David Moa (96) as a 2-Technique and Leonard Williams as a 6-Technique over the tight end.

It’s a weakside boundary-wide zone run where Moore is tasked to wash Ryan down the line of scrimmage, and their center, Matt Paradis (61), reach blocks Johnson. I lay the context out because that means the play side guard and tackle are responsible for Ojulari. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a double team (for long), but the brilliance of success here from Ojulari is the path he takes from his original wide alignment.

He is not the force defender on this run which allows him to penetrate the B-Gap when he reads the play. Ojulari steps play side, then goes inside before using his hands to shield the guard’s contact. Moton sees the inside step and continues looking for work outside after a quick feel for contact with his inside arm.

Ojulari’s ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage while getting both hands inside the guard with upfield burst penetrating the B-Gap prevents the guard from getting his hips on top of Ojulari and effectively eliminating him from the play. Instead, he gets shoved into the running path of Hubbard and Ojulari comes away with a tackle for loss. This is an excellent play from the rookie to find the weak spot, attack, and then position himself to alter the rushing path of the running back.

Final thoughts

Azeez Ojulari has impressed in his short time as a Giant. His ability to win with speed up the arc, string moves together, alter his pass rush plan, and have flash plays as a run defender are great signs moving forward. His ability to react mid-play should only improve with more repetition and more time for him to grow into his NFL frame. There’s so much room for development, and he’s only 21 years old. The Giants may have struck gold in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.