One of the bigger surprises for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 has been the play of their defense. Before the season began, there were dire predictions of the Cowboys fielding the worst defense in NFL history. Those predictions seem foolish today, and part of the reason is the play of a couple of linebackers. The well-known story around the NFL is how Rolando McClain stepped in when Sean Lee went down and has put himself in position for comeback player of the year. Not as well-known, except in Cowboys circles, is the emergence of Anthony Hitchens once Justin Durant went down for the year.
Hitchens is starting prove himself as an every-down linebacker who is not only physically capable, but his mental acumen is also helping the Cowboys. You really don't expect that from a rookie, but Hitchens has proved a quick study. A review of Hitchen's well-rounded game.
Play 1- Hitchens is quick AND physical.
Here he is covering the guard/center gap (yellow circle). On this play, the Colts guard and tackle (red circle) are supposed to double-team the defensive tackle, then the guard is tasked with peeling off and picking up the linebacker. The Colts back is looking to hit the middle hole (blue arrow).
As the play progresses, the Colts guard is peeling off his double-team block (red circle) and is heading to pick up Hitchens (blue arrow). Hitchens (yellow circle) has made his move to fill the hole, now it's just a question of will the guard get there in time? Bet you can guess the answer.
That blue arrow is the Colts guard flailing at Hitchens. That yellow arrow is Hitchens delivering a physical tackle to the ball-carrier (red arrow). The play goes for no gain.
Play 2 - Displaying quickness and smarts while pursuing and filling the gaps.
Here we have the Colts trying to run the ball to the Cowboys left. The running back (red arrow) is heading across the quarterback to get the ball. Hitchens (yellow circle/arrow) immediately starts that way because he recognizes the Colts are pulling linemen (blue circle/arrow), a dead giveaway of the play that is coming.
The Colts running back (red circle/arrow) is heading to the edge but presses the hole ever so slightly in between his two blockers. Hitchens (yellow circle) doesn't commit but instead mirrors the back as he goes for the edge.
When the time is right, he shoots the gap and makes a solid tackle (yellow circle).
Play 3 - Film study is paying off.
Above, Hakeem Nicks has motioned all the way across the line before the snap. Follow the red line to the red circle, and know that he's edging even further outside (red arrow). Hitchens sees this an immediately recognizes the formation and the play coming. He nudges George Selvie in the butt to let him know what is coming (yellow circle).
As the ball is snapped, Selvie doesn't even bother attacking the QB but immediately turns and runs (red circle/arrow) toward Nicks (pink circle). The lineman tasked with blocking him (blue circle) doesn't stand a chance. Meanwhile Hitchens (yellow circle) is mirroring Nicks to the outside. Hitchens has correctly diagnosed a wide receiver screen to Nicks and has put his defense in a position to make the play.
Nicks catches the ball and heads outside (red circle/arrow) because Selvie has blocked off the inside (look at the lineman who was supposed to block him falling on the ground). Hitchens fights off a block from a receiver and starts tracking Nicks down (yellow circle/arrow). Hitchens and Selvie eventually run Nicks out of bounds after a short gain.
Play 4 - Improving in pass coverage
Pass coverage is hard for linebackers, especially rookies. Hitchens has had his struggles, but is getting better. One thing he does well is zone. Above, the Colts are running play-action (red circle) but Hitchens recognizes it's a pass and quickly starts dropping back into his zone (yellow circle/arrow).
Hakeem Nicks comes underneath the zone on a crossing pattern and is open (red circle). Hitchens has gotten his drop (yellow circle) but is about six yards away from Nicks when Luck throws the pass. When you run a zone the underneath stuff is going to happen, the key is making the tackle after the catch. Notice where Nicks is as the ball is coming, just short of the 25-yard line.
Now look where Nicks is (red arrow) when Hitchens (yellow arrow) closes the gap and makes the tackle. Just before the 25-yard line. That's zero yards after the catch. You can let them make short catches underneath the zone as long as you tackle them. Hitchens is becoming a very good open field tackler.
When the Cowboys drafted Hitchens in the fourth round, the pick wasn't universally praised by Cowboys fans. At this point in the season, it's safe to say opinions have changed.