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Reviewing Cowboys rookie Taco Charlton’s Hall of Fame game performance

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A closer look at how the first round defensive end fared Thursday night against the Cardinals.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There has been much consternation over how Taco Charlton looked against Arizona’s backups Thursday night. Some of it is fair, Charlton certainly didn’t look good rushing the passer, but context must be taken into consideration when you’re watching a rookie play 16 snaps in the closest thing you’ll see to a televised scrimmage, the Hall of Fame game, just a few days into August.

Before getting into some of the plays let’s first take a look at some of the particulars of the performance. As has been mentioned Charlton played 16 snaps, with the majority coming at left defensive end (LDE), along with a handful at right defensive end (RDE). Those 16 plays were split evenly between run and pass, eight apiece, although of those eight pass-rushing attempts Charlton dropped into coverage on one and another was a screen to the running back, meaning he basically had six opportunities to rush the passer. Keep that in mind when judging Charlton in his very first preseason game, a total of six pass rush attempts is something you may expect to see on one long drive in a regular season game, yet this is all he got to show his wares last Thursday.

At any rate, let’s take a look at some of the plays, both bad and good, from the game. First the good.

This is the first third down on the night with Charlton at LDE:

Rip/Spin vs. Double Team

Charlton initially uses an outside rip move but notices that the running back is there to chip/double team him, so he spins back inside. He actually has a clear lane to the quarterback with a step on the right tackle but the ball is out before he can close. The quarterback gets the ball out here in almost exactly three seconds, if he’s forced to hold the ball an extra half second by better coverage, or if Charlton can speed up his transition to the spin, he’d be right there to impact the pass. Not great but not bad either, especially to see him string two pass rush moves together even if you can tell that it’s mechanical and not yet instinctive for him.

This is the very next play, a first down run to Charlton’s side at LDE.

Penetration vs. the Run

It’s a little difficult to see given the tight formation but if you focus on Charlton at the bottom of the screen, just to the inside of Damien Wilson who is standing up on the “1st and 10” graphic, you can see that he bulls the right tackle back about 2-3 yards into the backfield. The line of scrimmage is the 22, if you watch the right tackle is pushed back to about the 24-yard line immediately after the snap. Charlton’s penetration forces the running back, looking for a hole to cut into on a zone run, to flatten out nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage all the way to the sideline in order to find space. This should be a tackle for loss or no gain given how far the running back has to string out the play but Wilson loses outside contain and allows him to turn the corner.

Here is the play from a different angle, focusing on Charlton:

Penetration - Different Angle

From the previous clip you can see that Charlton dives at the running back at about the 25-yard line, three yards into the backfield. Would you like to see him keep his feet and balance, shed, and make the play a few yards in the backfield? Of course.

But that would turn this from a solid or good play to a great play that would have had Cowboys fans talking for days about his ability against the run. You can see from this different angle that he’s just a few inches away from getting a hand on him, but the key to me is the penetration that forces the running back to bounce it all the way to the sideline in order to find space.

Here is another run just a few plays later:

Penetration vs. Run 2

Another zone run and at the bottom of the screen Charlton again bulls the right tackle several yards into the backfield, this time all the way back to the 14 with the play having started at the 10. This penetration forces the running back to make a cut back inside while his momentum is taking him outside four yards deep into the backfield. Normally forcing a running back to make a cut several yards behind the line of scrimmage is a recipe for success but in this instance the defensive tackles and especially the linebackers are nowhere to be found as the running back finds plenty of space once he cuts inside of Charlton.

Of course you’d like to see him shed and finish the play himself but there is an old adage in the NFL that “disruption is production”. In this case Charlton clearly disrupts the play, he just doesn’t have the support behind him to finish it, similar to the previous play.

Now on to the bad:

Ineffective Rip/Spin

Charlton again goes to the rip/spin once he sees that the running back is there to provide a chip on the outside. The spin back inside again looks mechanical and he even loses his balance a bit, although this time the right tackle is waiting on it. He will need to learn to vary his pass rush moves, and also speed up his transition from move to move, but that type of polish is not necessarily something you’d expect to see from the 28th pick in his first preseason game.

Here is a stunt from Charlton a few plays later on third down:

Ineffective Stunt

Again at LDE Charlton loops inside although instead of attacking the center with his hands and using power before trying to work around him, he tries to immediately jump around him, which is something he’ll learn won’t work at this level. This is especially the case when the center has the right guard to help on the side that Charlton jumps towards, while the left guard on the opposite side is engaged. Effectively Charlton jumped into a double team of sorts when he could have tried to isolate the center more by going in the opposite direction or by attacking him straight down the middle using power. His pad level is also way too high and upright, making it easy to stop his momentum.

This is a read option fake on the next drive, Charlton is lined up at RDE this time:

Read Option Fake

Not much to say here, Charlton gets caught between the running back and the quarterback on the read option fake and falls down. Not exactly the type of balance you want to see.

And finally here is one last play that had a mix of good and bad:

Spin Move

This is his last play of the night, lined up at RDE he attempts a spin move, again a bit slow and mechanical although he does beat the left tackle to the inside, gaining a step. The quarterback had already been forced out of the pocket by a blitzing Damien Wilson though and Charlton mostly got caught up in the wash in a mass of bodies. He also loses his balance a bit, but you can see that the left tackle is left lunging as Charlton gets past his depth.

So there you have it, these plays constitute about half of Charlton’s entire debut performance. Some good, some bad, but that’s to be expected. The main takeaway for me is that he showed some of the tools that he was drafted for, namely the power against the run, but also a few slight flashes of a pass rush plan with the rip/spin, he just needs to learn to vary them and execute them quicker and more naturally, which will come with time.

For me the biggest things he needs to improve on are pad level/playing too high, playing with better balance, using his hands/length/arm extension to shed on runs, and he must speed up his hands/pass rush moves. All of these are correctable, especially as he gets more reps and the game slows down.

Another thing to consider is that Ulrick John, the right tackle Charlton primarily faced on the night, did start a few games last year for the Cardinals at that position. He’s clearly a backup but he isn’t just some UDFA who has never played in the league before and will be working at Home Depot in two months.

Also keep in mind that he was a late bloomer at Michigan and often won as a pass-rusher with his length/strength, he never has been and never will be a speed demon coming off the edge. 95% of rookies don’t just step in and start winning with power at this level, it will take time for Charlton to learn how to use his length and technique to set up his pass rush moves. There is plenty to work on moving forward but for me this performance is definitely not something that should be ringing the “bust” alarm bells.