The Film Room: Sam Montgomery

Ronald Martinez

I am ready and willing to admit I had Sam Montgomery all wrong in my initial spring evaluations. After taking a second look, this young Bull could be a great fit in Houston after all.

The Texans' third round pick of Sam Montgomery back in April elicited one of the more apprehensive reactions from our readers that I have seen in the last few years. On one hand, Wade Phillips might be getting yet another physical force to stack along the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, "Sonic Sam" might be, as some scouts have put it, legitimately insane. I will admit that when I briefly met Montgomery during the pre-draft process on the NFL Network stage, he definitely had a certain uniqueness about him. I can honestly say he was a very nice person and a good guy to be around. I suppose everything I had seen and heard on television, on the internet, and in our meeting rooms clouded my perception of the man because after experiencing his quirkiness for myself, I too found myself cautious about the possibility of the Texans drafting the former LSU standout. Perhaps it was his widely publicized comments about not giving effort against lesser opponents or his incredibly dry sense of humor (it's almost indistinguishable from sincerity). When on the outside looking in at this young man, he is really, really hard to figure out.

Fortunately for me, there are those in the LSU football program who are not outside looking in and can tell me what Montgomery is really like. In a stroke of luck, I happened to meet a couple people who work with the LSU football program through a mutual friend several months ago who work. After we all went out for the best hot dogs Los Angeles (and possibly the world) has to offer, we exchanged Facebooks and went off on our merry ways. I did not know if I would ever have a reason to speak to my two newest acquaintances again, but if I have learned anything in my short time in the world of football media, it is that contacts mean everything. As luck would have it, those contacts paid off on the second night of the 2013 NFL Draft when I desperately searched for some sort of justification for the selection of someone who, if everything I had been told was to believed, might actually be a crazy person. After Montgomery’s name was announced, I immediately messaged my second degree friends at LSU to get something, anything, to put myself at ease. Thankfully their response did just that.

"A bunch of middle aged executives not understanding a single word that a socially awkward college kid is saying. I’m so shocked."

"Sam is fine. He’s a good dude, he just says some weird stuff and people automatically assumed he was psycho. They got a good player."

"Ah, thank Durga," I thought. "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe everyone was wrong. Maybe Sam Montgomery could end up being the steal of this draft. I did have a second round grade on him after all when it came to just pure on-field play. Maybe Rick Smith just proved again why he is one of the best GM’s in football."

I spent the rest of the night digging through articles, videos, and interviews to corroborate that Montgomery was just a goofy twenty three year old who needed some seasoning with the media. By the next morning I, along with what seemed like the rest of our readership, came to the conclusion that Sonic Sam does not have a crazy bone in his body. He is an unfiltered, sarcastic (and in my opinion, hilarious), entirely unique individual whose personality is in such high contrast to his chosen profession that it throws almost everyone he meets for a loop. Heck, it seems like there is a lot of that going around in the Texans locker room. Antonio Smith’s alter ego is a ninja, Arian Foster is an athletically gifted Socrates, and Brennan Williams is an anime nerd (who I should also note was labeled as "weird" in our meetings, probably because there are not a lot of Rurouni Kenshin fans in the football community). Montgomery almost looks normal compared to the rest of his teammates. Suffice to say I no longer have any apprehensiveness about his personality, and I look forward to everyone (including myself) who doubted him during the draft process eating a giant mountain of crow.

When it comes to actual football skills I was very familiar with Montgomery by the time he was taken in the third round. As a highly touted defensive end/outside linebacker prospect, he was right in my wheelhouse and one of the first prospects I took a look at after the end of the season. If I had to describe his tape in three words, it would be "frustrating but exciting". I was extremely frustrated with a few of his weaknesses, but extremely excited about a few of his strengths. Here is a direct copy of the scouting report I included in my pre-draft binder.

Positives

+ Excellent strength at the point of attack. Rarely gets blown off the ball. Very reliable at sealing the edge against the run. Engages on the appropriate shoulder to force and spill as necessary.

+ Plays with great leverage and understanding of pad level. Takes advantage of blockers with bigger size by getting under them with regularity.

+ When he gets off on time he has a good, but not great initial burst that compounds the effectiveness of his bull rush.

+ Very, very high motor. Never gives up on a play.

+ Has demonstrated a variety of pass rushing moves.

+ Very strong hands when using clubs to set up swims and rips. Would like to see a bull-jerk developed to take advantage of upper body strength when tackles start leaning early.

Negatives

-Not very athletic beyond his great physical strength. Lacks lateral agility, slow feet, and poor open field speed.

-Regularly comes late off the snap.

-Does not always get good pop in his hands when engaging blockers. Sometimes uses his arms as a buffer rather than a weapon.

-Has shown flashes of a great club swim combo on initial engagement, but is very inconsistent with how much he uses it. Relies on the bull rush way too much.

-Has flashed a solid repertoire of counter clubs and spins when he gets beat, but does not use them nearly enough. Often tries to solve all his problems with power instead of technique.

-Subpar agility really showed up at times when turning the corner on a speed rush to close the deal. Missed several sacks because he could not change direction fast enough to grab a passer climbing the pocket. Lots of choppy steps when decelerating and sharply changing angles. It also hurt him coming out of a two point stance where his burst was severely mitigated and he looked stiff.

-Little to no tape of his ability to drop into coverage as a stand-up linebacker, but his athleticism concerns and slow feet in space as defensive end are not very encouraging. While he has the dimensions to play OLB in a 3-4, I do not think he has the skill set. Might work as an Elephant in a multiple front scheme, but he would likely have to drop some weight and develop more hip flexibility and a decent t-step before I would trust it.

Summary

Montgomery is a very solid run defender who will hold the edge against the massive right tackles of the NFL and allow his linebackers to flow to the ball. The majority of his sacks were "effort sacks", but it is nice to see someone with a motor that high that can provide complementary pass rush to go along with his excellent run defense. He is not very athletic and will likely never put up astronomical sack numbers, but I can see him being a solid contributor as a 5-tech or 6-tech power end on the strong side in a 4-3. His future coaches should immediately try to emphasize variety in his pass rush because his club-swim and dip and rip were very good at times, but he relied on the tried and true bull rush far too often with little variation. If he combines his physical strength with some crafty hands, he could be a really good defensive end. At the very least he can act as a great force player and immediately improve an exterior run defense, but I do not believe he possesses the speed or flexibility to fly off the weak side edge as a franchise pass rusher. Sam linebackers and safeties will love him for making their jobs a little easier, and for those looking for a developmental pass rusher to pair with an already established weak side stud, Montgomery is well worth a second round pick.

When I went back and looked at my own scouting report on Montgomery, he did not really seem to fit anywhere in the Wade Phillips scheme. His run defense prowess immediately pointed me to the possibility of his replacing Brooks Reed at the Sam linebacker spot where his main job would be to direct the ball in the direction of J.J. Watt, but his lack of lateral agility and deep speed would make him virtually useless in coverage when he has to play the peel technique on a receiving back like Shane Vereen or Ray Rice. He could probably hold the edge against the run better than Whitney Mercilus as a weakside linebacker, but his natural pass rushing ability and get-off on the snap were so inferior to Mercilus, at least on the surface, that I did not think he would really see a lot of work there either. Beyond that, Mercilus has reportedly bulked up a lot this offseason to improve his run defense, so I am not so sure he would even see the field that much in early down or short yardage situations. I honestly thought Montgomery would be completely miscast in this defense no matter where he lined up. That being said, because this was a Wade Phillips and Rick Smith pick, there was a very high chance that I missed something. There had to be a tendency, a flash, something to show that I was wrong and they were right. To find it, I went back and re-graded three games from Montgomery against three college football powerhouses – Alabama, South Carolina and Clemson.

In these games, Montgomery would face the best running back in the country, the best quarterback in the country, and the best offensive line in the country (that OL includes two 2013 first rounds picks and a future high first round pick in Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo). I focused on the biggest knock on Montgomery--his get-off on the snap; that criticism seemed to be repeated by everyone who watched him (myself included). Sure, he was lined up a yard behind the rest of his linemates 99% of the time, but that had no effect on his ability to time the snap. If anything, that alignment just made it easier to stunt inside over Bennie Logan. Something else had to be causing this, and by about halfway through the Alabama game, I found it – Montgomery was never looking at the ball. Play in and play out, he was head up on the tackle and paid zero attention to the center or the snap. As soon as his tackle moved, he moved.

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Notice how Barkevious Mingo has his head tilted inside to watch the ball and get a better jump off the snap while Montgomery does not? That is the major tip off to the kind of defense LSU was running. Lining up a yard behind everyone else was not in an effort to threaten the stunt on every snap (though that was a nice side effect); it was to give him a little extra time to read the set of the tackle so he could react appropriately as the weakside force player against the run. LSU’s defense is technically a one gap 4-3 scheme, but it is not completely one gap. Every single snap, Montgomery had to assess and decide what gap he wants to hit and how he wants to hit it. If he sees a jab step to the opposite side, he knows he is backside contain and/or pursuit. If he sees a bucket step to his side, he knows he probably has a reach block coming and he has to bull rush his blocker as far back as possible to flatten the angle of the run and force the cutback early. If he sees a power step from the tackle, he knows that depending on the alignment of the linebackers behind him, he may be trying to stack and shed on the blocker, playing contain against the bounce, or even trying to penetrate and disrupt the play in the backfield.

For visualization’s sake, here is a diagram of LSU’s front seven and some basic responsibilities they might have versus a weak side zone stretch (which Alabama runs a lot) from an Ace package (a tight end on either side of the line).

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Mingo is on the strong side 7-tech next to his DTs, which are playing the strong 3-tech and weak side 1-tech, respectively. Montgomery is in the weak side 6-tech, which he played fairly often whether tight ends were on his side or not. BRB faithful should be familiar with the zone run scheme by now, so I do not feel like I need to explain Alabama’s carbon copy version very much, but when it comes to Montgomery ,the second he sees the left foot from Cyrus Kouandijo do a bucket step, he knows that he has to seal that edge and seal it fast. Because he is in the 6-tech, it is possible he will get double-teamed to put him within reach of the left tackle, but he cannot afford to worry about this. He has one job and one job only - force the running back's hand as early as possible.

In this particular diagram, I am pretending that Kouandijo is attempting a reach block on Montgomery, which is essentially trying to put himself between the defender and the sideline to create an alley on the edge. Most zone stretch plays are dependent on successful reach blocks on the edge to give the running back a clear lane to cut up the sideline. The beauty of reach blocks is that if and when they fail, the lateral movement of the play then allows the running back to cut behind the block, which then pins the defender to the sideline and takes him out of the play. Montgomery’s responsibility if he reads the reach block is not to hesitate and try to cover both the stretch and the cutback at the same time, but rather to collapse through the tackle’s outside shoulder as soon as possible and make the running back cut back before the rest of his blocks are set up on the back side. If successful, Montgomery’s penetration will divert the running back directly into the teeth of the LSU defense for little to no yards gained.

Montgomery’s responsibilities change drastically if he reads a zone stretch in the other direction, as seen in the diagram below.

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In this instance, Alabama would be running a strong side zone stretch with the left tackle moving away from Montgomery up to the second level to seal out the Will linebacker, and the back side tight end would then be tasked with either cut blocking or reach blocking Montgomery to take down the back side pursuit (sound familiar?). In this scenario, Montgomery would no longer be a "force player", but rather the player that the back is being forced in to. If the front side gap integrity holds up, the only back side defender available to take on the cut back lane would be Montgomery, so he must penetrate inside the tight end immediately off the snap to put himself in position to herd the running back into a pile of bodies or make the tackle himself before the back can make the cut.

Roles get shifted yet again against power runs like the one shown below.

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If Montgomery reads a power run. he has to make a myriad of decisions based on the alignment of the defense. Where are his linebackers? Is the tight end pulling or whamming? Is he the furthest defender on the outside of the box? What gap is he in? What technique is he in and how does it impact which gaps he can effectively cover? What is the down and distance? What is the likelihood of a play-action pass? Is there a blitz being called? If so, through what gap? Is anyone pulling in his direction? If that was overwhelming to read, just imagine trying to process that in a fraction of a second. Montgomery has to decide if he is going to play contain against a bounce outside and let his linebackers clean up the interior (as shown below), if he is going to stack and shed on the tackle while the ball carrier passes, or if he himself is going to cross into the B gap and try to plug the pulling TE while someone else goes for the contain on the inevitable outside bounce.

In a split second, Montgomery has to read the tackle’s step, determine his responsibility based on the responsibilities of everyone around him, and then not screw it up against one of the best left tackles in the country. The fact that Sonic Sam was able to not only play this role, but excel at it without being paralyzed by his own brain is very impressive for a collegiate athlete who has very little practice time compared to his professional counterparts. This also explains why Montgomery was aligned and used the way he was.

LSU runs a lot of zone coverage and is never afraid to blitz their linebackers and safeties all over the place. Kevin Minter may have racked up a lot of tackles at LSU, but a lot of the work was done by that defensive line. If two or more linebackers were blitzing, it falls on the defensive line to hold their gaps elsewhere against draws and rollouts. If the linebackers flow towards the sweep or dive men on a triple option play, the defensive line has to contain the quarterback. If the linebackers flow the wrong direction when they hit you with a weak side counter, it falls on the line to try to stop it or slow it down while the linebackers fight back towards the play. Every single snap of every single game was directed by the defensive line. If they failed to force everything back in to their linebackers, if they failed to penetrate and disrupt zone stretches before the cutback, or if they failed to get to the quarterback on third and long, everyone else in that unit was helpless.

Despite being in a 4-3 base that relies a lot on zone coverage, Montgomery’s role could be described as an over-complicated version of Brooks Reed’s role in Wade Phillips’ base 5-2. Both schemes rely on one gap alignment and penetration at the line, but just like any other one gap scheme, not everyone is truly "one gap". With four defensive linemen covering six gaps, somebody has to pick up double duty. In Houston’s case, this job often fell on Brooks Reed to two-gap on the outside while J.J. Watt did his thing inside. At LSU, Montgomery was often asked to play contain assignments while star penetrators like Bennie Logan and Barkevious Mingo flung themselves up field with reckless abandon. Montgomery was LSU's Brooks Reed, though his job was even harder because LSU only employed a four man front rather than a pseudo-five man front. As a result, Montgomery was almost always one yard off and staring right at the left tackle, paying no attention to anything else. If he read run, he played run. If he read pass, he rushed the passer. If he had to stiff arm a 6’8", 341 pound South Carolina left tackle on a containment assignment, you better believe he did it.

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One of the better examples from the Alabama game came in the red zone during the third quarter. Alabama is running their 22 personnel (two back, two tight ends), and LSU loads the box in response. Montgomery is in the 7-tech outside the tight end. On the snap, he sees the left tackle bucket step and the tight end zone step to his side, which immediately triggers his force assignment. Montgomery jacks the tight end back into the rushing lane and forces an early cutback right into the rest of the Tigers' defense, which is exactly what he needed to do.

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In Phillips’ scheme, he would not wait to see the step and would instead be charging in to his designated gap immediately off the snap while the inside linebackers play off of the result of his rush, whereas here at LSU he has to determine exactly what gap to hit based on the movement of the offensive line and then hit it in order to feed his linebackers. That in essence is the difference between both philosophies. In Houston, the Bulls on Parade overload the line with five rushers and let Brian Cushing sort through the trash, whereas in Baton Rouge the front four deliberately feeds everything back to where they know the inside linebackers are waiting. One requires more thinking from the linebackers, while the other requires more thinking by the defensive line.

So what does this mean for Sam Montgomery in a Wade Phillips defense? Well, for starters his workload just got a lot lighter. There are still plenty of reads that have to be made both before and during a play by the outside linebackers, but none of them are nearly as convoluted as the ones he had to make at LSU. Instead of trying to decide whether to stack, plug, or break through different gaps based on a single step of the tackle, he will have one gap and one job – penetrate. If he has a contain assignment, he will know it pre-snap. If he is responsible for peeling on a running back in the flat, he will know it pre-snap. No overthinking, no late get-offs, no lining up a yard behind everyone else. Montgomery will finally be free to play fast, physical football.

If you are wondering what Sam Montgomery looks like when he is allowed to line up at the line of scrimmage, look at the snap of the ball, and hunt the quarterback in an obvious passing situation, his get-off goes something like this:

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Here is another good example, and keep in mind while watching this second GIF that this is the 97th play that Clemson had run. Everyone on the LSU defense was completely gassed, with players going down with injury on almost every play, yet somehow deep into the fourth quarter Montgomery was able to summon enough strength for a great burst off the snap for this lucky gift of a sack. Putting forth that kind of effort while your body is trying not to shut itself down from exhaustion tells me not only is Montgomery’s motor just fine, but so is his desire to win.

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There are plenty of things to like about Sam Montgomery’s game, most notably his motor, strength, technique against the run, and powerful bull rush. There are also some concerns. Athletically, Montgomery is nowhere near the class of his fellow draftee Trevardo Williams, and I question if Montgomery could handle any coverage duties whatsoever. In the open field, he has sluggish feet, subpar speed, and looks very stiff at times. In short areas Montgomery can work wonders, but anything beyond that is very, very dicey. Whether he will develop the flexibility it takes to play linebacker is up in the air. Right now, if he is in a game, I highly doubt Wade Phillips will put him in position to handle coverage duties. Montgomery is a line of scrimmage enforcer through and through, or at least he is for now.

Another area that I really want to see Montgomery improve is hand usage. I have seen him throw down some beautiful moves so I know he can do it, but there are a lot of times when he goes back to the bull rush well play after play and does nothing to give some variation to his pass rush. If his new mentor Antonio Smith, who happens to have some of the best hands in the NFL, can get Montgomery to do more of this:

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Or this:

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And even this:

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...then the Texans edge pass rush should be vastly improved in 2013. Overall, I can safely say I am excited to see Sonic Sam play in 2013. I am not entirely sure what kind of role Wade Phillips will have him in for this defense. If I had to guess, Montgomery will likely be the backup Will linebacker behind Whitney Mercilus. If my prediction of the Texans moving to a 5-2 Under front is wrong (and I’m almost 100% sure it is at this point), then the Will linebacker in this scheme must be able to stop the run when matched up against left tackles one-on-one. If there is one thing I know for a fact Sam Montgomery can do extremely well, it is stop the run. If throughout the course of his rookie year Montgomery sharpens his hand usage and improves his footwork, the Bulls on Parade could find themselves with the deepest stable of pass rushers in their history. With J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, and Brooks Reed already on the roster, we could be in store for some truly special sack totals this season. September cannot come soon enough.

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