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The Film Room: Zach Cunningham (2017 Season Review)

Matt Weston takes a look at Zach Cunningham’s rookie season.

NFL: Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The box score produces an unfinished story about the game. It provides the accumulation of easy measurable things. Yards, time of possession, plays, turnovers, third down conversions and so on for the entire team. Total tackles, solo tackles, sacks, tackles for a loss, passes defended, quarterback hits, and sacks for defensive players. From this stand point, the accumulation of things, Zack Cunningham had a great season.

In his rookie season Cunningham had 90 tackles, 48 were solo and 42 were assists, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 interceptions, 6 passes defended, and 6 stuffs. This is what he totaled up after playing 816 defensive snaps and being on the field 79.4% of the time. This means something. Just like in life, the accumulation of things doesn’t mean everything. It means something, something impartial and incomplete, it’s a quick baseline to check production.

After this first glance of the objective, and a subterranean dive into the subjective, it’s apparent that Cunningham really wasn’t all that good his rookie season. He was inconsistent and could do a few things well, but didn’t use his skill set often enough to really say he was good in 2017.

The biggest impact Cunningham had on the team was by providing a competent replacement for Brian Cushing after he tested positive for a banned substance of some sort. No longer was Houston forced to play an entire season with someone like Jelani Jenkins starting on the inside. Instead, because of Cunningham, Jenkins played only 81 snaps this year.

Immediately he was a perfect compliment to Benardrick McKinney. As a spiked leather bracelet claden, face splattered ultimate warrior, McKinney is able to go through guards to make tackles, stomp out the ball carrier’s forward momentum, rush the passer, and control the interior run game with a skull bruising style. The problem with him is coverage. He has trouble dropping into zone, jamming tight ends in the slot, watching the quarterback’s eyes instead of playing the coverage he’s told to, and running with quicker players in man.

This is what Cunningham excelled at in his first year. Finally, for the first time since pink clay hands were imprinted on malodorous and damp cave walls, the Texans were able to cover running backs. Last year Houston had a DVOA of 23.3% (28th) and allowed 41.6 receiving yards a game to running backs. This year, because of Cunningham directly, Houston had a DVOA of -15.8% (7th) and allowed 32.1 receiving yards a game. Cunningham amounted 40 tackles and 3 tackles for a loss in the pass game.

As an inside linebacker Cunningham has great speed and quickness. He can react to the back’s breaks and replicates their speed. Here, against New England, the Texans are playing man coverage on 1st and 10. Dion Lewis is running a quick out route to the flat against Houston’s new starting inside linebacker. Cunningham is able to read the route, Tom Brady’s eyes, and jump outside after maintaining inside leverage to kind of make the tackle.

Tackling. This was his biggest weakness coming out of college. His angles were drunken stumbles, and he was more of a yanker and puller than a tackler. Houston was able to get this corrected pretty quickly. Cunningham wasn’t a great tackler, he wasn’t a bad tackler, he was pretty alright. In 2017 he had a broken tackle rate of 20% according to Football Outsiders’ Premium Charting Data. Although he over pursued and tried to pull Lewis down here, his tackling skill gained several attributes in 2018.

He can do more than just play man coverage out into the flat. He’s pretty good at jamming tight ends and backs at the top of their route, and he can play zone coverage. In the redzone against Seattle they had him in a short zone in the middle of the field. Russell Wilson looked to score on angle route to the running back. Cunningham again read the quarterback’s eyes. This time Wilson guided him to the back. And rather than play the man, he correctly played the ball. He was slapping at the digits right when the ball hit the back’s hands.

His speed allows Houston to use him in a variety of different ways in coverage. They can play Tampa 2 with him and have him tunnel down the center of the field. He can run down the seam with wide receivers and tight ends. The Texans finally have a linebacker that isn’t chained to the short parts of the field in pass coverage. Cunningham is ubiquitous.

Things aren’t entirely perfect. They never are. Cunningham still has some instinct and mental mistakes he will need to correct. The game winning touchdown to Jimmy Graham was partly his fault. Houston was in cover 3. Cunningham had the short left zone. Marcus Gilchrist was the safety supposed to play the deep middle 1/3. Andre Hal is blitzing. Why they were in this coverage with Graham in the slot and why Hal is blitzing, I don’t know? Just Mike Vrabel things I guess.

On this play Cunningham needs to at least get a jam on Graham to delay his run. He allows Graham to run free past him. Gilchrist is nonexistent, and doesn’t even get a whiff of lavender.

And earlier in this same game Cunningham is in man coverage against the back. It’s 2nd and 10. He does an excellent job covering him, as he is now known to do. The problem is he turns around to cover Thomas Rawls even though he’s in control of the route, and Wilson is past the line of scrimmage. This turnaround opens up a wild heart and allows Wilson to pick up a first down.

These are smaller things that will get better in time. More snaps will lead to better awareness and close the mesh holes in his game. Cunningham is a dynamic athlete as an inside linebacker and is great in pass coverage. He is something the Texans have never really had. The days of Barrett Ruud covering Aaron Hernandez and Lamar Miller turning the football field into the 100 meter dash are over.

Although he’s a spectacular athlete from the inside linebacker position. He isn’t as an edge rusher. Because of injuries to Whitney Mercilus, and J.J. Watt that stuck Jadeveon Clowney at defensive end forever, Cunningham was forced to rush the passer from the outside linebacker position more than he ever should have, and it was something he did a lot of.

As a pass rusher he offers nothing. He had only four pressures last season. He doesn’t have the quickness off the snap to get the opportunity to turn the speed on.

If the world finally aligns next season and Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney are all healthy, Cunningham shouldn’t sniff the edge as a third down edge rusher. That doesn’t mean he won’t ever rush the passer. Romeo Crennel will do everything he can to generate interior pressure. He’ll use Cunningham in stunts and delayed blitzes to create open rush lanes similar to how McKinney was used in 2016. With his speed, and the attention drawn to Watt and Clowney, this is a perfect situation.

Cunningham will also need to get better mentally in this part of the game. He’s going to get rush lanes. And when he does he needs to break his neck to get there like a class pet to clean the chalkboard. This tentative, I don’t know, leads to school room pant wettings, and free tosses that should have been diabolical.

This isn’t even a technique issue. This is a go up and get it issue. When you have that perfect wave you don’t worry if the shark had breakfast that day, you hit it. Next year his ears will need to be stapled to the back of his skull on third down.

In the run game he was dichotomous. There were two different versions of him. There was the one who absolutely couldn’t make a play, and the one that actually used his strengths to his advantage to rack up solo tackles.

Cunningham is never going to be a bash brother. He’s a fast man designed to duck under slow maulers and pounce past lumberers to get to the ball carrier. He too needs to understand this better. Cunningham can’t take on blockers head up. It isn’t in his DNA. If the blocker gets his head on his chest, no matter if he’s a tight end, a guard, or a puller, it doesn’t matter, he’s going to get tossed out of the club.

This is counter. The first playside double team needs to get to the weakside linebacker. Cunningham is this. The tight end comes off the combo block, pops him in the sternum, and creates room for the running back to cut back into.

This is an ‘Ace’ block on an inside zone play where the left guard peels off and swallows him up like an Infinite Hiatus album cover.

This is a trap play. The right guard quickly pulls to kick him out. Cunningham receives a surprise upper cut, loses contain, and allows the running back to get outside.

Like being alive it’s a difficult thing to deal with. On most blocks the offensive lineman wants to hit the center of the linebacker. The dilemma Cunningham faces is that if he gets popped in this way he can’t defend himself. This ends any chance of him making a play. It immediately creates a rushing lane. There’s no recovery. Like playing a safety as a nickle linebacker, this is just the reality a defense is forced to live with. Running backs are sewn up in the passing attack, but inside runs can be slices that create gashes.

All hope isn’t surrendered however. Cunningham can still play in the box and be a commendable run defender, even if more times than not, the previous plays are the result. Cunningham has two options to stop the run. He can take on half a tight end, pop off and pursue, and he can shape shift into a bar of soap and slip out of an offensive lineman’s hands.

On a Monday night from the past the Ravens are running a lead play to the right with a tackle over. The sixth offensive lineman blocks down on the defensive end. The playside guard and tackle have a ‘duece’ to the inside linebacker. The center and backside guard have an ‘Ace’ to Jadeveon Clowney lol. And the H-back is left to block the isolated linebacker circled in red like an important date on the calendar. Can’t wait!

The playside adequately make their blocks and collapse the edge of the line of scrimmage. The poor center is unable to get his head inside of the run blitzing Clowney.

Clowney is held, but is able to get into the backfield and chase after Javorius Allen. The H-back squares up Cunningham.

As the outside defender, nothing can get wide of him. The H-Back is looking to take an inside angle to create the hole in the ‘B’ gap, but with Clowney chasing inside this space is unattainable.

When contact is made Cunningham correctly plops the outside half of the blocker.

He gets his hands inside.

He shoves off and extends.

And knocks the death rattle away before giving chase.

The tackle is also good. He gets his head in the right spot, he wraps up and drives. Even though the back doesn’t collapse immediately, he holds on, doesn’t allow him to plow forward, and allows Clowney to come in with the RKO.

This is perfect. This is how Cunningham has to play blocks against lighter blockers. He isn’t a meek player. He isn’t strong enough to deal with gargantuans, but is strong enough to deal with half of lighter athletes. Pop the outside half and chase is the name of half of his game.

Against the behemoths and goliaths this won’t fly. The Quinton Spains, A.J. Canns, and Joe Haegs of the world are going to get their stronger hands inside and drive him off the ball. When faced against these boss battles Cunningham must use his biggest strength to his advantage—speed.

Against Baltimore the Ravens are running the outside zone to the right. The flow of the play doesn’t allow the left guard to over take the center’s block. He’s forced to head straight to the linebacker. Correctly, he tries to angle his block inside to wall Cunningham off from the running back. But by doing this he delays contact. He creates space. With this light calling him, Cunningham comes around the guard’s block by running under and ripping back inside to the running back.

This run stop against the Titans’ is the same style of play. This time, however, it’s an inside zone play. The right guard is trying to peel off and finish the ‘Ace’ block. Cunningham again runs under it and rips to the running back.

And here, although he doesn’t make the tackle, he knocks the right tackle away and jumps around the block.

Both of these things are very difficult to do. It’s hard to read the running back, maintain gap integrity, take on half a blocker, leave, chase and make a play. It’s hard to run around an elephant in pink satin shoes and underneath their pulverizing paws. The key for Cunningham’s career is making sure that he avoids getting into head on collisions, and can continue to complete this strenuous task.

The Texans were a perfect fit for Cunningham. The linebacker next to him has a different skill set, and playing in front of him was supposed to be a Pro Bowl outside linebacker, one of the best young nose tackles in football, one of the greatest defensive players of all time, and one of the freakiest freaks who’s ever played defensive end. Schematically, Houston tried to give Cunningham more space to play ball. They want him to play like he did at Vanderbilt. As a weakside linebacker, who screams through open lanes created by the defenders in front of him, and pounces on gazelles.

The problem was Cunningham didn’t get to fully enjoy this sunny day. Hot and cold fronts collided. The Texans lost two of their best front seven defenders because of injuries, and Cunningham wasn’t given the comfortable rookie season he was destined for. This didn’t stop Houston from trying.

This was the plan. Have Cunningham play as the weak inside linebacker. Here Houston is in their 3-4. They have Clowney and Watt playing defensive end, and Mercilus and McKinney are on the strong side of the formation. Watt is directly in front of him.

New England is running the outside zone left. And because of the attention drawn to Watt and Clowney, Cunningham is able to slip a card out from under his pocket, chase freely and attack the running back.

Seattle is running the inside zone. Christian Convington does a great job taking on the double team. Cunningham correctly, and quickly, flows around this double team and makes the tackle unblocked.

Once the injuries occurred, Houston didn’t give up. They continued to try to keep him cruising freely. They did different things like having him play deeper off the line of scrimmage to give him more space to run. They played him out on the edge. It didn’t work like they expected it to. In these spots Cunningham still dealt with blockers putting their head on him and creating running space.

Next year things should be different. Cunningham should be allowed to play within the original blueprint. Football should be like the rookie level of Madden’s chase and tackle minicamp where blockers are replaced with trash cans, and all Cunningham has to do is run and tackle the running back.

And like everything else, Cunningham too will need to improve in this facet. Like the hesitation seen in the pass game, it’s seen in the run game. When a lane opens up he has to attack it and hop on the running back. Too often he stands and looks, instead of pillage and plunder.

On this inside zone run Cunningham is far inside. The guard leaving the double team has a long way to go to reach him. This is a bad offensive lineman traveling a long distance. When the hole opens up, Cunningham crawls down hill and sits. He doesn’t keep going, and doesn’t curl behind the blocker to get to the back. This is a tackle for a loss soured.

And here against the outside zone he opts against crashing the gap and inside to dismantle the run play. McKinney does though and shows him how it’s done. The stronger linebacker smashes inside and slobbers past the left guard’s face to make the tackle for the loss. Cunningham has a similar path on the playside. He just doesn’t seize it.

Next season things will be better. Houston should be healthier. Cunningham should be allowed to live the proper life he expected when he was drafted. It should be more free chase and tackles, and running back lockdowns with a spectacular pass rush in front of him. And with this he will accumulate more things. There will be more tackles, more stuffs, more sacks. All of that is a given. But for him to become a good player play in and play out, he will need to keep blockers away from his sternum, attack downhill in an aggressive manner, keep improving his tackling ability, and have more plays where he is taking on 1/2 the blocker and or dipping around.

If he can get better at these things Cunningham will be more than a lot of tally marks in the box score, he will be an actual excellent inside linebacker.