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The Film Room: Zach Cunningham Is Having A Breakout Season

2019 was the year of the monster, and that monster is Zach Cunningham.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Despite trading Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt tearing his pectoral muscle, and secondary injuries that have worked themselves out as the Texans enter their end game, Houston’s defense has hung on. The pass defense is awful on a per play and efficiency basis. The run defense has dropped from great to mediocre without Watt, but it has bounced back some by primarily playing Carlos Watkins, Angelo Blackson, and D.J. Reader as their 3-4 defensive ends. Overall, the Texans’ defense has allowed less points than expected on a per game basis.

A big reason for this is the center of Houston’s defense. From Brandon Dunn and Reader, up to Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham, and all the way up to Justin Reid, Houston has defended the interior well. Houston’s defense doesn’t create the same number of negative plays that it did last season with Watt healthy, when Kareem Jackson and Clowney were on the roster, but it’s great at bending and creating unsuccessful plays, just not negative ones.

Everything works together nicely in Houston’s front seven. The defensive line holds its ground and doesn’t move backwards. The edge doesn’t let things get outside of them. Benardrick McKinney lines up against the strong side of the formation, takes on blockers, bludgeons them, and then plays the ball well. Next to him is the key to Houston’s front.

Zach Cunningham.

As a weakside linebacker, Cunningham has been a murderer out for blood, sprinting past backside blockers and liquefying running backs searching for space to run through. This season Cunningham is leading the Texans with 90 run tackles. McKinney is second with 62. Cunningham is also leading the team with solo run tackles with 45. McKinney is second with 25. Stop being so myopic. Cunningham is leading the league in total run tackles. He’s third in solo tackles, two behind Blake Martinez and three behind Joe Schobert.

Houston’s front seven is designed for Cunningham to chase and tackle. As mentioned earlier, he primarily plays on the weak side, reads the play, and chases after ball carriers from there. This is the epitome of Cunningham’s game.

Here the Texans are in a 4-3 defense with Scarlett (#51) dropping back to a typical linebacker position. The Titans are running outside zone to the right. Taylor Lewan (#77) is climbing from the back side. He’s looking to act as a wall that shields Cunningham off from the play. He’s too vertical and too far up field. Cunningham reads the play, takes a delayed step, and then sprints around his block to smash Derrick Henry. It’s unbelievable the transformation Cunningham has undergone to go from a horrendous grab and pull tackler in college to a sure one in the NFL.

Pay attention to the defensive line here. Blackson (#97), Scarlett (#51), and Dunn (#92) fill their gaps well. Dunn drives Nate Davis (#64) backwards, extends him, and reads Henry. He’s able to flip back inside and play the ball. There he holds Henry until Cunningham puts him down for a nap.

Tennessee tries running outside zone to the right again. This time Rodger Saffold (#76) is the one tasked with cutting Cunningham off on the second level. Outsize zone steps are recognized. Cunningham takes a sharp angle to the ball and runs through Saffold to play the ball carrier. There’s no running around here. It’s brutal and physical.

These are what typical plays looks like when Houston is defending the run well. Cunningham is more than just a chase and tackle defender, even if that’s what he’s best at. When he’s on the play side, he does a great job reading and scurrying past blocks, taking on blockers to collapse the hole, and looking through the blockers in front of him to find the football.

It’s outside zone right after the Titans motion MyCole Pruitt (#85) to a tight end position. At the snap, they motion him across the formation. This doesn’t affect Cunningham. He maintains the ‘B’ gap. He reads, waits, maintains his gap, and once Henry commits inside, he flows over the top of Davis (#64) to suffocate the cutback. This is how you read and scrape. Carlos Watkins (#91) bumping Lewan into Henry only makes things easier.

The general assumption is that Cunningham is a finesse player. Someone who wins with speed and agility. He’s more than this. He’s as violent as Van Diemen’s land. Contact is welcomed and blockers are brutalized. Guards receive unwelcome and unsuspected blows when they try and pull up to him.

It’s power left here. The Titans get a strong double team on Watkins (#91), who’s lined up as a ‘3’ technique. Cunningham sees it. He sees the hole open. He drops and runs straight ahead into the burning building and takes Davis (#64) head on. The guard is jostled. The hole is minimized. Henry has to slow down to consider his options, which allows McKinney (#55) to come from the back side of the play to make the tackle.

These days offenses do everything they can to control and confuse defenses. Unconventional run plays from a variety of formations. Motioning defenders. Run and pass plays that look the same. It’s vital for a linebacker to rummage through the information shown to him, toss out what isn’t important, and focus on what is. Cunningham does exactly that here.

Arthur Smith, the Titans’ offensive coordinator, has Ryan Tannehill motion a tight end lined up as a wide receiver back to the tight end position. The idea is to block outside zone right and use the two tight end set to push everyone inside to create a cutback and outside run for Henry. Cunningham ignores all of this. He sees through the facade. He runs outside the entrapment and then filters back inside to make the tackle.

This recognition is vital in the passing game as well. Cunningham can quickly pick up on his pass keys and adjust accordingly. Houston almost forced the Titans to turn the ball over on downs on Tennessee’s first drive of the second half. On second down, Cunningham reads the play action, plants, and gets flat down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle. The Titans were stuck scoring on fourth down instead.

It’s not all perfect. Cunningham still doesn’t have much of a feel for blitz schemes. There are times when he takes an incorrect path into blockers and misses out making an impact, and he doesn’t yet fully understand how to attack blockers to open things up for others. In pass coverage, Houston has struggled covering running backs. Cunningham is guilty of having his insides devoured in a blender; those blenders are elite backs like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.

What Cunningham can do is play a short zone. Sit and read, and from there chase and tackle. It’s similar to being on the back side of a run play. Because of his speed, the Texans can play a variety of zone coverage from their nickel defense and not lose much at all when teams try to run the ball against light boxes.

This is what the jump looks like from good to great. Zach Cunningham has combined his athleticism with a mind that quickly and accurately defines what the offense is going to do. He has learned proper tackling technique to bring ball carriers down. The Texans have been able to stumble their way through their losses in large part because of the growth Cunningham has made. With potential playoff games against Buffalo and hopefully Baltimore waiting, the Texans will continue to rely on Cunningham from here on out, just like they have done all season.