The Washington Redskins drew attention when they drafted their second Alabama defender in as many picks on Day 2 of the NFL draft. Washington selected outside linebacker Ryan Anderson in the second round to pair with fellow Alabama teammate defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, drafted the previous night in the first round.
“He’s one of the guys that we really have targeted for some time,” Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden said after the draft. “Actually, we had thoughts about him possibly in the first round, quite frankly, because we didn’t know all these players were going to fall to us in the first. He is a guy that we had targeted up there in the top two rounds.”
One of the things Gruden emphasized when talking about Anderson was just how good of a run defender he is. “If he’s playing outside, nobody runs outside. He’s great at setting that edge. He’s one of the best I’ve seen at setting the edge in the running game.”
I wouldn’t quite go as far as that, but he’s certainly a very good edge defender in the run game. Let’s take a look.
Here, Alabama is in its nickel package with Anderson lining up outside the right tackle. Texas A&M motions a receiver to the left before handing the ball off on a run to the right. Anderson has edge responsibilities, meaning he can’t allow the running back to bounce his run outside. He gets his hands inside on the chest of the right tackle and stacks him, establishing his position on the edge. He waits for the back to commit to bouncing his run outside before shedding the block and wrapping up the back behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.
As Gruden said, if he’s playing outside, nobody runs outside. But that doesn’t mean Anderson can’t make plays inside either.
On this play, USC pulls its right guard outside to kick out the edge defender and clear a path for the running back. But as the ball is snapped, Anderson quickly diagnoses the play, reading the tight end and right tackle down blocking inside and spotting the guard pulling around to block him. As soon as he spots the pulling guard, Anderson steps up and initiates contact. This squeezes the pulling guard, closing the rushing lane inside, while also establishing an edge. The back attempts to cut back inside, but Anderson drops his hands, pulling the guard off balance. That enables him to throw the guard outside as he works back inside to make the tackle for a minimal gain.
The knocks on Anderson are his size and athleticism. He’s only 6-foot-2, 253 pounds, which is small for an edge defender and he didn’t test particularly well at the combine. But Anderson isn’t concerned about those criticisms, calling himself a football player, not a workout warrior. Despite his size and lack of length, he plays extremely physically and his mentality makes him a strong run defender.
Those two concerns, the lack of size and athleticism, are slightly more concerning from a pass-rush perspective. Typically, successful pass rushers in the NFL either have an elite burst or great length to keep offensive linemen off them. Anderson has relatively short arms for the position at 31 1/2 inches, and isn’t necessarily a quick-twitch athlete. However, that didn’t stop Gruden from praising his ability as a pass rusher.
“He’s a very good pass rusher with his tenacity and he has made a lot of splash plays at Alabama. I think he had nine sacks this year, and a bunch of tackles for loss, a few forced fumbles. He’s just all over the place.”
At Alabama, he was able to make up for physical traits with good technique, a well-developed pass-rush plan with different moves and a nonstop, relentless motor.
One of the things Anderson does really well is varying his pass rush. A lot of college pass rushers will only have one move, typically a speed rush, but Anderson has a couple of different moves that complement each other. Here, he lines up outside the right tackle and starts his rush to the outside. He sells a stutter-step fake to get the tackle to commit to the outside before he then works back inside.
Anderson gets under the pad level of the right tackle and gets his hands inside on his chest. That allows Anderson to drive the tackle back and shove him out of the way as he works back inside. Fortunately for the tackle, the quarterback spots the rush coming and does a good job to avoid the sack and buy time for the tackle to recover, but Anderson did a good job creating pressure to knock the quarterback off his spot and the play resulted in an incompletion.
Anderson will use that up-and-under inside move frequently, to make sure the tackle knows he’s willing to go inside and that the tackle needs to be prepared to protect the inside gap too. When he has a tackle concerned about protecting the inside gap, Anderson will switch to a counter move.
As before, Anderson uses a stutter-step. The tackle naturally associates the stutter step with an inside move, so he stops his feet and lunges at Anderson to cut him off from going inside. Anderson then drops his hands and continues on his path outside, using his inside arm to swat away the tackle’s hands if he needs to. Anderson turns the corner and closes on the quarterback, forcing him into a hurried throw that gets intercepted.
These two rush moves are a big part of Anderson’s arsenal. He uses them in most games and he does a good job using one to set up the other. He’s been doing this for a while, too.
This is a play from 2015. Anderson had set up the tackle with the inside move earlier in the drive, so this time he works the stutter-and-go on the outside. As before, the tackle falls for the bait and Anderson skips by him on his way to sack quarterback Dak Prescott, now starting for the Dallas Cowboys.
He can’t rely on just two pass rush moves though, and he doesn’t. Anderson also does a good job converting a speed rush into a power rush.
Here, Anderson lines up with his hand in the dirt outside the left tackle. Anderson takes his first few steps wide, forcing the tackle to open his hips to the sideline instead of staying square to the line of scrimmage. This gives Anderson an opportunity to overpower the tackle with leverage. Anderson adjusts his track and rushes right at the tackle, landing a strong punch with his left hand to the chest of the tackle. Having gotten the tackle into a bad position, Anderson runs through him, using his strength to throw him aside as he closes on the quarterback, who just manages to get his throw away.
Use of hands is another key to Anderson’s game. Because he does lack elite burst and length, he has to be great with his hands to win consistently. Having been at Alabama, Anderson has been coached well and has developed his hand fighting to help keep himself clean.
This time, Anderson works against Clemson’s right tackle. He times the snap well, which gives him a good jump that surprises the tackle. The tackle responds by trying to get his hands on Anderson to cut him off, but Anderson keeps himself clean, using his right arm to swat away the tackle’s hands. The tackle tries to recover, but Anderson brings his hand back up and bats away the tackle’s second attempt to get hands on him. Anderson’s pressure is felt by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who attempts to scramble but has nowhere to go and is brought down for a sack by Anderson.
His hand usage is good, but it can always be improved. If he doesn’t continue to work on it, longer, more athletic tackles in the NFL will get their hands on him and lock him up.
This time, Anderson goes up against Washington’s left tackle. Anderson gets a good jump again, but the tackle matches him and throws his hands early, landing them inside on the chest of Anderson. The tackle has longer arms than Anderson, which makes it hard for Anderson to reach the chest of the tackle. That gives the tackle control of the block until Anderson can get the tackle’s hands off him. Anderson struggles to disengage and the tackle simply sets anchor and wins the block.
Anderson will have to make sure his hand usage is perfect to have the impact he desires in the NFL. He’ll also need to work on having a backup plan should he get caught up on a block as he did above. But ultimately, despite lacking the physical traits of others, Anderson has a developed, well thought-out plan of how to set up tackles and win as a pass rusher. His ability as both a pass rusher and run defender makes him a three-down player and his mentality will make him a leader on and off the field early in his career.