Sunday featured intriguing matchups between seasoned veterans, and rookies making their first appearances in the NFL. Giants running back Saquon Barkley went up against one of the best defensive lines in the Jaguars. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward battled against the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown.
And in Indianapolis, rookie left guard Quenton Nelson went to war with Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. And a war it was, right from the beginning:
The All-Pro held nothing back in their first snap lined up across from one another. Nelson starts his set to defend the b-gap from Atkins, but has to quickly slide to his right to mirror Atkins’ quickness off the snap. His rushed effort made him completely liable to a timely spin move, which Atkins then deploys on him. All he can do is hold on for dear life and is penalized for doing so.
For most of these plays, Nelson does an admirable job of recovering to the best of his ability despite losing off the snap. Atkins moves the point of attack from the original line of scrimmage to nearly the mesh point between quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Jordan Wilkins. Wilkins is forced to bend the run back and the box advantage the Bengals front seven (or eight in this case) and wins out.
That recovery ability was best showcased on this play. Atkins knows the b-gap is going to be wide open with Lawson speed-rushing from essentially a wide-9 alignment. While most rushers use a push-pull, Atkins typically attacks with a push and some form of a rip to weaken the outside edge. He succeeds initially but Nelson does a great job getting his hands back in position while sliding Atkins into Lawson. Luck is able to step up and, well, you know what happens next.
The quickness of Atkins and the timing from fellow defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow is what makes this stunt work so well against two very good young offensive linemen. The ground Atkins covers off the snap forces Nelson to mirror him as the communication between Nelson and center Ryan Kelly just couldn’t relay in time.
Kelly receives a handful of Atkins ramming into him with no chance of recovering, while Glasgow isn’t picked up by Nelson until he’s basically next to Luck. The pressure forces Luck to basically throw it away over double coverage.
Once again, Atkins tries to shorten his edge with a push-rip, but Nelson’s technique is as good as it could be. At Notre Dame, Nelson likely finishes this rep where he is at the middle of it, because most 3-techniques won’t re-establish leverage and muster up inordinate amounts of lower-leg drive to put Nelson on his behind.
Luckily, like it was for most of the game, Luck found ways to extend plays in the pocket and made the most of his protection, even when it failed in some areas.
If you’re tired of every play that looks like a run-pass-option being called a run-pass-option, you’re not alone. But, this was actually a run-pass-option, and Atkins isn’t fooled. Nelson and left tackle Joe Haeg are taking pass sets and the rest of the line takes drive steps for the zone run.
The pre-snap read is predicated off of where the offense has a numbers advantage, and facing a light box, Luck elects to hand the ball off, and it’s the correct read. If Atkins doesn’t read and react instantaneously and scrapes from the backside of the play, he would’ve been validated.
After working relentlessly for the first-half, Teryl Austin decides to make appropriate adjustments to help out his four-man rush. Lawson had been double teamed off the edge all game, and Atkins had been close with his outside rush. They use a tackle-end stunt to get the protection committed to taking away the outside, and loop Lawson back inside, occupying Nelson and leaving Atkins with Haeg. He obviously takes advantage.
Luck was only sacked one other time by Dunlap in this game, as he looked extremely comfortable maneuvering in the pocket in his first game back in over a year. His ability to do so was the difference between negative and positive plays for the Colts. But it should be said that Atkins and the other usual suspects had decent games as well, even if the box score didn’t reflect that.
Nelson has a lot to work on in terms of handling another level of quickness inside that he hasn’t quite seen before as a pass protector. Going up against Atkins is as tough of a first test as you can imagine, and every win that Nelson had, he should be proud of. That’s because Atkins just doesn’t have bad reps.
And as for Atkins, it’s good to see on the other side of 30, he hasn’t shown the slightest sign of slowing down. Nelson may reach the level of hype he was rightfully touted with, but Atkins was the man in this matchup, and that won’t change for any 1-on-1 scenario with which Atkins is faced for a while.