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Isaiah Simmons: “We need to come into a game not thinking, but knowing...”

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Background: Sep 11, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, United States; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) catches a touchdown over Arizona Cardinals defender Isaiah Simmons (9) at State Farm Stadium. Credit: Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

What Cardinals’ fans can see in the photo above is actually a strong cause for encouragement. While All Pro TE Travis Kelce was able to snatch this nifty TD, into the tightest window All Pro QB Patrick Mahomes saw all game, Isaiah Simmons is the athlete who created that tight window.

On the play, Simmons pressed Kelce at the line of scrimmage with a big-time pop, but Kelce was able to gain just a half yard of outside leverage, which meant that Simmons had to chase as fast as he could tp try to close the passing window —- and Simmons got within a half step of doing so.

Mahomes’ and Kelce’s familiarity allow them to run sophisticated “oppo-leverage” routes, the way Tom Brady did for years with Julian Edelman. What this means is, after Kelce gets jammed at the line of scrimmage, as he did with Simmons, whatever side of Simmons that Kelce can leverage will dictate the route.

All Mahomes needs to do is check to see which side of Simmons that Kelce is on and know:

  • if Kelce has outside leverage, Kelce is running a corner route to the pylon...
  • if Kelce has inside leverage, he is running a shallow post (to the nearest post)...

You might recall that later in the game, when Kelce tried to gain inside leverage again, this time from the right side of the formation off of a two receiver stack “short motion”, Kelce got Simmons to over-chase him and then Kelce performed a nifty zig-zag route which caused Simmons to stumble forward.

It looked like a horrible effort from Simmons, but, in actuality, the fact that Simmons was trying to recover on giving up inside leverage faster than he did the last time means that he was already trying to make adjustments.

The reason why the Chiefs rubbed Kelce off the stack through “short motion” was they didn’t want Simmons to be able to press him at the line of scrimmage. If Simmons is able to pop Kelce and not give him a free and clean release, then he can spoil the timing of the play and be in a position to dog Kelce’s route.

On this rub play, it looks like Simmons is trying to get his hands on Kelce within the permitted 5 yard zone while at the same time trying out get on top of Kelce’s route —- and just as soon as Kelce sensed this, he reversed his route.

To deem Isaiah Simmons unfit to play the slot or cover in space (because of an inability to change direction), as Jody Oehler does in this tweet, is a mistake.

Travis Kelce is All-World at deke-ing out defensive backs and linebackers. If you watch the Chiefs consistently, you have to ask yourself game after game how, despite drawing the best slot CBs and a steady diet of double coverage from the linebackers or free safeties, Kelce manages to get open time and time again.

If every defender Kelce has deked out of his jock were deemed incapable of playing the slot or covering in space, there would be virtually no defenders left to choose from,. Kelce is savvy, super slippery and he has the autonomy to change the direction of his route at any moment because he knows Patrick Mahomes will adjust and throw him a dime when he breaks free.

No one knows how to take advantage of leverage better than Travis Kelce.

For those who aren’t sure of what leverage means in a football sense, it basically means gaining a physical advantage to one side of the man you are up against, either to the left side (as pictured above) our to the right side. It’s because of good, swift leverage that so many holding penalties and TDs occur.

Travis Kelce, the TE master of leverage, has a habit of making any cover man look foolish.

This rub play off the stack from short motion presents the same issues for defenders as the pick and roll does for NBA defenders. The Cardinals here could have done what most NBA teams do on the pick and roll —- switch and hedge —- Byron Murphy was in the best position to hedge on Kelce and Simmons could have guarded JuJu Smith-Schuster. That way it doesn’t put Isaiah Simmons at a competitive disadvantage on the snap.

Regardless, Kelce was a superb TE for Isaiah Simmons to cover in Week 1, because no other TE this season will be more difficult to guard —- and there are a number of prolific TEs ahead like this week’s opponent, the Raiders’ Darren Waller and, of course, the best TE in the NFC West, the 49ers’ George Kittle.

Simmons needs time and reps. Commanding the slot doesn’t happen overnight. With each game, he is going to grow stronger. And let’s not ignore the fact that this was Simmons’ first game relaying the defensive calls sent from the sideline —- and, as it turned out, more than half of those plays (35 of 66) were blitz calls.

This week, what Isaiah Simmons needs to work on is generating more recovery speed after he has lost leverage or is deked out. A couple of times against KC he stumbled and lost his motor. He needs to kick it back into gear when needed.

We already know how capable he is of kicking in his extra gear. Remember the play at AT&T Stadium last year where Isaiah was rushing the edge and go kicked out a little wide of the pocket and then —- on a bee-line —- his raced his way like a lightning bolt back to the football, where he made a ball jolting tackle?

That was one of the key plays in the Cardinals’ 25-22 win over the Cowboys in Week 17.

The next step for Isaiah Simmons is applying that kind of 4.39 speed to his recovery speed in pass coverage.

Generating recovery speed is precisely what all of the Cardinals’ cover men need to improve. How many times have we seen Marco Wilson and Byron Murphy be one step away from getting their hands on the football?

The key to great defense in team sports is how quickly and fast your defenders move when the ball is in the air. The great defenses close on the ball (or puck) in a flash. The great ones know how to anticipate the precise moment the pass is occurring and they know how to kick in the extra gear that can get them to the pass ahead of the receiver.

Isaiah Simmons has the ability to be sensational at making plays on the ball.


In the clip from an interview below (thanks to Bo Brack’s tweet), Isaiah Simmons explains how the defense needs stronger communication. Like the stack rub above —- Simmons and Murphy could have called a switch.

But, mostly what Simmons is referring to here is every player getting his assignments correct on the pre-snap. Trying to run 36 blitz plays which required multiple coverage switches and assignments must have caused a fair degree of chaos.

Simmons is also referring to the communication that players have to make when they are “passing off” a receiver from the edge of one zone to the defender in the other —- plus he is alluding to “help calls” in coverage when a defender knows he’s been beaten and calls out for safety help.

Just as the effectiveness of every defense is dependent on players moving quickly to the ball as the ball is being passed or lateraled, the effectiveness of a defense is hugely dependent on “help principles and practices.”

Against premier athletes, it is very difficult to defend a man one-on-one. Even the best on-ball defenders in the NBA will tell you, if they couldn’t rely on help, they couldn’t be as aggressive in defending his man. Today’s athletes are too quick, fast and skilled to cover for long man-to-man.

To expect Isaiah Simmons to be able to lock down Travis Kelce in his first ever attempt to guard him is patently naive. What Isaiah Simmons needed was stronger help —- but because the coaches were blitzing so heavily, many opportunities to double team Travis Kelce were taken away. And even when the Cardinals had Kelce tripled teamed once, Mahomes threaded the needle up the left seam, in between the defenders for a 35 yard gain. Simmons was not assigned to Kelce on that play. Nick Vigil was and Kelce slipped right past Vigil up the seam, Vigil hesitated and by the time he turned to chase Kelce from behind the ball was in the air.

What Isaiah Simmons says here about stronger communication and all the players having having a command of the details —- “we need to come into a game not thinking, but knowing “ —-

It certainly could simplify matters if Vance Joseph makes the coverage assignments/matchups more consistent.

This week’s matchups are:

  • Double teaming WR Davante Adams with Marco Wilson and one of the safeties.
  • Having Trayvon Mullen (or Byron Murphy) blanket WR Mack Hollins
  • Having Byron Murphy (or Jace Whittaker) cover Hunter Renfro
  • Having Isaiah Simmons guard TE Darren Waller with built in safety help at times.
  • Having Zaven Collins cover RB Josh Jacobs

Vance Joseph likes to keep his CBs to one side —- but it could help the CBs dig in if they are assigned to one WR. Wilson is the speediest of the CBs. Assigning him to Adams and assuring him of safety help would appear to be the strongest option.

Do you think there will be a simplification of coverage assignments in Game 2?