Dating back to training camp, Coach Vrabel was raving about the progress that Jeffery Simmons was making both “physically and mentally.” With the departure of Jurrell Casey, Simmons was primed for a more prominent role on the field and to become a leader of the defense this season. He also may have been the reason that the Titans were so willing to get rid of Casey to begin with.
Simmons was taken after four other interior defensive lineman (Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence) in the 2019 NFL draft, primarily due to the ACL tear that he sustained in the pre-combine preparation process.
However, so far this season, Simmons is tied for first in pressures out of this group despite playing one less game and looks like the best of the bunch so far in the NFL. In fact, he is currently ranked sixth in defensive grades among all players with at least 100 snaps according to PFF. It looks like the Titans were able to steal some value by drafting Simmons last year and taking a more long term approach.
For this article, I went back through the first three games and focused specifically on Simmons, and I must say that he exceeded my expectations. He not only improved in areas where he was already good, he also shored up some of his weaknesses.
I can confidently say that Simmons has been the Titans’ best player so far on defense — something that I predicted when the team first selected him in the first round of the 2019 draft.
What he was already good at
Even after tearing his ACL earlier in 2019, Simmons returned to play as a physical freak. Power is the best way to describe Simmons’ game as he has some of the strongest hands and lower body to push offensive lineman back into the pocket.
Current literature shows that it can take up to two years after surgery to return to pre-ACL reconstruction levels of lower extremity strength. Simmons made his return to the field at around eight months post-surgery and still maintained his dominant power.
Now, after a full healthy offseason to train, Simmons looks even more powerful. He utilizes this innate strength in his bull rush, which has allowed him to frequently collapse pockets and compress rushing lanes this season.
On this above play, he pushes Garrett Bradbury nearly eight yards behind the line of scrimmage to get a hit on Kirk Cousins. As you can see from Mike’s tweet below, Bradbury shows very little resistance to Simmons’ overwhelming power.
In addition to his naturally powerful lower body, Simmons has incredible length to prevent opposing offensive lineman from getting hands on his torso. In the second picture below, notice how Simmons latches his hands perfectly on the inside shoulder of the right guard. This allows him to control the lineman’s center of mass and convert the power from Simmons’ legs through his arms efficiently.
The results is Simmons pressuring Kirk Cousins, forcing him to get rid of the ball earlier than he wanted to.
Simmons used this exact skillset to get his first sack this season as well. As you can see from the clip below, Simmons keeps churning his legs as he drives Dru Samia all the way to the quarterback before bringing Cousins to the ground.
Simmons’ power also makes him a monster in short yardage and goal line situations against the run. He demonstrated this against the Chargers in his first NFL start, and it was on full display again for the Broncos in Week 1. On this 1st & goal below, Simmons drives his man backwards and stops the run for a minimal gain. The ball carrier simply has no where to go.
He’s done this multiple times already throughout his career — the Patriots playoff game last year comes to mind. Justin Graver broke down another example of this ability from the Broncos game, make sure to check it out!
Where he improved
Analytically, it’s more valuable for defensive lineman to be good at rushing the passer over defending the run. This is because generally passing plays are more dangerous than running plays.
So far in this 2020 season, Simmons has made tremendous strides in his pass rushing technique and approach, subsequently making him a more impactful player in the passing game and thus more valuable player to the defense in general.
As a pass rusher, Simmons has diversified his pass rush arsenal to affect the quarterback with more than just collapsing the pocket. He is now learning to disengage from his blocks and keep his hands active rather than just bull rushing linemen backwards with no real purpose.
In this example against the Vikings, Simmons is lined up at the 3-technique spot — Jurrell Casey’s old position. As the right guard reaches out to engage Simmons, he employs a nicely timed swipe move to slap the lineman’s hands away, creating a free path for him towards Kirk Cousins.
Simmons has not only expanded his pass rush repertoire, but his moves are also more effective. In this next play below from Week 2, Simmons is lined up as the 0-technique. He quickly reaches the left shoulder of the center after the snap. Simmons then transfers his leftward momentum to the Jaguar’s center and throws him to the ground with a violent snatch move. This forces Gardner Minshew to escape the pocket and make a play off-script.
Simmons is starting to string moves together and rush the passer with purpose. Watch how he transitions from a long arm into a swim move in order to get to the quarterback. His hands stay active through the entirety of this rep and it allows him to break free from his block.
I also noticed that Simmons is showing more lateral quickness this year. In this next example from Week 1, Simmons completely crosses the left guard’s face in just two steps. Just look at how much ground he covers right off the snap (indicated by the dotted lines below). After he crosses over, Simmons uses a rip move to penetrate between the center and left guard to pressure the quarterback. Lock is forced to get rid of the ball to a covered receiver downfield. Incompletion.
This same principle of improved hand usage has also translated to his run defense. He has been disengaging from blocks more quickly and more often to disrupt run plays. Simmons is especially keen at keeping his eyes in the backfield and identifying the ball carrier’s path as he disengages.
The recurring theme through this noted progress is that everything he does has a purpose: getting to the ball. Coaches often say, “See ball, get ball,” and that is how Simmons is operating.
This development in his pass rush ability has already led to more production from Simmons this season. He has surpassed his 2019 pressure total in just three games of 2020. He currently has 10 pressures on just 96 pass rushing snaps, as opposed to his 9 pressures on 175 pass rushing snaps in 2019. In other words, he’s nearly doubled his pressure rate so far this year.
In theory, this increased pressure rate and the way he’s winning should lead to a significant increase in sacks this year. While converting pressures into sacks is somewhat random, having more overall pressures means more sack opportunities. Further, Simmons is not just running through offensive lineman without a purpose anymore. He is using his hands and technique to move defenders out of his path to the quarterback. This style of pass rushing should also lead to a higher pressure-to-sack conversion rate.
Although Simmons is currently on the Reserve/COVID list after presumably testing positive for the coronavirus, this article should serve as some optimism for the future. In all likelihood, Simmons should be back in time for the Titans’ Week 6 match against the Texans.
So don’t worry Titans fans, Big Jeff will be backing to sacking and tormenting quarterbacks soon enough!