The Falcons' linebackers have come under fire the the last couple of weeks, in particular, as they struggle in coverage and with open field tackling against the likes of Benjamin Watson. What many fans—yours truly included—view as a sign of enduring weakness apparently is more of a blip on the radar for linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich.
As usual, Vaughn McClure has an insightful look at what a coach thinks of his players, and Ulbrich offers a particularly steady defense of Paul Worrilow, whose coverage skills have come under fire for the third consecutive season.
"He continues to improve, particularly from a coverage standpoint,'' Ulbrich said. "It starts with pre-snap indicators and really identifying when the play-action is coming, when the bootlegs are coming, and when the threat of checkdowns is coming based on the formation and based on the splits. These are all the things that we've studied throughout the week.
"He's gaining a better understanding every single week of when he has a threat; when he has a crossing route that he's got to respect; when he's got a checkdown and when he doesn't have a checkdown. And then beyond that, when the ball is snapped, just his fundamentals as far as his footwork and understanding leverage and that in our defense, we always have help -- always, when we tackle. So that's understanding where my help is and playing to that, and then taking my shots when I can. He's find inches in his game every single day. He's just the ultimate competitor that way.''
That's pretty high praise of Worrilow, and it echoes some of the things his previous coaches have said about him. We know he's a competitor, the team loves his ability to learn and his willingness to improve, and that the Falcons depend on his ability to be around the ball and at least slowing opposing skill players down. I don't think anyone's going to argue that Worrilow is a bad football player, but I appreciate that Ulbrich is aware of the criticism and defending his player, and I especially appreciate that he believes his coverage skills will continue to improve. For all three of his seasons in the NFL, that's been the primary thing holding Worrilow back from being widely acknowledged as a quality linebacker.
Ulbrich does raise an excellent point in the piece, which is that everyone is learning a new scheme, and there are bounds to be some hiccups along the way whenever that happens. I would love to see this team erase arguably its greatest defensive weakness, and if Worrilow is the primary author of that, so much the better. He is just 25 years old and heading for the end of his first contract, after all.
For all this glowing talk, I still fully expect the Falcons to add a linebacker to this team via free agency or the first two rounds of the draft next season, simply because they're heavily reliant on an injury prone player (Justin Durant) and players like Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, and Nate Stupar who simply haven't shown excellent coverage skills thus far. Read the full article for more, and also Ulbrich's take on each player on the team minus new signing Philip Wheeler. If Wheeler can be a useful addition and Ulbrich is right about his current guys, this defense will go from very solid to very good sooner than later.