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A Closer Look: Understanding Jack Crawford’s skills and limitations

The new signing can play multiple positions on the defensive line.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Quinn is always focused on improving the defensive line. After being hired in 2015, the former defensive coordinator needed to make immediate upgrades. The 2014 Falcons’ defensive line featured aging veterans, one-dimensional run stuffers, and young players that didn’t last long in the league. They produced minimal pressure and failed to stop the run.

Fast forward to 2016. With Tyson Jackson being released and Jonathan Babineaux not being re-signed, Ra’Shede Hageman is the only defensive lineman left from Mike Smith’s final season as head coach.

The draft picks and free agent signings have been mostly successful. Assembling a fast, versatile unit is the ultimate goal for Quinn. A true nose tackle and young edge rusher is still required, but the Falcons needed another defensive lineman for depth purposes. Signing a defensive end to play in the base package made sense. Jack Crawford wasn’t necessarily on the radar. After Thomas Dimitroff spoke about his role in a recent interview, the signing made sense from a positional standpoint. Crawford played over 500 snaps last season. I watched him play against Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay to put together a film review.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. On this occasion, I’m using four games to evaluate Crawford’s ability to play multiple positions. Here are eight noteworthy moments from last season.

1st quarter: 2nd and 3 at CIN 17

Despite being listed at 288 pounds, Crawford isn’t as powerful as most would imagine. That makes him a liability against the run, particularly against left tackles. It played a significant role in his demotion. There are many responsibilities for a right defensive end against the run. Maintaining gap discipline is always crucial for a player that doesn’t normally get penetration on running plays.

Not only does Crawford fail to win a favorable matchup against tight end C.J. Uzomah. He gets pancaked in the process. Some may argue that an accidental trip caused his fall. Crawford wasn’t getting any push against Uzomah and allowed acres of space in the process. A tight end shouldn’t be manhandling a player of his size. Uzomah is listed at 265 pounds, which makes him larger than most tight ends. It still doesn’t preclude Crawford from fulfilling his task as the cutback defender.

2nd quarter: 2nd and 3 at CIN 42

It may be harsh to criticize him against one of the best left tackles in the league. Andrew Whitworth is the embodiment of consistency, which is why the Rams rewarded him last week. The main issue about this play is Crawford’s inability to set up moves. It showed on numerous occasions, when lining up as a defensive end. He is prepared to bull rush Whitworth, before trying to use a counter move. Crawford’s lack of agility causes him to be predictable.

Another common issue is his inability to bend against opposing tackles. Crawford doesn’t bother fully engaging Whitworth on this occasion. He knows the outstanding tackle beat him to the spot and isn’t going to get overpowered. That became a reoccurring theme in this game. The coaching staff will need to figure out whether Crawford should lose weight to become more nimble or add muscle to cope with massive tackles like Whitworth.

4th quarter: 1st and 10 at DAL 39

Crawford produced three-and-half sacks in 2016. Most of them came off plays like this. Cincinnati’s play design forced the offensive line to shift right, which makes Tyler Kroft responsible for blocking Crawford. Calling for a pull block on a pass play is always risky. It should confuse the defensive lineman, yet it usually puts the blocker in a precarious situation. They can’t properly block on a suitable angle to stop the incoming pass rusher.

Most edge rushers will come in full force. Crawford actually waits to read the play, which is smart on this occasion. Andy Dalton is known for using read option designs. As soon as he drops back to pass, Crawford recognizes the favorable matchup and pounces on the hurried quarterback. Kroft can’t get any sort of leverage, as he desperately lunges at him. The former fourth round pick easily generates pressure to split the sack with Terrell McClain. Astute plays like this made him a part of Rod Marinelli’s rotation.

3rd quarter: 1st and 10 at TB 30

Crawford became a rotational player in the last six games of the season. Marinelli moved him between left defensive end and defensive tackle rather than primarily line him up against left tackles. They found more success shifting him around, which is something Quinn must have noticed. Versatility is a prized trait to have in Atlanta.

For all the criticism of Crawford’s shortage of strength, he does use his hands well. Watch him extend and swat away Gosder Cherilus’ punch. His swim move is excellent as well. If Jameis Winston wasn’t an aggressive downfield passer, Crawford may have been rewarded with a sack. Vic Beasley will be rushing from the left side in the nickel package. There are other opportunities for him to contribute elsewhere. Crawford could rotate with Courtney Upshaw at strong side defensive end within their base package.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at PHI 25

This isn’t as bad as Brooks Reed’s spin move against New Orleans, but it’s not very far off. Crawford is limited as an edge rusher. Due to his lack of athleticism and explosive first step, it’s difficult to see him ever creating pressure off a spin move. Let’s take into account his matchup was favorable. Crawford faced fifth round rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was making his third NFL start. Washington and Minnesota found plenty of success against him.

Dallas couldn’t exploit the young right tackle. As previously mentioned, Crawford doesn’t bend off the edge very well. Without having good footwork, blistering speed, or the ability to stretch an opposing tackle, it’s not a viable move. Vaitai easily reads the spin move and pushes him to the side without difficulty. Trying to be creative is something all defensive coordinators can appreciate from a pass rusher. Eventually, the player needs to understand their skillset and not waste snaps. Unless Dwight Freeney returns and educates him about the spin move, Crawford shouldn’t attempt this ever again.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at DAL 27

Here is the aforementioned versatility. Crawford doesn’t appear to be on the interior. Dallas’ standard four-man front rushes Carson Wentz, before the weak side linebacker pops up and commands Jason Peters’ attention. That forces Stefan Wisniewski to adjust and block Crawford. Once again, the strong hand usage is evident. Crawford swats away Wisniewski’s initial punch.

That leaves the former center trailing in a one-on-one matchup. Crawford uses a solid rip move to generate pressure. The Cowboys’ secondary can’t hold up long enough for Crawford to land a hit on Wentz. Jordan Matthews ends up bailing them out, but this play may have opened Marinelli’s eyes. It could be best served to use Crawford’s underrated hand usage on the interior against smaller guards. Wisniewski failed to get any leverage on this particular occasion. If the former Nittany Lion can learn how to bend effectively, he can use the rip move more often. That should lead to more pressure and potential big plays.

4th quarter: 1st and 10 at DAL 36

When Quinn took over play calling duties in December, the defense line frequently ran twists and stunts to generate pressure. It proved to be a difference maker for them. Hopeless offensive lines such as Los Angeles and Seattle couldn’t stop them from creating constant pressure. The more aggressive approach became so successful that I wrote a piece about it following the Falcons’ dominant victory in Los Angeles.

If Crawford is going to shift inside, he will need to learn how to run twists better. This is one of several instances, where Crawford looked lost. Maliek Collins does a poor job taking on both blockers. To make up for his teammate’s lack of burst, Crawford should be more decisive and look to swing past T.J. Lang. He waits around too long and Green Bay’s interior line eats up their botched twist. Green Bay’s offensive line is one of the premier units in the league. Coaches would still like to see more effort out of Crawford, especially given his reputation as a high-motor player.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at DAL 46

Crawford showed good lateral quickness to close down a potential big gain. McClain gets pushed quite a bit, while both linebackers are cleanly blocked. It puts Crawford in a dangerous position, where he needs to stop or at least slow down Ty Montgomery in some capacity. He keeps his feet moving and left arm high to keep Lang from overpowering him.

To make a positive play on a top-tier right guard like Lang is impressive. Crawford is slightly fortunate that Montgomery isn’t allowed a cutback lane. Ryan Davis beats Richard Rodgers to the spot. If neither player gets there, Montgomery has tons of space in the open field. This is arguably Crawford’s most impressive play, as he shows good technique and overall pursuit. If the Falcons face another injury crisis at defensive tackle, they have a decent backup option in their new signing.