The Rams upset the Seahawks on Sunday, thanks to trick plays on special teams and the emergence of two rookies, one on each side of the ball. Running back Tre Mason and defensive tackle Aaron Donald have seen their playing time increase over the past two weeks, and both are taking advantage of their newfound opportunities in the starting lineup. Two first-year linebackers also caught Chris Tripodi’s eye this week, one taken fifth overall and another in the fifth round.
Tre Mason (RB-StL)
A third-round pick out of Auburn, Mason was active for the first time this season in Week 6 against the 49ers, playing the first nine snaps of his career and turning five carries into 40 yards. After passing the eye test as easily the Rams’ most explosive running back, Mason looked to have earned more playing time heading into Week 7 against the Seahawks. While the former SEC star played just over half of St. Louis’ offensive snaps (27 of 51), he led the Rams with 18 carries, which he turned into 85 yards and a touchdown. Former starter and second-year runner Zac Stacy played just one snap and fellow sophomore Benny Cunningham rotating in on passing downs, leaving feature-back duties to the rookie.
Mason’s early touchdown came from six yards out on the Rams’ second drive of the game. The rookie took a delayed handoff out of the shotgun and started to the right to set up his block from pulling left guard Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in this year’s draft, who also has made a nice impact in the last two weeks. Once Robinson got enough push against the defensive tackle to clear a lane, Mason quickly planted his right foot in the ground and sharply cut into the hole up the middle. Met at the goal line by All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, Mason turned his body just enough before contact to deflect Thomas’ hit into a glancing blow, which allowed him to spin off the hit and into the endzone before going down. This was a theme in Mason’s running all day, as he does a nice job of giving defenders a small target to hit and creating opportunities for extra yardage.
On the Rams’ next drive, Mason showed great patience running behind a fullback in the I-formation on a stretch play to the left. Some young runners would have cut back inside the tackle to find a small hole being filled by a linebacker, and Mason’s stutter step in the backfield led Malcolm Smith to believe he was looking to do just that. Smith took a step towards the line of scrimmage, but Mason followed his fullback to the outside and cut inside his seal block on the edge. His earlier hesitation before speeding outside had Smith caught just out of position, and Mason used his 4.48 speed to beat the diving linebacker to the edge and get to the second level. Setting up defenders with subtle hesitation moves is a small nuance of the running game, but one that has the potential to create big plays. Mason understands this.
For all the good that Mason brought to the St. Louis running game, he almost lost a fumble on his final carry of the game that would’ve given Seattle the ball and a chance to win. The rookie converted a third-and-one with a nice off-tackle run, but wasn’t careful with the ball and had it poked away from behind by Smith. Luckily the Rams recovered the fumble, otherwise the Seahawks would’ve had the ball near midfield needing just a field goal to win, and Mason would’ve been on the short list of scapegoats if the Rams had lost. He also showed a tendency to bounce plays outside when faced with backfield penetration, which created some negative runs in situations where Mason may have been able to make it back to the line of scrimmage or close with a quick inside cut. Sometimes, it’s better to salvage a busted play by getting nothing than going backwards.
Overall, Mason’s debut as the Rams’ lead back was a success. His backside vision, change-of-direction ability, burst and explosion were all on display and he is by far St. Louis’ most dynamic option in the backfield. At 5-8, 207 pounds, Mason runs low but isn’t a power back capable of moving piles on the inside, instead relying on patience and vision to spot holes opening on the backside and the explosiveness to get through creases quickly before they close. Mason has been targeted just once as a receiver since being activated and also struggles in pass protection, which will keep him off the field on passing situations in favor of Cunningham. The rookie is the team’s top option on the ground, however, which should keep him involved in the gameplan from week to week unless the Rams are getting blown out.
Aaron Donald (DT-StL)
While Mason is a third-round pick emerging almost halfway through the season after being a non-factor early, Donald was great as a rotational player through the Ram’s first four games of the season. Like fellow Rams’ first-round pick Robinson, who first starting seeing significant playing time in Week 6, Donald made his first career start against the 49ers that week with four solo tackles. The former Pitt star followed that up in Week 7 with another four solo tackles, including an impressive three for losses, while also registering his second sack of the season. Even with just 223 snaps played on the season, Donald has been one of Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked defensive tackles thanks to his great play both in limited time and with extensive snaps.
The first thing that stands out about Donald is an explosive first step and elite burst off the line. Donald engages opposing offensive linemen before other defensive linemen are fully out of their stance, and it’s this ability to quickly engage that gives him a big advantage. This skill was apparent on consecutive plays in the first quarter where Donald was a disruptive presence despite a lack of box score contributions. On a first-and-10, Donald impressively ruined a quick-hitting three-step drop with instant pressure up the middle. Engaging the left guard immediately after the snap, Donald ripped through the guard’s inside shoulder into the backfield and hit Russell Wilson barely a second after the ball was snapped. Wilson sensed the pressure and released the ball just in time to his out-breaking short route, but Donald’s pressure forced a weak throw that was broken up by E.J. Gaines and could’ve turned into a pick-six in a different situation.
On the next play, Donald was the first Rams’ lineman to get his hands on his man, staying extended and maintaining backfield vision. Once Marshawn Lynch hit the hole to the left of Donald, he shed the block nicely to assist on the tackle. On Seattle’s next drive in the second quarter, Donald sacked Wilson for a five-yard loss on first down with the Seahawks inside the Rams’ 40-yard line. The Pittsburgh product was again the quickest lineman off the snap, using a quick hand move to get inside the guard and ripping through the center who came over for the double team. Donald had Wilson wrapped up in a flash and the quarterback had no chance to find a safety valve. Seattle ended up being forced to punt thanks to Donald’s sack, and that punt ended into a 90-yard return touchdown for Stedman Bailey.
Later in the quarter, Donald stuffed Marshawn Lynch for a five-yard loss on a third-and-goal play. Lined up as a three-technique in the B gap, Donald was again shot out of a cannon on the snap and gave the left guard no chance to block him. Flashing quickly into the backfield, Lynch had nowhere to run and tried to bounce the play outside, but was swallowed up by Donald, who drove Lynch almost five yards back after contact before tossing him to the ground. There aren’t many defensive players who can treat Lynch like a rag doll, but the 285-pound Donald made it look easy.
Defensive tackles don’t directly put points on the board, but Donald’s ability to create quick pressure will force many offenses into mistakes. As fast as he is off the line, he also shows a wide array of hand moves to get free of blockers who have almost no chance of squaring him up when he’s playing the gaps. Donald uses a violent punch along with good swim and rip moves and quick, strong hands to break free of bigger offensive tackles. His size was a question mark for him heading into the draft but as I said about Jason Verrett last week, it’s impressive when a player who lacks ideal size gets drafted in the first round of the measureable-obsessed NFL Draft, and Donald is just another player who shows that football skills are more important than height and weight. There’s little standing between Donald and a long career as a top-notch three-technique tackle, and opponents should expect to see him in their backfield constantly if they aren’t willing to double team him, a rare distinction for any lineman that isn’t a nose tackle or an elite pass rusher.
Khalil Mack (LB-Oak)
Draft Insider’s second-ranked player behind Jadeveon Clowney for the 2014 draft, Mack went fifth overall to the Oakland Raiders, who have to be ecstatic he fell to them. While the rookie out of Buffalo has yet to record his first career sack, a surprise considering his pass-rushing acumen in college, Mack leads the Raiders in solo tackles (31) after amassing 10 solo stops Sunday, including three for loss. Those are great numbers for a 3-4 outside linebacker and a testament to Mack’s excellence as a run stopper this season.
On the Cardinals’ fourth offensive play, Mack showed impressive awareness and great hands on a reverse to John Brown. The former MAC stud stayed home while the run initially flowed to the opposite side and took on tight end John Carlson, who pulled back towards him after motioning to the weak side of the formation before the snap. Mack jolted Carlson with a violent punch to keep the tight end off his body, rode his block outside to set the edge and force Brown to cut inside, then chucked Carlson to the side to stop Brown for a five-yard loss. This wouldn’t be the first time Mack got the best of Carlson, as the rookie spent much of Week 7 lined up on the line of scrimmage, creating a consistent mismatch against the Cardinals’ tight end.
Mack was explosive firing off the line of the scrimmage, driving Carlson backwards on numerous occasions. Not only did Mack show the power to drive the tight end backwards, but he kept his head up and his eyes in the backfield to follow the play and use his hands to shed Carlson and make a play on the ballcarrier. Rather than driving with his shoulder, Mack used great extension and strong hands to get his push up the field, which enabled him to quickly shed to the ball once the running back chose a hole, which was generally to the inside with Mack quickly and easily setting the edge.
Even when Mack was lined up off the line, he didn’t look out of place. He filled the hole nicely on a late three-yard run by Stepfan Taylor, refusing to overpursue a play that started off as an off-tackle run to the opposite side. Mack flowed towards the play but stayed disciplined in his backside responsibility, finding himself in the right place once Taylor cut back against the grain to stop the runner in his tracks.
It’s rare to find an outside linebacker who leads his 3-4 team in tackles, but that’s exactly what Mack has done in his first six career games. His excellence against the run notwithstanding, his speed off the edge should eventually make him a threat for double-digit sacks every season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anybody to see Mack develop into an annual Pro Bowler. He’s been effective as a pass rusher too, with 12 hurries and four quarterback hits in six games, and eventually those pressures should reflect in the stat sheet. The Raiders haven’t drafted a productive player in the first round since Darren McFadden in 2008 (fourth overall) – and even that hasn’t quite worked out – but Mack has already changed that.
Telvin Smith (LB-Jac)
After making the first two starts of his career in Weeks 5 and 6, Jaguars fifth-round pick Telvin Smith moved back to the bench in Week 7 against the Browns, but played a season-high 40 snaps in what proved to be an outstanding performance. A first team All-ACC performer in 2013, Smith fell to the fourth pick of the fifth round due to size concerns, as most NFL linebackers are bigger than Smith’s 6-3, 218-pound frame. But the linebacker’s 4.5 speed made him an enticing prospect nonetheless and a fourth-rounder on the Draft Insider big board.
That speed proved to be a major asset for Smith in the Jags’ first win of the season. The rookie used his jets early in the game to chase down Ben Tate from behind on an 18-yard run and again early in the third quarter, when his blazing speed left him untouched off the edge on a third-and-nine. Smith was able to get to Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer just before he could release the ball, leading to a fumble that was recovered by Jacksonville. If Smith had gotten to Hoyer even a millisecond later, his arm would’ve been moving forward and the pass would have fallen incomplete. In the fourth quarter, Smith used his speed to quickly flow to a toss play run away from him, beating the pulling right guard and shooting into the backfield to stop Tate for no gain.
Smith’s speed is by far his best asset, but he’s also translated his great cover skills from Florida State to the NFL. The rookie flips his hips quickly to turn and get good depth on his zone drops, keeping his eyes in the backfield and showing great footwork to get into his drops without having to backpedal or turn his head away from the quarterback. This allows him to quickly react to balls in the air to make plays. Smith’s first career interception came on a fourth-quarter play where he got good depth and took advantage of a pass thrown behind Tate that was batted right to him in the air.
While his interception was more of a gift than a great play, Smith did make a few other nice plays in coverage. On a play that was nullified by penalty early in the game, he again showed good fundamental technique by getting appropriate depth in his zone. Once Jordan Cameron broke outside into the cornerback’s zone, Smith focused on the inside as Tate released into the middle. Smith showed good closing speed to come up quickly once the pass was released to stop Tate for no gain. The rookie also broke up a pass to Cameron later on where he actually dropped an interception, but quickly got depth to the flank with his eyes in the backfield. Hoyer made a bad throw into coverage, but also underestimated Smith’s speed moving in reverse, which is great for a linebacker.
Week 7 was by far Smith’s best game of the season, and his contributions were extremely important in getting Jacksonville into the win column for the first time this season. Consistency may be an issue for the rookie, but this game should lead to increased playing time and an opportunity for him to make even more big plays on the field. This likely won’t be the last time we hear from Smith, who will be a big part of any defensive resurgence the Jaguars enjoy, even if it’s just in a situational pass-rushing and coverage role.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.