So this week’s amateur adventures in film is based on a comment from Ross Tucker on his podcast this week that AJ Klein was one of the best backup linebackers in the NFL, that he doesn’t start because they have Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, and Shaq Thompson, but that he looks a lot like Kuechly when he’s out there and made a bunch of plays. I thought I would take a look for myself.
Now his stat are pretty good with five tackles, and a play that doesn’t seem to have been credited as a sack where he stopped a scrambling Derek Carr as he tried to make a first down by stopping him behind the line and forcing a fumble. This was a very nice play as Klein started the play by showing blitz, then dropped back into coverage before chasing Carr to the side line. However, as the game moved on there were a couple of big plays that Klein was involved with.
Very few linebackers are as good as Luke Kuechly when he is in full flight, but Klein certainly looked good for large parts of this game, dropping into coverage smoothly or attacking gaps against the run. However, whilst he was capable of running with the slot receivers or tight ends, he gave up several plays in this spot including a touchdown to Clive Walford in the fourth quarter. In fact the fourth quarter was a difficult period for Klein. He did not get his head around and so was only able to wave an arm as the ball from Carr went to Walford in the back of the end zone for aforementioned touchdown. However, Klein also gave up a fifteen yard facemask penalty when trying to disengage from a block by Michael Crabtree against a run play, and gave up a thirty-two yard pass play to Crabtree as he followed him down the field. Not only did the pass get completed, but Klein gave away a declined pass interference penalty that ensured the pass was effective regardless of whether the catch was made. A matchup of a linebacker against a receiver down field is always going to be advantageous to the receiver, so I am not going to be too critical of this play, but it was a bad moment.
It does however highlight one problem when you are going through film, which is you can’t know the call. You would frequently see the linebackers swapping round as the Raiders shifted, and you could see Klein follow his player out when he had plays, sometimes slowing down or breaking up a play with his closing speed such as when he reached running back Latavius Murray as he received the pass to break up the completion or again later in the game when he tackled Murray for a loss. He was also unafraid to attack the hole or take on blockers, but the Raiders line is a very large group of men and I wouldn’t exactly say he won his battles with Gabe Jackson. That said, when a team only gives up fifty-six yards on thirty-one attempts, then your run defence is doing something right and whilst he wasn’t slipping off blockers easily, nor was he getting pancaked and when you’re taking on three hundred pound plus linemen that is not to be sneezed at.
As ever, I feel a little under qualified for grand pronouncements on players, but it was really interesting watching AJ Klein play and he certainly seemed to move in space well when dropping into zone, which he did a lot. It may not look to me that he diagnosed plays as fast as the man he was replacing, but that’s an unfair comparison for many a linebacker in the league and I did think he looked good for parts of this game, even if did give up some key plays. However, he kept on coming and I’ll be interested to see how the Panthers get on against the Seahawks in tonight’s game.