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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos pass rush should be a weapon with plenty of versatility in 2018. Between Bradley Chubb and impressive undrafted free agent Jeff Holland, there will be lots of new faces, but one you might not expect is another new addition in hybrid linebacker-safety Su’a Cravens.
With Shane Ray out for the time being and the Broncos trying to use as many rushers at a time in exotic looks that can confuse their opponents, Cravens’ ability to rush the passer and impact the game as a blitzer might prove to be a real plus for the Orange and Blue this season.
“I’d say blitzing,” said Cravens when I asked him what his best skill is. “I don’t think people understand or don’t think that I can blitz. I got a lot of time in practice at USC, so I’m excited to show that.”
He spoke to BSN Denver about how he’s being used in a variety of ways on the last day of minicamps, prior to the team taking a break before training camp starts in roughly six weeks.
“They’ve been using me a little bit of everywhere, they’ve been blitzing me, they’ve been putting me in with the linebackers covering tight ends and running backs, and then back deep, playing the deep third. So whatever they need me to do I’m ready to do it.”
On a day in which the Broncos new No. 21 had himself a pick and a pass break up, we wanted to look at the impact Cravens can have as a blitzer.
The evaluation we’ve done on Cravens, both with the Washington Redskins and back in college at USC, jives with Su’a’s assessment that his ability as a blitzer is his best skill. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given his productivity wrecking backfields as a Trojan, wracking up 32 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks in his final two seasons in So Cal.
After evaluating the back end of the defense last week, here’s how the ultra-versatile Cravens can impact the game as a blitzer both against the run and pass.
Blitzing the run
Against the run, Craven’s ability blitzing in exotic formations is really valuable. As a nickel linebacker most of all, he’s a real asset in countering spread looks that NFL offenses like to run out of, allowing them to attack defenses with five or more defensive backs on the filed.
Both in that nickel role defending the slot, or up close to the line as a middle or outside linebacker, Cravens can attack the line of scrimmage and force offenses into negative plays—watch No. 36 lined up across the left guard as he shoots the gap.
For a hybrid safety who plays at 221 pounds, the Broncos new addition closes on plays masterfully, but is also relentless in pursuit, making him a real pest once he breaks through the line. He’s also a sound tackler with good pad level who can wrap up consistently, all aspects of his game that make him a very valuable defender against the ground game.
In zone blitzes when Cravens is asked to contain, he’ll often get into the backfield untouched as the line isn’t accounting for him, that’s where he can really be a tackle for loss threat.
As you’d imagine for a player his size, he doesn’t just close well but is fast bursting through the line, which makes him a real danger that blockers must account for. That foot speed combined with his ability to quickly diagnose plays allows him to read and react to the run flawlessly. Even if he doesn’t close on a play he can affect opposing offenses thanks to his speed and instincts shooting gaps.
When in heavier formations, down in the red zone, Cravens is also an asset, since he can play close to the line as a defensive back and still cover tight ends in short areas or running backs. While watching tape of the former USC stud, this was another area where he really made his mark.
His ability to attack the line of scrimmage against the run while still being reliable in coverage is huge in situations down in the red area—where the Broncos weren’t very good a year ago.
Cravens isn’t perfect, though, and needs to take better angles at times in attacking the line. That said, generally speaking, he’s a really diverse and valuable weapon against the run as a blitzer.
Harassing the quarterback
It goes without saying that Cravens is at his best against the pass, where he can be a killer that the Broncos can utilize in all sorts of exotic formations, especially when added to the array of pass rushers Denver has in addition to him.
Su’a is aggressive and plenty strong to take on backs blocking in the backfield—watch No. 21 here, lined up outside the left tackle.
Not to mention, he’s strong enough to take on offensive lineman, something he showed consistently in college even against stout lines like Notre Dame’s.
Just like against the run, Cavens is effective blitzing both from the middle and off the edge. Lined up as a weakside linebacker in sub packages is where he can really thrive with his speed and aggression, applying pressure on quarterbacks who are expecting him to drop in coverage.
This is particularly valuable as an asset creating interior pressure, which is key against conventional NFL pocket passers like Philip Rivers or Tom Brady.
He’s not just a weapon sacking the quarterback, but can also tip passes that QBs are forcing out quickly while Su’a comes bearing down on them. He’s also sharp on stunts when he goes inside-out and can outrun tackles past the edge and into the backfield.
Having OLB’s like Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who can drop in coverage in select zone blitzes, allows Cravens to apply pressure when offenses don’t expect it, making him that much more dangerous.
Being able to bring Cravens on blitzes off the edge on the same side as Chubb or Von, is another wrinkle the Broncos can use that’ll give offenses headaches.
If lined up deeper in the box he can also come up the middle, where he’s dangerous with a head of steam. It’s no coincidence that Su’a was receiving comparisons to Troy Polamalu in his collegiate playing days, as he’s very similar to the USC legend in how much he can impact all phases of the game when played close to the line.
Offenses might try to counter aggressive blitzes by throwing screens towards a defender like Cravens, though, that’s not necessarily a concern, as Denver’s new chess piece can diagnose plays quickly and has the chops to be an asset in space too.
While Cravens’ ability to cover tight ends or running backs, playing as a deep safety or in the box is his big selling point, he brings a lot more than just versatility in coverage.
As Joe Woods has shown more creativity and diversity in his fronts, Su’a could be a huge addition due to his ability to play up against the line as a linebacker and blitz from all sorts of different positions both against the pass and run.
When you add 21’s versatility as a blitzer to the talented group of edge rushers in Denver and promising interior pass rushers like Demarcus Walker, the Broncos front should create nightmares for opposing offenses to stop.
With the Broncos pass rush getting a major makeover this offseason, Su’a Cravens could be one of the secret weapons in upgrading the unit and restoring Denver’s prowess on ‘D’.