Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu and Why His Versatility Will Appeal to 3-4 and 4-3 Defenses

Jeremiah AttaochuOne thing I’ve learned to always take note of when evaluating prospects: coaching. It’s a critical factor that could lead a prospect to misevaluated thanks to factors that relate to the player’s comfort and talent usage. It’s a factor that can be often overlooked and dismissed, but can be a telling positive or negative about a prospect. In the case of Jeremiah Attaochu, the change of the defensive front may have led to discomfort for him, but has given NFL evaluators more comfort-ability in knowing what he can provide at the next level.

For some prospects, it’s about noting a major head coaching change and how that can stifle production and lead to spiraling seasons (see Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee and USC teams, Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas team). While it could easily have an adverse effect on the player that affects him for his football career, it could also mean added pressure, responsibility, and poor management around the team to have multiple players begin to struggle.

Jeremiah Attaochu’s case moved from Al Groh’s 3-4 defense as an active, pass rush-focused outside linebacker to Ted Roof’s base 4-3 defense as primarily a weakside defensive end. Roof has been wise to utilize Attaochu in both standing up and three point stances this season, but that transition of his role and responsibility along with a constant focus by opposing offenses to neutralize him has forced him to have a drop in production.

However, despite his struggles, Attaochu has begun to showcase skill sets that can fit both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. A combination of the flashes he showed under Al Groh in 2011 and 2012, along with the versatility of Ted Roof to make Attaochu more than just an every down defensive end has allowed him show the versatility that NFL teams want to see from an elite-talent as a pass rusher.

Keep In Mind That Jeremiah Attaochu is #45 In this GIFs

Skill Set #1 – Play Recognition/Tackling From Edge (Both 3-4 and 4-3 Defenses)
An area where he’s has thrived in both schemes, Attaochu has developed even quicker reaction times and play recognition now that he’s forced to always take his first step upfield and work on collapsing the pocket and containing the edge as a defensive end. He does slip inside well in both pass and run plays, and he’s gotten better at “picking his spots” on when to leave his outside contain and pinch inside (notably on 2nd and 3rd and short situations).

The play below shows his vision off the edge (this play from a stand-up start) to read the quarterback-running back exchange in the option. Notice how low he sinks to gain his balance, allowing him to smoothly transition laterally to track the ball carrier. This is ideal positioning against the option game.

(Lined up on the right side at a defensive end position)

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Skill Set #2 – Coverage Fluidity (Primarily for 3-4 Defenses)
If/when he plays in a 3-4 stand-up look, he’ll be asked to make his curl-to-flat drops, typically on 2nd/3rd and long plays when the team goes into a Cover 2/3 look. While getting to the zone area isn’t typically difficult for linebackers/defensive ends at the college level, it’s crucial at the NFL level to not only reach your drops quickly, but maintain eye level of the quarterback, track receivers in your area, and be in an athletic position to make a play on the ball and/or the receiver if he catches it. While he’s had limited opportunities to work on his drops in-game this year, he’s certainly flashed this year and displayed last year his ability to be an effective coverage linebacker in a 3-4 setting. 

(Lined up on the left side of the line, dropping into coverage)

Skill Set #3 – Closing Speed From The Edge (Primarily 3-4 Defenses)
Attaochu doesn’t have elite edge speed. He’s primarily a bull rusher (we’ll get to that later), who can thrive on the edge when given an opening after he can generate some build-up speed. However, it’s imperative as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end to maximize the openings a defense can give. And while he may not have the sink/bend transitions to be effective an wide rusher, he’s shown the ability to finish on the edge when he’s able to separate with his plus hand usage.

The play below is one where he’s able to use his hands to separate on the edge and get wide while maintaining balance, but more importantly, it shows his closing speed and body control to re-adjust himself and run downhill in a straight-line to finish the sack. Below that is Bruce Irvin of the Seahawks who, while unblocked, shows the closing speed to finish a sack himself. These two players aren’t all that comparable (Irvin is a speed rusher, Attaochu primarily a power rusher), but they’re roles in the NFL could be similar. 
(Lined up on right side of the line, coming around the backside edge)

(Irvin is lined up on the near side of the formation, #51)

Skill Set #4 – Leg Drive/Bull Rush (Both 3-4 and 4-3 Defenses)
The final skill set that Attaochu can provide to NFL teams is maybe his most crucial to his success: his bull rush. His hand adjustments and quickness is a major factor his ability to separate (though he needs to use his arm strength to disengage cleaner), but it’s his ability to drive his legs after gaining speed that best allows him to collapse the pocket.

In a 3-4 set, he’s able to gain an extra step or two of speed before he’s generating force, leading to why his best pass rushing potential lies as a stand-up rusher. However, he’s showed the ability to extend his arms, meet his blocker, and then gain on his leg drive from a down-rusher position, and begun to thrive in this role as well.

In the plays below, you’ll see Attaochu’s ability to generate force with his arm extension and leg drive to collapse the pocket (one leads to a rushed throw, the other to a sack), and below that, a similarly successful play by the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs, someone who compares very favorably to Attaochu, although Suggs has better bend on the edge as of now.

(Lined up on near side at defensive end on the first play, and far side defensive end on the second)

(Suggs is #55, lined up on the near side of the formation)

Jeremiah Attaochu won’t have the sexist production this year or on his career stat sheet. Just six sacks in 2011 (three of which were in one game), ten in 2012 (again, three were in one game), and just two thus far in 2013, he hasn’t been able to get the national headlines as a pass rusher. However, this season especially, he’s shown the ability to force double teams on him, generate ample force as a bull rusher to collapse the pocket, and finish tackles/sacks when given the opportunity.

Thanks to his build up speed/power transition and his ability to make coverage drops/plays in space, a 3-4 defense may be ideal. But based on his technique development this year in a three-point stance, he’s certainly shown the versatility to win and generate pressure from a variety of places. Also, Gus Bradley’s defense in Jacksonville may pique some interest as a potential destination. The team needs a “Leo” linebacker in the mold that Bruce Irvin has become in Seattle.

Attaochu will test well in the draft process, and likely will draw interest from every defensive coordinator in some capacity. Pass rushers with his size/athleticism mold don’t tend to fall on draft day, as teams are willing to mold those prospects rather than expect double digit sack totals as rookies. Attaochu is included in a very impressive outside linebacker class expected for the 2014 draft. And it’s his scheme-versatility that may be the biggest reason for his selection in the  first round, potentially the Top 20 overall picks.