The 2018 Indianapolis Colts are a very young team that is hoping to build for the future. One thing that they desperately need from these young players is one to emerge as a star. The most likely candidate to breakout has been second year safety Malik Hooker. Hooker has been very quiet to this point in the season though, as he has accumulated just 25 tackles and one pass deflection in five games played.
This begs the question: Is the lack of statistical output a result of Hooker’s failure to develop after his strong rookie season or is Matt Eberflus’ new defensive scheme effecting Hooker’s numbers? After breaking down the film, I can confidently say that the lack of production from Hooker is primarily due to scheme.
The Colts primarily deploy a cover two base defense, a very new system for Hooker who has primarily played a center field role in man coverage base defenses. This is an entirely new defense to learn and there will be some hiccups. Despite the expected learning curve, I have seen signs of positive progress for Hooker from year one to year two in the NFL.
Let’s look at some film for examples.
A very underrated aspect of safety play is understanding run fits. When I say understanding run fits, I don’t mean being an excellent run defender or tackler. I mean being in the right position when the runner is coming downhill.
Ideally, every defender on the field understands their assignment in run defense and fills the necessary hole so that a tackle can be made before a big play happens. Once a player loses their run fit— or assignment— that is when the big plays occur.
Hooker really struggled with this his rookie year. Not really known as a run defender in college, Hooker came into the NFL with more of the mindset to avoid contact and try to make a play. This often resulted in a big play for the offense.
In this clip, we see improvement in that area. Notice that Hooker comes downhill and fills the run lane. As a rookie, he shied away from contact and let others make the play but here he gets involved. Physicality and form tackling are another matter, but this is a mark of improvement for a young safety.
In the following clip, Hooker comes downhill to fill a potential running lane. Again, as a rookie Hooker often sat back and relied on others to make this play. This year, in a new scheme, it is a positive sign to see him both willing and able to get downhill.
The biggest flaw I found in Hooker’s rookie film was terrible pursuit angles. Hooker too often relied on his natural athleticism and found himself giving up extra yards in pursuit. He seems to have matured in this area, and has been limiting big plays by taking much better support angles.
In our first clip, Bengals’ running back Joe Mixon has a ton of running room. Hooker— who starts the play on the midfield logo— comes all the way across the field and limits the damage to twenty yards. A twenty yard gain is not ideal but having a player with Hooker’s speed on the backend turns a back breaking touchdown into just big gain.
As a rookie, Hooker had this closing speed and burst but lacked the proper angles to make the play. Here, he shows signs of improvement.
Here’s another example. If Hooker takes a poor angle, it is a touchdown for Eagles’ running back Josh Adams. He is literally the last line of defense. He starts on an aggressive path that would have likely led to a missed tackle. Hooker adjusts to take the correct angle and makes a touchdown saving tackle. This is another sign of his growth and potential to become a well rounded safety.
Hooker is a gifted athlete. His natural speed and burst out of his backpedal will always be highly coveted. While much of this review focuses on areas he has shown improvement, I want to also take a look at the natural abilities that got him drafted in the first round.
This clip may look like a simple play but few have the physical ability to make it. Hooker (who is at the top of the screen) drops into his backpedal at the start of the play. Once he notices Deshaun Watson release the ball, Hooker bursts out of his backpedal and, like a blur, is tackling receiver Keke Coutee for a minimal gain. His closing speed to close the gap between him and his desired destination is absolutely incredible.
How does one talk about Malik Hooker and not mention his range? One of the most coveted traits in safeties and Hooker not only has it, he is borderline elite in this department. A combination of his athleticism and his understanding of routes, Hooker is able to make plays many safeties in the NFL can only dream of making. The range that he showed in college on a weekly basis is the main reason that he was selected so high in the 2017 draft.
This clip may see like a weird one to show for Hooker’s range. This is certainly a miscommunication by the defense as two players are streaking open down the field with only Hooker in deep coverage. What I want to focus on is how Hooker moves and how much ground he is able to cover on this play.
He initially opens his hips to assist in over the top coverage up the hash. He notices the wide open running back streaking behind him and flips his hips around in an instant to be in position to make a play on the pass catching running back. I understand that the running back falling prevented a potential touchdown here but Hooker’s ability to stay deep and flip his hips left him in a good position to make a play, even if the running back kept his balance.
This last clip is where his range and ball skills meet for a highlight reel type pass breakup. Hooker, starting on the bottom of the screen, notices the post route immediately off the line and opens his hips to the middle of the field. He breaks with Nelson Agholor across the field and at the last second is able to break on the ball and bat it away. The range he shows to track Agholor all the way across the field and then make a play on the ball is the reason why so many hyped up Hooker before the season.
These traits rare athletic traits, along with his development in run defense, have really made me hopeful for the rest of this year.
I’ve shown a few clips that display my concerns with Hooker and his tackling. He is just not a form tackler right now and really needs to improve. He is still an arm tackler who throws his shoulder at runners and hopes for the best. In the open field, Hooker struggles to break down and make the sure tackle. When he does contact runners, he is not nearly physical enough to get them down without a form tackle.
This clip shows an atrocious miss in the open field. Hooker gets to the receiver in a hurry but fails to properly break down and make the tackle, resulting in more yards. This cannot happen from your safeties. I understand that Hooker has mainly been a deep safety his entire life and hasn’t been asked to make many tackles like this in space but this is part of his growth as a safety. So far, I have not seen enough consistency in the open field to fully trust him as a tackler yet.
The last opportunity is more due to the scheme change than Hooker’s play. In this predominantly cover two scheme, what he is asked to do has increased dramatically. He is now playing as an interchangeable zone safety where his responsibility is a deep half of the field rather than just sitting over the top in man coverage. With that comes a lot more cerebral processing that Hooker just doesn’t have yet.
Here’s an example. The call by the Redskins is a deep flag route. Hooker— top of the screen— gets way too much depth in his back pedal and gives up the fifteen yard completion. A way to measure this is to look at Clayton Geathers on the other side of the screen. Notice how Geathers sits on the route and is in position to break on the ball if the ball is thrown his way. This is just a natural feel thing for Hooker. Once he realizes that he has the speed to turn and run with receivers, he will start sitting on more routes in deep coverage.
In this next clip, Hooker does the complete opposite, as he does not get enough depth in his coverage. Hooker— top of the screen— comes up into the box presumably to drop into zone coverage in the flats. Hooker’s first mistake is over-committing to the run which prevents him from getting into his drop at the snap. He then does not get enough depth which allows the comeback route to open. This again just shows Hooker’s inexperience as he has rarely played in the box in his football career.
So we’ve gone through enough clips now to where I think that we all have a good idea for what kind of player Malik Hooker is. He has the ability to be an absolute playmaker and showed that with his 3 interceptions and 4 pass deflections in just seven starts last season. So why does he have no interceptions five games into this season?
Well, it’s simply not what he’s asked to do in this new scheme.
This cover two scheme is dependent on Hooker doing his job, which is locking down his deep half of the field and preventing big plays while keeping the ball in front of him. For the most part, he has succeeded in doing that. Therefore, he is accomplishing his job in the realm of this defense.
Lets look at a clip or two to show this. Against the Redskins here, Hooker— top of the screen— is in deep coverage. Alex Smith’s main target appears to be one of the two receivers streaking downfield. Hooker plays the deep man then breaks off and comes down on the inside guy who is also streaking deep. Hooker taking away both of these option results in Smith having to come to his third option— late I may add— which nearly results in an interception for Pierre Desir.
This next clip shows Hooker’s role in Kenny Moore’s interception against the Bengals. Hooker— top of the screen— is playing his deep half of the field and backpedals to around the 45 yard line. The Bengals are trying to hit the deep post on the second play of the game. If Hooker was out of position or did not get proper depth, Andy Dalton is likely able to make this throw before the pass rush gets to him. Instead, Dalton recognizes that Hooker is the deep safety where he wants to go and elects to go to his check-down as he gets hit, resulting in an interception. Hooker’s reputation and being in the right position are two of the factors that led to this interception.