Editor’s Note: ‘Players We Watched’ is Colts Authority’s annual film review of specific players’ performances during the preseason. The series is predicated on the idea that the importance of preseason lies in the play of individuals rather than the team as a whole. Roster battles and crucial practice squad spots are often decided by preseason showings, and we take it upon ourselves to highlight the performances that stuck out the most to us.
But even in those performances, take everything with a grain of salt. We shouldn’t let the small sample size of one preseason game reverse our previous notions of a player, but merely add it to the pile of evidence built up for a player’s relatively poor or impressive reputation. – KJR
Having had reasonably good luck with CFL linebackers in the past (Jerrell Freeman, Justin Hickman), Ryan Grigson went to the frozen land of poutine and healthcare for more talent this past offseason, signing former No. 1 overall draft pick Henoc Muamba. Muamba, 25, has played in the CFL for the past three seasons with the Winnipeg Blue He racked up over 170 tackles in the fast-paced league.
Like Freeman, Muamba has the speed and short-area quickness to cover the field sideline-to-sideline, which is necessary for the spread nature of the CFL (For reference, both are about the same size as well at 6-foot, 240 pounds). For Freeman, that’s led to high tackle numbers–top 10 among ILBs in both of the last two years, according to Pro Football Focus–and high stop rates. Freeman actually is ninth over the last two years in both total stops and stop rate among inside linebackers. The hope is that Muamba’s similar skillset would lead to similar success.
With a team-high 11 tackles in the Colts’ 13-10 loss to the Jets, it’s safe to say that the return has been promising thus far.
According to PFF’s tracking, Muamba had eight solo tackles and an assist, leading all inside linebackers in both solo and total tackles so far this preseason. While just three of those were stops, PFF praised Muamba for his overall effort on the day, with his +3.0 grade tying for second-highest among all inside linebackers in the league last week. No matter how you look at it, it was a strong day for Muamba.
Most of Muamba’s success came against the run. The Colts, as a team, kept the Jets from getting going on the ground. Removing scrambles by Geno Smith and Michael Vick, the Jets averaged just 2.18 yards per carry, and Muamba was a significant part of that. PFF graded Muamba a stellar +2.8 against the run, easily the best grade in the league (Next-highest was rookie Max Bullough with 1.9).
The most striking quality that Muamba possessed was his ability to keep his eyes on the ball carrier and sift through the moving linemen to reach his target.
This first example was a fairly simple power-run, with Chris Ivory following his lead blocker, the left guard, who attempts to take Andy Studebaker out of the play. Muamba is on the far side of the play, and Delano Howell is going to come in on a run blitz.
Despite the mass of bodies between them, Muamba keeps his eyes on Ivory and manages to squeeze between the center and the left guard to get to Ivory, who makes Howell miss in the hole. But Howell’s presence is enough to allow Muamba to get to the spot and–along with Studebaker, who does a great job of stacking and shedding the block–get the stop.
Though Muamba and Freeman will be compared often, Muamba actually reminds me more of Kavell Conner in his work against the run. Like Conner, Muamba is more aggressive than Freeman, which is, more often than not, a good thing in run defense. Muamba also exhibits a bit more strength and leverage in his hits, like Conner. Don’t get me wrong, Freeman is generally a stout tackler, but stuffs like this are more reminiscent of Conner than Freeman:
At times, Muamba can be over-aggressive, but his discipline here was fantastic. He moves laterally to mirror the back, rather than immediately attacking the hole, just in case Ivory attempts to bounce it outside. Then when Ivory powers inside, Muamba has the strength to stand him up without giving up ground.
Muamba even flashed some awareness and good ‘ole ball-swiping in the second half. After standing up his blocker and clogging the running lane, Muamba got a hand between the running back’s arms and ripped the ball out. The back was able to fall right onto the ball, but it was a heads-up play by Muamba.
Occasionally, Muamba’s aggressive nature and tendency for his eyes to linger in the backfield led to open men in coverage, but the Jets didn’t test him down the middle of the field much. On this play, for example, Muamba is frozen for a half-second too long after the snap, and is slow to drop back into the middle, which allows the tight end to run past him. Fortunately, the Jets quarterback was unable to see the open man, and it didn’t matter.
While athletic, Muamba doesn’t have quite the range that Freeman does in coverage, although that’s offset a bit by his strength, as mentioned earlier. His job in coverage was a bit of a mixed bag, including a few plays like this:
But also some like this:
With is work against the run being so stout in this first game, his job in coverage will be watched closely for the rest of preseason. There is almost certainly a spot for him on the team, especially considering the injuries to Kelvin Sheppard and Josh McNary, but how big of a role can he really have? That remains to be seen.