The 2020 rookie class was on full display for Week 1 of the NFL season. Joe Burrow nearly pulled off a victory in his first game as quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. J.K. Dobbins saw the most snaps of any running back on the Ravens and added two touchdowns in the process. Chase Young looked like he was born for this level of competition in his first game wearing a Washington uniform.
Overall, there was a lot of good.
But it wasn’t all good. Or, better said, it wasn’t all great.
One of the players whose debut was highly anticipated was that of Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Brown was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft in what would be an all-defensive draft for the Panthers in their first year under new head coach Matt Rhule.
As far as highlights from Week 1, well, Brown ended up on the wrong end of one for his first game in the pros.
In the play above, Brown (95) was lined up as a nose tackle and got blown so far back off the ball that there’s a chance you or me could have scored that touchdown for Las Vegas late in the fourth quarter.
Brown caught some flack for that play, but I wanted to take a look at every Brown snap from his first game to see if that play was a representation of the entire outing or just an unfortunate clip that became a highlight.
Brown played in 43 defensive snaps on Sunday, which was 68% of the total defensive snaps, and was the most of any box player not named Brian Burns—he tied Burns in snaps played. He recorded three combined tackles, one tackle for loss, and a pass defended.
For Brown to get that much work early on in his rookie season is encouraging, both from a trust perspective and from a long-term outlook perspective, as he’s scheduled to get plenty of experience this year.
Brown, once again No. 95 at nose tackle in the clip above, came into the NFL after being a nearly unblockable force in the SEC at Auburn for the past year. At 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, Brown is a physically-imposing force in the middle. But what made him so coveted come draft time is how well he can explode in short areas for a man of his size.
Because of this, he was able to dominate his level of competition in college, even in the SEC. We knew that wasn’t going to be the case in the NFL, at least not right away, and the two clips above are evidence that Brown just has not gone up against grown man strength the way he did on Sunday.
Yes, I know that in both of those plays Brown was going up against double teams and you really aren’t supposed to “win” those. But you can’t get blown that far off the ball, either. Your job as the nose tackle is to yield as little ground as possible to defend the gap. Brown not only gave up ground, he gave up his leverage, his balance, his back, and his total presence playing in that spot.
Simply put, Brown really didn’t have to care that much about always being conscious of leverage and technique in college because he was just that good without it. For the most part, the offensive linemen he went up against couldn’t handle his length, strength, and movement ability, even when he was just standing straight up. Because of this, Brown developed some bad habits with a lack of consistent lower leverage, which is paramount for success in trench play at the highest level.
In plays like the one above where Brown was conscious of his leverage and was able to get underneath the Raiders’ interior offensive linemen, he could impose his will on where to go and when to break off.
The consistency of success was not there this past weekend with Brown; his bad plays were too numerous for a reliable starter, especially as a player who saw as many snaps as he did. But when he was focused and knew how to attack the man in front of him, you saw flashes of that power we saw at Auburn.
There were also plays, like the one above, where he was able to handle his assignment.
I felt as though, as the game went on, Brown appeared to get a little gassed. That first play we showed within the 10-yard line was when the Raiders extended their lead to 27-15, and Brown just appeared to be tired and not focused.
But not too long after that, with the Panthers then ahead by three in the clip above, Brown dug deep, and the desire to make a play showed up in the play above where he threw Raiders offensive lineman Gabe Jackson straight back into the pocket five yards right off first contact. That is incredible strength on an initial punch to move a man of Jackson’s size like that.
It’s that kind of (somewhat) hidden strength that the Panthers will be trying to get out of Brown, not just when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, but more often throughout the game. But that requires consistent technique, muscle memory from repetition, and physical endurance. Brown just didn’t appear to have NFL stamina yet, and when he didn’t, he was overwhelmed with the lack of technique.
The first clip shown at the top of the article wasn’t the only goal-line play Brown was in on, even though it will be the one people remember the most from Week 1.
In the first quarter, Brown was in a similar position to not yield ground and defend the goal line and did so with much greater success. That was earlier in the game, so Brown likely had more energy in him—and though he wasn’t facing a double team, he won that rep with violence in his first step and leverage to forklift the man in front of him. He just has to be careful about once again giving up his back and balance.
Overall, it was a spotty outing for Brown, but he’s a rookie. Just because other rookies around the league happened to fare better in their debuts doesn’t mean Brown is a lost cause compared to them. I was encouraged by the number of snaps and the flashes of success, but consistency with play style and technique—basically just winning in ways that aren’t “I’m more talented than you”—is something I figure would take time for Brown in the NFL, and his first game was a testament to that.