Before Goku could defeat Vegeta (Frieza ... Kid Buu) he had to defeat Nappa.
And Nappa sucks. Despite his hugeness he’s cocky sloppy and weak. But in the logic of Dragon Ball Z the process of battle and striving to win makes a combatant stronger. Nappa was weak but before Goku fought Nappa he was little stronger. Goku achieves near infinite power by barely beating harder and harder opponents. Maybe Alton Robinson can do the same.
Right now Robinson’s mostly scrub-busting. Robinson’s that griefer who picks off underleveled players. He notched three against backups. He recorded another when D.J. Reed and L.J. Collier flushed Jimmy Garoppolo into his arms.
Four sacks and counting in 318 snaps is a perfectly good rookie season. But I’m greedy. Let’s be greedy. Let’s look for more.
Robinson played 18 snaps against Los Angeles. What’s his role? How has he progressed? How did Robinson look when he was making a play? When he wasn’t?
Here’s his first snap from what I can tell. We’re in the second quarter and the Rams have already run 19 plays on offense. First thing we have to note: Robinson is depth. He’s the C-team LEO, and depending on what play Seattle runs, behind Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa in that role.
That right side of Seattle’s front seven looks a bit soft. Just after the snap, Robinson is essentially alone. No linebacker or safety is near.
It’s easy enough to see Sean McVay’s design. If Robinson goes-a-stat-chasing, perhaps mindful of his pass rush win rate or whatever, he will abandon the edge and allow Robert Woods to come screaming around—possibly with a lead blocker. But as wise Piccolo once said “Sometimes we have to look beyond what we want and do what’s best.”
It’s not splashy. Bryan Mone’s ability to bench press center Austin Blythe and swap gaps at command may be the most highlight-worthy part of this play. But dig all the quiet competence adding up to something valuable.
Robinson is quick off the snap. He takes an interesting angle. It’s not quite flat. I would guess he actually ever so slightly chases Jared Goff’s fake pitch to Darrell Henderson. Mone rocking Blythe back forces Rob Havenstein deeper behind the line. By attacking Havenstein’s outside shoulder, Robinson allows Woods a running lane.
At the same time, it removes Woods’ ability to bounce around Robinson. If Alton can squeeze that lane closed or somehow grab Woods, it’s all good. But if he’s lost or hesitates, look at that dang hole off left end.
Mone forces Woods to cut left and further behind the line of scrimmage. That opens the tiniest window for a tackle attempt by Robinson, but it’s a doozy. He plants, lunges, lands his left hand on Woods’ hip, that hand slides but gains purchase of Woods’ upper left thigh, and all the while Robinson is leaping, spinning, airborne and anchored to Woods. Woods goes splay legged to keep himself up. Mone, fitting, finishes him off.
It’s a perfect rookie moment. A moment lost through confusion; a moment gained through youthful vigor. In the end, kid sawed off tens of yards from a potentially very dangerous run. Robinson got one more snap in (an ineffective rush off right end) before an extended absence.
Here he is doing everything right but losing to an obvious but uncalled hold.
Such is the life of sixth-round rookie in the NFL. Holding is so common that freeing yourself from a hold is a necessary part of a defensive lineman’s skill set. Robinson does okay. Notch a few more sacks, and the refs might actually flag this. Funny thing, in real-time, the hold is so bad that Robinson actually looks like he’s pursuing Goff. Gerald Everett grabs his jersey and spins him that way.
Here’s a sneak peek at a much cooler moment to come.
There’s that plant again. Don’t underestimate the significance of a 270 pound man’s ability to check his momentum and quickly change direction.
On the next snap Robinson took a poor angle of pursuit chasing Goff bootlegging left. D.J. Reed didn’t get deep enough, greatly annoying Bobby Wagner. Coach ‘em up Bobby.
Robinson applies consistent pressure. Which contributes to Goff throwing the pass behind his intended target. I’m not willing to call it a good play by Robinson. It’s okay.
Robinson didn’t do anything or even much see the field for an awful long time afterward. When he finally got back, in what I believe was his first snap of the second half, he did this.
It’s an odd play. Malcolm Brown sweeps behind the line of scrimmage chipping Robinson. That means Robinson sort of beats a double team. At the same time, I think Brown badly bashes Joseph Noteboom’s left arm. You can see Noteboom protectively drawing both arms in and clutching his left arm with his right arm just before Robinson separates and sacks Goff. Of this circumstance Vegeta might say “Push through the pain. Giving up hurts more.” Noteboom does not heed this advice.
K.J. Wright, Rasheem Green and Poona Ford all fight more or less to a stalemate. Jarran Reed is able to separate and he spills Goff. But it’s not exactly a great rush on its own. And neither really is Robinson’s. He succeeds through a mix of hustle and opportunism. His initial angle isn’t great. He doesn’t really flash an inside move. Watching real time, I thought he did. Goff steps into the pocket. Noteboom stops blocking. Robinson maximizes the opportunity.
The inside move is a work in progress.
Not at all reliable and when it misses Robinson loses big. The fan in me wanted this to be a purely positive post. If Robinson can do something with his inside move, he’s certainly quick to the outside. He doesn’t often turn the corner but maybe developing an inside move will help. It should, anyway. And he’s working on it.
The logic of Dragon Ball Z is seductive. An intuitive, orderly path to excellence earned through winning ever more difficult struggles makes sense in some fields of competition. In sports, in gridiron football, that’s rarely ever how it works. Most players arrive in the pros as talented as they’ll ever be. For a few years that talent is likely to be stable. They may get injured but young people are gifted at recovery. Robinson is not likely to get bigger, really, or quicker, at all, and his perhaps less than ideal build—he’s kind of squat for an end—isn’t likely to change too much. L.J. Collier got leaner and stronger, so it’s not impossible, but ... yeah.
He needs skills. And while we tend to differentiate skills from talent, he needs to have the talent to develop those skills. Is it in him to master an inside move? We’ll see. But the more he can do, the greater stress he can put on the opposing blocker, the more effective each of his moves will be.
For now, he’s excellent depth. He’s shown some good situational awareness and what’s called a nose for the ball. It’s kind of cool how Robinson has taken the modestly good opportunities he’s created and maximized their value. But though he’s ahead of the curve in earning so many sacks in his rookie season, he’s by no stretch a great pass rusher. There’s an awful big gap between when his style works and when it doesn’t, and that’s no good.
With the playoffs near, rotations will shorten, and Robinson may be fighting for snaps. The major contenders of the NFC are all solid at offensive tackle. That could change in a snap. And, as luck favors no one, in a snap Robinson could be very near starting too. Which forces me to correct myself. Luck favors the prepared. He’s not a starter yet, and I’m not going to project his ceiling to the moon or anything, but Robinson’s the best depth Seattle’s had at LEO pass rusher in a very long time.