It’s going on three weeks since Bjoern Werner came back from torn plantar fascia, an injury that rudely interrupted his rookie season. He’s still getting back into the mix after his three week absence, trying to raise his snap count and develop his craft all at the same time. It hasn’t been easy, as he’s only managed a total of 30 snaps over the last two weeks, roughly the same amount he was playing per game before his injury. What’s made this even more difficult is that only six of the 30 snaps have come against the pass, consequently slowing his development as a sack artist.
What does Werner have to improve on? Considering he’s only played 116 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, there’s probably a lot. He’s still somewhat raw, which is to be expected considering he doesn’t have a long history of playing football. Two years of high school and three years at Florida State are all he has to his name, so it comes as little surprise when you turn on the game film to find out he played too tall in the first three weeks of the season before his injury.
Tallness for a defensive lineman can be funny. The bigger, the better, personnel men say. Then they ask them to play short.
At 6’3″, Werner’s still learning how to crouch his 266-pound frame and extend his 33-inch arms at the same time. He’s figuring out that it’s not as easy to turn the corner against an offensive tackle like it is turning a street corner with the wheel of a car. There has to be a low center of gravity, then flexibility, then leverage, and then finally – maybe — a sack. In Week 1 against the Raiders, Werner found himself turning corners like a newly-licensed driver.
There was only a minute left in the second quarter when Werner lined up in a four-point stance at the five-technique on the weak-side of the Colts’ four-man front. On 1st-and-10, he raised up and swayed his arms, coming directly downhill at left tackle Khalif Barnes with an outside rush. After a coupe of yards, he engaged with his left hand and then his right, extending the latter as he looked to turn the corner. It wasn’t happening, though, not with his body nearly erect. Barnes set outside and negated the rush, forcing Werner to stop in his tracks and travel inside. He was negated there, too, shoulder blocked by Barnes and eventually left guard Lucas Nix.
A week later, it wasn’t different. Still learning the nuances of his position, Werner rushed tall and fell short of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill on an attempted power rush during the early part of the second quarter.
This time coming from the strong-side of the Colts’ four-man front, Werner went after then-left tackle Jonathan Martin, who bent his knees and sunk his rear to stall Werner’s bull-rush. Werner’s failed attempt saw him generate little power after failing to bend his knees, a consequence of improper pad level. At the point of attack, his pad level rose and kept on rising the longer the play went on. A second attempt with heavy hands knocked Martin slightly back, but not enough. Tannehill threw the ball from a clean pocket.
There’s no saying if Werner will ever get past his pad level issue. It’s entirely possible that he cleans it up with more snaps. He is a rookie with six games to his name, after all. He is five years into playing football altogether, making it natural that he has some cleaning up to do. In the end, it’s something he has to do if he’s going to become a sack artist. Once he gets his pad level down, he’ll be able to show off his surprising flexibility off the edge, where in the past he’s been able to get under the pads of tackles and turn the corner on occasion.
To do that consistently, he’ll need more snaps, which will likely come as he eases his way back into the Colts’ rotation. Last week he only had one rush against the passer, after five the week before. In the three weeks before his foot injury, he averaged 17. That’s at least the amount he’ll have to start seeing again if he’s going to lower his pad level, and more importantly, if he’s also going to prove worthy of being a first-round selection in the long run.