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Violence of Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons comes with good and bad

Isaiah Simmons #48 of the Arizona Cardinals sacks Cam Newton #1 of the New England Patriots during the second quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Isaiah Simmons didn’t have the best game against the New England Patriots on Sunday.

With only 16 defensive snaps, the Arizona Cardinals rookie linebacker picked up two 15-yard penalties for violent hits deemed unnecessary roughness.

Yet the Cardinals do not appear deterred by what they saw in a game in which Simmons was graded out by Pro Football Focus at an abysmal 29.7 rating.

“I see a big athletic freak I saw at Clemson that can cover ground and close like a bullet, strikes with a ton of impact,” general manager Steve Keim told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf on Friday. “I’ve been very, very happy with his play, especially the last two weeks. He has done some things that, again, we saw at Clemson with his range, his cover ability, his movement in space.

“His ability to strike with impact is even better than I anticipated.”

But yes, the penalties in the 20-17 loss hurt regardless of how correct they were.

In the first half against the Patriots, Simmons’ helmet collided with receiver Jakobi Meyers on a shoulder-first tackle, maybe only because Meyers also lowered his helmet. The anemic New England offense went on to score a touchdown on the drive.

The Patriots’ game-deciding field goal was set up by a second 15-yard penalty when Simmons tracked quarterback Cam Newton to the first down marker on a third-down rush and, with Newton still inbounds, shouldered him out of bounds.

“You could go a million different ways about (analyzing) this, but Cam Newton is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds,” Keim said. “What would have happened if he had put his head down and tried to finish?”

FOX officiating analyst Mike Pereira said after the game that, while violent, the hit was legal by the rules.

Such is the bad of what comes with having such a speedy, rangy linebacker who had dropped deep into coverage before reaching full-speed trying to stop the Newton run.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph acknowledged Thursday that Simmons must be coached in a proactive manner because calls could go against him when they are legal by the book. Simmons didn’t use his arms to wrap up on either of the flagged tackle attempts, and doing so is a starting point for avoiding flags.

“Our coaching point to Isaiah is don’t stop being aggressive, but obviously lower your target and wrap on your tackles,” Joseph said. “That’s our job, to coach Isaiah and get clarity from the official on what he actually called. Once we got that clarity, we can help Isaiah get better. But Isaiah’s so big and he’s so fast, with that much space between him and that quarterback, it was going to be a big collision.”

Simmons’ playing time fell off against the Patriots after a strong three-game stretch of ample reps, mostly because fellow inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell looked back into form after dealing with an injury for the two weeks prior.

Simmons continues to be used in aggressive packages where he can pass-rush or drop into coverage — he’s rushed the quarterback on 28 (20%) of 137 passing downs. The No. 8 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft has a relatively good coverage grade of 71.8, per PFF.

Over 11 games, Simmons has 35 total tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed and an interception.

It appears he’s picked up the defense well. Now that his athleticism appears to have translated from college to the NFL game, it’s about learning what he can get away with.

“With his speed and size, he has hit people hard,” Joseph said. “We have to teach him how to lower his target and to wrap and to squeeze the tackle because when he’s not wrapping, it looks more violent than it should look.

“In this league, if it looks violent and it looks over-aggressive, they’re going to call it.”


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