Analysis Notebook: Week 11

Sam Monson takes a look at Chris Borland, the 49ers linebacker who is a Kuechly clone, except may be even better.

| 3 years ago

Analysis Notebook: Week 11

analysis notebook copyWithout Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman you would think the San Francisco 49ers would be left struggling at inside linebacker, but the emergence of Chris Borland means they look as strong as ever at the position. Borland has been a tackling machine and looks like a draft steal given he was selected in the third round.

Right now Borland reminds me of Luke Kuechly – a tackling machine with outstanding instincts and a nose for the football – and though it is early days he is already impressing me more than Kuechly ever has. He might remind me a lot of Kuechly, but I think he may be a better player, and given that Kuechly is currently sitting atop the PFF inside linebacker rankings that is no small praise.

Playing linebacker in the NFL is a tough gig, especially inside. You need to be adept at a multitude of different skills and Borland so far looks to be on top of them all.

  • Linebackers need to be able to read the play quickly in order to exploit gaps in the blocking and make plays unblocked.
  • Linebackers need to be able to take on and defeat the lead blocks of full backs and tight ends in the run game.
  • Linebackers need to be able to take on and defeat the blocks of offensive linemen making it to the second level.
  • Linebackers need to be conscious of players coming out of the backfield in coverage and close quickly to limit dump-off yardage.
  • Linebackers need to be able to recognise route combinations and cover weapons like Jimmy Graham split out into the slot.
  • Linebackers need to be able to read the quarterback and break on the ball across the middle.
  • Linebackers need to be able to drop deep down field and play coverage like a defensive back.

So far Borland has earned a tick in the box and shown outstanding skills in all but the final category, and that’s only  because he really hasn’t been tested yet in that area. He has only been targeted once further than 10 yards down field and though he read it well and was in reasonable position he was beaten by Reuben Randle, so we’ll call that particular category an incomplete grade and focus on the others.

Let’s take a look at a play in the most recent game against the Giants. It’s relatively easy for linebackers to make plays unblocked. It still requires good read and react skills, and the speed to make it happen, but the league is full of players that can make those plays. What separates those guys from the really good linebackers is how they play when they have to deal with a blocker along the way. The bigger the blocking obstacle generally speaking the tougher a time linebackers have dealing with them. The biggest of them all are offensive linemen.

One of the biggest criticisms people tend to have about linebackers is that they struggle when linemen get hands on them at the second level. It’s a valid criticism but it applies to almost all linebackers. Even top linebackers have difficulty dealing with untouched offensive linemen getting their hands on them, and it’s only really the very best guys that can consistently make plays despite their attention. That’s why plays like this are so encouraging for Borland, especially given his perceived relative lack of size:


Despite the centre coming cleanly right at him Borland is able to read the run through the big body in his way, quickly shed him and make the tackle. The running back ends up with a half way decent gain, but if Borland wasn’t able to command the block from the centre then Jennings was gone into the secondary and would have been a broken tackle away from taking it the distance.

How about dealing with lead blocks instead?



Here Borland has a large gap and a lead block from FB Erik Lorig to deal with. He attacks the block with speed and power, but most importantly gets him away from his body in the contact, enabling him to react to the running back and make the tackle. Too many linebackers would have just attacked this block and been satisfied with standing the blocker up in the hole and allowing the running back to adjust behind it, squeezing the hole but not actually affecting the run too badly on a play like this where the hole was so large.

Borland wasn’t intent on just disrupting the play, but actually killing it himself.

The past few games also show numerous other plays of Borland destroying the run through both blockers and unblocked, but let’s turn our attention to coverage.

Coverage is obviously an important part of being an NFL linebacker. The league is a passing league and more than ever linebackers are being asked to cover players that would be touch mismatches for players whose primary responsibility is coverage, let alone players who need to think about the run as well.

Jimmy Graham is the very definition of these tough matchups. Against the Saints Borland was tasked with covering Graham on multiple occasions. This alone is noteworthy since plenty of teams this season have abandoned covering Graham with linebackers at all and kept a defensive back on him all game long.

2014-11-19_11-27-07Here Borland has the middle of the field but quickly reads the route combination from the Saints and understands that he is going to be left covering Graham on a quick out pattern as the other coverage defenders will be drawn outside. Any kind of hesitation in this reaction gives Graham the ball with a bit of space to work with and room to run into, but Borland fires himself at it like a missile.

2014-11-19_11-27-27He is moving towards the catch point before Graham has even come out of his break, and well before Brees has cocked to throw the ball. He hits Graham as the ball arrives and limits the Saints to a short gain with no yards after the catch.

This might be my favorite aspect of Borland’s play. He doesn’t just react quickly and move early, but it’s where he moves to that is most impressive. His instinct for the correct angles to take is fantastic and a skill that many players don’t have. All too often you’ll see players read the play soon enough, recognise the danger, but take off to the wrong spot. Take this play again against the Saints.


Borland is sitting in a zone in the middle of the field. He sinks to a landmark that will squeeze any throwing window to slot receiver Marques Colston, but then recognises the pivot route from RB Travaris Cadet out of the backfield. This kind of pivot route is a linebacker killer, routinely leaving them over pursuing in coverage to the outside, and that’s without the added threat of another route to think about. At the point Cadet cuts back inside and Borland reads the play I would actually expect him to be beaten, but the angle he takes to the play is fantastic and enables him to make it. He breaks directly towards Brees, matching almost perfectly the trajectory of the pass once it’s released, meaning he arrives at the catch point and not a spot Cadet used to be.

This play is usually a certain win for the defense but the speed and angle that Borland attacks it with means the reception actually loses yards on third down, forcing the Saints to take a field goal instead of extend the drive into the red zone.

Chris Borland is a tackling machine, but there is so much more to his game.


Right now he sits second in the PFF inside linebacker rankings behind only Luke Kuechly, but having played just 270 snaps to Kuechly’s 734. The two players share a lot in common, including hype, but Borland looks to have a far higher ceiling in my eyes, and makes it a very interesting decision for the 49ers who will have three impressive inside linebackers when everybody gets healthy.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam




| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Chris

    Go figure the 49ers’ best draft pick in 3 years is at a position where they have arguably the two best players when healthy. I’d hate to see any of them go but it’d be crazy to have Borland as a backup when you have other needs.

    • 49er Super Fan

      I’d say Eric Reid in the 13 draft class is pretty damn good.

      • Chris

        Very true, but he was a mid-1st pick. If he keeps playing like this, Borland is one of the best linebackers in football and was a 3rd round pick.

  • Pygskyn

    I desperately wanted Miami to draft this kid. Living in the Bay Area though, I got to tell all my Niner fan friends that they were going to absolutely love him (I called him a Zach Thomas clone, they didn’t realise just how high that praise is coming from a Dolphins fan)

  • Ian

    Baalke knows how to draft ILBs! Weird to say this, but does this mean Willis is gone?

    • Jaguars28

      Yep, and so is Borland.

  • wolejr03

    I am thinking they move Willis or Bowman to the outside. If not, Willis will be on the trading block pending on how Bowman returns from the injury. But all this is too early. Lets see him finish the season before we start crowning him.

    • Zanor

      Willis cannot be traded. His locker room leadership is second to none. The face of the franchise. Let Brooks go, save some money and move Bowman to the outside is the answer you said.

      • Izach

        Books is an OLB, bowman is an ILB for 3-4 schemes this is usually a huge no-no just look at when the steelers tried to do that with Lawrence Timmons a few years back, bowman isn’t the edge setting pass rush type he can blitz great and is good vs run from the ILB spot but he isn’t the OLB type

  • Chad Lundberg

    As a Packers fan, seeing Borland sit right there in the second round and right there for the taking I thought for sure TT wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to take this kid given both his high level of talent and the severe lack of depth we’ve had at the position for the past few years. I was as sure about it as I was about them taking Eddie Lacy in the second round last year.

    To see him playing in a Niners uniform is a double-whammy, one it’s kept the 49er’s alive, and two our ILB’s are worse than ever. It’s so bad that we had to move our best defensive player to the middle to compensate.

    This is EASILY one of the most disappointing things I have ever witnessed as a Packers fan.

    • SeattleSteve

      Devante Adams just beat the Patriots… cheer up.

  • Izach

    Those first 2 examples are why I never truly trust PFFs grades, first one sure he gets a tackle but RB gets a good gain and C fell off block, Borland could have shed better and made a better more dominating tackle. The second play the RB basically reads blocks poorly and hits the wrong hole. Credit to Borland for making the play when it came to him but it’s what he should do when sometimes right at you, that’s play was RBs “-” not a Borland “+”. High school coaches always told ha in film don’t be another guys helmet sticker. The RB didn’t listen

    • Izach

      That said Borland does show good instincts and has been very good, I don’t think he’s been as good as his PFF grade, but he has been much better than his draft status, but a few scouts liked him coming. Out because he had “Zach Thomas” like instincts to always be there even if he wasn’t biggest strongest fastest guy on field. He had instincts