BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU outside linebacker Arden Key hasn’t been himself this season. Not even close.
Coming into the season, Key was the most-feared defender in the SEC. The preseason first-team All-America edge rusher was supposed to be the heir to Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen and Derek Barnett as the conference’s quarterback-crushing sack-master. And why not think that? When you post 12 sacks as a sophomore, setting an LSU single-season record, and get first-round NFL draft hype before you turn 21 years old, your junior year is supposed to be even better. It’s supposed to be your showcase year. The year that gets you paid.
It hasn’t been.
His regression isn’t without excuse. He missed all of spring practice and most of fall camp, so he’s not in football shape yet. He packed on almost 25 pounds, so he’s not used to playing at his new weight. Opponents are running away from him. The players behind him aren’t as talented as they were a year ago, so he’s getting more attention. The list goes on.
But none of those excuses get to the root of the question: How can a player as talented as Arden Key be limited to 4 tackles, 1 solo, with no tackles for loss or sacks against a team like Troy? That’s what we’ll be discussing in this week’s LSU film study. So, without further preamble, let’s get into it.
What Troy did
Key was on the field for 45 of LSU’s 70 defensive snaps versus Troy. On 25 of those 45 plays, Troy either strategically or unintentionally worked Key out of the play. That includes 12 options plays where Key was Troy’s read key, 7 quick passes or sprintouts away from Key’s side of the field and 6 runs to the opposite direction of where Key lined up.
Whether you’re some schmo off the street or an NFL Hall of Fame defensive end, it’s hard to make tackles if the other team isn’t letting you. And like it or not, Key’s talent strikes pragmatic fear into opposing game plans. So this is to be expected. The fact that 45 percent of Troy’s snaps allowed Key to pass rush or contain a run coming his way is probably a bit higher than you should expect.
Regardless of the game plan, though, there are some plays Key should’ve made that he didn’t.
Here’s an example of play where Key was the quarterback’s read. In other words, the quarterback reads Key (No. 49, top of the screen) to decide whether to hand to the back or keep the ball himself. On this play, Key froze upfield, giving the quarterback the read to hand off the ball.
Key followed the freeze by doing the right thing and crashing in on the runner. But upon making contact, Troy running back Jordan Chunn dragged Key 7 yards for a first down. Chunn isn’t a bad runner. His 490 rushing yards rank 19th in the FBS. But no running back should be able to drag Key that far, especially not if he’s playing at 265 pounds.
By contrast, here’s Key’s backup K’Lavon Chaisson – a 240-pound freshman – making a similar read.
Chaisson (No. 4) gave Troy the same look Key does. And just like Key, Chaisson collapses into the pile to tackle Chunn. Except Chaisson’s tackle works. The freshman comes in low, takes away Chunn’s legs and forces him into traffic. Key did none of those things.
That’s not a play any junior should be shown up on, let alone one as heralded as Key. But this was a recurring theme with Key’s play versus Troy. Even when he was in the right place, he didn’t look as if he was doing everything he could.
More missed tackles
The previous play we discussed wasn’t the only time Key got dragged Saturday night. But at least when you get dragged, that means you’re in position to make a tackle. There were other times where Key simply couldn’t get a hand on a ball carrier. Like this one:
This play is another read-option look, just flipped the other direction. Key isn’t the read man here. He’s the person isolated to make the tackle. And he just whiffs. He reads the play right. He sees the hole he’s supposed to shoot. He just doesn’t make the play.
It’s baffling. Luckily for Key, defensive tackle Greg Gilmore was there to make a great play. And it was third-and-21. But Key managed to miss a tackle and sacrifice outside contain on the same play, a play ran directly at him. It’s a play no one would’ve expected him to miss in April or even August.
But it wasn’t even his most surprising miss of the Troy game.
First, let’s give some credit where credit is deserved. This was a brilliant third-down play- call by the Troy offensive staff. Lining up under center and showing double play action with the motion and Chunn out of the backfield to draw the linebackers and safeties in is a call so simplistic and effective it feels like something Matt Canada should be doing at LSU.
More importantly, though, look at Key. He opens the play by staying at home because of the play-action. That makes sense. But if he read run, he probably should’ve crashed inside sooner. As a general plan, freezing on the outside on a run up the middle isn’t a great choice.
Still, Key made the correct read and followed the play-action. But instead of trusting safety Grant Delpit to keep contain and cutting underneath the blocker to get to the quarterback inside, Key scrapes down the line of scrimmage, miming patty-cake with a fullback.
He doesn’t even engage with the fullback as an attempt to push the blocker into the passer and interfere with the throwing lane. He just scrapes. Troy didn’t neutralize Key here, he neutralized himself. He made the least-aggressive decision possible and Troy extended the drive that ultimately decided the outcome of the game.
It wasn’t all bad
Were there flashes of vintage Arden Key Saturday? Sure. He made a couple of good moves inside to take away off-tackle rushes and affected a couple of passes with upfield dips.
In classically unfortunate fashion, perhaps Key’s most impressive play didn’t end up counting. Troy negated it with offensive pass interference. But this is the type of talent NFL scouts still see in Key despite the weight gain and lack of production.
Key engages a double team, rolls with the quarterback, flattens the running back trying to impede him and gets a hand in the throwing lane trying to affect the passer. It’s a good play, and one that was preceded and followed by good plays at that.
But it’s worth noting that this drive, Key’s best of the game, came when Troy started a possession inside its own 10-yard line after an LSU turnover. Key was obviously playing up to the circumstance. He knows when he needs to dial up the intensity. He did on this drive, and he was an unstoppable force.
But for every play like that one, there were three like this:
On a run-of-the-mill second-and-short in a first quarter where it wasn’t yet evident that LSU had a challenge in front of it, Key gave his most pedestrian effort of the game. Sure, Troy ran away from him. But the Trojans’ right tackle blocked Key with one hand while also helping out blocking Christian LaCouture inside.
Last season, Key would’ve driven this tackle backward two or three steps and tried to get to the back through the lineman. This year, he hand-checks once or twice, pops straight up and halfheartedly jogs a few steps before pulling up and calling it a down.
I’m not the type of person to call a player’s effort into question. I’m not on the field or in his head. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But we’ve all seen Key do superhuman things in the past. Whether he’s out of shape or not in football mode or distracted by his off-the-field mysteries or his NFL future is inconsequential.
It doesn’t take any talent to try. In 2016, Key was a motor guy. Even if the ball wasn’t coming his way, he did his best to get to it. This season? A very different story.
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