Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons played a reduced role Sunday against the Raiders, but a game-defining hit showed his potential in a hybrid ‘Star’ role. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons dropped back from the line of scrimmage and stalked Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr with feverish intensity as the defense mustered a do-or-die overtime stand.
Carr swung the ball out to Hunter Renfrow on a short flat route. The receiver fought his way through the initial contact and stumbled forward downfield. Simmons flew toward the action and lowered his shoulder into the off-balance Renfrow, becoming a game-changing hammer that nailed the following scenes into immortality.
A massive hit. The ball scattered loose on the turf. An ensuing scrum for possession.
Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. scooped up Renfrow’s fumble and streaked down the sideline with nothing but grass between him and the Cardinals stunning the Raiders, 29-23, in brilliant comeback fashion after once trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals needed Simmons to be a star this season; it’s the name of his position, after all. And on the last play of Sunday’s game, Simmons was playing the ‘Star’ role instead of traditional linebacker, a special hybrid of a safety-linebacker type.
“It’s a great feeling,” Simmons said. “Most importantly, we got the win, and being able to come in and make a game-changing play, that’s always a plus.”
The Star position allows the Cardinals to line up Simmons in multiple positions based on the game plan and the offense’s personnel.
Instead of substituting for defenders with more speed, which typically sacrifices size, the Cardinals keep Simmons on the field despite changes implemented by the opposing offense. He can defend the run in the box, suit up at safety, cover slot weapons or line up along the edge to rush the quarterback in passing situations.
Pro Football Focus analyst Trevor Sikkema described the Star as an exclusive position engineered by two of football’s coaching giants for a particular kind of athlete.
“The Star comes from the Nick Saban tree,” Sikkema said. “Saban and Bill Belichick were together in Cleveland and they came up with a lot of really creative ways to deploy players differently and just be able to match different personnel in certain ways. This Star position is a player who could be a hybrid between a SAM linebacker – the strongside linebacker who lines up over the tight end in most cases – and somebody who could be a nickel corner.
“Normally when you think about a linebacker, it’s somebody who’s probably like 265 (pounds) and 6-foot-3. And a small corner, a slot corner especially, is close to 190 (pounds) and 5-foot-10. Those are extremely different players. So this Star position is someone who is uniquely physically and athletically gifted to potentially be able to play both.”
Simmons fits the criteria for Star perfectly. He stands at 6-feet-4 inches tall and weighs 238 pounds, and still ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. His lower-body mechanics are more fluid and flexible than the average defender resembling his size. Simmons also boasts a nearly 82-inch wingspan with arms that hang past his knees, aiding his ability to ensnare ball carriers in the open field.
Before the switch to Star entering the season, the Cardinals mostly used Simmons toward the middle of the defense and closer to the ball. His 587 snaps in the box in 2021 paled in comparison to his usage at cornerback and safety. It was a far different role than the one he flourished in at Clemson, and he struggled to master it over his first two NFL seasons.
“He’s always kind of that backend safety that would roll down and they’d play him all over,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said recently. “But to be in the box as a linebacker in this league there’s a lot going on, and so just the more reps he’s gotten, the game’s slowed down for him and (so has) the understanding of our defense.”
Simmons received the green dot after a strong preseason, a designation that permits a player to have a radio in his helmet. Before each play, the coaching staff will communicate specific play calls for the green dot player to relay to his teammates. The decision suggests the Cardinals trust Simmons to be the mouthpiece for the entire defense, though that privilege was relinquished Sunday after Kingsbury saw a need for improvement in his practice habits.
“Stars have got to know what everybody else is doing as well as they know their own job,” Clemson graduate assistant Chad Smith said. “That allows them to play faster. People don’t get the green dot unless they know the defense pretty darn well. So the green dot is definitely a big signal that Isaiah is very comfortable in the defense and that he understands not only his role but others’ roles as well.”
Kingsbury said the direct communication with Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph before every play benefits Simmons.
“Really having Vance be able to talk him through some things I think locks him in snap to snap, which has been helpful,” Kingsbury said. “And just him having a better knowledge of our defensive terminologies, what we’re trying to get to. It’s really been a win-win for us so far. I think he has a better feel for what we’re trying to do, and then Vance will talk him through some things pre-snap I think will really help him as well.”
The Frankenstein-built defender has experience at Star in the past. Former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, now the head football coach at Oklahoma, deployed Simmons in a variety of fashions during the 2019 season. Simmons played over 100 snaps at five different positions and became one of the best defenders in college football. He was a true chess piece who altered schemes with his presence.
“Clemson put Isaiah Simmons in space a lot,” Sikkema said. “They allowed him to cover all sorts of ground, both before and after the ball was thrown. And when he was playing linebacker, he basically had one job. In a lot of his linebacker clips, he was screaming downhill, blitzing, trying to block shed, all that stuff.
“So, when Simmons was playing linebacker in college, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of thinking that he even needed to do, whereas a lot of his coverage value work came in a lot more space. It came from the slot position. It came from the safety position. That’s something that the Cardinals are clearly searching more for.”
The tape speaks for itself. Simmons registered 102 tackles, eight sacks, and three interceptions as a mobile wrecking ball for Clemson in 2019. He was the sixth unanimous All-American in school history. He earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and won the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.
Smith played weakside linebacker for the Tigers at the same time as Simmons. He was able to witness firsthand the extraordinary athlete who could track down quarterbacks on one play, then blanket receivers on the next.
“He’s a freak,” Smith said of Simmons. “His size and speed, athleticism, quickness, even his strength, those are just complete outliers for the Star position. You don’t see anybody in the NFL or even in college football who looks like that and are able to do the things that he does.”
Simmons has tremendous speed for his size to close on targets, which he used effectively on blitzes. He single handedly blew up an obvious passing situation against Syracuse. Simmons aligned at strong safety on fourth-and-2 in the third quarter. His downhill speed and instincts of the play’s commencement allowed him to thump the quarterback swiftly after Clemson’s coverage took away the offense’s first read.
“Timing is very key on blitzes,” Smith said. “He was excellent at that. He was able to close that gap super fast. It’s all a testament to Isaiah understanding the quarterback’s mannerisms.”
Even when rushing the quarterback from a slot cornerback position, Simmons proved he could generate enough power with a shortened acceleration to overwhelm blockers for sacks. Playing against North Carolina, Simmons made a ragdoll of current Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams, who had good leverage in pass protection. Simmons powered through Williams to spearhead Sam Howell (now with the Washington Commanders) without any severe loss of momentum.
“This was simply Isaiah Simmons being bigger and stronger than some other guy,” Sikkema said. “It’s very impressive. I’m sure this is the kind of play that really intrigued the Cardinals.”
Simmons pairs his intangible speed and length well. He has an easier time disrupting throwing windows and challenging the accuracy of quarterbacks in coverage. His long strides eat up ground quickly, while his beanstalk arms further decrease the proximity to his target. The attributes also form an ideal combination for hunting the passer.
“The FSU quarterback doesn’t even realize it because he thinks he has time,” Smith said. “But he’s just like, ‘Holy s—, this guy’s already on me. He was like 10 yards away.’ That’s what makes [Simmons] so awesome.”
Simmons posted 159 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions over his first two NFL seasons, playing in every game. Those numbers do not exactly reflect the type of keystone defender the Cardinals envisioned he would perform like when the franchise selected him eighth overall in the 2020 NFL draft.
In college, Simmons’ athleticism would mask costly processing errors. Misaligned run gap fills and substandard pursuit angles when chasing the ball were not as much of a detriment to his play back then. But at the NFL speed, those mistakes were exploited by smarter and equally athletic playmakers.
“He’s able to maybe misstep once or twice, still somehow recover on a play, and be around the ball when it’s stopped, or even make the play himself,” Sikkema said. “I think he is a once-in-a-blue-moon athlete, and I think that’s why you saw him get drafted as highly as he did. But there is another aspect to it, and that’s processing and football IQ.
“I’m certainly not going to sit here and say that he isn’t that type of player. He just hasn’t been it yet.”
With one year remaining on his rookie contract and a fifth-year option hanging in the balance, results are now expected from Simmons in his third season.
Simmons faced his first real test at Star against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in Week 1. But Kelce gashed the Cardinals for 121 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. Simmons was in coverage for most of that production.
Simmons clearly had a difficult time keeping up with the seven-time Pro Bowler. He frequently lost track of Kelce and trailed behind slot assignments for most of the game, finishing with only three tackles. It was the complete opposite result of what the Cardinals hoped the position switch would accomplish.
Meanwhile, the secondary is reeling with injuries. Cornerbacks Antonio Hamilton (second-degree burns) and Trayvon Mullen (toe) were out for the first two games. Marco Wilson, Christian Matthew, and Javelin Guidry are young and inexperienced. It showed against Patrick Mahomes, arguably the league’s best passer, who carved up the Cardinals for 360 yards and five touchdowns on their home turf.
The Cardinals slashed Simmons’ responsibilities as part of the team’s adjustments for the Raiders in Week 2. Another former first-round linebacker, Zaven Collins, handled the green dot. Darren Waller, another 6-foot-6 nightmare tight end variant, was covered by Ezekiel Turner instead of Simmons on his fade ball touchdown in the second quarter. When Simmons forced Renfrow (coincidentally another former Clemson teammate) to fumble with his crushing hit, it was on just his 15th snap of the game.
Simmons must improve at Star, not just because a second contract with the Cardinals is in jeopardy, but because the team is hard-pressed for other options. The success of the Cardinals is contingent on Simmons succeeding at Star. He was drafted to counter the mismatches players like Kelce and Waller present. Simmons needs to provide the defense with a rare advantage, which it lacked up until Sunday’s marquee moment, or else this marriage won’t last long in Arizona.
There is still time left for the 24-year-old Simmons to develop into that antidote. More bumps could be in store down the road. But Simmons can redeem big burns with big plays in an instant, as showcased Sunday. A trial by fire is the only way the Cardinals will be able to scope his true potential.
“I like the change,” Sikkema said. “I do. But it’s going to require a lot of reps for Simmons to make sure that he gets this rolled out pretty well.”