The 4 things that make Arden Key the SEC’s most devastating pass rusher
Watching LSU edge rusher Arden Key is an experience.
Lean cut, ferocious, and with arms so long that he probably can tie his shoelaces standing up, Key looks as though he was designed by the football gods to hunt quarterbacks.
His 2016 sophomore explosion saw him vault into college football’s elite. Now, heading into his junior year, he claims the prize left behind by Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett: The most feared pass rusher in the SEC.
His talent isn’t in doubt. His status is.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron announced last month that Key would be leaving the program “indefinitely,” citing “personal reasons.”
Although the nature of Key’s departure is unknown, Orgeron said in a recent interview that he “expects” the pass rusher to return. And according to a report from SEC Country’s Sam Spiegelman, the Tigers’ staff is confident Key will be back before the start of the season.
They certainly need him.
There’s no substitute for quickness.
Well, Key is packing a supercharged engine. His explosiveness matches that of any of the nation’s best. He regularly beats tackles to their set point, forcing them to block him off-balance or simply whiff as he fires around the edge.
His overall twitchiness is jarring to tackles. Key’s quickness forces them to match his explosiveness and explode deeper out of their stance.
That’s tough to do snap after snap. At some point, the dam breaks and he just beats them cold.
As the picture below shows, once Key gets off, it can be game over. When a tackle is beat to his spot, he’s unable to set a stable base — often leaving him with one foot in the air while engaging and lunging at the edge rusher. Meanwhile, Key maintains balance, can dip, contort and flatten to the quarterback.
Contorting that way is no easy thing. Particularly not at his size.
At times during his freshman season he was inflexible. Even though he added weight during the sophomore campaign, he showed more bend off the edge and stunning body control.
Here, against Mississippi State, he flat beats the tackle out of his stance — anticipating and timing the snap.
His explosiveness wins him the opening duel, but he closes the deal with his flexibility. He’s able to bend and take the shortest path to the quarterback possible, getting home before the quarterback has time to step up and avoid the pressure.
The fluidity with which he moves is matched only by his instinctiveness of the quarterback’s location — dropback depth and launching point.
Speed to power
Speed by itself is a problem. Speed coupled with power is a nightmare.
Football is now flooded with so-called “dip-and-rip” rushers. At all levels. They’re guys with great get-offs and little else; a lack of quality hand-fighting skills or a lack of power.
Key is just as likely to run around a lineman as he is to run through them. And even when he’s bending the edge, his lower body power is on full display.
Here, against Auburn, the left tackle kicked out to guard against Key’s speed rush. The tackle played high, while Key looked to turn the edge and flatten to the quarterback. Although the tackle got both hands on him, while he was bending, he showed the strength to hold off the block with one hand while making a play with the other.
When Key squares up to barrel through a blocker’s chest, he packs a serious punch.
He converts speed into impact power, driving upward, playing with heavy hands and surging once he engages with a blocker.
It presents a dual threat to opposing linemen when matched up 1-on-1: They need to be capable of kicking out against speed, as well as anchoring against power. Struggle with either, and Key will expose the flaw.
Despite the obvious physical traits, it’s the intelligence that sets him apart from others.
Back when he was a freshman, and Orgeron was his defensive line coach, the now-head coach raved about his smarts. “I’ve never had a guy like this,” Orgeron told FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman, “Arden’s so fast and long, and instinctive and smart.”
The SEC is flooded with extraordinary athletes on the edges. But none of them combine the same overall athleticism with the pass-rushing intellect as LSU’s star.
Discipline is paramount. He rarely, if ever, gets caught beyond the quarterback. For as good a player as Tennessee’s Derek Barnett was, he would get caught far too deep in the backfield multiple times each game. That’s not a major knock on Barnett; it’s the reality of the position, even for all-time college greats.
Key’s flexibility around the edge and power afford him the opportunity to flatten to the quarterback regardless of how deep he is in the backfield. Yet, despite having the decked stacked in his favor athletically, one would still anticipate an over-eager sophomore with an explosive first step to get carried away and ride an offensive tackle five yards down the field a couple of times a game. Not this pass rusher.
Then, there’s the hand usage. Oh, the hand usage.
Key does a great job of keeping opposing linemen off his pads, not conceding his breast plate and limiting the target for whoever is trying to block him. In that regard, his long arms and quick hands serve as a cheat code. They allow him to swat away a lineman’s hands without needing to get engaged or sinking into their pads.
How he’s used
There’s a reason Orgeron gave defensive coordinator Dave Aranda big bucks to stick around after Les Miles’ firing. He’s one of the most creative coordinators in the country.
Key accentuates that. As a premier defensive playmaker, offensive lines are consistently sliding their protections or looking to double-team him. And quarterbacks, innately, feel the need to figure out where he is pre- and post-snap on every snap.
Although it’s intended to help the offense keep a star defensive player under control, it often has the opposite effect.
Aranda is able to control pass-rushing matchups by moving Key around. And he’s able to better disguise some of his more creative zone-pressure designs, as offensive linemen fear losing to Key — often sliding to close off his speed-rush lane and conceding the inside shoulder to another blitzing defender as Key drops out.
Aranda bamboozled Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the Citrus Bowl with a series of zone blitzes, dropping defensive linemen and bringing linebackers and DBs from different angles.
Key was crucial.
Louisville’s offensive line already had felt the full force of his impact early in the game. He consistently beat the pair of starting tackles out of their stances, exploding into the backfield and dropping Jackson.
His early exploits put each lineman on his back foot whenever Key lined up across from them. They were eager to kick out and get set. And regardless of whether Key rushed, or dropped out, they kept their eyes fixed on him.
As a result, Aranda was able to consistently get free runners into the backfield. Louisville’s linemen were left frozen in place as Tiger after Tiger booked a free ticket to Jackson’s chest. When the Heisman winner looked to get the ball out hot, he had Key dropping right into his sight line.
Bobby Petrino’s explosive offense bogged down as the Tigers secured their best win of the season.
Aranda’s impact on Key (and Key’s on Aranda) goes beyond some creative zone-pressure designs, though. After all, a team’s best pass rusher backpedaling isn’t a great use of resources.
Key’s positional flexibility has been impressive. Early in the season, before Aranda’s system was fully embedded, Key simply vacillated between playing with his hand in the dirt or standing up, though with the same simplistic assignments.
But as the season moved along, he showed up right across the LSU front. In any single game, he would line up as an on-ball linebacker, traditional defensive end (on either side of the formation), as a wide-9 technique, over the center in five-across fronts and even the odd snap in the slot as an off-ball ‘backer.
His assignments also developed.
Aranda’s blitz packages demand speed. They bring players from deep starting positions or have edge defenders knifing inside on stunts and twists.
Key fits perfectly. His quickness allows him to cut inside and arrive in the backfield before guards or centers are able to process and reset their feet.
Aranda will be keener than anyone to see his star back on the field before Week 1. He just makes life easier.
Edge defenders have three responsibilities: A) hit the opposing quarterback; B) set a hard edge as the force-or-contain defender; C) drop into coverage. If a defender does one really well, he makes the NFL. If he does two really well, he’ll be a first-round pick. And if he does all three, he’ll be an All-Pro at the next level.
Well, Key has two down — A and C.
As a run defender, he needs to improve. Too often he gets caught upfield or out-leveraged and turned around. Discipline and integrity haven’t been a scheme-breaking issue, but there’s concern about his willingness (or just ability) to hold the outside shoulder and help contain smaller runs, rather than trying to knife into the backfield and make a big play on every down.
It’s a problem, but something that can only improve with reps.
Now, the issue is when he will see those reps.
In writing these positive pieces, I attempt to restrain from hyperbole. Key makes that tough. He’s just that good. His combination of physical gifts with his pass-rushing intellect is a rare as it comes. Whenever he steps on a field in 2017, he’ll do so as the most-gifted player in the conference.