He led in tackles (14), pass-deflections (2), interceptions (1), and tied with LB Samson Ebukam with forced fumbles and fumbles recovers (1,1). From start to finish, Littleton arguably turned in the most complete defensive game on the afternoon.
Let’s start with the fourth-quarter interception.
It doesn’t get more textbook than that. Littleton reads QB Cam Newton’s eyes from the snap and shuffles back to the potential target area. Then he simply steps in front of the ball and returns the ball for 26 yards.
Littleton’s name is not one you’d match to the term “pass-defending linebacker.” But on Sunday, his play showed a lot of promise as someone who could be an asset in the pass-coverage, especially in the flat.
Sure, this is not the best play to show since it was a gain by the Panthers. But this was just a freak accident. The intended target was a wide receiver behind Littleton, not RB Christian McCaffery. Gain aside, look at the way Littleton reads and then adjusts to the eyes of Newton. He’s comes upfield to pick up McCaffery in the zone, then tries to block the pass that’s intended to go over him. That’s great awareness on his part.
The foundation of Littleton’s play is his drive to do literally anything the team asks of him. Specialized skills be damned, Littleton shows up and plays hard. That’s what makes him successful, even on plays like above. From the snap, Littleton picks up TE Greg Olson, who takes a lead over the linebacker. It looks like he has Littleton beat. When Olson turns, Littleton throws his arm out. The ball hit the shoulder, not the arm, but by simply being between the ball and the receiver, Littleton gets the job done.
However, Carolina did expose Littleton and the Rams pass-defense with a mismatch on the linebacker. As McCaffery goes in motion, it looks as if Littleton follows, but the linebacker instead picks up the slot receiver in the flat. The receiver uses his speed to get separation and the YAC. Since the Rams were in man coverage, Littleton had no support until the receiver turned up field on the catch.
This is just a solid play by Littleton. McCaffery had himself a day, too, rushing more more than 100 yards and catching 10 passes for 81 yards. But this is as good a play as you can ask for from your linebacker. McCaffery is immediately tackled on the catch for no YAC. McCaffery was second in the league in YAC last season with 855 (around 53 YPG after catch).
Littleton played with great tenacity against the Panthers. No matter the situation, he never let up on a play. In the above play, Littleton chased down WR D.J. Moore, who caught a pass on an out route near Littleton’s zone. The linebacker chased him down, punched the ball out of Moore’s arm, and recovered his own fumble.
That’s a great play. Here’s a better one.
On this apparent screen pass to Moore, the wide receiver fumbles the reception. Instead of diving on the ball to get into a possession fight with Moore, Littleton simply blocks him from getting the ball and allows for someone else to pick it up. Tie goes to the receiver and Littleton just took him out of the equation.
Mistake on the goal line
The Panthers called a running play away from Littleton on two of their three touchdown rushes. The first rush, however, was to Littleton’s side.
Pre-snap, Littleton looks to make the right adjustment to the Carolina Wild-Cat shift. He knows McCaffery is coming. His guess for which gap McCaffery will run through isn’t a bad one, he just committed too close. When McCaffery goes for the A-1 gap, Littleton can’t adjust because the NT was made into an accidental screen. Thus, allowing McCaffery to score.
Littleton’s first game of the year was a strong one, stats aside. His heads-up awareness made him an asset in more ways than one and his willingness to do everything the Rams need is encouraging. I’m confident that he will only get better from here and become the linebacker the Rams have been in desperate need of since James Laurinaitis left.