Football has long been a game of evolution. Perhaps the most chess-like sport imaginable, football is ever-changing. Coaches and GM’s tirelessly try to find new and innovative ways to counter trends that pop up in the league. For example, when the Read Option became popular among teams with mobile QB’s, Defensive Coordinators were soon stressing the importance of setting the edge and giving players responsibilities and assignments for containing this new offensive nuisance. Soon 4-3 Defensive Ends and 3-4 Outside Linebackers were slowing down, not staying square to the Line of Scrimmage, and not revealing their intentions of going after Quarterback or Running Back.
Frozen, and unable to make a read based off of defensive movements, the Read Option systems began to struggle mightily. And while Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick have many reasons for their career issues at the moment, one of those reasons stems from Defensive Coordinators slowing their edge players down and forcing those mobile Quarterbacks to win with their arms. Those that could, like Cam Newton, adapted and have had success. Those that couldn’t prove that if you can’t adapt, your NFL shelf life is rather short.
With that in mind, it’s time to dive in and take a look at one of the rapidly evolving positions in the NFL, which is the Defensive Tackle position. Without anyone catching on, the Defensive Tackle position has undergone some interesting changes over the past couple of years. I can understand how it may be difficult to imagine the roles of the big beefy guys in the middle of everything getting shaken up all that much, but if we look at recent trends we can get a good idea of what defenses are starting to ask their Defensive Tackles to do.
Tune into any L.A Rams game, and you’ll hear the announcers discussing “interior pressure”. There’s a good reason for that. Aaron Donald has been tearing up the league since the day he stepped foot onto NFL turf. When drafted, Aaron Donald had question marks surrounding him, and most of those question marks pertained to his size. At 6’0, 285 lbs, there were skeptics that didn’t buy Aaron Donald as a Defensive Tackle. Sure he was freakishly fast off the ball and extremely explosive, but would he get bullied by the much larger Guards at the next level? As it turns out the answer to that question was no. And while Donald’s tools and abilities are the reason he is the star that he is today, it also has to do with defensive scheme.
You see, for all of the Rams faults, they have rarely asked Aaron Donald to anchor at the Defensive Tackle position. Even in obvious running situations, the Rams knew to play to Donald’s strengths. While most teams ask their Defensive Tackle(s) to anchor on obvious running plays, which means setting a great base, digging your cleats into the ground, and not allowing the interior Offensive Lineman to move you, Aaron Donald doesn’t win that way. He wins with a truly superb first step and by using his quickness to keep Guards off balance. For a great example, the gif below does the job.
Watch the difference between Donald (#99) and the other Defensive Lineman on this play. Aaron Donald is lined up as a 3 technique on Logan Mankins, which means he’s lined up on the Guard’s outside shoulder. Now since that’s Donald’s alignment, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Donald is most likely responsible for the B gap, or the gap between the Guard and the Tackle. During the play, the Defensive End anchors against the Left Tackle and closes off the C gap (outside the Tackle). Both Linebackers take a read step and then flow over the top of the play. The other Defensive Tackle, who gives an odd look by being head up on the Center (a 0 technique, not often seen in a 4-3 look) rides his blocker into the A gap (between the Center and Guard) that is next to Aaron Donald. So since we see all other Defensive Lineman anchoring or riding blocks and trying to shut down running lanes, it’s interesting to see Aaron Donald jab step towards the B gap and then swims the Guard and shoot into the backfield.
Traditional defense dictates that Donald anchors and holds the B gap, not allowing Mankins to complete the reach block he’s attempting on Donald. Instead, Donald takes advantage of an off-balance Mankins and swims over top, through the A gap, leaving a potential running lane in the B gap if he doesn’t make the play. But he does. And there is a chance that this was 100% designed by the Rams coaching staff. Notice that the WILL (Weakside LB) #58 fills in the B Gap exactly where Donald should have been. Then the MIKE (Middle LB) scrapes over top and seems to be on clean up duty, meaning that if Donald misses, he’s supposed to make the tackle.
It makes sense that the Rams would set a defensive play up like this because it plays up to their best player’s skill set. And even if I am giving them too much credit and Donald ignored assignment football and made a great play, it’s still a demonstration of the impact that Defensive Tackles are having by changing their style from anchoring and clogging to becoming more explosive and agile. While most fans think of these 3 tech DT’s as pass rushers only, it’s important to note that these interior linemen use their skills to still be strong run defenders, because while the skill sets and roles may change for the Defensive Tackle position, stopping the run will always be important.
Aaron Donald is just one player however. I’m arguing that we’re going to see a league that gets away from the traditional Vince Wilfork Nose Tackles and focuses more on Defensive Tackles that are quicker and more explosive. Just take a look at college football if you need any indication of this. The 2017 NFL Draft showed us that there isn’t a high demand Defensive Lineman without explosion. The first two Defensive Tackles off the board, Jonathan Allen and Malik McDowell, were some of the most explosive players in college football. While both men can anchor when they want to, the reason they were drafted so high was because of their ability to uncoil quickly and be athletes that could win match ups against slower, stronger Guard types inside. I mean look at this.
In fact the only player who seemingly lacked that explosive ability and plays more a true Nose Tackle role that was drafted in the top three rounds was Dalvin Tomlinson, who was the second round draft pick of the New York Giants. The trend towards explosive 3 technique type Defensive Tackles is one of the reasons small school prospect Larry Ogunjobi got drafted by the Cleveland Browns. Put on Ogunjobi’s tape, and he wins the way Donald wins. With a strong first step and explosive movements. Compare this to the 2000 NFL Draft seventeen years ago, where big run stuffers were the norm on draft day. Corey Simon, Cornelius Griffin, and Fred Robbins were all beefy guys known for eating up the run. All of those guys were drafted in the top two rounds of that year’s draft. The landscape is much different now.
And remember, it’s not about the weight either. Next year’s draft offers up some large prospects in Vita Vea (344), Lowell Lotulelei (320), and Christian Wilkins (310). And of those three players, only Lotulelei truly plays clog and anchor football. The other two can, but they are much better off when allowed to explode and disrupt the interior of the offense. Heck, Clemson uses Wilkins as a Defensive End most of the time, and will even drop him back into pass coverage. These are the types of athletes that are the future of the NFL Defensive Tackle position. The days of the slow, plodding run stuffers are in the rear view mirror. Whether they are ready or not, the next wave of Defensive Tackles must adapt to the mold that is presented before them if they want to be truly successful in the modern day NFL.