Every Inch Counts: Plugging the Gaps with Defensive Tackles

By: Chris Dagonas

Last week, in the first of a season-long series, Chris examined the play of NFL offensive guards. You can read it HERE. This week, he’ll be looking at their counterparts, the defensive tackles.

The common image of the defensive tackle looks something like this:

Sucking air after a five-yard sprint

Sucking air after a five-yard sprint

So of course, casual viewers are quick to dismiss these players as merely heavy-set gap-fillers. Not to belabour the point too much, but even the “fat guys” in football have a lot of athleticism, and require speed, stamina, strength and balance to do their job effectively.

A defensive tackle’s main role is to stop running backs at the line of scrimmage. Get in front of them, wrap them up, or fall on top of them. However they do it, tackle the running back and stop the play. Sounds simple enough, but there are many steps in this process.

Defensive plays are highly-structured, but unlike offensive plays where players simply run their route and hope for the ball, defensive plays require a good deal of reaction and split-second decisions. The play might call for a defensive tackle to fill the the space between the offensive centre and the guard, also known as the ‘A’ gap. But, if the offense runs the ball in another direction, that defensive tackle should be able to alter his path, shift his feet, and at the very least chase the running back to preclude a cutback into open space.

Of course, they face some considerable opposition, in the form of the offensive guards and centre, who will be pushing and shoving the defensive tackles away from the path of the ball. The offensive line has the added advantage of knowing at the snap of the ball where the play is headed, while the defensive tackles are forced to read and react as quickly as possible, then face a 300-pound monster in their path (granted, the defensive tackles are 300-pound monsters themselves).

To beat a blocker, a defensive tackle has to use a variety of athletic skills; quickness, to react immediately after the snap of the ball; strength, to somehow power through the blocker(s) and breach the offensive line; along with balance and footwork to establish position and set their feet to prepare to make a tackle.

If a running back is unlucky enough to plow into the awaiting defensive tackle, the play is easy enough. Using their considerable size advantage, they are usually able to tackle the ball carrier and then do the requisite celebratory dance.

Here is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense plugging all of Mark Ingram’s running lanes on this goal-line stand. Then, of course, they “get jiggy with it”. People still say that, right?

To the victor, the (dancing) spoils.

To the victor, the (dancing) spoils.

But, more often than not, the defensive tackle may have done all that work to get through the blocking line, only to find that the play has gone toward the sideline, or elsewhere. Football does not reward quitters, so that defensive tackle must summon his energy, and take off in pursuit of the play. Those that don’t find themselves on the sidelines, or worse, on the free agent market.

Here is where sprint speed becomes a major athletic factor. In the open field, no defensive tackle will ever catch up to a running back. But, on outside running plays, the running back usually has to slow down, wait for blocks to develop, hesitate, cut to one side or the other, before accelerating. In that time, a defensive tackle should have enough time to pressure the ball carrier from behind. If they are lucky, they may still end up with a tackle after ten seconds, or more, of all-out work. Watch here as Minnesota’s Letroy Guion (98 in white) actually catches up to, and strips the ball from, Chicago’s Matt Forte.

More often, though, the tackle is recorded by a linebacker, who was able to make the tackle because a hard-working 300-pound tackle chased the play and didn’t allow the ball carrier to cut back. The DT receives no statistical credit in that case, but coaches and teammates, and savvy fans, are able to see their influence at work.

Here is an example from Sunday, where Antonio Smith (94 in white) works his way through the offensive line and into Chris Johnson’s running lane. While Smith does not record the tackle, his work to fill the running lane forced Johnson to cut into another Texans defender, linebacker Joe Mays, who does tackle Johnson for the safety.

OK, but what about passing plays? Defensive tackles do chase quarterback as well, but are less likely to record ‘sacks’ (quarterback tackles behind the line of scrimmage) than defensive ends, their line partners. Of course, if they do, they earn their dance time and receive credit. One way the defensive tackles can breach the offensive line and reach the quarterback is through a “twist” move. The twist move requires the two interior linemen to criss-cross each other on the snap of the ball, which hopefully confuses the blockers and allows one or both to reach the backfield. Watch here as Tennessee’s two defensive linemen execute the “twist” perfectly, and the play results in a sack of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub.

But another smart play by a defensive tackle is to jump, with their arms raised and hands wide open, just as the quarterback releases his pass. The hope is that the ball is tipped or swatted down by the big bear paws at the line causing the pass to be incomplete, or in the best case scenario, tipped into the arms of another defensive player for an interception.

Here is a play from Sunday’s Vikings-Bears game, where defensive tackle Everson Griffen (97 in white) gets his left hand elevated and tips the Jay Cutler pass, resulting in an interception for the Vikings, and a pretty important turnover as the Bears were on the goal line.

Still think that defensive linemen are big fat guys, who have no business on the same field as some of the other ultra-athletic freaks of the gridiron? Well, maybe this clip from 2003 of defensive tackle Sam Adams’ touchdown against the New England Patriots will change your mind.

(Start at 1:57, sorry for the music and looooow definition)

Didn’t help? Well, at least you got a chuckle from watching him rumble down the field. Just remember, they don’t all look like that when they run.

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