The Colts defensive tackles are one of the most overlooked and underrated units in the league. First-year starter Fili Moala is having a solid year and showing signs of a bright future. Second-year starter Daniel Muir has had some struggles but has also made some big plays. For a second week in a row, Mookie Johnson made big plays — he stuffed a run and was in on a sack. Eric Foster is having the best year of his career and offers a legitimate pass rush threat and penetration from the defensive tackle spot.
The point is, most Colts fans and most NFL talking heads don’t ever hear or talk about the Colts defensive tackles because they’re rarely a problem. Our linebackers, corners, and defensive ends have been more inconsistent than our defensive tackles. With Aaron Francisco thrust into a starting role, it’s fair to say the safeties are also a bigger weakness right now.
In order to get an accurate perspective on the Colts defensive tackles, it is important to understand that Indianapolis does not target or employ any road graders. If the tackles are judged against players like monstrous nose tackle Jamal Williams, who played for San Diego for years, the results will be disappointing. Expecting these players to do something they’re not built or asked to do is unrealistic. In the Colts system, the defensive tackles primary responsibilities include gap maintenance, that is holding the line in the middle of the field to force runners to the outside, and penetration, by slipping off of blocks using their speed.
As has been explained in the Colts Academy breakdown on the role of defensive tackles in the Colts system, there are typically players with different primary goals on the field at any time at defensive tackle. The player in the nose tackle role will be asked to generate some push, getting the offensive lineman, or linemen, to take as much space in running lanes as possible. The player in the under tackle role will focus more on getting penetration or “flushing out” the pocket to allow Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to feast on fleeing quarterbacks.
The players who typically fill the nose tackle position, depending on down and distance, are Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, and Fili Moala. The under tackles are typically Fili Moala and Eric Foster. To get an idea of how these players are fulfilling their responsibilities, one of the best numbers to key in on is runs up the middle.
2009 was widely considered a year of vast improvement for the defensive tackles. Fili Moala disappointed a lot of fans as a rookie, much like Jerry Hughes has to this point in 2010, but it was widely accepted that the defensive line was better with Muir and Johnson in starting roles than it had been in a long time. In 2009, there were 166 rushing attempts at the middle of the Colts defense. Those rushes averaged 3.91 yards, second best for the defense based on run direction, and ranked fourteenth in the league. In 2010 there have been 91 rushing attempts off center by Colts’ opponents. Those rushes have averaged 3.65 yards, the lowest rushing average of Colts’ opponents in any direction. That average is good for 10th in the league.
What makes the run defense in 2010 10 yards per carry worse than in 2009 is seen when the run direction begins moving away from center. The further out run direction goes, the more linebackers or defensive ends have responsibility.
From left to right based on gaps along the offensive line the Colts defense gives up 4.0 ypc, 6.22 ypc, 7.25 ypc, and 4.59 ypc. This means the lowest of the other gaps is also in the direction of the Colts nose tackle, good for 13th in the NFL. The statistics suggest the interior is stout against the run, but the gaps outside the tackles are not.
The biggest reason the numbers off of guard look so horrendous is not the failure of the defensive tackles in these situations. On those runs, the center and guard will take on the defensive tackle to seal the lane, depending on direction. When double-teamed without defensive end help, with the linebackers in the primary “gap maintain” role, the Colts suffer most. Runs in this direction also take advantage of Colts corners who are running away from the line giving a 3-5 yard cushion on receivers.
Anytime a defensive tackle can get outside of the defensive ends, drive through offensive linemen, and make a play on running backs to the outside, it is amazing. Not making those plays regularly to bail out the ends, linebackers, or corners is no reason to knock the tackles.
When runs go directly to the offensive tackle position, rushing numbers are limited by the Colts defense because of the penetration the defensive ends often get in this particular gap. If the run is off tackle, and the running back has to dodge an incoming Freeney or Mathis before turning up field, the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties have enough time to read, recover, and stop runs for shorter gains.
It has been no secret this year that gap maintenance has been a real issue, particularly with so many new and young linebackers filling these roles. Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Phillip Wheeler, and Ramon Humber have all seen meaningful time at linebacker. Early in the season, Clint Session was making the kinds of mistakes he did as a first-year starter in 2008, and analysts around the league were picking up on it. In 2009, Gary Brackett stayed healthy throughout the season and Clint Session had the best year of his career. These differences can, and likely do, account for much or all of the 10 yards per carry increase the run defense allows opponents in 2010. It is worth noting that Antonio Johnson has been unable to play in three of the Colts games in 2010 as well, which hurts the rotation and limits the size available in the middle.
The other primary responsibility of the defensive tackles is penetration and pushing the pocket in order to flush the quarterback out and give the defensive ends sack opportunities. This year the defensive tackles, through the first 11 games, have generated four sacks and one pass defended. In 2009, the tackles had generated two sacks and two passes defended. Eric Foster has three sacks in the last four games.
Some will differentiate between defensive tackles getting sacks by basically mauling offensive linemen in the middle, splitting double teams, and coming directly up into a quarterback’s face from sacks which are generated when defensive tackles get penetration and quarterbacks, who are attempting to escape to the outside, are forced back into the middle. This is silly.
First, getting sacks up the middle, as described, is extremely rare for any defensive tackle in the league. There are only a couple tackles who will have any sacks like that in the NFL all year. When sacks come right in the quarterback’s face it is almost always when a hole opens up and a middle linebacker or safety blitzes, or when a defensive end stunts to the inside.
Second, penetration is penetration, and it causes the same problems regardless of its nature. The idea is to get the quarterback moving, get him off of his stationary position in the pocket, hit the quarterback, or push him into the defensive ends. This is called “getting pressure” — and in 2010, the defensive tackles have done a better job of that. The sack totals do not tell the whole story.
In terms of push, the tackles have regularly pushed offensive linemen three or four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Considering that most passes have come out very quickly against the Colts, to take advantage of loose coverage schemes and to negate the heavy rush from Freeney and Mathis, this is enough to push quarterbacks from five yards behind the line to seven or eight yards in under three seconds. When speed rushers turn a corner, this deeper position will matter, allow for forced fumbles, sacks, and hits on the quarterback.
Now, the defensive tackles are not outstanding in every game. They have had some bad games, and individual performances have been up and down, but the defensive tackles are not the “problem” in the defense’s struggles stopping the run. They’ve been better getting pressure on the quarterback than they have in years. Expecting the Colts defensive tackles to look like defensive tackles in 3-4 defensive schemes or to play like tackles do in other 4-3 schemes is setting them up for failure to meet expectations.
Fili Moala, Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, and Eric Foster do what they are asked and required to do in the Colts system very well. Their improved performances in runs up the middle and pass rushing, along with the improved depth and talent at the position in 2010, make the Colts defensive tackles one of the most underrated and overlooked units in the NFL.