In the coming weeks you’re going to hear about two spots over and over and over again. You’re going to hear about the QB spot and justifiably so but you’re also going to hear a lot of talking about a nose tackle, perhaps unjustifiably so. People are going to bust out the cliches. They’re going to talk and talk about how we need a “power pig” (I’d be impressed if they actually used that term, it’s awesome) to “anchor” our new 3-4 defense. They’ll talk about Vince Wilfork. They’ll talk about BJ Raji. They’ll talk about Haloti Ngata. If they’re older they might bust out a Ted Washington reference. Why? BECAUSE THE NOSE TACKLE SPOT IS IMPORTANT THATS WHY! Or is it…
- Dan Williams (6’3″, 327) played 41% of snaps
- Terrence Cody (6’4″, 341) played 32% of snaps
- Antonio Johnson (6’3″ 310) played 49% of snaps
- Sione Pouha (6’3″ 325) played 37% of snaps
- Casey Hampton played on 49% of snaps
- Cam Thomas (6’4″, 335) played 37% of snaps
- Isaac Sopoaga played 30% of snaps
And do you want to know a secret? The Patriots don’t play a 3-4 defense and Vince Wilfork isn’t a 3-4 NT. Haloti Ngata is a 3-4 DE. BJ Raji plays all three spots across the line for Green Bay. So if you’re arguing with someone you can have that up your sleeve. Do you want to know the only two nose tackles that racked up a significant amount of snaps? Barry Cofield and Dontari Poe. That’s it. It would appear that these behemoths are little more than two down run stoppers in today’s NFL. Is this an important function? Absolutely. Is a two-down-run-stopper something we need to sell out to get? I’m not so sure…
Quite frankly, given what I’ve seen from Antonio Dixon I’m almost comfortable with having him as our designated “fat man” in the middle of the defense. He was quite the run stopper before Jim Washburn came in and kicked him out of town because he didn’t fit his scheme. Dixon was so good in fact that after the 2010 season, ProFootballFocus highlighted him as a “Secret Superstar” (link).
Dixon flashed during his rookie year. As a run defender, he accumulated a +3.9 grade in 119 snaps. He wasn’t making a lot of plays, with just ten stops, but he’d more than shown he deserved a roster spot already.
With an expanded role in 2010 – a torn bicep for incumbent Brodrick Bunkley against San Francisco gave Dixon a chance to start in Week 6 – he did not disappoint. He ended the year ranked 8th overall in our run defense grades for interior defensive linemen, surrounded by players like Antonio Garay, Haloti Ngata and Kevin Williams. His playmaking was once again lacking (just 21 stops), but this is understandable considering the 2-gap scheme that asks Eagle defensive tackles to eat up blocks.
As a matter of fact, if you look at all the nose tackles from last season you’ll see that there isn’t much of a correlation between overall and run defense performances and the size, draft position, salary and performance of a nose tackle.
Of the 3-4 defenses that placed in the top 10, only two had nose tackles that were graded positively by ProFootballFocus, Earl Mitchell and Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers, a team highly regarded for their defense, had one of the worst nose tackles in the NFL last season.
The 49ers are actually a great example of the diminishing importance of a NT. They ran an under-front defense that ranked 3rd in the NFL and 4th against the run despite pretty bad nose tackle play. If you turn on the Green Bay v.s. San Francisco game you’ll notice that Sopoaga isn’t even on the field most of the time. Against a passing team like the Packers, the 49ers opted to have Isaac on the sideline and roll with a four man front of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks.
Without a doubt the nose tackle has it’s role and having a good one would be nice but I’m starting to believe the importance of getting a “true nose tackle” is being overblown.