There are a lot of analysts that think we're in big trouble at the Defensive Tackle position. There are a lot of fans who agree with them. Yet, our HC and resident BAMF continually reminds us that we're fine at the DT slots, and he proved it by not drafting one. As I set about researching for this article, this strange dichotomy was at the forefront of my mind. After poring over stats and defensive scheme descriptions, I think I've discovered the reasoning behind BAMF's mindset and actions to date.
Ron Rivera's past is important in understanding his thought process. He was an All-American Linebacker for the Cal Golden Bears. He played four seasons from 1980-83 and finished his collegiate playing career as the Bears' all-time leader in tackles (336), sacks (22.0) and tackles for loss (47.5). Rivera was drafted in the 2nd round (44th) by the Chicago Bears, playing nine seasons (1984–1992), including the 1985 Superb Owl Championship season. The Defensive Coordinator with the Bears during his first two seasons was Buddy Ryan.
As a coach, Rivera cut his teeth as the Linebackers coach for five years under legendary DC, Jimmy Johnson. Rivera is credited with developing linebacker Jeremiah Trotter into a two-time Pro Bowl performer.
You're probably thinking, "What the heck does this have to do with the Panthers' defensive tackle situation?" Answer: A lot. Read on ... after the break.Rivera, of course, brought in another JJ disciple to be the Panther's DC: Sean McDermott. The "JJ43" defense is built around Linebackers. The first job of the Defensive Tackle in this system is to keep O-Lineman occupied, freeing up the LBs to make plays. In terms of the front seven defenders on running plays, the basic alignment and principles are also known as the "Miami 43." Link to this thread if you want to learn more.
In this defense, penetration is not the goal for the Defensive Tackle. Once a run is recognized, they should stay right in front of the O-lineman, keeping him from gaining a path to the LB. This may mean that the DT ends up in a completely different gap from where he started, but as long as he's standing up, he's still filling a gap.
The LBs, recognizing run, move down the line to fill any remaining gaps and use their athleticism to stop the play. That's the simplified version, I know, but it does give one a new sense of what makes for a good DT in the JJ43. It isn't tackles, and it isn't necessarily even holding the original gap. This doesn't mean DTs shouldn't make plays; but it is indicative that tackles, sacks, and gap penetration are not their primary responsibility.
On pass plays, of course, DTs have other assignments, often called before the play to help open blitz lanes. Anyhow, this model goes a long way toward explaining Rivera's seemingly inane observation of the DT corps. In fact, this is backed up by Football Outsiders analysis, who determined that the Carolina defense actually ranked as follows:
Stops on 3 or 4th and less than 2 yards to go: Rank 18
Stuffs (stops behind the line: Rank 23
2nd-Level yards (plays where the LB or DB didn't clean up): Rank 31
Open-Field yards (again, not the DTs primary responsibility): Rank 25
That doesn't paint a very rosy picture for the DTs, but it's more revealing about the lacking LB and DB run support. Losing Ron Edwards to injury and having to start two rookies (McClain and Fua), with only 3 weeks to learn the system, was a strategy that cost us early and often. But, I think it could pay dividends this season.
Here's a little tidbit that may surprise you. The defensive roster at the start of 2011 included: 5 safeties, 3 CBs, 8 LBs, 5 DEs, and only 3 DTs (McClain, Fua, Neblett). Only Neblett played the whole season, with the rookies hitting the wall and going on IR; both managing to finish 11 games. Roster limits being what they are (53), it would seem Rivera prefers to have a host of LBs, and a small contingent of DTs. I seriously doubt we go into this year with only 3 DTs on the roster, but the absolute maximum is likely 5.
Let's look at the players' stats and relative chances of making the team, keeping in mind that the stats don't tell all:
Terrell McClain (age: 23, pos: UT, exp: 1 year): In his first 6 games, McClain managed 5 tackles and a sack (zero tackles in 3 of the 6). Over his next 5 games, he tallied 14 tackles. We can't overlook that both he and Fua were thrown into the fire before they could possibly be ready, as BAMF has acknowledged. Chance of making roster = 90%
Sione Fua (age: 23, pos. NT, exp. 1 year): Fua was credited with a paltry 9 tackles and 1 stuff spread over 11 games (zero tackles in 5 games). The defense ranked 31st in runs up the middle. But again, was it Fua that failed, or the LBs. Given that the team has little depth at NT (plenty at UT), I'm going to have to give the rookie a break. Chance of making roster - 90%
Andre Neblett (age: 23, pos. UT, exp. 2 years): The only DT to play all 16 games, Neblett put up 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 3 stuffs in a rotational role. Chance of making roster = 99.9%
Frank Kearse (age: 23, pos. UT, exp. 1 year): Kearse seems to have caught the eye of the coaches. Although he only played in the last 5 games, Kearse garnered 10 tackles, .5 sacks, and a pass defended. Chance of making the roster = 99.9%
Jason Shirley (age: 26, pos. NT, exp. 2 years): Shirley was drafted in 2008 by the Bengals, but has managed to accrue only 2 years of "service time." Playing only the last 4 games in 2011, Shirley notched 4 tackles, a forced fumble, and 2.5 sacks (I know they weren't Big sacks, PR, lol). Shirley's name has been conspicuously absent in Rivera's DT commentaries. I'm not a practice squad expert, but I believe Shirley still has eligibility. Chance of making the roster =
25 0%; Practice Squad = 90 0%.
Ron Edwards (age: 32, pos. NT, exp. 11 years): Since he spent the entirety of 2011 on IR, I'm going back to what he did in 2010 while with the Chiefs. That season he played in 16 games (started 15) and amassed 26 tackles, 2 sacks, and a pass defended. Edwards is 32 years old and at some point age and injury overtake experience, but I don't think that time has arrived yet. The Panthers need that experience. Chance of making roster = 99.9%
Ogemdi Nwagbuo (age: 26, pos. UT, exp. 4 years): 4 games, 3 tackles in 2011. Nwagbuo was a desperate addition (from San Diego, of course) at the end of the season. Chance of making roster = 0.9%, Practice Squad = 5%.
Nate Chandler (age: 22, pos. UT, exp. Rookie UDFA): If Chandler has a great camp, he might make the PS. Chance of making roster = 0.1%, Practice Squad = 25%.
My predicted starters: Edwards, Neblett. Predicted to be in the rotation: Fua, Kearse, McClain.
My apologies for such a loooong article. I believe the DT position is seriously misunderstood among the media and the fanbase. I didn't understand it either until I did my research for this article. Now, I'm an expert, because I learned this stuff from the interwebz, which is never wrong. I look forward to the debates to follow in the comments.