It was as close to a consensus as we'll probably ever see. When the Carolina Panthers selected NT Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, Panthers fandom was united in its elation.
Bereft of a defensive anchor for years, Lotulelei was an easy pick for the Panthers. Arguably one of the most talented first year players, Star figures to make a big splash. But unlike other defensive linemen, nose tackles don't often make their presence felt on stat sheets. Regardless, the nose tackle holds the most important job on the line, play in, play out. In this post we'll look at the first series from the Panthers matchup with the Chiefs, to illustrate the value of a top-shelf NT.
The Panthers defense had a good 2012 campaign behind the pass rush of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, finishing tenth in total defense, having surrendered only 333.1 yards per game. Even still, there is much room for improvement for Sean McDermott's squad, as is evident in this series versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Week 13.
Winning the toss, the Chiefs elected to receive the ball, and with 14:58 left in the first quarter, from their own 26 yard line.
The Chiefs open with this 1x0, 22 personnel, I formation, opting to start with this off-tackle run. In response to the run heavy set, Carolina have 9 men in the box.
Right at the snap Sione Fua (circled), who is the 1-tech for much of this series, is beaten in the leverage battle by the Kansas City Center. To make matters worse, the Chiefs LG doesn't even warrant Fua a look, instead he immediately locks in on MLB Luke Kuechly.
Star's biggest impact will be in his ability to command double teams. It's not size and brute strength that merit a double team. As Smartfootball's Chris Brown notes:
Size is actually less important than athleticism and smarts. The line between touchdowns and stops is exceedingly thin, and it's footwork and feel that are the difference.
That's why John Jenkins was chosen in the third round, and Star in the top half of the first.
With Star up front, Kuechly will have much more freedom to track and engage the ballcarrier.
The LG makes it to the second level and neutralizes Kuechly. With the edge secured, Jamaal Charles is able to bounce the run outside. Take note: 2/3 of the Panthers LB corps is engaged with blockers before Charles even crosses the line of scrimmage.
The Chiefs come back with another 22 personnel I-formation look; running a toss to the left.
Shortly after the snap Fua is already beaten by the blocker; the Chiefs RG strikes first, and achieves optimal hand positioning, which jolts Fua practically upright. The Panthers NT is now under the blocker's direction.
The value of quickness cannot be understated. An explosive athlete, Star Lotulelei will stuff a lot of runs by beating or at least tying interior linemen at the snap.
Heady runner that he is, Charles identifies the massive cutback lane. Even should Fua have realized Charles' change of direction, he is in no position to adjust, still fighting off the RG's block.
Accelerating, Charles hits the hole and picks up a gain of ten yards before Kuechly and Nakamura make the tackle.
Switching to a single back, 12 personnel set, the Chiefs move to the passing game, calling a three-verticals concept, in which Dwayne Bowe, matched up against Josh Norman, will break his route for a crossing route. With LB Thomas Davis blitzing, the Panthers must harass the Chiefs QB in order to compensate for the dearth of underneath coverage.
Ten plus yards into his route Bowe reads the Panthers coverage, and breaks his route inwards. Not easily visible here, but Bowe has pulled out of his drive phase, a telltale sign of an imminent cut or change of direction, Norman does not read this at all and is still trailing backwards.
Turning attention to the pocket, Brady Quinn sits relatively unmolested. DE Greg Hardy has beaten the Kansas City LT, but he's too late to alter Quinn's throw. Even if Hardy were closing in on the QB, Quinn would have an immaculate pocket to step into; there is no interior pressure from the Panthers pass rush.
Again Fua has failed to strike first with his hands, is unable to extend his arms, to use his length to keep the KC interior linemen from his body, and consequentially loses the leverage battle, generating no push on the pocket. But the failure of this interior rush doesn't fall completely on Fua; both Dwan Edwards and Thomas Davis were unable to take advantage of the one-on-one matchup's Fua has afforded them.
Quinn completes the pass to the open Bowe for a gain of 16 yards, taking the Chiefs to the cusp of field goal range.
The Chiefs break out 11 personnel in a single back set. Turning back to the ground game, Kansas City goes with another outside run, pulling both their right guard and right tackle.
Fua gets a solid jump on this snap, and reads the direction of play. The Panthers NT does a good job of leaning his shoulder into the center, minimizing the contact surface for the center.
Fua extends his arm into the body of the center and has beaten the block. A more athletic NT would now have the opportunity to disengage from the blocker and cut off Charles' run behind the LOS.
An example of good team defense, the Panthers secure the edge, stopping Charles' momentum, long enough for Fua to catch the RB for a one yard gain.
On this second down and long, the Panthers operate Cover 2; in motion, Kansas City WR Jon Baldwin will run a 9 route.
Once again, there is very little pressure, specifically up the middle, against Quinn.
Fua again is unable to keep the linemen away from his body, nor achieve optimal hand placement or pad level to generate push.
A youthful, yet costly error, Norman doesn't carry Baldwin into Godfrey's coverage overtop; Norman lets Baldwin free, and the second year wide receiver makes the catch.
Godfrey saves a touchdown, and brings Baldwin down at the two yard line for a gain of 34 yards.
The sixth play of this drive, the Chiefs opt for another off-tackle run, this time from a bruising 23 personnel set, with Peyton Hillis subbed in for Charles.
An inside zone concept, Hillis' assignment is to hit the C-gap between Charles Johnson, facing the kickout block from a TE, and Nate Chandler, who, at the moment, is receiving the only double team on the line. Both Fua, and the other DL, who appears to be Dwan Edwards, are neutralized; Edwards is taken out of the play by the center, and Fua, absorbed by the left guard.
Chandler holds the all-important job of holding that double team and controlling the point of attack. It is imperative that he keeps the blockers from reaching the second level. Just after the snap, the RT is already prepared to disengage from Chandler, and is locked in on Kuechly.
Seconds later, all three Panthers interior DL are on the ground, and the Chiefs RT is in the process of driving Kuechly out of the play.
Hillis follows his FB's block and is just able to beat Thomas Davis and Sherrod Martin to the endzone.
And thus, the Chiefs have capitalized on a six play, 74 yard drive.
It's speculation to say that the Panthers, with Star Lotulelei in the breach, would have been able to keep Jamaal Charles & Co. from scoring. On the other hand, we can affirm that the Chiefs would not have enjoyed such an effortless ride to the endzone facing a strong interior presence.
On another note, Sione Fua is not a horrible player. The second year player has improved from his rookie campaign, and demonstrated himself as a decent reserve NT. However, Fua played 252 snaps last season for the Panthers, 24% of all defensive snaps; it's doubtful that he sees such playing time again (contingent on his making the roster, of course).
Certainly, the Panthers will be much more stout against the run next season. I prophesy that we'll see fewer performances coinciding with the Chiefs contest or the Eagles game, and more that align with the Week 14 matchup with Atlanta or the Raiders game.
I too expect Luke Kuechly to take a leap forward in 2013, although I think Star will play a large role in Kuechly's advancement. The rookie possesses a rare combination of quickness and strength that will allow him to be disruptive and control the point of attack, hopefully giving Carolina their 'War Daddy' for years to come.
Even though it isn't always inherently obvious, nose tackles are critical to a defense's constitution.