Ndamukong Suh starts his NFL career in a little less than two months. He is already being called “the most dominant defensive prospect in the last 10 years,” “the best college player in the draft” and “the next (insert great defensive tackle’s name.)” There is a lot of hype surrounding Ndamukong, but most believe he has the talent to back it up. What exactly is considered backing it up?
Defensive tackle is a difficult position to quantify, they do collect stats just the same as everybody else, but the stats tell less of the story than they do for other positions. A defensive tackle could finish a game with one tackle and have played the best game of his life, while another game he could finish with 5 tackles and 2 sacks, and played relatively poorly. There are other factors which are far more telling of a tackle’s play, you just have to know where to look.
Instead of using tackles to gauge how effective Suh plays against the run, look at the opponents’ yards per carry. Nowadays defensive players are much faster than they used to be, therefore teams do not runs as many pitch, toss or sweep plays. The majority of a running back’s carries come in between the tackles, probably about 80%. A running back with 3.2 yards per carry had a rough day, most likely due to strong play by the defensive tackles.
Jim Schwartz’s defensive scheme lines the defensive ends wider than most other schemes. This helps them get a better edge rush vs. the pass and has a secondary goal of funneling running plays up the middle. The defensive tackles need to disrupt the middle of the line to either make a play themselves, or keep the linebackers clean and allow them to come in and make the tackles.
A defensive tackle’s effectiveness against the pass is even more difficult to judge using statistics than the running game. Most people look at sacks as the best measure of individual performance, but sacks are far more often the result of cumulative line play rather than one player. Frequently you will see pressure come from inside, but the defensive end or linebacker gets the sack even though the tackles caused it.
Quarterback hurries are a more accurate gauge, but they don’t tell the whole story either. A hurry is categorized as a player forcing the quarterback to move in the pocket or throw before he’s ready. Hurries highlight a tackle’s ability to disrupt the quarterback, but they are fairly infrequent. The NFL leader in hurries for a defensive tackle last year was Tony Brown of the Titans and he only had 33 hurries in 723 downs played (per www.profootballfocus.com) which is less than 5% of his snaps.
A better measure of a tackle’s play in the passing game comes from watching how the opponent handles him. If Suh is facing a lot of one on one blocks, the opposing offense is basically saying they are not threatened by him. If Suh is facing a constant stream of double teams, he is making his presence felt and the offense is trying to slow him down. That also means there are fewer players to block the rest of Suh’s linemates.
If Suh is commanding double teams inside, that leaves the defensive ends facing one on one matchups with the offensive tackles and maybe help from a tight end or running back. These are the matchups the Lions want instead of a tackle getting help from a guard. The Vikings have two of the best defensive tackles in the game, it’s no coincidence that they finished in the top five for sacks the last two years. The flip side of the scenario could also play out as well, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril could play well enough that Suh is the benefactor of the one on one matchups and he does get the stats. The performance of KVB, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Suh as a whole will go a much longer way towards measuring Suh’s success.
Many will gauge Suh’s impact on his stat line, in which case Suh could join a long list of rookie defensive tackles that didn’t live up to “expectations”. But if you look outside the box score, it will be far easier to gauge Ndamukong’s success in his rookie year. Then again, if Suh “Ndamunates” there won’t be any need to look closely at his performance, it will speak for itself.