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The Importance Of The Nose Tackle Position In The Colts Tampa-2 Scheme

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Despite what many think or say, the Colts, like all other teams that run the famed 'Tampa-2' defense, do indeed utilize a nose tackle along the defensive line.

We've often written about how the Colts use (or misuse) their defensive tackles, but every once and a while it helps to get a refresher on some of the finer details of how the 'Tampa-2' system works, particularly on the defensive line.

For starters, the 'Tampa-2' is actually a coverage term that has more to do with linebackers and defensive backs than d-linemen. It's a variation on the old 'Cover-2' defense which was made famous in the 1970s with the Pittsburgh Steelers 'Steel Curtain' teams. While former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and his one-time defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Monte Kiffin, often get praise for changing the NFL with the 'Tampa-2' coverage variation, what they did strategically along the defensive line is equally interesting to dissect.

These changes in how linemen line-up and attack an offense are often lumped in with the term 'Tampa-2.' Rod Marineli, the current defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears and one-time assistant under Dungy in Tampa Bay, also deserves credit for the unique why 'Tampa-2' teams attack offensive lines.

The principles and strategies these men standardized back the '90s are still use today in places like Indy, Chicago, Tennessee, Detroit, and now, apparently, New England. It is helpful to understand how these strategies work if one wishes to understand why the Colts are still very thin at the defensive tackle spot despite the additions of players like Tommie Harris and Drake Nevis.

Joe Dolan of recently wrote an outstanding explanation on how basic NFL defensive alignments work, and he dedicated a good portion of his article to 'Tampa-2' defensive line fronts.

4-3 Fronts – In the early part of this century, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin popularized something that had been around since the 1980s: the "under front" in their Tampa-2 defense (which we’ll get to a little more in depth in a little bit). Essentially, the under front shifted the entire defensive line away from the strong side of the offensive line. In the under front, one defensive tackle is shaded directly over the center (a nose tackle), while another, more athletic interior lineman – the undertackle or 3-technique – lines up in the B gap in a more traditional DE position (think Warren Sapp). Then, the team’s best pass rusher (think Simeon Rice) is free to rush from the extreme edge of the offensive line. If each player maintains his responsibility, run plays can be filtered to the LBs.

The "over front," which shifts the line toward the strong side of the offense, is also common to see in today’s NFL. The idea is to create mismatches and get athletic players in their best position to succeed. It’s an example of the constantly changing NFL in that coaches will tweak the traditional 4-3 to best reflect the talent that’s on the field. As an undertackle, more athletic defensive tackles like Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh can overpower slower offensive guards and put up huge sack numbers from the interior line. While different coaches do different things with their 4-3 fronts, the important thing to remember is they’re all trying to create mismatches. That’s how games are won in today’s NFL.

For the Colts, over the past few years we've seen players like Raheem Brock, Larry Tripplett, Montae Reagor, Daniel Muir, and Fili Moala all play well as the undertackle or 3-technique tackle. Speed, quickness, and burst are valued here over girth, size, and strength.

When people say, 'The Colts don't need big fatties, but small guys to shoot the gap and funnel to the linebackers,' they are referring to 3-tech DTs whether they know it or not.

It is the tackle that lines up over the center, the 'nose tackle' as Dolan calls him (overtackle in some other lexicons) that the Colts have truly struggled to find and retain over the years.

They spent big money in 2005 on Corey Simon to fill this role, and he did for only one season until poly-arthritis cost him his career.

They made a big trade in 2006 for Booger McFarland, who was the gold standard of Tampa-2 nose tackles back then. No coincidence that Indy won a Super Bowl that year. Their run defense in the playoffs was dominant. Booger blew out his knee in camp the following year, and his career was finished.

Ed Johnson was stout as the nose tackle in 2007, up until he was kicked off the team in early in the 2008 season.

In 2009, Antonio Johnson solidified the role of 'overtackle' in the Colts Tampa-2. However, last year, for reasons we really still don't know (injuries? coach's doghouse? stupidity? edict from Bill Polian?) the Colts sat Mookie for much of the year used Daniel Muir as the overtackle and Fili Moala as the 3-tech.

The results were disaster. The Colts surrendered 2,032 rushing yards in 2010, at 4.6 a carry.

Now, Muir is gone. Mookie is re-signed to a three-year deal, and the Colts have roped in a couple more 3-tech DTs in Nevis and Harris. However, the key question of depth still remains: Outside of Mookie, who on this team can play nose tackle in the Tampa-2?

Don't say Moala. He simply doesn't have the mindset. Also, he might not be big enough. Mookie is 310-315. Fili is 305. When Moala he did play NT last year, he got consistently blown off the line by the center. Harris and Nevis are strict 3-tech talents. There's been talk of moving Jamaal Anderson to DT on passing downs, but, again, that is as a 3-tech. Same with Eric Foster. He, like Anderson, plays DE and 3-tech DT on passing downs.

The other DTs on the roster include a rookie free agent named Ollie Obgu and two vets: DeMario Pressley, and John Gill.

Obgu, at 6'1, 285 pounds, sounds more like a 3-tech talent. In fact, when you read his scouting reports coming out of Penn State, it's pretty obvious he isn't a NT.

Pressley, at 6'3, 301 pounds, is interesting. But, after being drafted by the Saints in the 5th round in 2008, he's been released, picked up by the Texans, and then released again. If Pressley were good at stopping the run, I highly doubt the Saints and Texans would have just cut him.

John Gill is 6'3, 302 pounds. He's mostly known as the guy who got drunk and pissed his pants before being arrested outside a strip club one year ago today. The Colts were kind enough not to cut him, placing the former Northwestern Wildcat on the injury list for 2010.

So, when look at this roster, outside of Mookie, the Colts have no one who can effectively play the NT spot in the Tampa-2. Should Mookie get hurt (and odds are, he will), teams will simply bash the football down the Colts throat by exploiting their weakness at the NT spot.

Lack of depth here is a big reason why idiots like me are SCREAMING that the Colts sign Pat Williams, formerly of the Vikings. Like Booger McFarland, Williams is considered gold standard of Tampa-2 NTs. He's a free agent right now, and at 38-years-old, he's likely looking for reserve role on a championship caliber team that plays Tampa-2. 

Tampa-2 NTs don't grow on trees, and without one the Tampa-2 defense simply does not work. And if the Colts struggle again to stop the run, they simply have no shot at getting to and winning another Super Bowl.

[UPDATE] I neglected to mention Ricardo Mathews, DT for the Colts at 6'3, 295. He is playing a lot of NT in camp. So, maybe he can do it, but I have my doubts.