by Matt Waldman
War Daddies. Chris Brown introduces this coach’s term of endearment for big, bad defensive tackles that man the middle of a defensive front in his ode to the position at Grantland. Brown, the author of the always excellent Smart Football, explains that when it comes to prioritizing the factors that make a good defensive tackle, size is only a fundamental consideration.
What separates a defensive tackle who earns an invitation to compete for a roster spot from a defensive tackle that has an integral role for an NFL team is fluid athleticism and a good football IQ. It might be important to have the strength to push an offensive lineman into the backfield or the quickness to meet a running back at the exchange point of a handoff, but it’s an entirely different set of skills to balance these feats of awesomeness with restraint. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei flashes this in plays that most don’t see due to tackles-for-loss and sack-focused highlight reels.
Lotulelei has drawn comparisons to players ranging from Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to versatile Lions War Daddy Ndamukong Suh. Lotulelei is best-known for his ability to anticipate snap counts and use his quickness to disrupt plays, but it is that aforementioned restraint that differentiates him from Suh. Whether Lotulelei can become a better defensive lineman than Suh remains to be seen; it will depend on his use and development within a scheme at the pro level. At this stage of my analysis, I don’t believe an NFL team will move Lotulelei around a defensive front like Suh as much as use him as a player that creates plays for his teammates.
Quickness Generating Opportunities for Teammates
Lotulelei’s ability to anticipate a snap count and beat the competition at the line of scrimmage is evident on several plays in this year’s Utah-Utah State matchup. Here’s a second and-1 pitch to the strong side of the offensive formation with 5:30 left in the first quarter. Lotulelei is already on his feet and crossing the line of scrimmage before his teammates can get their hands off the turf.
Not only has Lotulelei beaten his teammates off the line, but every offensive lineman is still in a crouch and the quarterback is still fielding the snap. Although this Utah pitch play is successful, scouting isn’t always about the end result of a play as much as the tools that a player exhibits on a consistent basis. And this is far from the only play where Lotulelei’s quickness jumps off the screen.
Here is another fast get-off from the snap on a second-and-11 play with 6:10 in the half.
The Utes defensive lineman is already engaged with the guard before his teammates are across the line of scrimmage. Lotulelei then flashes the strength and quickness to toss aside the guard and penetrate the middle, forcing the running back to take a wider arc even as the runner is still receiving the quarterback’s pitch.
By the time the running back reaches the numbers of the left flat, Lotulelei has a good angle to force the runner into traffic for a loss.
Here’s a third strong example of Lotulelei’s timing on a first-and-10 with 14:45 in the fourth quarter. Utah State is throwing the ball from a 12-personnel shotgun set with single coverage on the receiver split to the right side of the field. Because the coverage is man to this receiver, it means the game within the game on this play is whether the quarterback can have the time to deliver an accurate throw versus impending pressure.
Utah comes with a double A-gap pressure, which means Lotulelei has to plow the road for his linebackers to have a shot at reaching the pocket in time to disrupt the quarterback’s release.
Lotulelei is already off the line and working across the face of the center towards the right guard before the rest of the offensive and defensive linemen have even engaged an opponent. Even if the right guard’s original assignment weren’t a double-team of Lotulelei, he would need to react to this penetration. If he didn't, he'd risk having to turn back to quarterback Chuckie Keaton and help him off the ground.
Three steps later, Lotulelei has successfully occupied the center and right guard, leaving the left guard to choose between two linebackers rushing the middle. The running back is at the edge watching the safety drop into coverage, which is an indicator for him to release to the flat as an outlet receiver. If the running back read the blitz, he would have worked inside to help his left guard with the two linebackers. Instead, the quarterback has to make an uncomfortable throw with a linebacker bearing down on him.
The result of a play is an overthrown pass outside the boundary. The highlight reel will credit a pressure to the linebacker. The closer look illustrates that Lotulelei’s quickness and strength demands a double team to force the left guard into a no-win situation with two linebackers completing a twist-like path to the quarterback. Lotulelei even commanded triple teams in this game. If he can command double teams in the NFL, he’ll be doing his job.
Football Awareness as a Weapon
Suh demonstrated his lack of football awareness on this well-profiled wham play that opened a lane for 49ers running back Frank Gore to break a 55-yard run to seal the Handshake Bowl for San Francisco. Offenses throw these changeups at defensive tackles every game with the hope of catching them napping. Utah State attempts a screen pass as its changeup on a third-and-7 pass with 11:08 in the first quarter.
After the snap, the running back approaches the line of scrimmage as if he is going to assist as a pass blocker. Lotulelei attacks the gap to the right of the center, and as he comes off the center’s right shoulder he immediately reads the running back turning away from him.
Rather than taking an aggressive path to the quarterback, Lotulelei reads the screen and gives chase to the running back, covering the receiver enough to force the quarterback to throw the ball away. It’s a nice display of burst to cut off the passing lane before the ball was even thrown.
Here’s a play where Lotulelei needed to trust his instincts a little more, because he was on the right track but hesitated to finish the play as he initially read it. This is a pass to the Utah State tight end on a second-and-8 with 10:27 in the half. Utah State uses the misdirection of a possible end around to force the defense to bite in the wrong direction.
As Lotulelei approaches the left tackle, he sees the quarterback with the ball and the tight end flowing behind the tackle to the left flat.
Once the Utes defensive tackle sees this transpire, he does a good job of sliding off the tackle and getting his hands on the tight end while he’s still reading the quarterback.
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However, Lotulelei doesn’t make the full connection to run with the tight end, and he stops just as the quarterback releases the pass. If he continues to run, he has a shot at a one of three big plays: a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass, or an interception. Instead, Lotulelei hesitates enough for the tight end to run past him to the flat and catch the ball unmolested. The result it a four-yard gain when Lotulelei was in position to generate a loss or a turnover.
Quickness, Hands, Awareness, and Hustle
Here’s a third-and-3 pass play with 10:00 in the half where Lotulelei sacks the quarterback and forces a fumble. The Utah State offense begins in a 20-personnel shotgun set with receivers 1x2. Utah counters with a 4-3 look and the outside linebacker at the bottom of the screen indicating a blitz inside the slot receiver. Lotulelei is lined to the outside shoulder of the left guard as the outside linebacker creeps inside the slot receiver.
But just before the snap, Lotulelei and his teammate inside shift one gap over to the inside. This is timed just after the quarterback raises his foot to time the snap. It forces the offensive line to reconsider its assignments to account for the outside linebacker. The center can’t automatically slide his protection to the right side of the formation.
Most importantly, this shift forces the left guard to presume that Lotulelei is taking a path where he’ll try to split the guard and the center. However, Lotulelei’s quickness is good enough that he opts to cross the face of the guard and take an outside rush as the guard reacts to the inside. Although the guard manages to prevent Lotulelei from getting a clean rush to the outside, the defensive tackle has the quickness, momentum, and strength to bull rush the guard into the pocket.
As Lotulelei pushes the guard backwards, his hands are in the optimal position inside the offensive lineman’s pads to rip inside and get on top of the quarterback. I have also seen Lotulelei successfully use a swim move on two occasions in this game. One was to split a double team and force the quarterback to roll to his left and throw the ball away.
On this play, the Utah State quarterback is quick enough to slide inside the pressure, but he underestimate’s Lotulelei’s foot speed and athleticism to adjust to the quarterback’s maneuver.
As the quarterback attempts to break the pocket, Lotulelei loops to the left flat in pursuit and punches the ball loose from the quarterback’s grasp, forcing a fourth down after the offense recovers the fumble.
Lotulelei is a top prospect because of an array of skills that he should continue to refine as he continues his football career as a professional. He has the baseline size and strength to man the middle right away. His quickness and anticipation are good enough to make him dangerous as a rookie. If he demonstrates the same skill to vary the use of his hands, read the play, and adjust to the situation, he’ll become a valuable defensive anchor. One that could be worth one of the top picks in the 2013 NFL Draft.