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17 Nov 2004

Every Play Counts: Marcus Stroud and Grady Jackson

By Michael David Smith

When Sports Illustrated surveyed 16 personnel directors, general managers, and scouts last week for its midseason All-Pro Team, only two players received votes from three-fourths of the respondents: Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens and Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.

More ink has been spilled on Owens than any other NFL player this year, and I won't be adding to that here (partially because this is a website, and we don't write with ink, we write with pixels). But what about Stroud? He's hardly a household name. Are the scouts and general managers correct to place him among the game's elite? I watched him on every play of the Jaguars' overtime win against the Lions to find out.

In a nutshell, I wasn't overly impressed. Jacksonville's run defense is quite good, but I'm not convinced that Stroud is the reason. A popular line of reasoning in football commentary these days says that when a middle linebacker makes a lot of tackles, it's because the two defensive tackles in front of him absorb the offensive line and prevent him from getting blocked. That might happen on some teams, but it doesn't happen in Jacksonville. When middle linebacker Mike Peterson makes a tackle (and he had four on Sunday), it is because of his own athleticism.

Early in the game, the Lions were effective giving the ball to running back Kevin Jones up the middle. Surprisingly, the Lions rarely doubled Stroud. More often, guard Damien Woody (having by far his best game as a Lion after signing a big free-agent contract this year) blocked Stroud himself. Most of the time Woody had little trouble moving Stroud out of the point of attack.

On first-and-15 on the Lions' second possession, Jones ran up the middle for six yards. On the next play, he ran up the middle again for another six yards. On both plays Stroud was single-blocked, and on both plays it was the guys behind him -- strong safety Donovin Darius the first time, Peterson the second -- who had to come up and make the tackle.

Stroud was doubled on a few running plays, but the Lions rarely needed two linemen to control him completely. More often, Woody and center Dominic Raiola would initially double Stroud, but then one would slip off Stroud and move to Peterson.

I walked away from the game thinking Stroud was overrated against the run, but I also think he's a bit underrated against the pass. Stroud occasionally lined up as an end in a 3-4 alignment, and on passing downs he frequently runs a stunt with the defensive end, rushing to the outside. And it's on the outside rushes where he was most effective against Detroit. He didn't have any sacks (he has three so far this season) but he frequently frustrated Joey Harrington by getting into his throwing lanes. Stroud knocked down one pass and several times appeared to make Harrington adjust his throwing motion. Stroud is built more like a pass-rusher than a run-stuffer (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) and he's very effective at getting his arms up just as a quarterback is looking to throw.

On the whole, I think Stroud is a solid player, but I beg to differ with the 12 front-office types who voted him to the All-Pro team. On the Jaguars' defense he's slightly more effective than his linemate, John Henderson, but not as important to the defense as Peterson and Darius.

That led me to wonder who is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. Football Outsiders readers have known for a year that the Packers' Grady Jackson deserves some consideration, and I watched him go against one of the best centers in the game, the Vikings' Matt Birk, to try to get an idea of how he does it.

I think the answer lies not in Jackson's girth (he's listed at 6-foot-2, 340 pounds and probably weighs a bit more than that), but in his quickness off the ball. Take the third-and-two run by Onterrio Smith at the Packers' 3-yard line with 9:33 left in the second quarter. The NFL.com play-by-play lists this as a run to the left, but that is not what happened. Smith took the handoff and tried to go up the middle, but by the time he got there, Jackson had already blown up the play, shoving Birk backward and forcing Smith to run to the left. Birk is a quick center, and he would be able to maneuver just about any other defensive tackle out of the play. But Jackson leveled Birk the moment he snapped the ball.

You might have heard that Jackson's presence allows Nick Barnett to move around and make tackles, but that's not it at all. Barnett has averaged better than seven tackles a game with Jackson out of the lineup, and only four a game with Jackson in the lineup. Because Jackson is such a disruptive presence, the Packers are able to align Barnett farther from the line of scrimmage, put only seven men in the box instead of eight, and give everyone else more freedom to move around the field. They know the middle is secure.

I think Jackson would be a better player if he lost a little weight. Toward the end of the Vikings game he looked tired, and he had to be spelled by James Lee, and the Vikings' entire offensive line looked more cohesive when Jackson was out of the game. If, by January, Jackson is healthy enough and fit enough to play a full 60 minutes, pity the centers and guards who have to face him.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 17 Nov 2004