Vikings

Linval Joseph Demands Your Attention as the League's Premier Nose Tackle

Something caught my eye when compiling statistics for my weekly advanced statistics review: Linval Joseph was incredibly productive.

In a vacuum, it’s not uniquely surprising that one of the best players on the team was the team’s third-leading tackler, but it’s unusual in particular when that player is a defensive tackle—and specifically a nose tackle.

I’m not the biggest fan of tackle statistics, but it does at least provide us with more information for defensive tackles than it does for linebackers or safeties. Defensive tackles who take down ballcarriers are almost always consistently making good plays. There are instances—like with Hall of Fame DT John Randle—where tackle totals hide fundamental gap discipline issues, but for a basic box score statistic, tackles can be somewhat useful for defensive linemen.

A lot of very good nose tackles don’t rack up statistics (basic, or advanced) and that’s something important to keep in mind, too.

This is because nose tackles in 4-3 schemes like the Vikings’ primarily either occupy the gap between the center and a guard (called the “A” gap) and draw double teams. Their primary job is to anchor the defense and make sure that the offense cannot move off of it’s double team and have other blockers move to the second level and block the linebackers. When the Vikings had the Williams Wall, that was Pat Williams’ job—a run-plugger who was impossible to move.

That stands in stark contrast to what three-techniques, sometimes called under-tackles, do. They sit between the guard and the offensive tackle, and don’t have to worry about double-teams because the other blocker—the offensive tackle—has to deal with the defensive end. Those defensive tackles are the ones that grab more sacks, more tackles and generate more pressure—Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Kevin Williams.

There are more complex differences than this and we’ll see defensive ends in 3-4 systems alternate between three-technique and edge rusher roles, like Jurell Casey did against the Vikings, when shooting gaps. When they try to defend the run, some will play two gaps by controlling the blocker ahead of him, like Leonard Williams does.

All of this is to give context to the fact that Joseph’s early statistical showing is incredible for a nose tackle and after his fantastic game against Green Bay, it was worth noting—as well as his non-statistical impact plays.

As a precursor, it should be noted that Linval Joseph was the most statistically impressive nose tackle last year, too. This doesn’t mean he was the best nose tackle of 2015, but it begins to make a strong case. Dontari Poe, for example, is a statistically weak nose tackle but one of the best performers in the game.

In this case, the statistics we’re referring to are quarterback pressures and “stops,” which are tackles where the offense has not accomplished its goal—typically 40 percent of the required yardage to convert a new set of downs on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

This is a measure popularized by Football Outsiders, as a means by which we can measure a defensive player’s true impact—not just their tackle totals.

The total number of pressures and stops can be useful; a nose tackle who gets two pressures on his four snaps in the NFL might be pretty good, but he’s most likely not that good because he hasn’t beaten out his teammates for more playing time.

Still, for the most part, looking at pressure rates and stop rates is better. A nose tackle who plays 1000 snaps, like Dontari Poe, is not necessarily better than one who plays 500 or 800 snaps—that is more likely a result of scheme and design than only talent.

So after looking at all nose tackles and giving them credit for pressures per pass-rushing snap and stops per run snap, you can get an idea of which nose tackles have a direct impact on the plays that they’re on the field.

Through two games, only 30 nose tackles have accumulated over 40 snaps—injuries to players like Earl Mitchell will exclude some teams entirely.

I ranked those players in pressure rate and stop rate. Some nose tackles are excellent at getting pressure, and Brandon Mebane for the Chargers has taken advantage of the time he’s spent around the league as a three-technique, getting an astounding (and unsustainable) pressure rate of 20 percent.

The average for nose tackles last year was 6.4 percent and the highest rate was Eddie Goldman’s 10.3 percent. Expect Mebane’s pressure rate to drop soon.

Hybrid nose/three-techniques like Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei perform well, but not as well as you’d expect them to perform given how much time both spend as one-gap pass-rushers, a statistically friendlier situation.

As a pressure producer, Joseph’s two weeks have found himself producing pressure on 6.4 percent of pass-rushing snaps—the average among nose tackles last year, but higher than most nose tackles have done this year. That’s lower than his 2015 rate of 9.4 percent (second among all nose tackles), but he still ranks ninth of the 30 eligible nose tackles in pressure rate.

His stop rate, however, is incredible.

He ranks second in stop rate this year to Roy Miller from Jacksonville, earning the primary tackle on 17.6 percent of running plays. He’s the only player ranked in the top ten in stop rate to also earn a sack, and he doesn’t just have one sack to his name—he has two.

Only three nose tackles ranked in the top ten of both categories, and between them Joseph had the highest average rank. Naturally, this meant he had the highest average rank among all nose tackles. Linval’s lead this year among nose tackles is tremendous.

The below table looks at 3-4 and 4-3 nose tackles, players that play a significant number of snaps either in the A-gap or head-up over the center. It includes the rate at which they’ve created defensive stops in the run game and pressure in the passing game.

The “Total Rank” column is the order of the best summed ranks of the two categories. Danny Shelton ranking third below means that his rank in pass rush pressure (13th) plus his rank in stop rate (3rd), which adds up to 13, is the third-lowest sum totaled rank.

Nose Tackle Team Pressure Rate Stop Rate Total Rank
Linval Joseph MIN 6.40% 17.60% 1
Vince Wilfork HOU 9.40% 11.50% 2
Danny Shelton CLE 5.70% 17.30% 3
Kawann Short CAR 6.40% 11.80% 3
Roy Miller JAX 4.80% 18.50% 5
Dontari Poe KAN 8.00% 10.00% 5
Jordan Phillips MIA 9.80% 8.50% 7
Domata Peko CIN 5.00% 11.80% 8
Clinton McDonald TAM 6.30% 10.00% 9
Letroy Guion GNB 0.00% 16.00% 10
Steve McLendon NYJ 7.00% 7.70% 10
Damon Harrison NYG 0.00% 15.80% 12
Maliek Collins DAL 7.70% 6.70% 12
Brandon Williams BAL 10.00% 4.70% 12
Alan Branch NWE 0.00% 14.30% 15
Brandon Mebane SDG 19.40% 0.00% 15
Michael Brockers LAR 6.90% 5.70% 17
Justin Ellis OAK 0.00% 11.50% 18
Jarran Reed SEA 2.90% 10.50% 18
Khyri Thornton DET 3.80% 9.50% 18
Mike Purcell SFO 2.90% 9.10% 21
Corey Peters ARZ 3.20% 8.00% 22
Ziggy Hood WAS 6.30% 0.00% 23
Al Woods TEN 0.00% 8.30% 24
Corbin Bryant BUF 3.10% 7.00% 24
Star Lotulelei CAR 5.00% 0.00% 26
David Parry IND 0.00% 4.80% 27
John Jenkins NOR 0.00% 4.80% 27
Bennie Logan PHI 0.00% 4.30% 29
A’Shawn Robinson DET 0.00% 0.00% 30

 

Pro Football Focus also has a statistic called Tackles per Opportunity. Opportunities are any play without an incomplete pass—so sacks, completed screens, runs, etc. are all fair game. I compared Linval Joseph to all other defensive linemen who played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps to see how he stacked up. That meant players like three-technique Aaron Donald, 4-3 defensive end Cliff Avril, 3-4 defensive end J.J. Watt and so on.

I created a score based on how much better they were than the average defensive lineman in tackles per opportunity and pressure rate to come up with a composite score where 100 is average and every 15 points above or below average is one standard deviation.

That means a scores of 85 to 115 encompass 68 percent of players, and scores of 60 to 130 encompass 95 percent of players. A player with a score of 115 is outperforming 84 percent of his peers.

You can find the full table of scores here, but long story short—Linval ranks fourth of 166 defensive linemen with a score of 133.9. It’s incredibly unusual for a nose tackle to be productive when compared to tackle-magnets at three-technique or defensive ends, but here he is, swallowing up pressures and tackles better than any other NT in the NFL.

The next-best nose tackle in this production metric is Danny Shelton, who ranks 11th among his peers, followed by Brandon Mebane at 33rd and Michael Brockers at 44th.

Joseph isn’t just productive for a nose tackle, he’s productive for a defensive lineman. And that makes him wildly productive for his position.

That doesn’t even account for the fact that his talented teammates should hurt his statistics more than help them. While it’s true that talented playmakers on defense can influence ballcarriers into bad lanes and increase Joseph’s tackle total, more often than not it’s the other way around.

Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr are all extremely capable and finding the ball and making a beeline for it. Joseph takes up a significant share of the available tackles in that system, and that just adds to the feats of his incredible play.

But nose tackles do so much more than create pressure and tackle ballcarriers. Good nose tackles can accomplish something in the box score, but great nose tackles will change the fundamental blocking math of the offense.

There are nine blockers (everyone minus the ballcarrier and the quarterback) to 11 defenders on a running play, unless a read-option creates a phantom blocker with the quarterback. With two defensive players unaccounted for, the running back on a well-blocked play will get at least four yards and will glimpse the open field.

But a great nose tackle change the math by taking up two blockers and giving an advantage to the defense to find the runner before he gets the yards he wanted. Beyond that, great nose tackles not only soak up the attention of two blockers, but can squeeze those blockers into running lanes and essentially wall off the running back into other defenders.

It’s a very difficult job, and not many nose tackles can do it consistently. They are essentially tasked with the responsibility of creating chaos while moving very little.

Linval can do it consistently. Below, he creates pressure through double teams by reading the play-action correctly, tossing aside the center and swimming over the guard. He causes the incompletion.

linval-pressure

Below, he flushes James Starks into Danielle Hunter by filling the first gap read of the zone scheme (running backs read this from the A gap to the B gap then out or cutback). Linval not only maintains his gap with authority, he even crosses the center’s face just in case Hunter couldn’t clean it up.

linval-flushes-starks

And here, he plays two gaps. It’s important to mention that Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Tom Johnson play larger roles in forcing Eddie Lacy off of his intended gap. But Josephs ability to consistently ragdoll the player in front of him makes this a dead play for the Packers in either instance.

linval-joseph-either-side

Not only does Joseph stuff the statbox as the most statistically dominant nose tackle in 2015 and so far through 2016, he plays all of those roles that nose tackles are expected to play extremely well.

He anchors against the double team and is difficult to move when teams run power. Occupying blockers, he frees up Kendricks and Barrs to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as the offense struggles to peel off of the block on Joseph to move to the second level.

Joseph runs with the play against zone and has the agility to turn back and the speed to pursue running backs on the cutback. He can two-gap on plays where his only assignment is to play one gap. He blows up third-and-short when he’s not creating third-and-long.

Linval Joseph, by standing stock-still, is an agent of chaos. Joseph, when he gets to run free, is an agent of destruction.

He’s on his way to being the best nose tackle in the NFL.

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