Signing Dalvin Tomlinson Signals A Shift in Defensive Scheme

Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara (USA TODAY Sports)

In the NFL, strategy changes constantly. What used to be a league dominated by Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 principles has become much more diverse. As offenses have re-designed themselves in response, a new wave is on its way. Best be ahead of that wave than behind it. On Monday, the Vikings signed Dalvin Tomlinson.  That might signal their attempt to join Brandon Staley and Patrick Graham in the split-safety future.

In the last two years, the Vikings have placed Shamar Stephen at 3-technique next to someone else at nose tackle. In 2019, that was Linval Joseph. In 2020, it was supposed to be Michael Pierce, but thanks to a COVID opt-out, it was mostly Jaleel Johnson (and a disaster). Stephen, like Tomlinson, is more suited as a nose tackle (just take his word for it), which reveals some strategic principles.

Tomlinson is a very good run defender, which is the simplest part of the signing. The Vikings’ run defense struggled in 2020, so they got someone to bolster it. But with how highly prioritized Tomlinson was, it may be a head-scratcher. The Vikings have plenty of problems. Why focus on this one?

Putting two nose tackles next to each other on the interior is meant to generate advantages in the passing game. In short, you can defend the run more easily in “double nose,” so you can divert more resources to the pass. For an example of this, look no further than Staley’s Los Angeles Rams. Seth Galina explained it well, but it’s a simple numbers game. Do you want an extra player on the front to stop the run or in the back to stop the pass? The latter seems preferable.

So the next question becomes about how to do that. If you just take a safety out of the box, you’ll create a gap in the run game. The Vikings struggled mightily with this in 2020, often asking Anthony Harris to cover a run gap from 20 yards off the ball. The holy grail for defensive coordinators is a clean solution to this problem. If they can find a way to cover all of the run gaps without spending one of their safeties on it, it would be the secret sauce. Staley, and New York Giants DC Patrick Graham, have had some success with double-nose as a part of normal fronts.

Instead of regular 3-techniques like Grady Jarrett or Jarran Reed, Graham often put two natural noses next to each other. He then softened the rest of the front to better address possible passes and left the run game up to his beefy interior.

Here’s an example of how that works:

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The advantage of this is taking your safeties deep to help counter several popular concepts in today’s NFL. You’ll need two safeties to handle the Kansas City Chiefs. Two-high setups counter common wide zone concepts like three-man floods. If your interior is big and powerful, they’ll have a good time against smaller wide-zone linemen all day. More and more teams are condensing their formations to try and bait defenses into tightening up and covering less ground.

With a trustworthy interior, you can decline the opposing offense’s invitations. Let teams condense their offense and threaten the run, and focus on countering the subversion. Mike Zimmer led the league in light boxes in 2020, so he likely wants to replicate this effect. In 2020, he was missing that trustworthy interior, but the Giants offer a blueprint of how to make it work.

Here’s an example from the same game:

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The analytics support this idea as well. The problem is that the Vikings have been in roughly this framework for two years with spotty results. Their 2020 defense gave up the third-most rushing DVOA and the fifth most per EPA. In 2019 they gave up the 12th least rushing DVOA and 15th least per EPA, closer to average. In both of those seasons, their nose playing 3-technique was Shamar Stephen — a limited player, to say the least.

The other issue is the fit for Tomlinson himself. While he played all over the interior in New York, Patrick Graham typically used him as the true nose in this strategy. Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence more commonly played the 3-tech role, though all three rotated around plenty. Here’s how Tomlinson did in his one year under Graham, per PFF:

Tackle depth and pass-rush win percentage are the two cleanest representations. To clarify, at nose tackle Tomlinson’s tackles averaged a 1.25 yard gain. At 3-tech, his tackles averaged a 2.5 yard gain. Pass rush “wins” are a little more direct than pressures since they can’t be nullified by a quick pass. So in short, Tomlinson was better the further inside he aligned. The Vikings may be getting a worse version of Tomlinson than what Graham used him for, but Patrick Graham didn’t have Michael Pierce.

Perhaps they see this inefficiency as an acceptable additional cost. Like the Vikings have said, this signing is aimed directly at the Vikings’ run defense. If a play is a run, they want to leave it up to Tomlinson, Pierce, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr. The rest of the defense can commit their technique and attention to the pass.

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