During the 2013 offseason, there was plenty of uncertainty over the Jets nose tackle position. Not only was Sione Po’uha – who had been hampered by a back injury throughout the 2012 season – released, but the Jets also lost Mike DeVito to the Chiefs. DeVito had provided the team with a backup option at the nose tackle position while also starting at defensive end.
In order to address this, the Jets signed Chargers veteran Antonio Garay, who had been outstanding in 2011 and played pretty well in 2012 despite missing the start of the season. While the Jets were perhaps hoping that 2011 third round pick Kenrick Ellis would step into a starting role, it was actually 2012 undrafted free agent Damon Harrison who stepped up. With Ellis injured in preseason and only able to play in one game, Harrison made the most of the opportunity to start and deservedly hung onto the job all year with Ellis backing him up. An unimpressive Garay was unable to make the final roster.
After the jump, a look at some numbers and analysis for these this pairing as we aim to project where their careers could be headed over the next few seasons.
Harrison, having barely played as a rookie, started all 16 games and was outstanding against the run all season. Ellis was still bothered by a back injury for most of the first half of the season, but did play in every game (although he was limited to just one snap in the win over New England.) Pro Football Focus projected Ellis as the Jets’ “Secret Superstar” last month as he was also impressive against the run:
He ended up making 17 run stops on 114 run snaps on the season, which gave him a Run Stop Percentage of 14.9%. Over the last six years, John Henderson in 2010 was the only defensive or nose tackle with at least 100 snaps against the run and a better Run Stop Percentage. He was also 1.7% better than the second-best defensive tackle in Run Stop Percentage; teammate Damon Harrison.
Harrison also received plenty of recognition from them as he was named in the top 100 players of 2013:
Acting as an early-down run-plugging machine, Harrison couldn’t be moved at the point of attack and had the playmaking ability to shed blocks and make a ridiculous amount of stops around the line of scrimmage. [He] comfortably finished the year our top-ranked defensive tackle against the run [...]
To some extent, the production from Ellis is a by-product of the fact that he often enters the game in run-stopping situations and also from the fact that he doesn’t play as many snaps, keeping him fresh. However, there are plenty of players out there with a similar role and only one of them can lead the league. Ellis also had the highest grade for his position on a per-play basis.
Another argument I’ve seen is that the run stop percentage could be higher than you’d expect for these players as a result of the other strong players on the line. That’s a fair question to ask, but still there are plenty of talented defensive lines around the league. In third place was rookie Star Lotulelei who of course plays on a top-level defense with a great front seven and two excellent defensive ends. Just behind them are players from the Seahawks, Cardinals and Bills – again teams with depth and talent on the line. However, even though it’s true to some extent that they benefited from the abilities of their teammates, they extent to which Ellis and Harrison were able to exploit this and generate stops was better than everyone else.
The question of whether or not certain players are being double-teamed more than others and how this affects the value of their contribution is something that fascinates me and I’m already in the process of compiling data for a multi-part series on that topic. Until that research is completed, we can only speculate about whether the likes of Harrison and/or Ellis would fare if they moved to another team, perhaps with less front seven talent.
On that topic, you can cite both positive and negative examples of players that moved from one team to another and how they fared. Garay, for example, had played well with the Chargers, but couldn’t even make the Jets roster despite the talent around him. Maybe that was just due to his age though. DeVito is an example of someone who left the Jets where he was surrounded by talented players but was still productive with his new team. However, the Chiefs defense was revitalized last year under Bob Sutton, so there was plenty of talent around him. At this point you risk getting into a chicken-egg argument about whether a player makes the players around him better or vice versa.
One final thought on this could be that the strategy employed by the Jets enables the Jets’ nose tackles to make more plays than usual. During preseason there was concern over the fact that the Jets might struggle to set the edge, but in the end that wasn’t a major issue as both Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples held their own in this regard. However, funneling runs back to the middle was clearly a priority for the team, as I noted in preseason that they were employing safeties on the outside and even sometimes getting one of their inside backers to run-blitz outside the tackles to ensure outside contain. In fact, that might be part of the reasoning of employing a bigger player like Coples on the outside.
The Dynamic Duo
Clearly Harrison and Ellis provide the Jets with an excellent one-two punch. If a fresh Ellis can spell Harrison and produce at the same kind of rate, that’s an ideal situation for the Jets. Rich Cimini had a good stat that suggests Ellis even provided the run defense with a boost when entering the game:
In a backup role, he became a force against the run. With the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Ellis in the game, the Jets allowed only 2.59 yards per rush, according to NFL stats. Without him, they yielded 3.40 — a team-high 0.81 differential.
This begs the question; Should they be trying to get Ellis on the field more? While I would certainly not advocate for a reduction in the snap count for Harrison, it might be good to reduce the reps for Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson played more snaps than any other 3-4 DE in the league and Richardson was not far behind in 7th.
So, how did Harrison and Ellis fare when they did play together? This will give us some idea as to whether they could run some more 4-3 packages with them paired together inside (possibly with the weakside end standing up).
Opposing teams ran 48 times with the pair of them in the game, gaining just 103 yards. That’s 2.1 yards per carry, which compares well with the numbers above. However, context is important here.
First of all, that includes seven kneel-downs for the loss of eight yards. Excluding those plays from the numbers gives us 41 carries, 111 yards and a 2.7 yards per carry average. The reason I’ve given you both is that it’s not clear from Cimini’s statistic above whether kneel-downs are excluded from the data. I believe they are, because the NFL’s official site lists the Jets average per carry as 3.35 which would account for a slight drop due to kneel-downs. For the record, there were four other kneel-downs with Harrison but not Ellis on the field.
The next thing to consider is the situation. Many of these plays were short yardage plays, some of which were at the goal line. This can artificially bring down a yards per carry average because a short gain is still a successful play. Having said that, the Jets only surrendered two touchdowns with Ellis and Harrison both in the game and their goal line defense was very efficient all year. They also had some other big third or fourth and short stops with them both in there.
The other situation in which they were employed together was mainly when the other team was ahead and the Jets were expecting them to run the ball to keep the clock moving. Again, that perhaps reduces the degree of difficulty for stopping the run. However, there were two breakdowns in the Tennessee and Carolina games in this situation, leading to game clinching 20 and 18 yard runs, without which the averages per carry would have been much lower.
On the basis of these numbers, it seems like a package with both of them inside could be effective on first and second down, although they might need to look back at those two breakdowns to clear one or two things up. One concern with this lineup might be that a team could opt to attack it through the air and maybe even go into a no-huddle and spread the defense out. Harrison and Ellis have both impressed me with their ability to drive a pass-protector back, but I think a package with both of them in there would be less disruptive in terms of getting into the backfield.
One further concern, although this may just be a statistical anomaly, is that the Jets were 0-7 when the pair of them were in the game for more than one running play. They were 3-1 in four games where they just had one goal line play together each and 5-0 where they did not play together against the run. As noted, some of this work came in situations where they were losing. However, that doesn’t completely explain it. 24 of the 41 carries with them both in were in the fourth quarter, only half of which were inside the last three minutes.
What can we learn from 2007?
As noted in earlier columns, I’ve recently been charting games from the 2007 season and some of the things I observed have unexpectedly provided some different perspectives on issues relevant to the current team. That’s also the case for the nose tackle position, where we can make an interesting contrast between the two teams.
The first thing to note is that Eric Mangini’s team (with Sutton as defensive coordinator) would employ a base defense far more often that the current Jets team does. Starter DeWayne Robertson actually played in subpackages too, but his backup, Po’uha, was solely employed in base. This meant he was lined up over the center over 90% of the time and mostly two-gapping. By contrast, Ellis and Harrison each played less than 25% of their snaps as a pure nose tackle. There would also have been some 4-3 reps at defensive tackle where they lined up over the center as a 3-4 nose tackle would, but at the same time there were plenty of times where they’d line up in the A or B gap. If they were in the game together, then obviously this would necessitate one or both of them to not be opposite the center.
I can recall arguing with people on TJB during the 2007 season who would insist that Robertson was “constantly on rollerskates”. While obviously miscast in a two-gapping role, I felt he held his ground well and mixed in enough gap-shooting plays to make an overall positive contribution. Having rewatched these games, I stand by that and the PFF grades for the season agree, as he received a positive grade for run defense. His true value was in the passing game though, where he did a consistently solid job of being disruptive in the pocket and putting up good pass rush numbers with a few stand-out performances.
It’s more interesting to look at Po’uha’s role though. I can freely admit that I got this one wrong. My sense on Po’uha was that he had struggled in 2007 and only really started to turn the corner in 2008. However, looking back at the games in 2007, he was really starting to emerge as a solid contributor and providing excellent production against the run. especially over the second half. Po’uha was basically playing the exact same role that Ellis played last season, usually playing 10-20 snaps a game (although he did exceed this three times) with the second unit.
Po’uha’s run stop percentage for the year, with the data having been compiled by PFF since their comments on Ellis higher up was a staggering 21.2%. In the PFF era, 16.1% was the previous best for anyone with over 100 run snaps in a season.
This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First of all, perhaps Mangini deserves more of the credit for initially developing Po’uha that Ryan typically gets. Secondly, its pours cold water on the suggestion that nose tackles who put up big numbers in that category are only doing so because of the players around them. That Jets team had no pro bowlers (apart from kick returner Justin Miller) and they struggled defensively most of the year, finishing up 4-12. In fact, when Po’uha entered the game, he usually rotated in with other backups, including the rookie DeVito. Finally, since Po’uha led the league in this category in a backup role, maybe it gives us an insight into the development path Ellis might be able to follow.
Po’uha remained a backup in 2008 as the Jets signed PFF’s top DT from 2007, Kris Jenkins, with a three-down nose tackle being an obvious need with Robertson leaving. When Jenkins was injured in 2009 and 2010, Po’uha started in his place and did an outstanding job. He also played well in 2011 before his injury plagued 2012 season. Po’uha was 28 in 2007 while Ellis will turn 27 this December.
Po’uha did see his production increase down the stretch, especially in the penultimate game against the Titans, where he had seven stops in 31 snaps. Part of the reason for that might have been that he was often in the game when Shaun Ellis was moved to outside linebacker (which I referenced in last week’s article on Coples). As I noted above, perhaps part of the reason certain nose tackles are productive is because runs are being funneled back to the inside and that’s something that putting a bigger player like Shaun Ellis on the outside could lead to.
At the end of the season, (Kenrick) Ellis will be an unrestricted free agent, whereas Harrison will be a restricted free agent. The Jets will need to weigh up cost, potential compensation and value to the team when deciding how to approach this.
Looking at Po’uha’s situation, he signed a three-year extension after that 2007 season while entering the final year of his four-year rookie deal. In that respect, he’s basically in the same position contractually as Ellis. Po’uha’s extension was tacked onto the end of his rookie deal, basically giving him a four year contract for $7m. If the Jets could re-sign Ellis to a deal in that ballpark, that would be ideal. However, we’ve got seven years of inflation and the fact that Ellis is slightly younger to factor in, so that might be on the low side. If Ellis wants to earn a decent-sized contract, he may need to show he can be a full-time starter first and if Harrison remains on the team, his best chance of getting that opportunity could be to let his contract expire and then seek a short term deal elsewhere. However, there’s always a risk that you can get that bigger deal much like Po’uha did in 2012, but then end up not seeing most of the money.
It will be interesting to see what the Jets decide to do with Harrison and whether there is a market for him if he receives a high restricted free agency tender. I’m sure the Jets would like to lock up one or both of their nose tackles, but they perhaps still have to prove that they can repeat or even emulate last year’s performance first.
The Jets are in a nice position with two nose tackles who – regardless of who deserves the most credit – were both extremely productive against the run last year. However, the clock is ticking.
It’s clear there are several factors that go into nose tackle performance and numbers alone (as usual) do not tell the whole story. As the Jets look ahead to the point where they’ll need to decide what to do with these two players, it isn’t going to be easy to weigh up all these factors and make an informed decision.
If Harrison and Ellis both give another outstanding performance in 2014 to make that task even harder for the Jets, I guess that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to this team.