HEADS UP, divas. The Ralph Kramdens of the NFL are catching up to you on the salary list. Last spring the six highest-paid wide receivers in free agency signed contracts worth an average of $6.3 million a year. The average for the top six defensive tackles who signed new deals: $6.9 million.
The players who handle the ball or try to take it away—passers, runners, receivers, pass rushers and pass defenders—have traditionally cashed the big checks. But just as Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry focused on stopping the run on first down, repeatedly creating second-and-long situations for opposing offenses, more and more teams today are seeking proficient run stuffers, paying them a premium and emphasizing run defense in game planning.
"It's about time we're getting respect," says Marcus Stroud, the former Jaguars defensive tackle whom the Bills dealt for last March, then restructured a deal that will pay Stroud $16.5 million over the next three years. "I look around the league and finally see the proper recognition, like we're the ones who really make a defense go."
Like former Panthers nosetackle Kris Jenkins's effect on his new team, the Jets, Stroud made an immediate impact in Buffalo. (Each was acquired in a trade for third- and fifth-round draft picks in April.) "There was a sound that first day of camp," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says. "A sound like pow that resonated across the field. It's something we hadn't heard around here in two years. On the first play [of full contact] in camp, it was a collision between Marcus and Brad Butler, the right guard, and the back running into the line, and the whole camp heard it. It was like woooooo all over the field. Everybody stopped and looked." Buffalo's run defense has improved by .6 of a yard per carry from last year; the Jets' improvement is a whopping 1.1 yards per rush.
A lithe tackle who can knife through the line and get to the quarterback has great value, but four defensive bosses, coordinators of 3--4 and 4--3 defenses alike, told SI that the more coveted player was the tackle who can occupy two blockers, or at least force a second blocker to chip him, so that a trailing linebacker has a chance to run free to the ball. That's why such unheralded defensive linemen as Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys, Jovan Haye of the Bucs and Fred Robbins of the Giants are among the most valuable players on their teams. "If you gave me my choice to start a defense," says coordinator Brian Stewart of the Cowboys, "I'd take a pass-rushing outside linebacker first. Then give me a nosetackle thick enough to hold up two blockers so my linebacker can come in unmolested. I tell our team every week, 'Our game plan is to go in and annihilate the running game.' It starts with that one guy."
Titans coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose defense has given up the fewest points this season, says, "I'll take the great tackle [first]. The great shutdown corner, the great pass rusher—you can run away from them. You get a dominating player in the interior of the defense, you've got to account for him on every play."
Of the 15 teams that have allowed less than four yards per rushing attempt this season, only two (the 49ers and the Seahawks) have losing records. Coordinators say that creating second-and-long is especially important against spread offenses because of the ease with which those attacks can get four or five yards on quick-hitting curls or in-cuts. On second-and-four an offense would need one short completion; on second-and-eight it would likely need two. As Stewart says, "You give up a six- or eight-yard run on first down and you're almost giving the offense a free down."
Robbins, the Giants' 317-pound defensive tackle, is typical of his breed. He's powerlifter-strong in the lower body, built to leverage two offensive linemen trying to push him out of the pileup at the line of scrimmage. He's quicker than he appears; blobs can't play this position, because shedding blocks is essential. And he largely goes unnoticed by even his home fans, who wear the jerseys of pass-rushing ends: UMENYIORA 72 and TUCK 91.
Recently Robbins sat in a darkened meeting room watching digital video and describing his job. "I fight with the big uglies every week," he says. "I rassle two big guys for three, three-and-a-half hours, and hopefully I take two of them out of the play." With the video clicker in hand he selected a play from Week 1 against Washington. With a minute left in the first half and the Redskins at the New York 11, right tackle Stephon Heyer and right guard Randy Thomas got down in what Robbins recognized as run stances. "You can tell by the pressure they put on the hand they've got on the ground," he says. "If they're leaning forward and they're heavy on the hand, you know it's a run. And I can see the tackle looking at me. I know he's coming for me." Linebacker Antonio Pierce jumped in and out of the gap between guard and center, so Robbins knew Thomas was likely to chip him and then turn to Pierce. "They want to double me, but they don't know what Antonio's going to do, so I'll have a chance to get through the gap before they're both on me. But I have to be conscious of a cut block from the tackle; if he cuts me, I can't make any impact because I'll be on the ground." Running back Clinton Portis was aligned in a formation that, from watching tape that week, Robbins figured was a run behind left tackle. At the snap Thomas punched out at Robbins but then tended to the gap through which Pierce might move. Heyer got a glancing block on Robbins, but Robbins was too quick and knifed through the guard-tackle gap. Moving laterally toward the spot where he figured he'd intersect with Portis, Robbins met the Washington back and took him down. One-yard loss.
On a pass play against St. Louis in Week 2, Robbins appeared engulfed at the snap by guard Richie Incognito and tackle Alex Barron. But Robbins moved his legs like pistons and powered toward the gap off Barron's right shoulder. When he made it there, Robbins took two quick steps around Barron and smashed into quarterback Marc Bulger, sacking him for a seven-yard loss.
Though Robbins has 5 1/2 sacks, and 16 1/2 since the start of the 2006 season, that's just gravy to him. When the Giants smothered the Seahawks 44--6 in Week 5, holding them to 187 total yards, Robbins had two tackles, no sacks, no quarterback pressures, no passes deflected. Nevertheless, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo praised him and his run-stopping partner, tackle Barry Cofield, for the job they did in preventing Seattle from getting traction on offense. "Success in the middle leads to success for the defensive ends," Robbins says, "and in our defense, that's fine with me."
DOUBLE MINT Coordinators love guys like Robbins who can blow up a play at the line.
KELLEN MICAH/ICON SMI
INSTANT IMPACT Stroud's addition to the Buffalo line helped lift the Bills from 31st in the NFL in defense in 2007 to 10th in '08.