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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It’s perhaps the most muscular play in football and it barely earns you a nod from your coach.
Defensive tackles wouldn’t have it any other way. They know when they’ve held their ground against a double team. They really know when they’ve won a few inches, valuable inches, pushing their weight against the weight of two offensive linemen. They know it’s their job and they know it’s not going to rain helmet stickers.
“You’d hear a ‘good job’ here and there,” former Iowa defensive tackle Matt Kroul said. “But, no, (former Iowa defensive line coach Ron) coach Aiken didn’t easily throw around the compliments.”
Defensive tackles are the topic because the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) had a classic “defensive tackle” game at Minnesota last week. Iowa headlocked the Gophers and held them to six season lows on offense, including 102 rushing yards, which was 126 yards below their season average.
It was a sign of life for a rush defense that has had head coach Kirk Ferentz’s attention since it allowed 158 yards to Miami (Ohio) in week 1.
“Our guys played better than we have in the previous games and that’s encouraging,” Ferentz said.
Iowa’s trio of defensive tackles, Jaleel Johnson, Nathan Bazata and Faith Ekakitie, were in the middle of everything. They combined for two sacks, two quarterback hits and eight QB hurries. They traded punches with the inside of Minnesota’s O-line and ended up pinning the Gophers.
You know who notices double teams and appreciates everything they do? Linebackers.
“The better the D-line plays, the easier it is for us,” outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “Just seeing stuff and not having O-linemen in our face, being able to fly to the football, if those guys get off blocks and make a play or if they eat up a double team, it helps us out and those guys were great.”
Should there be a stat for eating up a double team?
“There should be,” Niemann said with a laugh. “They should get credit for part of our tackles, honestly.”
Middle linebacker Josey Jewell benefits directly from diffused double teams.
“It’s noticeable,” he said. “If you want to stop the run, the big guys up front have to stop it. They’re a major role in that, keeping O-linemen off the linebackers and safeties. They were great last week and they helped us win that game big time.”
The double team question bounced back to Ferentz.
“If you’re going to play inside, you have to be able to do that,” he said. “It’s not always fun ... You have to be dedicated. You have to be willing to do the dirty work.”
Ferentz was asked to name some of the better double-team eliminators he’s had in his 18 seasons as Iowa’s head coach. Kroul and Mitch King were at the top of the list. The two were four-year starters at D-tackle for Iowa from 2005-08.
Kroul holds the Iowa record with 50 consecutive starts and is No. 41 in career tackles with 234. King is No. 48 with 226 career tackles.
What’s the first thing you need to walk into a job as an Iowa defensive tackle, play that 2-gap mindset (where you make the O-lineman go where he doesn’t want to go) and muscle through double teams for three hours every Saturday in the fall.
“You have to have a screw loose, that’s for sure,” King said.
During their careers, King and Kroul played against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State twice and Wisconsin all four years. This was when Wisconsin was fully engaged in the use of massive O-linemen and when Michigan State was taking Ferentz’s blueprint for building a team from the inside out.
“Those perennial large O-lines, those teams averaged 6-4 and 6-5 and 320 pounds,” Kroul said. “You put those two together and that’s one large mass. With those teams, you always knew they were going to come downhill. They would run power, power, power. You would expect it at least two out of every four plays.”
King remembered the 2008 matchup at Michigan State. This was the first of the eternal 16-13 games that Ferentz and MSU coach Mark Dantonio have locked into. The teams combined for 3.3 yards per carry on 73 rushes. Inches mattered. Winning an inch either way on a double team mattered.
“The first game that popped into my head when double teams came up was at Michigan State,” King said. “That’s all they ran, downhill, power O, downhill, power O. That 3 technique (the outside defensive tackle) saw double teams all day long. It was pretty intense.”
We’ve established at this point that this is not a football job for the faint of heart. Beyond the sticker shock of 650 pounds of blocker coming at you, what’s the focus? How do you win this fight?
For King, it was winning that first step and beating the guard to the point of attack.
“If I’m the 3 technique, I’d always try to beat that guard’s outside shoulder to the point of attack,” King said. “When the tackle squares up, he’s not in front of me, he’s on my hip. He’s off balance a little bit. You’ve got to beat your guy to the point of attack. It is standing your ground in a sense, but you’ve actually got to gain ground in double teams.”
Kroul focused all of his attention on beating the guard. Even if he knew the tackle was coming down to help, he kept his attention on the guard.
“You have to act like that guy isn’t there,” Kroul said. “You’re just focused on that one guy. If you knock him back, you’re going to split that double anyway.”
It was just easier that way. Or at least it was an easier way to conceptualize the most muscular play in football, which really is impossible if you think about it. And, so yes, of course, you don’t think about it.
“There are very few humans in the world who, no matter how much leverage or how big you are, if you go against two quality O-linemen who are 6-5 and 315 pounds, there are very few humans who can take that on,” Kroul said. “What coach Aiken always talked about was playing that one shoulder of that one guy. If you beat him and destroy him, the double team isn’t going to work anyway.”
The Hawkeyes destroyed a lot of shoulders up in Minneapolis last week. That’s one week. Iowa will have to destroy a ton of shoulders Saturday at Purdue (3-2, 1-1). And then it’s a parade of elephantine offensive lines from here on out with, of course, Wisconsin and Michigan still ahead.
Every Hawkeye asked about the defensive tackles’ performance last week threw in the thought, “It all starts up front.” It’s a cliche, but it’s also the spine of how successful defenses at Iowa have worked.
“It really showed up on film last week,” said defensive end Anthony Nelson, who was one of four Iowa D-linemen to earn positive grades from Pro Football Focus against Minnesota. “We saw them get a push, take up blockers and get off and make plays. It was impressive.”
Maybe the defensive tackles don’t get anything for beating double teams. There’s certainly no stat for it. How would you even score a success against a double team?
“A gold star?” King said with a laugh.
Kroul votes that it gets marked down as a tackle. At that rate, he said he might’ve been close to his friend and the linebacker who lined up behind him, Pat Angerer.
“Then, maybe I would’ve been close to someone like Angerer,” Kroul said. “He had, what, 500 or 600 tackles maybe? Divide that with tackles and add double teams up and see where we’re at.”