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Breaking Barriers: How the Defensive Tackle Position Has Evolved in Pass-Heavy League | Brianna's Blitz 

An overview of how the defensive tackle position has shifted in correlation with modern NFL trends. Plus, Grady Jarrett, Aaron Donald and Ed Oliver shattering stereotypes to pave the way for a new generation of budding stars, including Calijah Kancey


Over the last decade, the NFL has evolved and subsequently, there has been a transformation at the defensive tackle position. In a modern pass-centric league, defensive coordinators are now building game plans around interior pass rushers that can wreak havoc at the point of attack. With the expansion of horizontal-stretch run games with end-arounds, jet sweeps and motion, defenses have responded by placing a premium on faster, more explosive athletes to combat the shift.

Throughout the 2022 slate, five defensive tackles eclipsed double-digit sacks and many stalwarts at the position were rewarded in the offseason with blockbuster contract extensions. The interior penetrators are now monopolizing headlines, as some of the most celebrated and decorated players in the league. For context, four defensive tackles were selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft: Jalen Carter (No. 9), Calijah Kancey (No. 19), Mazi Smith (No. 26) and Bryan Bresee (No. 29). The three precursory drafts produced three first-round defensive tackles combined.

In the current wave of change in the NFL, defensive tackles are in vogue. Inherently, smaller players at the position – Aaron Donald, Grady Jarrett and Ed Oliver – are gradually de-stigmatizing the size narrative surrounding the position. Those aforementioned players have shifted the required height/weight parameters because not only have they found success on the gridiron, but they are the ambassadors for the position. The trio has helped reverse the stereotype that has plagued the NFL for years and as new generations ascend, hope abounds.

"I think we are on the precipice of a possible change at the defensive tackle position because the game has changed," said Cesar Rivera, the Bucs' northeast region college scout. "Offenses are more spread out than ever, the pass game is at a premium, run attacks are stretching laterally and the game as a whole is being played in space more than at any point. That brings more value to guys who are better athletes, quicker and more explosive movers who can run and play with range against lateral rush attacks, in addition to rushing the passer. I think a lot of times, while some of these guys that lack the brute strength that the more massive guys have, they become superior in other aspects and use what they do have to win. There is more than one way to do any job. Being shorter helps win the leverage battle.

"Most football enthusiasts will tell you it is hard to win any rep when you do not have leverage, so that plays to the shorter guys. I think certain traits and abilities are often congruent with certain body types, adding to my belief that these types of guys [smaller frame] are rare – they may be more valued because of the way the game of football is now, but it does not make them any easier to find. Good football players are good football players, and the best ones know how to use their tools to their advantage."

Marginal size.

Inconsistent anchor.

Overpowered in the run game.

Gets controlled by bigger blockers.

Not a two-gap player.

Those are the weaknesses that became invariably linked to Aaron Donald – one of the most dominant defenders in league history - during the 2014 pre-draft process.

Donald has established himself as the standard of excellence at the position. He consistently commands double and triple teams as a representation of his reign of dominance at the three-technique position in the NFL. Run schemes and pass protections are designed to account for him week-to-week. From his jump chop-club to long-arm to swim, Donald disrupts with an arsenal of pass rush maneuvers. Donald is a Pro Bowler in each of his nine NFL seasons and has also garnered first-team All-Pro honors seven times and has been the recipient of three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He is an unquestioned first-ballot Hall of Famer and has become a catalyst for upcoming 'undersized' defensive tackles, along with Jarrett and Oliver.

Donald: 6'1", 284 pounds

Jarrett: 6'1", 291 pounds

Oliver: 6'1", 287 pounds

Jarrett, the Falcons' game-wrecker, is a menace in the trenches. Last season, he accumulated 6.0 sacks, 61 tackles and 12 for loss, spearheading the charge in Atlanta. Jarrett is able to quickly bypass guards to knife through gaps to harass the backfield. His 17.5% pass rush win rate since 2017 ranks third among interior defenders. Jarrett consistently knocks offensive linemen out of position with an imposing speed-to-power conversion.

Oliver, who received a four-year, $68 million contract extension with the Bills in June, has been a contributor in the team's rise in the AFC. He has 14.5 sacks with 42 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and 151 tackles through his first four seasons. His contributions led the Bills to pick up his fifth-year option ahead of last season, and he flashed enough once again to be rewarded with the second deal of his NFL career -- one that places him just within the top-15 highest-paid interior DLs on a per-year basis, per Over the Cap.

All paved the way for a budding star in Calijah Kancey.

"There were some guys [Donald, Jarrett, Oliver] that I thought were the same size as me, or played the game style, and that is who I watched," stated Kancey. "Just how they did things at the next level, how they handled the big offensive linemen and the nuances to how they played to see if there were things that I could take to my game."

A three-year starter at Pittsburgh, Kancey made his mark in 2021, accumulating 13.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one forced fumble and a pass defensed. He continued to emerge in 2022, solidifying his first-round draft status. Kancey led all FBS defensive tackles in tackles for loss (14.5), with 46.8 percent of his tackles coming in enemy territory, and became the program's first unanimous All-American since Aaron Donald. He also received ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for his contributions in the trenches. Kancey had the most pressures for an interior defensive lineman, with 13 more than second place out of Power 5 schools. He became the focal point of pressure packages in Pitt's defense. Kancey was thrust into a variety of different roles in Pat Narduzzi's 4-3 base scheme to maximize his ability to wreak havoc, lining up everywhere from nose tackle to the five-technique. He anchored the unit with a relentless motor and explosion off the snap. On Saturdays, centers could hardly get their head up following the snap before Kancey was there imposing his will.

Due to his small frame by NFL defensive linemen standards (6-foot-1, 281 pounds), Kancey had to work twice as hard on technique at the point of attack in preparing for double teams. Because of Kancey's routine penetration against single blocks, it was a matter of when he would draw attention on traps/combo blocks. Furthermore, he spent countless hours working to master his craft.

On April 27, the Buccaneers selected Kancey with the 19th overall pick. In Todd Bowles' attack-styled system, Kancey has brought another dimension to the team's interior pass rush. Against the Lions in Week Six, Kancey's first game back since aggravating his calf injury in Week One, the talented rookie made his presence felt. Kancey generated 6 pressures on 28 pass rushes in his second career game, tied for the most pressures by a rookie defensive tackle in a game over the last five seasons, per Next gen Stats. He averaged a 2.37-second time to pressure and has recorded the 2nd-highest pressure rate (18.9%) among defensive tackles this season (min. 30 pass rushes).

One of Kancey's most memorable plays came in the second quarter. He displayed his quickness off the snap and quickly shot past Penei Sewell. He bent and turned to get small, then worked upfield to tackle Craig Reynolds. Then in the fourth quarter, Kancey posted a sack on Jared Goff. Kancey looped inside, dropped his back and kept his eyes on the quarterback. That third-down play forced a Lions' punt and built momentum for the home team. His speed-to-power prowess was on full display.

The Bucs will face the Falcons in Week Seven at Raymond James Stadium and Kancey will be on the same field as one of the players he religiously watched while at Pittsburgh: Grady Jarrett.

"He was a defensive lineman that had a lot of quickness and twitchiness, and he was a guy that paved the way for players that are our size that are not as big for the position," described Kancey. "I enjoy watching his style of play. I think it is cool to watch and a lot of people think you have to be 6'7" and 340 pounds to be in a position to win, but you do not have to be as big now. There are guys – Warren Sapp, Aaron Donald, Grady Jarrett – that are examples of having success."

Emboldened by the players who have shattered the preconceived barriers surrounding the defensive tackle position, Kancey will take the field on Sunday with pride, ready to forge his own legacy on the gridiron.

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