Nose tackle is not a glamorous position. Never has been. Back in the 1970s, when 3-4 base defenses became the hot NFL trend, interior defensive linemen who were used to hunting in four-on-the-floor fronts had to adjust to gumming things up in the middle so that other defensive linemen could eat. The big man aligning straight over the head of the center, or to the left or right shoulder of the center, was going to get assaulted on every play.
“A lot of the time it’s very difficult,” Hall of Fame nose tackle Curley Culp told Sports Illustrated in 1979, “because as defensive linemen we want to get to the quarterback, but we have to be team-oriented first. Psychologically, it affects you if you let it, because you get off one blocker and there’s another one waiting for you, and it’s like that the whole game. So you just got to try and try and try and try.”
In today’s NFL defenses, when nickel is base, dime is second base, and base is the odd structure out, nose tackles can make gains in hybrid fronts. But it’s still a relatively thankless job. Over the last five seasons, per Sports Info Solutions, the top defensive linemen in pressures from a 0-tech alignment (head over center) are generally good for about 10 pressures per season — what a top edge-rusher might have in one really good game. From 2017 through 2021, Larry Ogunjobi (now of the Pittsburgh Steelers, then of the Cleveland Browns) had the most total pressures in a season from a true 0-tech alignment with 19. More often, if you’re getting 8-12 quarterback disruptions from that slot in a full season, you’re cooking with gas.
So, how do we explain the effect of New York Giants defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, who is demolishing enemy lines from inside as few others could imagine doing?
Dexter Lawrence recorded a team-high 8 pressures in the Giants’ first playoff win since 2011, including 5 aligned as a zero-technique.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 16, 2023
In the Giants’ 31-24 wild-card win over the Minnesota Vikings, Lawrence was unblockable from everywhere, but mostly and specifically when he was on the center.
1 minute of Dexter Lawrence overpowering his opponent. pic.twitter.com/KkLZBlyTWx
— Josh DeLuca (@JoshDeLuca4) January 16, 2023
This has been the case all season long, and it really doesn’t matter who the center is.
jason kelce is a future hall of famer, and dexter lawrence carried him to the pocket like an overstuffed shopping bag pic.twitter.com/qY4atrdzCG
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) January 16, 2023
Perhaps more insane is how Lawrence is able to take those same double teams that flummox other big men, and just throw them aside. This is in part because Lawrence understands leverage and angles so well — he’s less inclined to stay in the middle looking for a wrestling match, and more prone to look for open space on the outside of either blocker. This happened with 12:02 left in the first quarter of the Vikings game. Minnesota center Garrett Bradbury had Lawrence one-on-one to start the play, and then right guard Ed Ingram joined in. Didn’t matter, because Lawrence just sifted his huge frame across Bradbury’s body for the win.
With 2:40 left in the first half, Lawrence had a different combination and concept to beat. Now, it was Bradbury and left guard Ezra Cleveland coming at him from either side. This also didn’t matter, because Lawrence just moved Bradbury out of the gap with a killer rip move, and ignored Cleveland’s efforts on the way to Kirk Cousins’ neighborhood.
There are other instances in which Lawrence will eschew the technique, and use his pure power to dominate a blocker in embarrassing fashion. Cleveland experienced this particular phenomenon with 9:44 left in the third quarter — out of a three-man rush with a late blitzer.
There’s also Lawrence’s ability to beat up running backs in the middle of the defense, which will be Job One against the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. Lawrence has two tackles for loss on running plays against the Vikings; this Dalvin Cook one-yard loss was another case of Lawrence getting double-teamed, and just pinballing off the center for the reduction. Lawrence’s ability to shock blockers with power moves and then explode into the backfield might be unmatched in this league.
It didn’t take Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale long to realize what he had on his hands with Lawrence in his first year coaching Big Blue’s defense. When Lawrence, at 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds, chased then-Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield out of bounds with 36 seconds left in the first quarter of this Week 2 contest, Wink had seen all he needed to see, and knew all he needed to know.
“I told the whole defense on Monday, the play where he chased Baker Mayfield down and got him short of the sticks on that scramble, I don’t know [if] in my career I’ve ever seen a big man like that make a play like that,” Martindale said soon after. “And that’s the kind of effort and leadership that he brings to the defense.”
Lawrence was more circumspect about the play — to him, it’s what’s to be expected.
“One of my goals is to never let a quarterback outrun me. That’s kind of like a competitive little thing I just have in my head all the time. I was just trying to go get him, really.”
Making the impossible look easy? One more reason Dexter Lawrence is bring much-needed visibility to a position that so often goes unnoticed.