The All-22: Deconstructing offenses, the Dontari Poe way
Every week in the All-22, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke take you inside the playbook, examining key schemes, series and trends from the previous week of NFL action.
"There aren’t many guys at that size who move that well in the world."
That was Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's response to a question about the 6-foot-3, 346-pound Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe on Tuesday. Kelly's Eagles will have to deal with the second-year force when they face the Chiefs on Thursday night, and after a rookie season in which he led all Chiefs defensive linemen in snaps with 743, Poe appears ready to blast out of the laboratory as a disruptive interior force. In 2012, Poe proved to be an excellent run-stopper, but put up no sacks, three quarterback hits and four QB hurries last season. Through two games this season? He's already amassed 3.5 sacks, and has become a focal point for opposing offensive lines.
“I think – I’ve said this before – he’s a very gifted player," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said on Monday, one day after Poe's two-sack performance against the Dallas Cowboys. "He has unusual quickness, unusual conditioning, unusual change of direction for a big man. I think he’s done a great job to become a really great technician, to become football-savvy out there – knowing formations, knowing alerts – all those things help you become a better player and help you play at a high tempo or a high speed. He’s done a great job."
When I reviewed Poe's college tape, the Memphis product impressed me by making an impact from multiple gaps and positions. And though the Chiefs move him around a bit, his primary role now is as a head-over-center (0-tech) nose tackle. That's usually a job without a lot of glamour and stat splashes -- most of the time, such players are double- and triple-teamed, and their primary responsibility is to soak up those blockers so that other defenders can get through to disrupt. Poe is more than capable of that -- I am very impressed with his root strength at the point of attack -- but he's also refined his technique, and it really showed up against the Cowboys.
The first of Poe's two sacks, which came with 6:25 left in the first quarter, took the Cowboys from second-and-9 at the Kansas City 28 to third-and-16 at the 35. Poe was going up against Dallas rookie center Travis Frederick, and Frederick got an Ivy League education on the value of a defensive lineman who understands the combination of agility and power.
At the snap, Poe took a step to his right, and Frederick followed him. Then, Poe shot quickly to his left, leaving Frederick off balance. From there, it was easy enough for Poe to use his estimable upper-body strength to rip Frederick out of the way, with a clear path to Tony Romo. Dallas learned from this play and started doubling Poe more often, but on his second sack, they also learned that the Chiefs have some other impressive pass-rushers, and accounting for them all isn't an easy thing to do.
The Cowboys had first-and-goal at the Kansas City 5-yard line with 9:20 left in the third quarter, and linebacker Tamba Hali (91, red circle) was preparing to blitz from the second level. At the snap, Hali slow-rolled his blitz over the head of left guard Ronald Leary, which caused Frederick to move to Hali's area and pick that up. Problem was, right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and right tackle Doug Free were doubling left defensive end Tyson Jackson, leaving running back DeMarco Murray as the only available Cowboys player to deal with Poe. That would have been enough of a mismatch, but Murray compounded the problem by running upfield to provide a hot route that Romo didn't see. Not that it was Murray's fault -- any scheme that has him blocking Poe would be ill-advised at best -- but this proved that Poe must be accounted for at all times.
“He physically got beat on the one [sack],” Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said of Frederick, “and the other one there was a mis-communication between him and the guard. Ultimately, he’s responsible for making sure that communication is right. One was more physical, the other was more communication and a mental error.”
For those concerned about sample-size issues, roll back to the Chiefs' season-opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Poe had 1.5 sacks in that game, and the most impressive play I saw was the solo sack of Blaine Gabbert. This wasn't about scheme; it was simply Poe walking center Brad Meester back into his own quarterback in a systematic dance of domination.
"I just think that he has to realize that the reason he’s improved is that he came back in great condition," Sutton said. "People busted his tail from the time we left OTAs to the time he came back for camp. He made that decision, that ‘Hey, I want to try to be something special this year, and I want to be this kind of player,’ and that’s the start of it. It isn’t so much what we do, it’s how we do it. To me, that’s the culture, that’s how we do business here. He’s done a great job and he has to continue to do that if he wants to continue to have a chance to maximize his ability. That’s what we’re always looking for, whatever your level is, we’re just trying to get you to play at that level. We just want you to be the best you can possibly be, and that’s on us as coaches and as a player as well.”
Poe was also a nose tackle in Kansas City's base 3-4 defense last season, but Sutton gives him and his teammates more opportunities to make plays with variable fronts and blitz packages. Sutton learned that in 13 years with the Jets, especially in the last few years under Rex Ryan, and he's making it pay off in his new home.
“We moved Poe out," Sutton said after the Jacksonville game. "I mean anybody that in the process of thinking about selecting knew him pretty well. We studied him pretty hard when he was at Memphis and I was with the Jets. He was a guy that we thought a lot of. There are not many guys his size that have the athletic ability. The other thing that he has that’s really something is he’s a great-conditioned player for a big man. He played almost every play, two really super-effort plays. He jumped up and knocked a pass down. I thought he did a great job and we all understood what kind of talent this guy had. To his credit, he’s worked really hard to become a technician in there, he’s taking coaching really. We’re really pleased with where he is and now we just have to – like the rest of our defense – we have to keep trying to get better each day.”
The play Sutton's talking about happened halfway through the first quarter, when Poe, lined up over left guard Will Rackley, read the play, backed off, and jumped up to deflect Gabbert's pass. That's one holdover from last year, when Poe tipped three passes. In every other way, he's showed drastic improvement over his rookie season, and the Chiefs are clearly benefiting.
Will the Eagles test the Chiefs' defense with their high-volume attack? Perhaps, but Poe isn't your typical big man who gets winded in the fourth quarter. For a man his size, he holds up very well against any fatigue concerns. He was one of six Chiefs defenders, and the only defensive lineman, to play all 64 of Kansas City's defensive snaps against Dallas.
One thing's for sure -- Chip Kelly knows he's in for a test.
"I think they've done a good job of matching their personnel to what they can do," he said of Kansas City's defense on Tuesday. "An outstanding nose guard [Poe] who is really playing very, very well right now. Two really good outside linebackers in [Tamba] Hali and [Justin] Houston. They were a 3‑4 team last year, and I think they stayed with that. But they've got some personnel on that side, Eric Berry, Brandon Flowers, Poe, Houston, Hali, [Tyson] Jackson, there is some talent on the defensive side of the ball. And [Bob Sutton] is a really, really good defensive coach. He's putting those guys in positions to make plays." None more so than the big man in the middle.