In a typically brilliant dissertation on New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork before Super Bowl XLVI, Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland labeled Wilfork a "War Daddy," estimating correctly that Wilfork's value to New England's defense was supreme because he could play just about any gap along the line and dominate. That task is harder than it sounds, and it's an increasingly important attribute as defenses become more multiple every season (hell, every week), and it's the multi-gap/position guys who earn their money in ways more traditional and static linemen will not.
Through his long career as an NFL head coach, Jeff Fisher has always thrived when he had War Daddies to place along his fronts. His most famous to date is Albert Haynesworth, the defensive tackle from Tennessee selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2002 draft. Fisher and his defensive staff played the 6-foot-6, 320-pound (at first) Haynesworth everywhere, from straight-over-center nose tackle to defensive end, often flipping him with base end Kyle Vanden Bosch to frighten and confuse enemy quarterbacks. These tackle/end stunts and flips are commonplace now, but slightly less so in the NFL from 2002 through '08, when Haynesworth excelled with them. His $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins and subsequent shameful exit from the league notwithstanding, Haynesworth was the perfect prototype for the Jeff Fisher defensive tackle -- tall, ridiculously strong, shockingly fast, and able to disrupt from many positions.
Now, the coach has another War Daddy in Michael Brockers, the second-year man from LSU who was the first-ever draft pick of the Fisher-led Rams. He was taken 14th overall after the Rams traded down from the sixth pick with the Cowboys, who moved up to take cornerback Morris Claiborne, Brockers' college teammate. Fisher knew which LSU defender he wanted, and he knew precisely why -- at 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, Brockers perfectly fit a crucial archetype in his new coach's defense.
As LSU head coach Les Miles had noted, Brockers became "a bear to handle inside" from the nose, one-tech, three-tech, and defensive end positions in the Tigers' multiple fronts. After a relatively slow redshirt freshman season in 2010, Brockers went completely bananas in 2011, registering two sacks and 10 tackles for loss on the season, and looking fairly dominant in the SEC championship game against Georgia and the BCS championship against Alabama.
"Michael, he's a big man," Fisher said in April, 2012, on the day Brockers was selected. "At 322 pounds he's explosive, he's very instinctive. For not having played, for not being a four-year starter, he's very, very instinctive. He can play across the face of blocks, he pushes the pocket, he can collapse, he can get on an edge, he plays with effort.
"He's NFL-ready. He's not what you refer to as a project that's going to take a couple years to get on the field and make a play here and there. He's going to play. He's a good football player."
Brockers certainly was that in his rookie year, despite a high ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason finale. He played in 13 games and started 12, racking up 20 solo tackles, four sacks, and a forced fumble.
Coming into the 2013 season, Fisher wanted more -- and so did Brockers, who had slimmed down to 315 pounds, but bulked up to 325 without losing much speed in preparation for his second season. And as it turned out, his 1.5-sack games against the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers were accurate preludes for what was to come.
"Mike did a great job coming back off the high ankle and really finished up strong toward the second half of the season," Fisher said on Jul. 31. "He's worked very hard. He's changed his body and we think he can be a dominating player in the front. ... He's gained some weight, but it's good weight. He's gained a tremendous amount of strength."
You can surely see it on the field. Through the Rams' first six games, Brockers has been one of the NFL's most versatile and productive tackles. His 13 run stops ranks behind only Buffalo's Marcel Dareus, and he has not missed a single tackle in 124 snaps against the run. He already has 3.5 sacks this season, and they've all come in the last three games. His hits and hurries show up as impact plays on tape; they might as well be sacks, because when Brockers gets even close to the quarterbacks, bad things happen for opposing offenses.
Brockers' best NFL game may have come last Sunday in a 38-13 win against the Houston Texans, when he registered two sacks and six solo tackles. Most impressively, all of the tackles were stops -- not one play he ended gained positive yardage.
“This particular game, yes, was his best game to date as a Ram," Fisher said during his Monday press conference. "He was very, very good. Very productive -- run game, pass game, effort, pressure. He was clearly the best tackle on the field yesterday.”
Brockers' two sacks revealed some very impressive attributes. Let's take a look.
The first sack came with 5:52 left in the first quarter. Houston had first-and-10 on its own 12-yard line, and Brockers was lined up as a head-up nose tackle over center Chris Myers in an under front with linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar giving a blitz look from the strong side. This sack was pure power -- Brockers just walked Myers back to quarterback Matt Schaub, disengaged as Schaub tried to run forward, and had a quarterback takedown for a one-yard loss. Brockers' ability to engage with root strength and then cut loose from blockers is a key to his disruption -- where some interior defensive linemen just wrestle, Brockers is always looking to bust through.
On the very next play, Brockers unleashed a hidden skill -- he can drop and cover at the short and intermediate levels. The Texans went four-wide with Andre Johnson in the left slot, and Brockers dropped from his one-tech shade position in a zone blitz as rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree rushed from the defensive left side. Schaub was able to complete a 22-yard play to DeAndre Hopkins on that side, but Brockers' quickness against one of the league's best receivers certainly was intriguing. He disrupted what looked to be a drag route by Johnson and forced Schaub to look elsewhere.
Brockers' second sack of the game came with 1:47 left in the third quarter. The Texans had first-and-10 at the St. Louis 19-yard line, and Brockers lined up as a three-tech tackle, between left guard Wade Smith and left tackle Duane Brown. At the snap, Brockers nailed Smith with two violent hand-strikes, pushing Smith back a good eight yards. He then broke off and took Schaub down for a three-yard loss.
Stopping the run
Tackles who terrorize quarterbacks get the headlines, but the best at the position also know how to stop the run on a consistent basis. Against the Texans, Brockers was the primary defender on four run plays. Three went for no gain, and one resulted in a one-yard loss. Brockers is able to stop power at the line because he doesn't just meet force with force -- he's also learned to move with zone blocking and slide protection, disengage, and times his tackles well, as seen in the play below, which left Houston running back Arian Foster with nowhere to go.
Brockers, who was born in Houston, certainly enjoyed playing in front of his home crowd.
"I think it just happened like that," Brockers said of his sacks against Schaub. "I did my job, I was pushing the pocket and he stepped up and all of a sudden I was right there. It wasn’t anything special. I just think I’m a soldier in this unit. I just did my job.
“When you don’t have nagging injuries, you’re going to be able to play a little bit better. I’m not as tentative this year as I was last year. I’m not afraid of getting cut and stuff like that. Being able to turn the corner on that ankle, and have no bone spur, no high ankle [sprain], it’s been 1,000 percent better.”