Nose tackle is an unforgiving position in football. It doesn't get the stats or praise that it deserves, despite being one of the more important positions on a defense. Luckily for the Indianapolis Colts, they found one of the top one-technique players in the NFL in Grover Stewart.
Stewart came from humble beginnings in the NFL, being selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Albany State. It has been a long journey for the defensive tackle, but in year four he final had his breakout season. In 2020, he had 44 tackles, 31 stops, six tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits, and a sack. He ranked eighth among all defensive tackles with 27 run stops and had the sixth highest run stop percentage among interior defensive linemen (according to Pro Football Focus).
While last year was phenomenal, it was something that was easy to foresee. In today's article, I will look back on Stewart's emergence as a player and why he was so dominant in 2020.
The Signs Were There
For anyone who was surprised at how good Stewart was in 2020, I would simply say go back and watch 2019. Stewart became the starting one-tech defensive tackle for the Colts in week five of the 2019 season. After that week, opposing running backs rushed the ball 228 times for just 901 yards, for an average of 3.9 yards per carry.
The key to taking that next step and finally breaking out in 2020 came down to two factors; the acquisition of DeForest Buckner and Stewart dropping weight to around 310 pounds. Buckner was an obvious impact as he was disruptive alongside Stewart all season long.
When it came to weight though, Stewart came into the league at 330 pounds. Over the course of his career, he has been able to bring that number down while maintaining his power. This has allowed him to transition from space-eater nose tackle to a mobile yet strong interior force. The players in the locker room saw this transformation happening and linebacker Matthew Adams even told me about it in an interview prior to last season.
Power in the Run Game
Stewart is an animal in the run game. Whether it is shooting gaps, filling double teams, or just eating space, he does his job on each and every play. With the addition of Buckner to the interior, he was able to face more and more single blocks than ever in 2020. This did not bode well for opposing offenses.
There are so many positives to point out in these clips. The main takeaway is his pad level. He has had issues in the past of playing too high and relying too much on his natural strength to win in the trenches. In these clips and throughout 2020, he did a great job of getting lower out of his stance, and the result was better control of his blocker at the point of attack.
The other aspect to notice is his footwork. Notice how his feet are constantly churning through contact on each one of these plays (notably when he beats the double team in the Detroit Lions clip). Power is one thing but his improved pad level and footwork took his game to another level.
Stewart has always been an elite level athlete but dropping weight did wonders for his game. Playing at a more natural weight around 310 pounds allowed him to use his quickness and explosion to beat offensive linemen. This created a more varied approach to his game.
Some of these clips below are just silly for a player of his size. His balance when beating cut blocks, his explosion to beat his man on outside zone runs, and his ability to bend in the backfield are all top notch for his size.
Another big takeaway is looking at who he is doing this against. He isn't beating on just bad teams in these clips. These are against some of the top rushing teams in the league (Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens) and against some of the top interior offensive linemen (Frank Ragnow and J.C Tretter).
There was an incredible article written by Doug Farrar of The Touchdown Wire recently that broke down the league's best pass rushers from each gap on the defensive line. Surprisingly, Stewart came in as the best pass rusher from the one-technique position. Here is what Farrar had to say about it:
Stewart was a force in this role in 2020, racking up 17 total pressures, six more than anybody else in the league (Harrison Phillips of the Bills ranked second with 11 pressures).
This actually shocked me and caused me to go back and re-watch all of Stewart's pass rushing reps from a season ago. While I think his overall number is skewed by the amount of times he rushed (207 times which was over 100 more rushes than the next highest player), he did flash some good moments in this department.
He is far from a finished product as a pass rusher but if he can build on the flashes in 2020 and finish more plays in the backfield, watch out.
Stewart is an outstanding player that finally hit his potential in 2020. He was rewarded with a pretty hefty contract for his play too, as the Colts signed him to a three year, 30.75 million dollar extension halfway through the season. It may be a large contract for a one-tech, but Stewart is well worth it.
Stewart is one of the key cogs in the Colts' defensive machine and he is only getting better. If he can take the next step as a pass rusher, the Colts will have the best interior defensive line duo in the league (they may already have that now). I honestly expect yet another positive step for Stewart in 2021.
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.