Today, we’ll be looking at the next generation of elite run-stopping nose tackles in green and white because, after the jump, you’ll see a couple of clips that illustrate the similarities between Damon Harrison and his former teammate Sione Po'uha.
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As regular readers of BGA will recall, I was a big fan of Sione Po'uha, talking up his performances long before he'd established himself as an elite run stuffing nose tackle. As I've been witnessing the incredible rise of Damon Harrison from undrafted bit-player to on the brink of becoming a household name, Harrison has constantly been making plays that reminded me of Po'uha. The bye week affords us an ideal opportunity to make a direct comparison.
While you should never judge nose tackles on their statistical productivity alone, it's worth noting that Harrison is on course for 57 tackles this season, right in line with the numbers Po'uha put up at his peak. (He had 59 in 15 games in 2010 and 58 in 2011). A higher proportion of Po'uha's tackles were solo tackles, but at the same time, he did average slightly more reps than Harrison in those seasons. As a better indicator of his overall impact, Harrison is currently grading out as the number six overall NT/DT on PFF (and #1 against the run), which nicely emulates Po'uha's 2011 season where he was number one overall and number two against the run.
Harrison obviously looks up to Po'uha, as shown by the tweet above, but - as we'll see in some of the gifs below - he's also learned many of the same techniques. This has enabled him to replace Po'uha in this defense and he's doing a stellar job so far. Po'uha suffered through an injury plagued 2012 season, but Harrison has remained healthy so far. He does have some knee issues in his past, but right now seems to be holding up well to his workload, perhaps helped by the fact he reportedly lost 15-20 pounds since last season.
Let's get a look at these two going to work...
Keeping the play in front
Po'uha and Harrison employ different techniques here, but the principle is the same. Clogging up one lane, but maintaining sufficient leverage to fill the cutback lane. Po'uha achieves this by staying light and nimble on his feet and preventing the offensive lineman from being able to seal him in either direction by refusing to commit - classic two-gapping, which has been required of him since before Rex Ryan even arrived. Harrison, on the other hand, drives his man into the runner's path and disengages from the block to fill the cutback lane. If he loses the leverage battle or comes up against a more powerful guard, then he's at risk of being knocked off balance because his feet cross over, whereas Po'uha's do not. However, he gets sufficient momentum and such a powerful surge that there's no danger of this.
Fighting off the initial block
A nose tackle will often lose the initial battle at the point of attack and get blocked off the line. However, both Po'uha and Harrison have an inate ability to keep fighting and continue to leverage their way into the path of the ball carrier, so that they can disengage at the last minute and limit the gain to a short one. I've noticed that Harrison does this a lot, re-anchoring himself after initially being blocked off the line and then getting back into the play to bottle up runs for 3-5 yards.
Downhill pursuit is always somewhere that the elite nose tackles will stand out, whereas their work inside in terms of bottling up or redirecting runs often goes unheralded. Po'uha possesses terrific quickness for a man his size, but I honestly think that Harrison might be faster. Note how Po'uha fights off a block and avoid a blatant attempt at an illegal chop block by Logan Mankins. Once he frees himself, he explodes to the ball carrier. Harrison explodes to the ball carrier in similar fashion, but he gets freed up by Muhammad Wilkerson basically setting a pick for him by gatecrashing his way into a double team.
Penetrate and "dish"
One of the staples of any top nose tackle is the ability to penetrate, shed the block and then dish out some punishment on the ball carrier. Each of them do that to perfection here. Watch the offensive lineman's feet to get a sense of how they are driven back off their spot.
Harrison is exceeding all expectations this year and getting some good recognition as a result. While sites like PFF are starting to get national recognition and that fuels his reputation, the Jets' number one ranked run defense is the major reason behind that. However, let's not undersell the Po'uha-anchored 2010 defense, which was 3rd best against the run with no Muhammad Wilkerson. Both run defenses were ranked number one by PFF and Football Outsiders ranks the current run defense as number one in the NFL and the 2010 run defense as number two.
It should not go unmentioned that Kenrick Ellis, while he isn't getting as many reps as Harrison, has arguably been just as good as him on a per-snap basis. The pair of them are under contract next year at a combined cost of under $1.4m, so the future of the Jets nose tackle position seems very secure in the short term.
Here are some previous gif specials: