The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted defensive tackle Akeem Spence in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, even trading up to secure his services. The Buccaneers see him as a tilted nose tackle in their scheme, and head coach Greg Schiano even called him "tailor-made" for what they do defensively. But what does this mean? What is this "tilted nose tackle" thing, anyway? And why are these stocky, undersized nose tackles like Akeem Spence and Roy Miller perfect fits for the position.
For a very good look at the basics of the Bucs' entire defense, check out Duddee's article from a few weeks ago. I'll be referring to some concepts that are explained in that article, so if at any point you feel lost -- refer back to that.
The Steel Curtain
The tilted nose tackle originally started in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and was a key (or even *the* key) to the Steelers' defensive dominance at the time. Pittsburgh ran an undersized 4-3 defense predicated on speed, and Bud Carson and Chuck Noll dominated the NFL for half a decade with that design.
Back in 1974, the Steelers were looking for their first Super Bowl championship, and had a defense anchored by Hall of Famers Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, both of whom were key reasons for the invention of the tilted nose tackle. It's not clear exactly when the Steelers first implemented that technique, but it came late in the 1974 season, or even in the playoffs.
That is a picture from the 1974 AFC Championship game, and highlighted is Mean Joe Greene playing the tilted nose technique. It's a little hard to see, but you should be able to make out that he's not head up on an offensive lineman but in the gap between the center and guard, tilting towards the center. That's the original tilted nose -- but why did they use it?
Ron Jaworski in his book The Games That Changed The Game, co-authored with Greg Cosell and David Plaut asked former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell about how the tilted nose came about.
"This offset alignment was something Joe [Greene] developed himself, out of frustration. [..] He hated to get blocked and wanted to make plays. So it occurred to him that, because he was so quick, he should just line up inside, between the center and the guard, tip his shoulder sideways, and when the ball was snapped, he'd just dart through that hole. He was supposed to line head-up on the guard. He jumped in the gap between the guard and center, tilted his body, and just blew through that gap, and it was devastating. It was a beautiful thing to see."
Note that not once does Russell discuss size, or soaking up blockers, or holding ground. It's an aggressive technique based on movement and quickness. "It's an aggressive defensive play," Chuck Noll told Jaworski. "Because our front four isn't sitting and reading the offense. Instead they're the ones making things happen."
That technique did a number of things for the Steelers' defense, among them forcing double teams. "We found out that with my lining up in it, I could demand a double-team," Greene told Jaworski. "The only way you can command a double is to not let the center overblock you, get in across your face."
We can see this in Buccaneers game footage.
Roy Miller's aligned in a tilted nose technique here, and you can immediately see what it does for the interior offensive line. Miller is going to slam into the center as soon as the ball is snapped, but because of the alignment of his body, he is simply physically getting in the way of the right guard trying to get up to the second level and block a linebacker. The center will also have a difficult time blocking Miller from this technique, because he won't be able to square up on him. Miller can play half the man, as it is called, and the center needs outstanding quickness to get across Miller's face and block him straight-up. The same is true for the guard, who would need to go the other way.
You can also see another fact here, and that's a neat misconception: Roy Miller getting double teamed will do nothing to free up Gerald McCoy. The center and right guard are never going to be involved in blocking McCoy, who is aligned on the outside shoulder of the left guard. Instead, Miller getting a double team only prevents one of those linemen from blocking a linebacker. It doesn't help McCoy.
Chuck Noll, Bud Carson and defensive line coach George Perles eventually designed their front seven defense around that tilted nose technique. By forcing teams to double team him, Greene prevented the guard from getting to undersized Hall of Famer Jack Lambert at linebacker, allowing him to run free and make tackle after tackle. Perles called this defense the Stunt 4-3.
The Stunt 4-3
The Stunt 4-3 defense dominated the NFL for half a decade, and defensive line coach (later defensive coordinator) George Perles subsequently took it with him to Michigan State. A problem arose, though: people thought the Stunt 4-3 could only work with a player of Joe Greene's talents. A disruptive defensive tackle with once-in-a-generation talent.
Perles dispelled that myth when he wrote a chapter for the classic AFCA book Defensive Football Strategies called "Coaching the tilt: the stunting 4-3". Tellingly, Perles opened the chapter talking about Greene.
We run the same type of defense that I ran as defensive coordinator of the great Pittsburgh Steelers team -- the 4-3 stunting defense. It's different, and I don't know many who use it. Some people will tell you that you can't play the stunt 4-3 without a Joe Greene. We seldom have those type of people, but the defense still works.
The key to the Stunt 4-3 is exactly what you think it is: stunts. Offenses found ways to negate the advantages a tilted nose tackle gave defenses. They altered the splits between the center and the guard or ran away from the nose tackle. One key response was a so-called Tom game, moving the defensive tackles to counter the blocking scheme. In-all, Perles' article lists 14 different stunts, each designed to do one thing: create penetration and get in the backfield.
The stunts and movement are both a key part of this defense, and a key reason why this defense requires a quick, undersized nose tackle who can move. The two are intertwined, and the movement and stunts are designed to mess up opposing blocking schemes in various different ways. All of them are designed to mess up blocking schemes, creating disruption for the offense.
Expect the Buccaneers, who run a version of the Stunt 4-3 with their front four, to continue to use stunts to create misdirection. It's a key part of the defense they want to run, and the personnel they have brought in so far fits that defense. That created issues for the defense last year. In part because some of the stunts were poorly designed, but mostly because the Buccaneers failed to execute the stunts properly.
Bringing the tilted nose to Tampa
You may not realize this, but this isn't the first time the Bucs have run a system with a tilted nose tackle. Back in 1996 when Tony Dungy came to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he didn't just bring the Tampa 2 to town. He brought the tilted nose tackle to Tampa, too. Dungy had received his education as a defensive coach in Pittsburgh, after all, and he brought the concepts he learned there with him.
In fact, the defense that may be closest to the Steel Curtain of the 1970s is probably the Bucs' late 1990s Tampa 2 defense. The tilted nose tackle, the Cover 2 shells and the bend but don't break attitude -- those all came straight from Chuck Noll and Bud Carson and evolved out of the Stunt 4-3.
Brad Culpepper played the nose tackle for Dungy's Buccaneers, as you can see in that screenshot from a 1998 game. Culpepper himself fit the mold of Akeem Spence, Roy Miller and Mean Joe Greene: a quick, undersized defensive tackle who's excellent on movement. Culepper was 6'1", 275 lbs and playing next to Warren Sapp proved to be a disruptive player in his own right, putting up three seasons with over six sacks. That's the kind of production the Bucs would love to see out of Akeem Spence, obviously.
When Raheem Morris took over the defense in 2009, the tilted nose disappeared. But Greg Schiano brought it back last season, and he brought the Stunt 4-3 back with it. The result was a defensive line that struggled to make an impact against the pass while simultaneously wreaking havoc against the run. Both of those were a consequence of constant stunts and blitzes, which messed up offensive blocking schemes but lacked the coordination necessary to consistently pressure the passer.
Double teams? Feh.
Take a look at this play.
This is a fairly standard power play, with a pulling guard running away from the tilted nose. The position has no real impact on this play, as the center can seal him off to one side. The key to this play, on the other hand, is Gerald McCoy. He's facing a double team from the (offensive) right guard and right tackle, and he has to hold that double team. If he lets the tackle get up the second level or if he gives too much ground the running back will get a huge hole to run through. Note that that double team is going to happen regardless of what the nose tackle does.
You also see a few other mismatches here. Da'Quan Bowers at left end is being blocked by a tight end. The left tackle is ignoring Daniel Te'o-Nesheim to go block Quincy Black, which will give Te'o-Nesheim a free run at the running back. The most amazing bit of this play is the guy who makes the tackle, though: Lavonte David, completely off the screen to the right, will get to the running back before he gets to the line of scrimmage.
Note that none of this has anything to do with Roy Miller attracting a double team. Teams will scheme ways to double team who they want to double team. Oftentimes, the nose tackle is simply the most logical player to double team because of his alignment.
This is where the titled nose tackle does change things, though. Because the right player playing nose tackle can force a double team. As I noted before, to block a tilted nose squared up you have to get across his face or, like above, you have to run away from him. A quick nose tackle with a good first step who can beat a center one-on-one can wreak havoc on plays that don't double team him purely because of his alignment. It forces the center to move laterally before getting into a block, and if the nose tackle beats the center to that spot, he's going to be in the backfield.
And that's why the Buccaneers want those shorter, stocky but quick players at nose tackle. They want them, because they can force a double team by slanting him into the gap and into the backfield. They want them because those players are good movers, which is what you need when you want to run a lot of stunts. All of that is a core component of the Bucs' defense.
Now, is that better than having a big nose tackle, clogging up the middle of the field? Not necessarily. It's just a different approach to playing defense. But this is the defense the Buccaneers want to run, and the personnel they're bringing in fits that defense.