The work of nose tackles usually goes unnoticed, but it’s hard to ignore Damon Harrison. The second-year defender is playing off the charts as the gut of the New York Jets’ defense and is one of the best players I’ve seen this year on film.
He’s strong as an ox, and athletic and quick like the basketball point guard he once was. Also learned from the hardwood are aggressiveness in attacking a lane, vision (ball location) and hand quickness, all of which have become a factor in disturbing the peace of the pocket.
It’s not easy playing nose tackle in Rex Ryan’s defense, because it requires two-gap responsibility. Ryan has his nose tackles read a center’s helmet to determine which gap to defend prior to shuffling their feet and rotating their hips to work into that gap. It’s a tricky proposition for Harrison, who at 24 years old is only in his second-year and still learning the position.
One of his finest performances of the young season came in a Week 6 drubbing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was by far the most impressive player on the field that Sunday, repeatedly stuffing the run from zero technique. His best play came inside the three-minute mark of the first quarter.
It was 1st-and-10. The Steelers had the ball on their own 32-yard line and were in a heavy formation. One running back — Le’Veon Bell — and three tight ends created 13 personnel. That brought out the Jets’ stiffest front, one anchored by Harrison in the middle. He was going to have to read the helmet (“hat”) of center Fernando Velasco to determine what kind of run it would be. Because the Steelers are having an identity crisis offensively, it could be anywhere from a draw to a trap to a zone stretch.
At the snap, Velasco took a step to his right and turned his shoulders with the intention of down blocking. This was a sign of a zone stretch play, which Harrison immediately noticed. He rotated his hips and squared his shoulders in front of the center while keeping an eye in the backfield. Simultaneously, he penetrated.
As a rule of thumb, two-gapping nose tackles are generally viewed as “readers,” not “penetrators” on defense, but that goes out the window against the zone running game. There’s still reading, but there’s also penetrating. It’s the best way to slow down the lateral running game.
Harrison locked up with the center and bent his knees, building power from his thick thighs to drive Velasco back into the pocket and into the sight of Bell. This ruined the entire play because the three blocking tight ends formed a clear alley for Bell to run through. If not for Harrison’s penetration, it could have been a long gain for the first-year running back. It was merely a yard instead.
Six plays later, Harrison made another big play. He did what every defensive line coach dreams of from their nose tackle: he located the ball and rerouted the running back.
He was lined up at the one technique outside of Velasco’s left shoulder to begin the play. Then the center snapped the ball and took a lateral step to Harrison’s right, indicating another zone stretch. Harrison worked over to that side, squared up and then anchored down with leverage and power once Bell got the handoff.
Bell came straight downhill and looked to cutback, but his mind was quickly changed when Harrison looked back into the hole. He took it away with his eyes while Harrison also took away the front-side running lane with his body positioning. This was all about positioning, leverage, and ball location — three vital traits. Bell bounced back to the front-side and ran into a wall of defenders for no gain.
Two quarters later, he made yet another big play that showed off the talent he’d brought from the hardwood.
It was first-and-goal, and the Steelers were looking to punch another touchdown to go up 23-6. They were lined up in a two tight end set with Bell in the backfield. They were surely running to the left where the tight ends were and downhill because of little running room. That meant they were coming straight at Harrison in the zero technique — a bad idea.
It was all over quickly. At the snap, Harrison raised up, slapped Velasco aside with his left arm and brought his right arm over before driving his right shoulder into Bell for a two-yard loss. He executed the arm-over or “swim” technique with ease.
Harrison has the potential to be a star. He’s quickly becoming one because of his dominant physical traits. Still at a young age and inexperienced, he’s learning techniques on the job, but there’s no doubt he has the physical talent. He’s nimble on his feet, and has vision and quickness, which he’s learned from playing point guard on the hardwood.
If he keeps developing, he’ll be ballin’ with the league’s best.