NFL scouts can tell good jokes. One of the best ones I’ve heard came last year during the 2012 combine, where a scout came into the building and told a general manager that defensive tackle Mike Daniels of Iowa was too short to play the position because he was a hair over six-foot. Too short to play a position that’s intensely focused on low pad level? Blasphemy!
Daniels is shorter than your typical pro lineman, but that doesn’t mean he’s inferior. He still went in the fourth round last spring to the Packers, who happily plugged him into their rotation and watched him produce. He had two sacks and seven hurries in 14 games as a rookie, and now has four sacks and 10 hurries in 8 games as a sophomore. How’s he proving scouts wrong with all this production? By being short, that’s how.
His lack of height has benefited him because it’s allowed him to play with a natural leverage advantage against taller offensive linemen. He doesn’t have to bend his knees and at his waist as much to play with low pad level and create power; he’s already low and super-charged with power much like a loaded gun. That allows him to focus on getting by with strong technique and surprising athleticism.
The above traits have made him into a quality sub-package defender, primarily responsible for putting pressure on passers roughly 30 snaps per game. It’s an increasingly vital role in the league, especially with a player like Daniels because he’s able to line up all over the formation, including the one and three techniques, and apply pressure.
One of his better sacks this season came in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns. He was head-up on the right guard on 2nd-and-8 in the second quarter. The Browns had 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) in the game, suggesting run personnel, but they were passing the ball. That gave Daniels a chance to do what he does best.
When the play began, he took a quick step to his left and then popped up. Typically a defensive lineman would have too tall of pad level when they pop right up, but not Daniels; he was still functioning at an acceptable height.
He then fired straight ahead at the guard, who performed a short kick-slide hoping to get his hands on Daniels before he could start to charge, and popped him in the chest. He kept his feet moving and his arms extended, creating a distance between himself and the guard as he kept his pads down. He used his momentum to grab a hold of the blocker’s jersey with his right arm and propel himself into the near B-gap, bouncing off of the right tackle to keep his balance before closing in on quarterback Brandon Weeden for the sack.
There was little difference from his sack against the Browns and the one he’d register a week later against the Vikings.
It was third down and the Vikings were stuck in their own territory at the 21-yard line. They needed nine yards to pick up a first down, a difficult task with the subpar Christian Ponder and even more difficult with the electric Daniels charging into the pocket. Daniels was at the three-technique, lined up outside of the left guard’s left shoulder.
When the ball was snapped, Daniels barely raised his pads up, instead coming straight-ahead at the guard. A quick comparison of his pad height to his teammates’ showed how true of a leverage advantage he had on others.
Upon contact, Daniels threw his left arm at the blocker to create separation and then used his right arm to grab the blocker as he crossed over into the near A-gap. He avoided a last second block attempt at his feet by the guard and then closed in on Ponder, sacking him and forcing the Vikings to punt.
In the same game, he applied pressure and had nearly another sack. On 3rd-and-9 in the second quarter, Daniels lined up at the three-technique again, resting all his weight on his slender left arm. As the ball was snapped, he came straight after the left guard like he did in the previously described play. This time, however, he wasn’t going to be instantly passing into the A-gap, rather committing to a bull-rush.
His pad level shined at the point of attack, staying low and keeping his back flat as he chopped his feet and walked through the blocker. He pushed into the pocket, collapsing it from within and forcing Ponder to step up and scramble for four yards.
The sacks reinforced that leverage and technique are what defensive line play is all about, which Daniels is able to do very well. Yet he was knocked for being too short in college. It’s another one of the league’s paradoxes that continues to block teams from acquiring quality players. In this case, a defensive lineman, a position that the league needs more quality pass rushers at. The Packers knew that and didn’t hesitate to select the New Jersey-born defender 132 picks into the draft.
With Daniels pressuring and sacking quarterbacks, now offenses are coming up short.