Two weeks into the 2012 football year, Giants clashed. It was midway through the first quarter, and the New England Patriots faced a long second down against the Arizona Cardinals after gaining only a yard on a previous run play.
Left tackle Nate Solder, a 6’8″ cornerstone from the previous draft class, lined up in a two-point stance. Inside his right shoulder at the three-technique was Calais Campbell, equally 6’8″ and from the 2008 draft class. Campbell was in a four-point stance with his left foot staggered and butt high in the air. Although he was in the B-gap over the left guard, it wouldn’t be a one-on-one matchup with him.
When the play began, the Patriots faked a handoff and threw a screen to Solder’s side. Reading the run, Campbell immediately attacked the vacated gap next to Solder, where the left guard originally was before pulling to the back-side. He went after the ball standing tall, with his legs straight and pads shooting to the sky, making him an easy target for Solder. Solder stood up from the line of scrimmage and knocked Campbell down, taking advantage of the defensive end’s poor pad level and leverage.
Solder 1: Campbell 0
At the time of the meeting, Solder was two years removed from the University of Colorado, where he once played tight end at 6’7 and 245 pounds. He’d been a below-average player, catching only three passes for 50 yards in 12 games during his freshman year. Then during his redshirt sophomore year, he slowly filled his frame out, adding 30 pounds in a move to left tackle that he decided on after being given the option to play either position.
“I had a choice, and I’ve always told people it was my choice. And it was,” Solder said to The Denver Post. “Basically they told me I could be just an all-right tight end or I could be a great tackle. I chose to be a tackle.”
He found success despite being extremely callow, battling then-Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi for the Outland Trophy (Solder lost). Despite being a finalist for the award, he’d struggled with leverage and power, easily being overpowered at times while other times simply standing too tall and allowing rushes to run right by him. He relied on his rare athleticism and foot quickness to mirror rushers in college, instead.
But in the NFL, where he’d get drafted to by the Patriots as the No. 17 overall in 2011, things weren’t going to be that easy. There had been plenty of tackles that came into the league over the years that were extremely athletic and flexible only to fail because they struggled to play with leverage. They were easily pushed around and beaten on by more intelligent defenders.
If Solder was going to make it, he’d have to how to play with proper technique and leverage.
A budding star at the University of Miami, Calais Campbell was a five-technique defensive end that had a high school basketball background but was also very raw, which was typical under then-head coach Randy Shannon.
Like Solder, he learned how to get by with his athleticism as well as his length. He relied on both to rack up 19.5 sacks in his career, but only 1.5 in the team’s final seven games of his junior year, which hurt his once high draft stock.
He was considered to be a first round draft choice going into the season. Campbell had all the measurements personnel men look for, so all he needed to do was keep up his production and keep developing. He struggled to do both, but still declared for the NFL draft.
After bombing the NFL Scouting Combine, it looked like a bad move. His seven reps of 225 pounds were embarrassingly low even if a low number was expected from gigantic athletes. Not to mention, he managed a 5.0 40-yard dash, whatever significance that had in scouts’ eyes. All that pushed him out of the first round and to the Cardinals at pick No. 50.
When he came to Arizona, the coaching staff slid him inside to the three-technique position, which he had no familiarity with.
“Everything inside happens quicker,” Campbell said to Grantland about the interior position. “The more you go inside, the faster everything happens. When I was playing a more true outside D-end, speed-rushing, you have all day to make your moves.”
An oft overlooked part of playing the interior is how much it improves a player’s hand quickness and technique. The majority of defensive ends coming out of college struggle with this, so it’s no surprise that Campbell did as well. But when he moved over offensive guards, he had to have quicker hands to win at the point of contact and gain leverage, which in turn also helped him put his outstanding athleticism to use.
One of the greatest paradoxes in scouting circles is the unhealthy, nonsensical desire to roster the tallest player possible. It’s as if teams are searching for Yao Ming’s to block shots, ignoring the fact that football players can’t just post up and make plays. They search relentlessly for these building-sized humans and then ask them to play small. Why not just draft a short player?
Nevertheless, the Patriots and Cardinals sought Nate Solder and Calias Campbell. They wanted these super tall players because not only were they tall, they were also uncommonly athletic for their size. They could bend their knees to bring down their pads and match up with the smaller players. They could slide their feet around the line of scrimmage and beat the opposition with quickness. They could play football.
Solder and Campbell are among of the best at their positions, and a big reason why is that athleticism. In Solder’s case, it can be very difficult having to react instantly and bend his knees to deal with a speed-rush and then a split-second later, face an interior move that really tests his flexibility.
Two examples of the former came earlier during the 2013 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9. In that game, he faced pass-rushers that were nearly half a foot smaller than him in Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.
Worilds, hailing from Virginia Tech, is 6’2″ but struggled to take the Patriots left tackle one-on-one. In the first quarter of that game, Solder was lined up in a three-point stance as if he was run blocking, while Worilds stood in his frequent two-point stance in the Steelers’ reduced 3-4 defense.
Worild’s had the upper-hand in this matchup because he was already standing and could figure out which direction he wanted to rush. At the snap, he led off his left foot and came straight at Solder like he was bull-rushing him.
Simultaneously, Solder fired off the line with a quick kick-slide and bent his knees. When he bent them, his shoulders became lower than Worilds’, prompting him to also extend his arms out to make first contact. That immediately gave him the advantage because he had leverage and was in control of the defender, who was too slow locking out his arms, consequently giving up his chest to Solder.
There was little difference against Jones, who is a 6’3″ first-round rookie out of Georgia.
Like Worilds, Jones was lined up in a two-point stance in the Steelers’ defense, which, this time, was only a two-man front. It didn’t change his responsibility of facing the three-point stance Solder.
When the play began, Jones came downhill like Worilds did but raised his arms up quicker. It was still no match for Solder, however, who had a lighting-fast kick-slide and knee-bend that lowered his pad level to Jones’ eye-level.
After lowing his pads, Solder extended his arms and punched the pass-rusher’s breast pad as he slid wide. As Jones attempted to rush wide of the pocket, Solder continued to slide his feet and and anchor down, bending his knees further and locking arms with Jones to quell the rush.
In Week 12, Campbell faced a similar midget-matchup that Solder faced three weeks earlier. Here was all 6’8″ of him going up against the 6’2″ and 6’3″ offensive linemen of the Indianapolis Colts. Like Solder, he had to play with supreme leverage and flexibility if he was going to win by any way other than burrowing through them.
Against 6’2″ center Samson Satele, Campbell showed off his knee-bend and explosiveness. It was early in the third quarter and Campbell was lined up in a three-point stance at the four-technique across left guard Hugh Thornton. At the snap, he pushed off his left hand and right leg to generate explosiveness across the near A-gap and the face of Satele.
Once he met Satele, he hand-fought him before teammate and fellow defensive tackle Darnell Dockett ran into Satele. This created an opportunity for Campbell to use his flexibility and athleticism to explode off his right foot and loop into the near B-gap for pocket penetration.
He did just that, stretching out his right leg to explode off of and bending both knees to lower his pad level. The power and pad level generated from his lower body enabled him to loop around right guard Mike McGlynn before raising his arm up to disturb quarterback Andrew Luck’s vision and combining for a sack with Dockett.
There was little difference when facing left guard Hugh Thornton later in the game.
Lined up at the shaded two-technique inside the right shoulder of Thornton, who is 6’3″, Campbell fired from his three-point stance and rushed through the near B-gap in between Thornton and the left tackle. He rushed tall prior to clubbing Thornton’s left shoulder and lowering his shoulder.
With his shoulder lowered and underneath Thornton’s, Campbell stuck his right foot forward and gave up his back as he spun inside of the blocker, lowering his pad level and bending his knees at the same time.
More than a quarter later in Week 2 of the 2012 season, Giants clashed again. It was 3rd-and-10. The two-minute warning of the second quarter was set to strike.
Solder was lined up in a two-point stance while Campbell roved around the line before getting in a four-point stance at the three-technique inside of Solder.
The ball snapped and the Patriots called a dropback passing play. Campbell came straight at the left guard, locking up with him before sliding outside toward Solder, who matched up with the outside linebacker.
Suddenly, the linebacker pivoted back inside and Campbell came straight at Solder. It was a stunt game between the two and it led Campbell directly to Solder, who was standing nearly erect without a firm base below him and little knee-bend. Campbell bowled over him, taking advantage of the lack of proper pad level and dropping the tackle to his back.
Solder 1: Campbell 1