The Dolphins and Bills are opting for smaller, faster nose tackles. What impact does that have on their 3-4 defenses?
While this is a true statement, I think it has occurred more by default than by design. In a perfect world, Miami would have Jason Ferguson holding the point in the middle of its defense and Buffalo would have the much larger Torell Troup as its starting nose tackle. Troup, the Bills’ second-round pick in the April draft, could very well take over the position from Kyle Williams. That is the long-term plan. Williams is vastly undersized to handle this position and his game doesn’t translate well to getting pounded by double-teams from the excellent offensive lines Buffalo faces in the AFC East. As for Ferguson, he has retired, leaving Randy Starks, who excelled at defensive end last season, as the Dolphins' nose tackle.
However, there is more than one way to run a 3-4 defense and you don’t necessarily need a massive plugger like Vince Wilfork or Kris Jenkins on the nose to be successful. Many teams use a three-man front, but utilize 4-3 principles with an attacking style. The Cowboys’ Jay Ratliff is the best example of such a disruptive upfield nose tackle.
Neither Starks nor Williams is in Ratliff’s class though. Starks is the superior player of the two, but he doesn’t have Ratliff’s quickness or explosion. Starks could do an above-average job in this capacity, but Miami also has another massive nose tackle on the roster, Paul Soliai, who fits the more traditional space-eating mold. Soliai can play the run, but offers nothing as a pass-rusher. Of course, Starks was put in this position as a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. He is best suited for end, where he was exceptional in 2009.
As for Williams, he too has some upfield ability and could use his leverage and quickness to get penetration off the snap. He certainly is not a bad player. But I just can’t envision him holding up play after play with his physical dimensions. He might be effective in spurts, but Troup will need to contribute heavily to make Buffalo’s transition to a 3-4 successful. That is asking a lot from a rookie nose tackle -- adjusting to that position in terms of strength, stamina and reading blocking schemes is not easy on a rookie.
Never forget, the AFC East is probably the most physical division in the league. Being powerful -- like Wilfork or Jenkins -- on the nose is a must to keep up with the divisional rivals. With Starks, Miami might be able to hold its own, but I think Buffalo is in a lot of trouble.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.