How to crash the A-gap


ESPN The Magazine: Dontari Poe Photo Shoot

Go behind the scenes of Dontari Poe's photo shoot as Poe talks about being one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

STANDING ALONE NEAR the end zone of Kansas City's cavernous indoor practice facility, Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe shakes his arms and neck loose before sinking his right hand into the spongy turf. He taps a right toe into the ground and inhales. His haunches lower, then lower some more. His back flattens, and his massive 335-pound frame contracts into an impossibly tight coil a third of its regular size. Just before the snap, he flips the dangling dreads from his face, lifts his chin and locks eyes with his target for this simulated pass rush: you -- a stand-in for Peyton Manning.

The call comes: three, two, one. Poe explodes out of his stance with a fluid, violent leap that instantly cuts the once-safe distance in half. Banners, clocks and equipment visible on the periphery of the field just a second ago are now blocked from view. His arms are up in front of him, reaching; his fingers spread wide open as if he's preparing to put the QB's head in a vise. And before your hypothalamus can trigger a flight response or signal for a timeout, it's too late. Poe is just a few feet away -- and closing fast.

Ready or not, you're about to come face to face with the game's best nose tackle and the antidote to today's pass-happy NFL. Brace yourself. Sometimes change can be painful.

PASSING AND SCORING in the NFL may be at all-time highs, but before the game is allowed to fully transition into outdoor arena football, there's at least one angry 335-pound obstacle still standing in the way. And he may represent defense's last great hope. In today's quick-strike passing era, the standard time from snap to pass has fallen to 2.57 seconds, neutralizing even the quickest, most highly compensated speed-rushing defensive ends. Defenses, in turn, are countering with a simple tenet of analytic geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In the NFL, that's called the A-gap: the lanes on top of, and to either side of, the center, where, at the snap, the quarterback is just a tantalizing few inches from his adversaries.

It's an increasingly vital strategic domain, and in 2013 it's being revolutionized by Poe, who in just his second season with the resurgent Chiefs was, through Week 11, second among nose tackles in sacks, tackles and passes disrupted. "The A-gap is the quickest way to the quarterback," says Tamba Hali, a linebacker on the Chiefs' second-ranked defense. "But it's also the hardest. That kind of work takes a special talent, and that's Poe. We haven't seen a guy this dominant at this position in years."

The universe of interior defensive linemen is largely populated by either butterball-shaped space eaters or athletic pass-rush specialists. Poe, who burst onto the scene at the 2012 combine with a 4.9 40 and a 2012-record 44 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, is both, and then some -- a fact that allows him to play a remarkable 95 percent of the Chiefs' snaps. He's sudden, explosive and disruptive off the snap. Blockers react to his initial hand strike as if they were hit with defibrillator paddles. While stout enough to stand his ground against the run, he is also armed with a fluid full repertoire of pass-rush moves. When he puts it all together, when his violent hands and quick feet are in perfect unison, Poe is able to bring something artistic, like a Muhammad Ali punch, to a position normally occupied by obese bulldozers and grinders. "People that big should just not be able to move like that," says Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

Teams must dedicate extra manpower to contain Poe or face the consequences. And that, in turn, has transformed KC's schemes. In January, when Andy Reid took over the 2-14 Chiefs, he opted to keep the team's base 3-4, but he made a few key tweaks. He scrapped the old, passive read-and-react 2-gap scheme for a more aggressive technique in the trenches that highlights, rather than hinders, Poe's rare skill set. "Last year was frustrating for everyone, so it felt good to just be able to relax and play football," says Poe. "I was like a kid on a playground in this new defense. I could feel it right away; I was making that leap."

Poe opened the season with six tackles, a batted pass and 1.5 sacks in Jacksonville. Then in Week 2, the Chiefs hosted the Cowboys at Arrowhead. Through Dallas' first possession, as Tony Romo drove to the Chiefs' 28, Poe set up rookie center Travis Frederick by attacking his left shoulder. The next time Romo dropped back, Poe burst to his right and waited for Frederick to overcompensate by opening up and shifting his weight to his left foot. When he did, Poe, in one textbook and perfectly timed motion, swam his right arm up and across Frederick's face and matadored the helpless center out of the way -- the movement so sudden and startling, it was all Frederick could do to keep from falling flat on his face. In a flash, Poe was on Romo. It was the first of two sacks on the day for Poe. "After seeing stuff like that," says teammate Mike DeVito, "you know the guy could go down as the greatest lineman to ever play the game."

And in that moment, the Chiefs had found the formula for one of the finest single-season turnarounds in NFL history: An unleashed Poe would dominate and disrupt in the A-gap, drawing extra blockers inside, away from his teammates, creating a series of ripple effects across the entire defense -- if not the team. Poe's ability to single-handedly compress the pocket has led to a league-low 36.3 QBR by quarterbacks against Kansas City's standard rush package of four or fewer players. And because the Chiefs no longer have to commit extra manpower on the blitz to get to the quarterback, Sutton is free to use a surfeit of dime coverage (six defensive backs) to flood passing zones, confuse quarterbacks with coverage combinations and, when needed, bring dynamic pressure packages from all over the field.

What's more, by compacting the space in front of the QB, Poe alters the geometry of the pocket by tightening the corners and preventing most human passers (read: not Peyton Manning) from sliding forward to escape speed rushers on the edge. As a result, the Chiefs' dormant edge rush is back in play. Coming into the Denver game, KC led the NFL with 36 sacks and was first in points allowed at 12.3. "It all comes down to the battle over that one click," says Sutton. "Forcing the quarterback to hold the ball one click longer or forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball one click sooner. These guys are fighting all game to see who is gonna win the battle over that one click."

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Broncos game, Poe is philosophical. In the battle over that one click, Mile High had become his Waterloo. Manning, using his league-leading flashbulb release of 2.33 seconds, had both frustrated Poe and wrecked the Chiefs' perfect season. "Peyton Manning is the benchmark for people who do what we do -- if you can get to Manning, you know you're doing something good," says Poe. "So we're gonna watch the film, learn from our mistakes and come back stronger."

On that tape, Poe will see many things. He will see how Denver neutralized the Chiefs with a zone run game meant to keep them out of third and long, a classic pass-rush down. He'll see how the Broncos ran to the left almost exclusively, allowing them to block Poe with center Manny Ramirez and frequent backside help from 6'5", 335-pound right guard Louis Vasquez, who has the strongest hands in the game and is one of the few blockers powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with Poe. He'll see that when it came time to pass, the Broncos used play-action and misdirection to slow Poe. And he'll see that when he did manage to knock Ramirez off his spot, Manning either slid to avoid pressure or the ball was already gone.

As a result, Poe finished the game without a single QB pressure, and the Chiefs, who once seemed poised to make a run at the 1984 Bears' record of 72 sacks in a season, went a second game in a row without a sack. "Poe could be the next Vince Wilfork because of all he presents," an exhausted Ramirez says postgame while packing extra recovery drinks into his leather bag. "I have a lot of respect for that man. He puts in a lot of hard work and is a powerful, quick, amazing talent. We contained him, but we did it as a unit."

None of which offers a shred of comfort to Poe. After the game, angry but resolute, he insists that when they get Manning in Arrowhead in Week 13, things will be different. "He can't avoid us forever," Poe says. "Sooner or later, we'll get there."

As he exits the Chiefs' locker room, Poe places his red Beats over his ears, as if to drown out the naysayers. To his left is a postgame meal.

To his right are teammates mingling with friends and family outside the team buses. Ignoring both distractions, Poe puts his head down and walks straight up the middle of the stadium exit ramp, taking the shortest distance possible out of Denver.

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