Pro Football Focus provided positions for this article, but some players are hard to pin down. Like J. J. Watt. The website listed the Houston Texans’ defender as an interior lineman in 2012 and 2015; he led the N.F.L. in sacks both years.
Watt’s alignment had already begun to move outside by 2015, though, when he was frequently stationed opposite an offensive tackle but with an outside linebacker even farther afield. Pro Football Focus now considers Watt an edge rusher.
Hybrids aside, why are so many defensive tackles supplanting outside rushers on the sack charts?
Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, an outside linebacker/defensive end for three N.F.L. teams from 2004 to 2007 and now an analyst for the NFL Network, said it was largely because of that wider trend everyone is talking about in 2018 — the emphasis on passing.
As Gbaja-Biamila noted, the league still deploys three-technique defensive tackles who line up on the guard’s outside shoulder. But with pass rushing so much more important than gap stuffing, they are more likely to play a “loose-3” (shaded toward the gap) than a “tight-3” or “heavy-3” (shaded toward the guard, so he can’t muscle them to one side).
Suddenly, defensive tackles are finding themselves with more aggressive license.
“I remember the first time we prepared for Michael Vick when I was with the Raiders,” Gbaja-Biamila said. “The coaches’ butts were so tight: ‘You’ve got to keep him in the pocket! You can’t let him run!’ He put the fear of God in not only the players, but in the coaches.”
The presence of dynamic passers like the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes has changed things, he said. “Passing is at such a high premium now, with Mahomes throwing a gazillion touchdowns, that coaches have lightened up on the way they’re teaching. They’re allowing more freedom to defensive tackles.”
It makes sense to get your most athletic sackers out in space, where they don’t have as much traffic to work through. But if you have someone inside like Donald who can overcome the double-teams and chips, well, that carries a logic of its own.
As Shanahan said, “If you’ve got a real good pass rusher, wouldn’t you want him to be closer to the quarterback than farther away?”