Seth Payne, Steve Martin, Travis Johnson, and Shaun Cody. Not only are they four people who have never been in my kitchen, they are the names of every nose tackle in the short and generally depressing history of our Houston Texans. Many words and phrases have been used in connection with these players: disappointing, terrible, sweet Durga make the pain stop, pass the bleach, and so forth. The one word that has not been used to describe these players? "Planetoid." Many BRBers have lamented the fact that the Texans have never had that gigantic space-eating, run-stuffing nose tackle clogging up the lanes on the line of scrimmage. Now, with Wade Phillips coming in to
save our defense build his 3-4 defense, there's a new nose tackle who Wade thinks will thrive in that role. His name is Earl Mitchell and, like Texans nose tackles before him, he is not the planetoid nose tackle of our dreams; for once, that might not be a bad thing. Take the leap to find out how Mitchell could be, at long last, the nose tackle we've been searching for.
Why Mitchell must leap forward this year: In a standard 3-4 defense, the nose tackle has one simple job: clog up the middle to prevent teams from running up the gut. Rarely is he asked to do more than that. Wade Phillips' 3-4 is different in that respect. His nose tackle is expected to be a run-stopper, naturally, but he is also expected to shoot the gap between the center and guard and make the quarterback wet his pants. If he can't at least threaten to bring the pain up the middle, the quarterback will have even more time in the pocket to make throws against the Texans' secondary, and nobody wants to see that happen. If he can't stuff the run like a nose tackle is expected to, teams will pound the rock up the middle and make ILBs Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans work harder to suppress the run. Considering how Cushing performed at MLB last season and the myriad question marks surrounding Cap'n 'Meco this year, the need for a run-stuffer is paramount to this unit's success.
What could potentially stand in Mitchell's way: First off, he's not even guaranteed to start at nose tackle next season. He and Shaun Cody will battle it out in whatever time there is for training camp for the right to the starting nose tackle spot. That said, I would be really, really surprised if Shaun Cody started next season. He's always shown glimmers of his full potential, but it's always just a glimmer, and a faint one, at that. I've always gotten the impression that Shaun Cody was never interested in being a really good football player, that he just wants to cash his paycheck and go home. Then there's his size concerns. To put it one way, I'm closer to being a planetoid nose tackle than Earl Mitchell is. To put it another, Mitchell is, according to nfl.com, 6'2" and 291 lbs. Even by Wade Phillips nose tackle standards, he's still a good 12 pounds lighter and two inches shorter than Phillips' previous NT, Jay Ratliff.
Reasons to believe he can make the leap: Mitchell may not be the man-mountain of our dreams (sorry, BFD), but he doesn't really need to be either. Wade has had nose tackles of varying shapes and sizes, but with the exceptions of Ted Washington and Jamal Williams, his NTs are usually itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny little guys.
Okay, maybe not that little. Little by defensive tackle standards. Which is fine, smaller players are faster players. Faster players are better at pass-rushing. Mitchell is a smallish defensive tackle who showed, even in limited time last season, he can get to the quarterback. Over the second half of last season, he has also greatly improved in his run-stopping abilities. There is plenty of reason to believe that Mitchell can succeed in this role. Since Phillips' tenure in Atlanta and up to this point, he's had two smallish nose tackles: Ed Jasper and Jay Ratliff. Prior to Atlanta, excluding man-mountain Ted Washington, all of Phillips' nose tackles were smaller than Earl Mitchell, mostly because players in those days were smaller than they are now. They average just over 4.0 sacks per season, which is nice, but the true purpose of a nose tackle and the defensive line is to create havoc, like a burning monkey riding a rhinoceros in an antiques shop. Havoc does not show up on the stat sheet. Havoc is what I think will ultimately determine how effective Earl Mitchell will be at nose tackle.