Playbook: Studying improved DTs

With the season coming to a close, the crew at “Playbook” has taken to the film to find players who made marked improvements on the field.

We’ve looked at quarterbacks and defensive backs. In our third installment, we take to the trenches to review the performance of three rising defensive tackles.

Geno Atkins, Bengals

Atkins has always been a one-gap player, using his explosive first step and great leverage to blow past blockers on passing downs. But in 2010, the Bengals seemed wary about keeping Atkins (6-foot-1, 290 pounds) on the field on running downs, turning him into more of a third-down specialist.

This year, the Bengals unleashed Atkins on just over 70 percent of their defensive snaps (compared to 35 percent in ’10), trusting his ability to overcome offensive linemen at the point of attack with his technique. While Atkins doesn’t have the girth to naturally “eat up” double teams, he has shown he can anchor on one knee, occupy the “scoop” blockers and keep that double team off of his linebackers.

Atkins’ strength will always be his lateral quickness and his hands, which allow him to elude guards before they can latch on. The Bengals smartly play him with a bigger tackle (Domata Peko or Jonathan Fanene) as well, giving him more one-on-one situations.

Atkins’ improvements as a run defender have allowed him to stay on the field more — which has equaled more sacks (7.5 in 2011, compared to three in 2010).

Kyle Love, Patriots

An second-year player who was undrafted out of Mississippi State, Love was asked to rotate as an end and nose tackle with Vince Wilfork. When offensive lines faced the Patriots’ 3-4 alignment, they saw a pair of big, athletic players who could hold two gaps.

Love and Wilfork played well off of one another. When offenses tried to double-team Wilfork,  Love made them pay with his ability to win at the point of attack and disengage from blockers with his hands. In 2011, Love finished with 33 tackles (20 solo) and three sacks.

But for the most part, you will not see what Love does on a stat sheet. As the locals would say, he’s a “dirt dog,” a blue-collar player who does his job and won’t get much thanks for it. He’s disciplined, plays within the system and has made the defensive line the strength of the Patriots defense.

Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers

Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were able to terrorize the NFL this year largely because of Sopoaga. Becoming the 49ers’ primary nose tackle after Aubrayo Franklin left through free agency, Sopoaga showed an ability to consistently anchor against double teams and keep his linebackers clean.

Part of the NFL’s No. 1 run defense (77.3 yards per game), he was tremendously disciplined while facing a variety of schemes. Against traps and wham-blocks, he had the wherewithal to hold his ground and properly take on the blocker while squeezing the hole. Sopoaga demonstrated athleticism and great footwork for a 330-pound man, able to move laterally against zone runs, get penetration and shuck blockers to make a play.

Regardless of the scheme, Sopoaga displayed a keen sense of awareness and positioned himself accordingly. He attacks the correct shoulders and has the feet and hands to move a blocker and use them as an obstacle for the running back.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Thursday and Friday at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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