What Makes a Good Defensive Tackle? (DT Position in Football)
When you think of defensive superstars, you think of Deion Sanders, Brian Dawkins, and Ray Lewis right? These are the play makers and the “show” of the defense…none of which are a defensive tackle.
What about defensive tackles? How about ‘Mean’ Joe Greene?
The defensive tackle is sometimes overlooked because it’s a supporting role to stop the run. But it also has its spotlight moments with sacks, stripped balls, and blocked passes.
In this article, we’ll go over what a defensive tackle is, what they do, and tips on how to be one at the highest level.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is A Defensive Tackle?
The defensive tackle (DT) is a crucial element of the defensive line. Defensive tackles operate primarily in the interior of the line of scrimmage. This is a position that gets action every single snap, no matter the play.
Typically stationed between the defensive ends, a DT's primary responsibility is to prevent offensive plays from succeeding, especially those up the middle. Defensive tackles are also responsible for disrupting the quarterback if they succeed in breaking through the offensive line.
If you are running a 3-4 defense, you will only have one defensive tackle lined up with the center. This is the nose tackle. If you are running a 4-3 defense, there will be two defensive tackles in the defensive line lined up with or slightly inside of the offensive guards.
Defensive tackles need to be able to make a statement and attract double-teams which free up the pressure on defensive ends and linebackers. This position is a good balance between direct playmaking and supporting the other areas of the defense.
Roles of a DT On the Field
DTs have a number of roles that directly impact the success of the defense. Size and strength are going to be key characteristics needed to be successful in this position.
Close Gaps and Holes
At the heart of a defensive tackle's game on the football field lies the task of closing gaps and holes created by the offensive line. This role is vital for stopping forward progress through rushing plays.
Closing these gaps requires both strength and speed. The lineman will usually be assigned a specific "gap" every play to plug to ensure running backs or even quarterbacks cannot get past them. The goal is to fill gaps any way they can, either with their bodies or by pushing an offensive player from his position.
Engage the Offensive Line
Defensive linemen must be the aggressors to fill gaps and maintain control of the play. They need to be the first players to make contact off the line of scrimmage. They can't just sit and wait for the offensive line to come at them.
They also need to be aggressive toward the ball through the offensive line. If an excellent defensive tackle can identify the play before the snap, they can put themselves in a position to get past the offensive line and make a big play in the backfield.
If you’re someone like Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox, getting into the backfield may be a little more challenging when you’re double or triple-teamed. Sometimes, that will be okay because good DT’s help take pressure off other positions, especially if you’re one of the best tackles in NFL history.
DT’s need to be quick, but they also need to be sturdy to handle the pressure of additional players that might block them. Talented defensive ends and linebackers can get into the backfield - leading to a play that might not have happened if the offense wasn’t so focused on blocking the defensive tackle.
When defensive tackles aren’t plugging holes or occupying offensive lineman, their ultimate goal is to stop the ball. By whatever means necessary.
This could be tackling the ball carriers before making a breakout run, sacking the QB in the backfield, or stripping the ball for a turnover. Defensive tackles need to be aware of the ball at all times then they can determine the steps to get themselves or their teammates to the ball.
What You Need to Play the Defensive Tackle Position
To be a great defensive tackle, you need to be a big boy…a really big boy. The standard is six feet tall or above and closing in on 300 lbs body weight, if not over that.
Size is a big part of being a DT because offensive players will try to move you out of the way for rushing plays. The bigger you are, the harder it will be for anyone to move you. Both height and weight are important aspects of being a defensive tackle.
As a bigger player on the field, you should also be one of the strongest, so you are a perfect candidate to go head-to-head with the interior offensive line.
Strength and size go hand in hand. As you put on size, your strength will increase naturally. When you increase your calorie intake to be in a calorie surplus and focus on a high-protein diet, your body is provided with the nutrients and energy to grow stronger.
Although, you still need to continue to improve your strength in the weight room with a program like Peak Strength to accomplish your roles.
Strength is going to come in handy when pushing an offensive player around to fill gaps or break into the backfield. It’s also going to be important for shedding blocks.
Offensive linemen and defensive linemen share a lot of similar qualities, the only difference is the side of the ball that they play on. Centers, guards, and tackles are all going to be very strong and very big, so getting past them or away from their grip is a challenging task that requires serious strength.
Explosiveness and Impulse
Since defensive tackles need to be aggressors, they need to be FAST! It’s important to be fast off the line and produce more force than the person you are going against.
Impulse is the production of a lot of force in a short period of time. Impulse is important in every single play for linemen because lineman at the highest levels make contact in 0.4 seconds, and that engagement lasts for about another half second before the block is shed.
Offensive linemen have to train sustained impulse! This means your first step has to be explosive and, after you make contact, your body will recruit more of your high threshold motor units.
Explosiveness and impulse can be developed through plyometrics or by doing weekly athlete days. Impulse will also develop by doing olympic lifts as part of your strength training in the weight room.
Balance and Dynamic Truck Control
Dynamic trunk control is going to be one of the main things that affects the balance of a lineman. That and also footwork. These two adaptations or traits are important for defensive tackles so they are not easily moved.
Being balanced on your feet and having good dynamic trunk control is going to improve the overall movement pattern of your body on the field.
Finally, field vision is a necessity for any defensive tackle. Defensive tackles are the closest defensive player to the ball before the snap. So having a vision as to what play might be coming and where the ball is headed can be the difference between a made play and a missed play.
Field vision is important for any football player to excel in their position, but it is especially important for defensive tackles so they understand whether they should attack the ball directly or play a supporting role and allow another position to make the best possible play.
5 Tips for Defensive Tackles
Defensive Tackle Benchmarks
In order to be a D1 defensive tackle, you should aim for these numbers:
- Height: 6’0+
- Body Weight: 265 lbs +
- 1 Box Power Clean: 300 lbs +
- Back Squat: 450 lbs +
- Bench Press: 350 lbs +
Do Olympic Lifts
Lifts like cleans, snatches, and jerks are great movements for power development. These dynamic lifts require athletes to produce force, absorb it, and then reapply it. That’s why you see so many football programs incorporating power and full cleans into their strength programs. These should also be used in off-season training to maintain the ability to produce power year-round.
These lifts also help improve range of motion and target the power positions that defensive tackles will be in throughout a game. Using olympic lifts forces athletes into deeper positions which translates to other lifts, increases hypertrophy, and improves overall performance.
Train Grip Strength
A defensive tackle needs to have good grip strength in order to grab quarterbacks and running backs. Grip strength training is an overlooked aspect of training, but something that is essential for any football player on defense.
Using tools like Garage Grips or a thick bar in training helps simulate holding and applying force to an object simulating an ankle.
Plyometrics are great for developing the actual athleticism of a defensive tackle. Using plyos will improve speed, impulse, and reaction time. Being able to cut, move, and react better than an opponent is going to provide a leg up on any play.
A great example of a defensive tackle that incorporates plyometrics into their training is Aaron Donald. He uses speed and twitchiness to his advantage which compared to relying just on size and strength. Don’t get me wrong, he is a very strong athlete, but he is also balanced in his speed and overall athleticism.
Improve Recovery and Mobility
This is something a lot of athletes slack on…recovery, mobility, and SLEEP. It’s even more important for defensive tackles because of their size and playing time.
With all the weight, stress, and direct impact that defensive tackles are put through in a game, it is important to take the absolute best care of their bodies. Mobility and recovery not only helps with preventing injuries, but also improves athletic performance over the time as the body heals and adapts to the stress it is put through.
The defensive tackle is an instrumental part of the interior defensive line and the defense as a whole. They are some of the strongest and most complete players on the field and are establishing dull content with opponents on every play.
Defensive tackles need to be big, strong, and explosive in order to succeed in their goals of filling gaps and breaking into the backfield. Both a supporting and playmaking role, the defensive tackle should be an all around athlete that excels in strength, speed, balance, and awareness.
If you want to become a better defensive tackle or football player in general, try the Peak Strength app to get a fully custom program that fits your exact position. In the app, you’ll find a dedicated strength program, mobility workouts, and over 700 exercises to improve your performance on the field. PEACE!
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