It was one of the things that astounded me as the season went on. I watched his performance and wasn’t just impressed, but amazed. Not just because of how well he played, but because of how little of the field he continued to see.
I’m talking about Antonio Garay. A player I’ve written about before, and will likely write about again.
2010 wasn’t just a breakthrough year for the Charger nose tackle, I have a feeling it may have been just a tease in terms of what he’s capable of.
A sign of things to come?
I don’t remember much of Antonio Garay in 2009. Not all that surprising considering he didn’t manage more than 50 snaps. But I do remember being impressed, to the point I wrote about how he played against the Jets in the Divisional playoff game. He only got on the field for 11 snaps, and yet was able to make three defensive stops, displaying an athleticism the 2009 Chargers hadn’t seen from the nose tackle spot.
Still, I didn’t think much of it, and even with the Chargers cutting Jamal Williams, I didn’t think Garay would be anything more than a rotational body at best. How wrong I was to be.
It wasn’t long into pre season when it became clear that Garay was the guy San Diego was entrusting to replace Williams. It seemed he was merely a stop gap until Cam Thomas was ready to sit on the nose tackle throne Williams had been removed from and you could understand why after the first couple of weeks of the season. Garay wasn’t playing particularly badly, but there were times in his haste to make something happen, he would get himself taken out of the play by experienced centers like Casey Wiegmann.
Jamal Williams he wasn’t, but then not many people are, and Garay was a different type of player to the run stuffer on the nose Charger fans had been accustomed to. He wasn’t going to eat up blocks, he was going to penetrate and make plays, much like the kind of NT Jay Ratliff had become. That was the type of player he was, and that was where he was going to have success. Which is where it really started for him in Week 3 against Seattle. He was able to beat Seahawk interior linemen on more than one occasion, picking up three defensive stops in an encouraging display. Not bad for a guy playing around twenty snaps a game.
It was a theme that developed throughout the year. He’d play the majority of his snaps in base packages, rarely getting a whiff of a sub package defense that was generating next to nothing up the middle. But he got on with things, and exceeded what most expected of him. By season’s end, only five defensive tackles had more defensive stops than him, all of whom had played at least 100 more snaps, and some of whom had twice as many snaps as the 465 he managed.
The big man from Boston College was making plays.
Where’s the playing time?
You would think San Diego would therefore have looked at Garay’s impact and found more ways to get use out of him. He wasn’t just getting the job done in the run game, he was taking what opportunities he had in passing situations as well. So much so that when we released our yearly Pass Rushing Productivity rankings, guess who got the most pressure on a per play basis of all defensive tackles playing at least 250 snaps? Well you don’t need to guess, you can just look below:
Top Defensive Tackles, Pressure Per Snap, 2010
Quite remarkable. And what made it all the more impressive is that he was largely doing it from a base defense position, with the Chargers opting to use both Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo inside in their sub package D. How did those two men fair? On over 100 more snaps rushing the passer, they managed 10 fewer quarterback disruptions, for a pressure per pass rush percentage of 5.4% (Cesaire) and 5.34% (Castillo).
So you’ll have to excuse me a moment while I ask the obvious question. Just why was Garay, a player who was consistently impacting the quarterback, sitting on the sidelines while Castillo and Cesaire failed to make life tough for the opposition?
We’ve seen plenty 3-4 nose tackles flourish in base and nickel packages, with Shaun Rogers and Jay Ratliff both doing tremendous jobs of proving there’s more to being the man in the middle than just eating blocks. It may be naivety on my part to an injury I’ve heard nothing about, but given the vastly different levels of performance and production, it seems like the Chargers failed in terms of getting their best players in position to make plays.
Perhaps there are reasons I’m not accounting for, or perhaps San Diego just didn’t want to tinker with what they had gone into the season with. In any case, given how they missed out on the playoffs, you can’t help but wonder if that extra pass rushing production from Garay wouldn’t have pushed them that little bit closer (perhaps even beyond) to the Chiefs to the AFC West crown.
Speculative, but it’s a question I pondered before looking ahead to next year. I’ve already labeled Garay one of the guys I expect to break out, but then, once again, much of that will come down to whether he is given the opportunity. It looks like Jacques Cesaire may be on his way in free agency, which you think would free up a chance for Garay … if only Corey Liuget hadn’t been drafted.
But he has, and I, as someone who likes seeing the best players on the field, begin to worry that the impressive Garay could find himself stuck behind two guys the franchise has spent first round picks on and his playing time limited once again. It doesn’t seem fair given what’s happened on the field, but then when has the NFL ever been fair? If it was, 2010 wouldn’t have seen George Wilson and Evan Mathis so criminally underused.
So, as I get off my soap box, I’ll stop bemoaning what we didn’t get to see, and remind you of what we did. A guy who was disruptive in every phase, and whose hair added a bit of color to even the dullest of games. He may not have the reputation quite yet, but in 2010 there wasn’t a more destructive nose tackle than Antonio Garay.
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