Terrance Knighton’s NFL career began with mild expectations as a third round pick in 2009. ‘Pot Roast’, as he’s affectionately known by teammates, was considered a reach by many outlets and never put up big stats as a senior at Temple(1 sack, 7.5 tackles for loss). NFLDraftScout.com described Knighton as having ‘good height, length and girth for his position’, but that he was ‘not particularly explosive off the snap’.
The 2009 Jaguars needed a running mate next to John Henderson, though, and Knighton won the starting job and would play 657 snaps that year. The 6-foot-3, 321-pound rookie was an immovable force in run defense right off the bat with a +8.5 run defense grade and a career high (still) 29 stops.
In his second season he flashed that same ability that’s been on display throughout this year’s playoffs. Knighton had games with game grades of +5.9, +4.1, +3.8, and +3.2 in his sophomore campaign, but was mired with inconsistency, finishing the season with a grade of +5.5 in 816 snaps. Midway through the 2011 season, Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio was fired and over the next two years Knighton stagnated. Rarely do you see a player perform so superbly in one aspect of the game his rookie season, like Knighton against the run, and not take the next step in the coming seasons.
On March 13th, 2013 John Elway sent out a tweet and made Knighton the 36th-highest paid defensive tackle in the league. On February 2nd, 2014 Elway’s small investment should once again pay huge dividends. When every single GM gets introduced and repeats the party line about ‘rebuilding the team through the draft and value in free agents’, Terrance Knighton is the definition of the value in free agency part. Two years and $4.5 million is all it took to steal one of this season’s most dominant interior defenders from Jacksonville and much of the league should be kicking themselves for not seeing his potential.
Knighton’s play has been a revelation for a Broncos defense that has been without Von Miller and Champ Bailey for the majority of the season. Knighton graded out as the ninth-best defensive tackle in football during the regular season at +24.1, despite playing just 53% of the Broncos total defensive snaps. His previous high grade for a season was +5.5 in 2010. Knighton would be right at the front of the pack for any breakthrough player of the year award (if such a thing existed in the NFL) and if Peyton Manning wasn’t lighting it up, he’d be in the running for postseason MVP as well.
By the Numbers
Knighton’s improvements over last season are difficult to discern merely from the box score. His sacks have gone from two to five while his tackles from 23 to 26. To really find the defensive tackle’s impact, you have to dig deeper.
Including the playoffs, Knighton has played almost the exact same number of snaps (666 in 2012 and 662 in 2013), yet his overall grade increased by 27.7 points. While his sack total may have only gone up by three, Knighton’s total pressures went up considerably, from 19 in 2012 to 38 in 2013. His Pass Rushing Productivity rating jumped from 4.8 to 9.1, with the latter is good enough for fourth among defensive tackles. His Run Stop Percentage also saw a healthy rise, from 6.0 last season to 8.0 this year.
While all of Knighton’s cumulative stats are impressive, they pale in comparison to what he’s done in the playoffs. In the last two games, he has a Pass Rushing Productivity of 10.8, a Run Stop Percentage of 17.4, and an overall grade of +7.8. All are highs among defensive tackles this postseason except his RSP which is second to only Brodrick Bunkley by .5 percentage points.
In Denver’s hybrid 4-3 defense Knighton plays the 1-technique and he’s evolved into one of the premier players at the position. This means he’ll normally line up shaded on either side of the center as shown below:
The 1-technique tackle may be the most thankless defensive position in the NFL. Sacks are difficult to come by from this position as interior pass rushers usually play from the more favorable 3-technique alignment. Even our highest graded 1-technique this season, Brandon Mebane (who we’ll look at in depth later in the week), didn’t record a sack all season.
The reason is likely two-fold. Larger-slower guys play the position because of its importance in the run game. Also, it’s more difficult to beat the center as the guard can easily help and there are usually crowds of bodies on either side. Against the run, even making a tackle or stop from the position is difficult because of the frequency of guard-center double teams.
Despite all of this, though, the 1-technique is the lynchpin of any 4-3 run defense, especially against a zone attack. If the 1-tech consistently gets blown off the ball by a double team, cutback lanes will be there all day. Conversely, if the 1-technique can get the center 2 yards deep in the backfield, the run has little chance of succeeding.
The latter is exactly what happened repeatedly in the AFC championship game against the Patriots. On multiple occasions the Patriots tried to have their center perform a reach block on Knighton with no help on an outside zone or stretch play. The result was a lot of the following:
Pot Roast’s quickness and power make that an almost impossible block to execute for Ryan Wendell. The Seahawks run a very zone heavy scheme and we’ll see a very similar stretch play more than a few times super bowl Sunday. Center Max Unger struggled a couple times to make the very same block against Glenn Dorsey with him lined up at the 0-technique (defensive tackle head-up on center). Unger would finish last weeks’ game with a -1.5 run blocking grade.
Will the Broncos give their best interior player more snaps just because it’s the last game of the season? I wouldn’t count on it. In the postseason Knighton has played in 74% of Denver’s base snaps (or heavier packages), 50% of their nickel snaps, and none of their dime/quarter snaps. Over the same time period, Seattle has used three-receiver sets on 49% of the plays in the playoffs and four-receiver sets on 10%. Based off that data, a rough estimate of Knighton’s playing time would be about 57% of the snaps Sunday.
Knighton will be matched up against the guard-center-guard combo of James Carpenter, Max Unger, and J.R. Sweezy. None of those three have a positive overall grade or run blocking grade for the season. So then what exactly should we expect from the matchup?
At the very least I expect the Seahawks to take note of where Knighton is in the running game. Single blocking him playside is not recommended as the Patriots found out the hard way. The best Seattle can probably hope for is to minimize the negative plays Knighton creates through use of double teams and runs away from him. Seattle simply can’t afford to start the game with a sputtering ground attack like the Patriots and this matchup will go a long way in determining that outcome.
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