PFF's award for Best Run Defender: Damon Harrison No. 1
It may be a passing league, but there’s nothing like some good run defense. When asking for suggestions as to whom to name an award that embodies run defending after, the first name that came back was Ted Washington. At PFF, we only caught the very end of Washington’s career, but at the age of 39 and weighing about as much as a small housing estate, we watched him earn a solid run defense grade for the Cleveland Browns on 104 snaps before injury ended his season.
Washington typified the gargantuan nose tackles of the two-gap, 3-4 schemes that were fashionable for a period in the NFL, and by all accounts, nobody played the run better than Washington at his best. The inaugural Ted Washington Award will be given to the player who performs the best over the season when defending the run, regardless of position; below you’ll find this season’s winner, as well as four runners-up.
Damon Harrison, NT, New York Jets
It’s fitting that an award named after Ted Washington is won in it’s inaugural year by one of the heaviest players in the league. Damon “Big Snacks” Harrison is a 350-pound nose tackle with the kind of run-stuffing prowess Washington would be proud of. He had the highest PFF grade against the run among all interior defenders, with a 97.3 mark, and almost matched Aaron Donald’s raw grade, despite playing significantly less, even against the run. Harrison made a defensive stop on 18.1 percent of all running plays he was on the field for, which is the best rate PFF has ever seen among defensive tackles, and over 150 percent of the best mark we had seen heading into this season. He made 54 tackles; 49 of them were defensive stops in the run game, a mark that led all DTs this season. He missed just two tackles all year.
Harrison ended the season with nine straight games of green grading (above +1.0) against the run, and only failed to grade positively in the run game twice over the season, with both being just about average performances in games where he was sparsely used. Small, quick defensive tackles and interior players may be all the fashion in today’s NFL, but there is still a place for behemoth run stuffers, and there is none better in that regard than Damon Harrison, the winner of PFF’s inaugural Ted Washington Award.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Aaron Donald may not fit the mold of a Ted Washington-type defensive tackle, and gives up more than 100 pounds in weight to Washington during some stretches of his career, but Donald plays the run just as well in a completely different way. While Washington’s (and Harrison’s) game involved taking on blockers at the point of attack, eating space, and clogging up intended running lanes, Donald destroys run plays with quickness and penetration. Donald himself made 37 defensive stops in the run game, good enough for third-most among DTs, but his work goes beyond tackles and stats because of the sheer volume of runs he was able to disrupt by being in the backfield. Donald has the quickest first step in football, and even when he wasn’t making the play himself, he was causing enough problems in the blocking scheme to make a mess of the run and impact the play.
Reshad Jones, S, Miami Dolphins
You won’t find too many players that bear less of a resemblance to Ted Washington in stature than Reshad Jones, but this award is about recognizing excellent play against the run, in whatever form it takes, and Reshad Jones has been dominant in that area this season as a strong safety for Miami.
He has by far the highest grade of any safety against the run this season, and led the NFL in both tackles against the run and defensive stops (tackles for an offensive failure on the play) for the position. Jones had 70 solo tackles against the run and 11 assists, which is 24 solo tackles more than any other safety. His 39 defensive stops in the run game were 10 more than any other safety, and he had the second-highest run-stop percentage of all safeties. What is perhaps most impressive is that he did this with a position profile far less often in the box than many other safeties. Jones was only lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap on 15.2 percent of his run snaps, less than 29 other safeties in the NFL this season.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
There may be no player that flows to the football and involves himself in the tackle better than Luke Kuechly. Kuechly had the second-highest run stop percentage among all inside linebackers, just a hair lower than Wesley Woodyard (14.0 percent to 14.3 percent), and he ended up making 34 defensive stops against the run—despite missing three games with concussion. What sets Kuechly apart from his early career is that he has become a much more accomplished player at taking on blocks and maintaining gap discipline—the areas of run defense that don’t get the same appreciation because there are no stats ready-made to quantify the play. Kuechly was our highest-graded linebacker against the run (which does take that play into account) and was one of the best run defenders in the league this season.
Khalil Mack, ED, Oakland Raiders
There is arguably nobody in the NFL that sets the edge better in the run game than Khalil Mack, and what’s truly remarkable is that he was possibly the best in the league at that from his first day on an NFL field as a rookie. Now two seasons into his career, he has maintained that aspect of his game and become a dominant force against the run overall. Mack was second among edge defenders with 34 defensive stops in the run game, one behind Olivier Vernon’s 35, but actually had a higher run-stop percentage than Vernon, who faced more run plays over the season. As with Donald and Kuechly, much of Mack’s impact can’t be measured in statistics, and his grade against the run was almost twice as high as any other edge defender this season.
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