IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata kept getting in the Minnesota backfield last week. Their disruption kept the Minnesota running game from getting started.
It’s not a coincidence one led to the other. The performance of the interior linemen drives the run defense when it’s at its best.
“I definitely feel that there is a correlation with when they play really well the whole defense plays pretty good as a whole at stopping the run,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said.
Get Johnson and Bazata on track and the run defense won’t be a problem. It’s an overly simplistic take, but there is plenty of truth to it. They were central to Iowa allowing only 102 rushing yards to the Golden Gophers.
The two best games from Johnson were against Iowa State and Minnesota. It was the two times the defense looked at its best, especially against the run.
|Iowa run defense stats||Attempts-Yards Allowed (average figure for both stats)|
|Iowa State and Minnesota||32-114|
|The other four games||46.3-195.8|
The way the Iowa defense is designed it needs strong play from its defensive line. If the big boys up front don’t hold their ground and stay in their gaps the Hawkeyes can look like a matador — letting ball carriers go right by. That’s what happened when the rush defense was the team’s biggest problem in September.
When the defensive tackles split double teams, get off blocks and ensure offensive linemen can’t seal off running lanes, the defense packs a heavier punch. It’s all dependent on Johnson winning the hand-to-hand combat battle that is life on the line.
“That is one thing that we need,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “Like I said, it starts up front. Then everyone else falls in place.”
Johnson’s stat line isn’t overwhelming. He had 4 tackles and a sack last Saturday against Minnesota. Pro Football Focus tallied 4 quarterback hurries for Johnson. It was the sixth-best total nationally last week. PFF also graded him as the 14th-best defensive tackle in the nation.
“Up front we dominated the line of scrimmage,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said.
It made the run defense easier for the rest of the Hawkeyes.
“Having them in the middle, holding everything down, getting off blocks, making plays in the middle, helps everyone out,” Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “It just helps getting stops and frees up linebackers.”
Defensive tackles aren’t commonly referred to as playmakers, especially on run defense. They take on double teams. They clog holes. It’s not sexy work, but just like working on the assembly line it’s vital to ensuring the final product comes out as expected.
“It’s good to be strong up the middle,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think we’ve always believed that in football, like baseball. Certainly talking about your center position, your quarterback position, certainly the defensive tackles and middle linebacker, the safeties. At least the way we’re built and we like to play, it’s a pretty good parallel and good to be strong up the middle.”
Stopping the run is never easy, but getting Iowa to do it is. Johnson needs to be a playmaker. It’s all it takes.