How to crash the A-gap

Dontari Poe

STANDING ALONE NEAR the end zone of Kansas City's cavernous indoor practice facility, Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe shakes his arms and neck loose before sinking his right hand into the spongy turf. He taps a right toe into the ground and inhales. His haunches lower, then lower some more. His back flattens, and his massive 335-pound frame contracts into an impossibly tight coil a third of its regular size. Just before the snap, he flips the dangling dreads from his face, lifts his chin and locks eyes with his target for this simulated pass rush: you -- a stand-in for Peyton Manning.

The call comes: three, two, one. Poe explodes out of his stance with a fluid, violent leap that instantly cuts the once-safe distance in half. Banners, clocks and equipment visible on the periphery of the field just a second ago are now blocked from view. His arms are up in front of him, reaching; his fingers spread wide open as if he's preparing to put the QB's head in a vise. And before your hypothalamus can trigger a flight response or signal for a timeout, it's too late. Poe is just a few feet away -- and closing fast.

Ready or not, you're about to come face to face with the game's best nose tackle and the antidote to today's pass-happy NFL. Brace yourself. Sometimes change can be painful.

PASSING AND SCORING in the NFL may be at all-time highs, but before the game is allowed to fully transition into outdoor arena football, there's at least one angry 335-pound obstacle still standing in the way. And he may represent defense's last great hope. In today's quick-strike passing era, the standard time from snap to pass has fallen to 2.57 seconds, neutralizing even the quickest, most highly compensated speed-rushing defensive ends. Defenses, in turn, are countering with a simple tenet of analytic geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In the NFL, that's called the A-gap: the lanes on top of, and to either side of, the center, where, at the snap, the quarterback is just a tantalizing few inches from his adversaries.

It's an increasingly vital strategic domain, and in 2013 it's being revolutionized by Poe, who in just his second season with the resurgent Chiefs was, through Week 11, second among nose tackles in sacks, tackles and passes disrupted. "The A-gap is the quickest way to the quarterback," says Tamba Hali, a linebacker on the Chiefs' second-ranked defense. "But it's also the hardest. That kind of work takes a special talent, and that's Poe. We haven't seen a guy this dominant at this position in years."

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