Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Bilal Nichols has faced quite a bit of criticism from many people, including myself, since signing with the team as a free agent two offseasons ago. Nichols’ production last season was underwhelming, warranting the tough love, but he has played well in the Raiders’ last three games.
The six-year veteran has earned an 81.0 grade from Pro Football Focus during that timeframe, which ranks eighth among NFL defensive tackles at the time of writing. Known as more of a pass-rusher, what’s been most surprising—and surprisingly encouraging—is he’s been a factor against the run with a 77.8 mark in that department.
Specifically looking at this past week’s game against the Patriots, Nichols continued to look sharp against the run with a 70.9 grade. He also came through as a pass-rusher with a half-sack that gave the Raiders a safety and helped seal the win. That play was also the difference in the Silver and Black covering the three-point spread for my gambling folks.
So, let’s take a look at what was working for the defensive tackle on Sunday.
This first clip is a great example of what Nichols has been doing to become a factor in the running game. He’s lined up as a 3-technique as the Patriots run inside zone to the other side of the center, putting him on the backside of the run.
With the linebackers walked up toward the line of scrimmage, the defensive tackle gets a one-on-one block. He takes on the block with good leverage and quick hands as his helmet is under the guard’s, and he makes the first significant contact with his hands to gain control of the block and get extension against the guard.
That allows Nichols to reduce space in the A-gap while fulfilling his responsibility by staying in the B-gap, essentially helping to take away two options for running back. With nowhere else to go, the back still tries to hit the A-gap where John Jenkins and Nichols meet him in the hole for a two-yard gain.
This next clip was impressive to me because one of Nichols’ biggest weaknesses is taking on combo blocks or double teams. It still is something he struggles with to a certain extent, but this is a good rep that is encouraging.
New England calls long trap which is similar to power, only they’re trying to run up the middle and keep the play-side defensive—No. 96 Isaac Rochell—outside by having the tight end fake a block on Rochell and pulling the backside guard to kick Rochell out.
That also means the play-side guard and tackle are double-teaming Nichols to create an inside rushing lane. However, Nichols uses a dirty swim move off the snap to make the guard miss, defeat the double team and get some penetration.
As a result, the running back has to bounce outside, right into Rochell’s arms who does a great job of spinning inside to get off the block. That’s good team defense right there!
It’s the fourth quarter and the Raiders are protecting a two-score lead with about 4:30 to play.
Nichols lines up as a 3-technique and does a good job of stemming to the outside to start his pass-rush move. That, plus the threat of Maxx Crosby slanting inside, gets the guard to open his hips to the outside which is a perfect setup for the inside swim move that Nichols uses to get a win.
Now, the ball is out before he’s able to get a sack or a QB hit, but this is still a nice rush that will turn into production later.
We’ll end with the game-sealing sack!
Las Vegas is twisting its two defensive tackles where Adam Butler wraps or loops around the pick player/penetrator, Nichols. The key for Nichols is to be aggressive and take the guard with him, which he does a solid job of so that Butler can get on an edge and win as well.
Also, Nichols being physical catches the center off-guard as the pass rusher is able to break free, go get the sack, and make all Raiders’ bettors happy as they can run to the sportsbook and cash their tickets. x