Thursday, September 23, 2010

He’s a sole man

In the middle of the Seahawks’ fifth-ranked run defense is Colin Cole, a nose tackle who was once told he didn’t have what it takes to play in the NFL. Look who’s smiling now.

By Clare Farnsworth

September 23, 2010

As Colin Cole was being led to the hallway outside the Seahawks’ locker room, he had no idea what awaited him: TV cameras. And lights. And reporters. And tape recorders.

Not the reception the team’s nose tackle usually gets. While he draws crowds on the field, the life of an interior lineman can be one of solitude when it comes to media attention. Then, the first question he was asked Wednesday concerned his shoes, not the way Cole has been clogging the middle for a run defense that ranks fifth in the league after two games.

“Without a doubt. There’s no question about that,” offered the affable Cole, who was wearing a pair on beyond-neon sneakers, when asked if he has the snazziest shoes on the team. “My shoe game is better than most.”

More to the point, this sole brother’s on-field game has been as noticeable as his shoes.

Entering Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers at Qwest Field, the Seahawks’ defense is allowing averages of 57 rushing yards per game and 2.0 yards per carry. And Cole has been right in the middle of most of that good stuff. He leads all the linemen with nine tackles, but even more important is the way his disruptive, space-eating presence has allowed others to make plays.

“When centers block him, he doesn’t move very much,” coach Pete Carroll said of Cole, whose 335 pounds are packed upon his 6-foot-2 frame to create a body that was made to play nose tackle.

“He needs to control the line of scrimmage and not get knocked back. He doesn’t have to run sideline to sideline to make his plays; he makes his plays in the box.”

The box is that area between the tackles on the line of scrimmage where only the strong survive, and it takes even more to thrive.

“He’s been very effective in the first couple of games and really given us good play,” Carroll said of the nose tackle he inherited in January when he signed on to be the Seahawks coach. “The style really suits his makeup. He’s very physical at the point, doesn’t get knocked around and also has good instincts to find the football.”

That style Carroll referred to is “a combination of 3-4 principles with 4-3 personnel,” as Carroll puts it.

That style also fits Cole as well as his flashy shoes. He also was the nose tackle in his first season with the Seahawks, but that was in 4-3 personnel with 4-3 principles. Now, Cole is closer to being the true nose tackle he was born to be.

“The defense the way it is right now kinds of allows me to move around a little bit and get singled up a little bit,” Cole said. “So I’m able to move laterally and locate the ball a little bit better. Last year, I was in a gap so it was easier for those guys to get two blockers on me and just kind of stay on me.

“That made it a lot harder to get to the ball. Now, with the two-gap scheme, as well as sliding head-up over the center, he brings me to the play most of the time. It’s pretty good to play off him, especially when I’m single-blocked, and make plays. Last week and the week before that, I was able to make a couple plays outside of what of a normal nose tackle is able to do.”

Obviously Cole is not doing everything by himself. There’s also three-technique tackle Brandon Mebane , who’s also bigger than he was last year but still as active; five-technique end Red Bryant , a 323-pound converted tackle; “Leo” end Chris Clemons , who has played the run better than advertised for a rush-end; Junior Siavii and Kentwan Balmer , two more big, active players who have been used in the line rotation; middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu , the metronome of the defense; active outside ’backers Aaron Curry and David Hawthorne ; strong safety Lawyer Milloy , who will turn 37 in November but is playing like he’s going to be 27; free safety Earl Thomas ; and cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings .

“We’re really making the holes small and making it hard for guys to be able to get in there and run up the middle,” Cole said when asked for the Seahawks’ secret to their run defense after two games.

“Most people want to establish the middle running game. But we’ve been able to squeeze off holes and whatever’s been outside guys have been able to scrape over the top – we’ve got fast linebackers who are able to scrape over the top and get to things.”

The way the Seahawks are playing, especially against the run, is hard to overlook.

“The first thing that’s always stood out to me about their defense is they’re fast,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said during a conference call interview. “They really fly around. Even more so, to go with that fast, this year’s team (has) that size inside.

“They’re big and obviously playing really well against the run. They have really stuffed the run the past (couple) weeks, so it’s going to be a challenge certainly to run the ball.”

It’s all by design. Carroll and John Schneider wanted to get bigger, without sacrificing any speed on defense.

“We look for big guys to hold the point,” Carroll said. “So you need bulky, big, strong guys. That’s why it’s important for Colin Cole to be part of this defense in the middle.

“We thought we could get big. We were preparing for our division, as well – a division that likes to run the football with big backs and tough backs. We thought that would all fit together so that’s why we went that way.”

No one is happier than Cole. This is a guy who signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent after not being selected in the 2003 draft. He spent time on the practice squads of the Vikings and Detroit Lions that season, only to be released. He was on the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad in 2004, before being signed to the active roster in late November. From 2005-08, he started eight games for the Packers.

So when the Seahawks went after him in free agency last year, his first reaction was: Where do I sign?

“It means the world to me,” Cole said of being not only wanted but appreciated. “I was actually sitting back last night talking with my wife about this whole situation, and thinking of where I’ve come from.”

That discussion was interrupted by a commentator on TV.

“It was the same gentleman who told me I wouldn’t make it in this league and I’m not good enough,” Cole said. “To have the opportunity to do well these first two weeks, obviously I’m happy.”

That commentator obviously didn’t account for the soul of this sole man.

“Any time you get a chance to make some tackles and make some plays, and cause some disruption, it’s a lot of fun,” Cole said. “And going above and beyond what I’m expected to do is exciting to me.”

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