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DTs have become premier run stoppers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe in his next reincarnation, if the Hindus are right about such metaphysical matters of consequence, Marcus Stroud will be reborn as a cornerback.

It would be poetic justice, after all, if the Jacksonville Jaguars fourth-year defensive tackle was recast at a position where talkin' smack is the anticipated communications vehicle. Defensive tackles, you see, aren't supposed to yack. In character, they brood, and stomp around, and, heck, punch offensive linemen in unspeakable nether regions.

But as the NFL's king of filibustering interior defensive linemen, Stroud talks from the time he steps onto the field, until he steps on the team bus two hours after the game. If he can't prod an opponent or a teammate into a dialogue, Stroud will just go solo, because he really doesn't mind that much if the only person paying attention is himself.

Here, though, is the thing: Given his size, and strength, and the fact he was selected for his first Pro Bowl appearance last season, people listen to Stroud now as if his name was E.F. Hutton. So when a visiting reporter suggested to Stroud that he and John Henderson now comprise the best young tackle twosome in the league, and the big guy edged a bit forward in a folding chair that defied several laws of physics by managing to somehow hold his 320 pounds, said scribe couldn't help but become all ears.

"The best young tandem?" said Stroud, feigning (we think) mock indignation. "How about the best tandem, period, man. That's our goal. Forget about using that there 'young' (disclaimer). I feel like we're right there with the best (duet) in the league. And the two of us still have room to get a lot better."

Tough to argue when, even sitting down, a guy towers a foot over you. Tougher to disagree, perhaps, when you flip on the videotape of Henderson and Stroud and what the pair of former first-round draft choices accomplished in 2003. On a defense that finished second in the NFL versus the run, a discipline head coach Jack Del Rio demanded of his charges from his initial day on the job here, the two Jaguars inside mashers where really the primary catalysts.

Stopping the run, like rebounding in basketball, is pretty much a thankless task. It is a "grunt" job, a "want-to" dimension to the game. But someone has to do the dirty work and, in that regard, Stroud and Henderson are like a couple hogs in slop. Would they like to collect more sacks between them? Damned straight they would because, as both tackles pointed out in separate interviews, sacks are the first statistic everyone scrutinizes when attempting to assess defensive linemen.

Then again, does anyone really remember that Ellis Johnson of Atlanta led the league in sacks (eight) by interior linemen in 2003? Probably not. Do players around the NFL recollect that the Twins, with Stroud chosen with Jacksonville's first-round pick in the '01 draft and Henderson snatched up with the team's top choice a year later, have grown up to be Twin Terrors? You better believe they do.

But the sacks, they figure, will come if the Jacksonville defense continues to render offenses one-dimensional. And since running inside against the Jaguars may be akin to trying to nudge the Great Wall of China an inch or so to the left, coordinators might be wise to simply start throwing the ball every snap against the Jags defense.

"The thing is, we bought in pretty early on to stopping the run, even if it took us a little while to get successful at it," said Henderson, a pleasant guy but certainly the straight man, the more taciturn of the two. "Coach beat us over the head, every day and night, with how important (run defense) is to the game. I think we're to the point now where we feed off of stopping the run. We take it as a personal challenge. I mean, you think you're going to run against us, well, think again. That's our attitude. As much as I like getting a sack, I enjoy it just as much getting into the backfield and putting a runner down on his back, (disrupting) the running game. Marcus, I think he likes it just as much."

Indeed, the two young tackles are of like mindset, if disparate personalities, on just about everything. Ironically, they played in college for bitter SEC rivals, Stroud at Georgia and Henderson for Tennessee, but bonded quickly at the NFL level. They hang out at each other's houses, play video games, do barbecue. And they have developed the special non-communicative gift, a sort of football Vulcan mind meld, that allows them to sense what the other is going to do with little more than a quick glance.

Funny thing, but when most people talk about communication on defense, they refer to the "backside," the linebackers and secondary, jabbering away with adjustments based on alignment and motion. Henderson and Stroud, though, insist the ability to read each other is vital to their success.

"Let's say, for instance, I decide to go inside on a (blocker), just because I've got some kind of instinct it will work," Stroud said. "Most times when that happens, just out of second nature now, (Henderson) will wrap around me and we'll make something good happen from that. We just have a feel about each other."

It is a little difficult to comprehend that such personality polar opposites could be so drawn together. Stroud, with his dreadlocks dangling and incessant banter, is clearly the punch-line guy. Henderson is polite but quiet, thinks hard before responding, isn't nearly as colorful. The most unusual element on the field is that, in the Jacksonville scheme, the interior linemen aren't designated as the nose tackle and the "under" tackle. Instead, in most cases, Stroud lines up on the left side and Henderson on the right. Depending on the situation, Henderson might play the "one" technique on first down and then a "three" alignment, at the "under" spot on the ensuing snap.

No matter where they are aligned, however, the pair tends to wreak havoc. Last year, Stroud and Henderson combined for 178 tackles, an amazing number for two interior defenders, and had an aggregate 25 stops for losses, eight sacks and 70 pressures. The 101 tackles for Stroud were second most in the NFL among defensive tackles.

Clearly, the guy likes to put down ball carriers nearly as much as he does talking. So it seems that outspoken and outstanding can coexist.

"It doesn't take much to get him riled up," Henderson said of his running mate. "And when he gets riled up, well, look out. He'll talk a good game but he'll play an even better one. And he knows I'm going to be there for him, the same way I know that he's always got my back, too."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.