[This article is one of eight in B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series, introduced here.]
Coming into last season's playoffs, Darnell Dockett—like the Cardinals as a team—had been inconsistent in the regular season, managing just four sacks and only one in Arizona's last eight games.
Then, like the Cardinals, he showed up big-time.
It started with Arizona's home wild-card game against Atlanta.
Dockett and the Cardinals' other defensive linemen caught on to rookie quarterback Matt Ryan's unchanging snap count and harassed him, tallying three sacks and forcing the Falcons' careful quarterback into throwing two interceptions.
Dockett didn't nab one of those sacks to pad his stats line. Instead, he took the field in the second half and changed the game.
The Falcons had scored 14 points in the last three minutes of the first half, taking a 17-14 lead and momentum into the locker room at halftime. They had the ball to start the second half, looking to expand their lead.
On the drive's second play, Ryan turned around to hand the ball off to running back Michael Turner—but Dockett, who had already beaten Atlanta guard Harvey Dahl into his gap off the snap, jammed his hand into the exchange and tore the ball free, right into the arms of Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle.
Touchdown, Cardinals—21-17, and a breach in the Falcons' offensive line that opened a floodgate for Arizona's defense.
Dockett performed well in the Cardinals' next two games. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme was pressured into throwing five picks, and Dockett played to the last whistle against Philadelphia, intercepting a lateral on the game's final play to seal the win.
But his shining moment came in defeat, harrying Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger snap after snap in the Super Bowl.
Dockett's three sacks and five tackles in the box score hardly do his Super Bowl performance justice. He played like his hair was on fire, hitting his gap relentlessly, hustling in space, and forcing Roethlisberger to make some truly spectacular desperation plays to earn the win. And the whole world saw it.
Going into the 2009 season and beyond, Dockett has the opportunity to turn that month of national exposure into legitimate stardom.
Star-caliber tackles are described, past their statistics, in terms of their effect on running games and quarterbacks. After chasing Roethlisberger around for four quarters, Dockett's name should come up in pre-game chatter this season as the representative for the Cardinals' pass rush.
That's the kind of talk that makes the voting public aware of what opposing linemen, coordinators, and coaches have known for a few years.
Dockett's nine sacks and Pro Bowl appearance in the 2007 season put him on the map, but the Cardinals' new status as a playoff team will involve him in a higher level of conversation about the NFL's elite defensive tackles.
(He plays a hybrid role in Arizona's defense, sometimes lining up over an opposing tackle as an end, but usually takes the inside gap and should be considered an interior lineman.)
If Dockett can produce in the coming season like he did in the playoffs, making big plays and chaos, his star will keep rising.