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These guys get their nose dirty
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Dennis Dillon / TSN
Posted: 3 minutes ago
 

Imagine walking down a crowded New York sidewalk and colliding head-on with someone heading in the other direction. While the two of you try to disengage, another guy sideswipes you. Then, someone else shoves you from the other side. These other pedestrians are big, strong and wear heavy body padding, and the jostling continues block after block after block.

Now you know how it feels to be a 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL. Sort of.

"To play that position, you really have to be a stud," says the Raiders' Ted Washington, 36, who is playing nose tackle for the 14th season and with his sixth team. "You get pounded on every play."

"You've got to be a bad ass to play there, no question," says Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan.

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Nose tackle is a down-and-dirty position -- the most physically demanding in football. It comprises lots of exertion, body trauma and grunt work but no glamour and little recognition. It requires you to sacrifice your body so your teammates can make the tackles and capture the glory.

Here's the job description: Needs to be strong and stout. Has to quickly diagnose blocking schemes and plays. Must stand his ground, plug the gaps on either side of the center, take on constant double-teams and keep offensive linemen from reaching linebackers. Physical distress is to be expected.

"Oh, man, everything hurts," says Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. "Your legs hurt, your hips hurt from getting hit so much. All my fingers are jammed by the third or fourth game of the season. You just get used to it."

The best nose tackles share several physical characteristics besides aches and pains. Necessary traits include girth, balance, quick hands, a low center of gravity, explosive hips and strength in both the upper and lower body. Nose tackles must establish hand position on the center, absorb -- and sometimes shed -- combination blocks and stay on their feet. If they can't make the play, they have to keep linebackers free so they can.

A 3-4 nose tackle has to stay square to the line, get underneath the center's pads, anchor and hold his ground. His primary responsibility is to control the "A" gaps, the two openings between the center and guards, and not get pushed back into his linebackers. If a running play comes through one of those gaps, he must make the tackle or control what is called the "jump-through" -- the guard or center who is trying to get out to the linebackers.

For example, if the Texans' Seth Payne can stop a lineman from getting to the next level, inside linebackers Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman can be free to make tackles. And if the nose tackle can penetrate inside and collapse the pocket on a pass play -- a bonus -- it creates one-on-one matchups for the ends and outside linebackers.

Leverage is essential. Half the battle is getting inside hand position on the center, jamming him and standing him up. That's why being shorter isn't necessarily a bad thing. The taller the nose tackle, the more he has to bend his knees. Lean, slender bodies need not apply.

One of the biggest challenges for a nose tackle -- especially in the face of all the double- and sometimes triple-teams -- is to stand his ground and not allow himself to be displaced. "The worst thing is not knowing where that double-team is coming from when you're head-up on the center," says Washington. "You're looking for the ballcarrier, and one of the guards can ring your bell."

Ted Washington is one of the few NFL players able to handle the nose tackle position. (Jim Rogash / AP)

It's not always the guards. Sometimes another offensive player can ambush an unsuspecting nose tackle on what is called a "wham" play. For example, a tight end can creep down the line behind the tackle and guard and then burst into the nose man. "It can clean your clock," says Washington.

Although the constant banging has taken its toll over the years, Washington is considered the prototypical nose tackle of this era. "In his prime, Ted Washington was the ideal guy," says an AFC pro personnel director. "He was huge, had long arms, and you couldn't budge him. He could hold off a 320-pound lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other."

Nose tackles share one more attribute: a healthy appetite. They like to eat, and they have the bellies to prove it. Payne (6-4, 303) has one of the better physiques, but he admits he needs help to keep it. "My wife does a good job of keeping the junk food out of the house," he says. "But if she messes up and lets me go shopping, I'm going to come home with a half-eaten apple pie."

Filling in the gaps -- and then some

Nose tackles come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as big as Washington (6-5, 365) or as small as the Ravens' Kelly Gregg (5-11, 310).

If you went shopping for the ideal nose man, you'd leave Gregg on the shelf. Not only does he lack size, he has short arms. When the Ravens signed Gregg to their practice squad in 2000 (originally he was a sixth-round draft pick by the Bengals in 1999), defensive tackle Tony Siragusa nicknamed him "Buddy Lee."

Ravens coach Brian Billick was skeptical about Gregg until he saw him perform in a 9-on-7 practice drill. Suddenly, Billick's attitude changed. "Hey, this guy is going to be pretty good," he thought.

Billick wasn't the only Ravens coach who was impressed. After Gregg was added to the Ravens' roster in 2001, running backs coach Matt Simon wanted to make him a fullback and offensive line coach Jim Colletto wanted to make him a guard. Ryan, who had coached Gregg in college at Oklahoma, said balderdash, or something to that effect -- he's a defensive lineman.

Like most 3-4 nose tackles, Gregg is a two-gap lineman. Unlike most, he's a playmaker. In 2002 and '03, his first two seasons as a full-time starter, he averaged almost 70 tackles and totaled five sacks. During the Ravens' Monday night loss to Kansas City in Week 4, Gregg made six tackles and frequently was in Kansas City's backfield.

"He sheds quick and makes a lot of tackles," says Ryan. "He plays with as good a technique as anyone in the league, I think. It's almost flawless."

Gregg has built-in leverage because he's short. And his background in wrestling -- he was a three-time heavyweight state champion at Edmond (Okla.) High -- is a plus when it comes to grappling with offensive linemen.

"He'll never go to a Pro Bowl because he doesn't look the part," says Ryan. "He's undersized. He's always pulling his pants up. But when that ball is snapped, he can play."

Getting an insider's view

There's more to playing nose tackle than grabbing, shoving and receiving body blows. It's also a thinking man's position. You have to recognize formations and blocking schemes and react accordingly.

Get an inside look from the film room as Payne reviews his role in one series from the Week 4 game between Houston and Oakland. Trailing, 10-3, Oakland begins at its 15 with 11:35 left in the second quarter.

First-and-10. Amos Zereoue runs over right guard for 7 yards.

The Raiders line up in a two-back, one-tight end set. The tight end is to Payne's left and one of the backs is split to his right. Just before the snap, that back motions into the backfield and lines up at fullback, but Payne doesn't see it. "I get a counter play that I wouldn't have expected because I don't see that back in the backfield. I get sucked inside a little too far by chasing the center, and (guard) Ron Stone does a good job of sealing me off. They get 7 yards on it, but it could have been a lot worse."

Second-and-3 at the 22. Stone is penalized for a false start.

Quarterback Kerry Collins comes to the line slowly, which makes Payne think the Raiders are going on a quick count. When he alertly yells, "Quick count!" Stone and left tackle Barry Sims jump offside. "The offensive linemen are pointing me out to the umpire and referee, complaining about me simulating the snap count. I yelled, 'Quick count,' to warn everybody, but because they were supposed to go on the first sound, that's what the offensive linemen heard and they took off."

Second-and-8 at the 17. Zereoue runs up the middle for 2 yards.

The Texans are in a 4-3, with Payne and Jerry Deloach as the tackles and rookie linebacker Jason Babin lined up at left end across from the tight end. At the snap, the Raiders' linemen move to their left, making it look like the play is going to be a run to the outside. This is called influence blocking. They are hoping to draw Payne and Deloach with them and seal them off while Zereoue cuts the other way. "Jerry and I both do a good job of reading that, and we end up making the tackle with Babin, who beats the tight end's block and crashes down. That was a good group play by the defensive line."

Third-and-11, following a Raiders false-start penalty, at the 14. Collins completes a 10-yard pass to tight end Doug Jolley, and the Raiders are forced to punt.

On third down, the Texans go into their nickel formation. Payne leaves the field and is replaced by a fifth defensive back. "Athletes stay on the field, Payne goes to get water," Payne says. Doesn't he consider himself an athlete? "I am, but it's a relative term," he says, laughing.

Playing in traffic

If the 1974 Patriots were trendsetters, Ray Hamilton was a pioneer. The Patriots, under coach Chuck Fairbanks, employed the 3-4 as their regular defense that season -- the Houston Oilers also began using it that year -- and Hamilton, a 14th-round draft pick in 1973, became one of the league's first pure nose tackles.

"Once we started playing it, most of the other teams kind of went to it full-time. Now, it's more of a changeup-type defense than a staple," says Hamilton, who is in his 18th season as an NFL assistant and his second year as the Jaguars' defensive line coach.

Thirty years ago, linemen on both sides were smaller. Centers weighed 265 to 270 pounds on average, and most nose tackles were short and stocky; Hamilton was 6-1, 250. But the concept of the position is the same today as it was back then.

"There's a lot of things happening in there really, really fast," says Hamilton. "It's like a real fast rush-hour deal. You have to be quick with reactions and seeing things, have good hands and good eyes and be able to decipher what's going on pretty fast."

Nose tackles might be the most underappreciated players in football. Even their teammates don't give them proper respect. Fred Smerlas played 200 games during a 14-season career with the Bills (1979-89), 49ers (1990) and Patriots (1991-92). During his tenure with the Bills, he started 156 consecutive games and went to five Pro Bowls. But it wasn't until he left Buffalo as a free agent that he got a thank-you call from linebacker Shane Conlan. "I never appreciated you until you were gone," said Conlan, "because no one hit me."

That's because opponents were banging on Smerlas, who might have crafted the quintessential description of how it feels to play nose tackle when he told Pro! magazine in 1983: "You see your life pass before your eyes about four times a game. The center hits you in the stomach, one guard gets you in the ribs, then the fullback drills you in the chest just as one of your own linebackers smacks you in the back. If you're mad at your kid, you can either raise him to be a nose tackle or send him out to play on the freeway. It's all about the same."

Searching for a few good men

Don't look for a proliferation of nose tackles in the NFL any time soon. Only five teams -- the Steelers, Patriots, Texans, Ravens and Chargers -- use the 3-4 as their base defense. And a good nose tackle, like a good man, is hard to find.

"Most college teams are running some version of a 4-3 defense," says Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "If you see a defensive tackle in college, he's probably more of a 4-3 tackle than a true nose tackle. It's not a natural thing for most guys coming out of college to play two-gap responsibilities. It definitely takes some time to work on."

Typically, the 3-4 NFL teams wind up attending the same workouts and bringing in the same players for interviews before the draft. A nose tackle candidate will come from New England to Baltimore, which then will send him on to Pittsburgh. "It happens every April," says DeCosta. "It's the darndest thing."

Last year, Oregon's Junior Siavii and Hawaii's Isaac Sopoaga were the two players DeCosta thought could play nose tackle in the NFL. Each was drafted by a 4-3 team -- Siavii by the Chiefs and Sopoaga by the 49ers.

As for this year, DeCosta says, "I haven't seen anybody yet who I think can play it."

It must mean most fathers are getting along with their sons.

Dennis Dillon is a senior writer for Sporting News. Email him at [email protected].

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