March 23, 2009
By Donald Starver
In part 1 of this series, we did a primer on the 3-4 defense. We talked about the unique characteristics of the 3-4, and how it impacts the type of players the Steelers select in the draft. In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.
The nose tackle is the central figure in any 3-4 defense, and is one of the most difficult positions to find. There just aren’t many athletes that have the unique characteristics needed to play nose tackle.
Nose tackle is probably the most physically demanding position in football. His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps. Those are the two openings between the center and the guards. The nose tackle must hold his ground and not allow himself to be pushed back into the linebackers. If the nose tackle is unable to do this, his team will be susceptible to running plays.
The nose tackle must be prepared to face a double-team on every single play. This means the nose tackle must have tremendous stamina and endurance. Taking on two offensive linemen who both may weigh over 300 lbs. is no easy task. To do it for a full 60 minutes requires excellent conditioning, despite carrying around tremendous bulk.
This is one of the reasons why Mike Tomlin was so hard on Casey Hampton during the Steelers’ 2008 training camp. Tomlin knew that Hampton could not afford to be out of shape. The concern was not his weight, since the extra weight might actually prove helpful at nose tackle. Rather, the concern was with Hampton’s endurance. There is a very thin line between being an immovable, athletic nose tackle, and being a fat, out-of-shape slob.
That’s one of the reasons that NFL teams don’t simply import 600 lb. sumo wrestlers and plug them in as nose tackles. While those guys may have the necessary girth, they don’t have the other attributes needed to play nose tackle.
The nose tackle must have tremendous size, powerful arms and legs, excellent stamina, durability, mental toughness, lateral quickness, solid technique, and an ability to generate maximum leverage. In addition to all of this, the nose tackle must also have a unique mental profile. He has to be completely selfless. He must understand that while he will have to perform a more physically demanding task than any other player on his team, he will seldom be recognized for his work. His best efforts will rarely show up in the statistics. Moreover, the linebackers will receive all of the glory, even though the nose tackle actually does the heavy lifting.
3-4 nose tackles don’t have to be as fast as 4-3 defensive tackles, since they are not tasked with generating a pass rush like 4-3 tackles are. In the 3-4, that responsibility fall to the linebackers.
The ideal nose tackle will be proficient at reading and reacting to offensive plays. He must be able to quickly diagnose a play and know where the ball is going. He must have quick lateral movement to fill either “A” gap before the runner can get through it.
The standard for nose tackles was probably set by Ted Washington. At 6’5″, 365 lbs., Washington was an immovable man-mountain. One AFC personnel director said that Washington “was huge, had long arms, and you couldn’t budge him. He could hold off a 320 lb. lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other”.
Current notable 3-4 nose tackles include the Steelers’ own Casey Hampton (6’1″, 325 lbs.), the Chargers’ Jamal Williams (6’2″, 348 lbs.), the Browns’ Shaun Rogers (6’4″, 350 lbs.), and the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata (6’4″, 345 lbs.). Hampton is smaller than the others, but his low center of gravity and powerful legs allow him to generate tremendous leverage.
As a side note, you may have noticed that the AFC North is filled with big, powerful nose tackles. This is why Sean Mahan was not a viable center for the Steelers. He just wasn’t big enough to handle the huge nose tackles that he had to face in the AFC North.
The thing that makes it even harder to find a potential 3-4 nose tackle is that most colleges play a 4-3 defense. Few college players have experience holding the point of attack. Instead, most college tackles are asked to penetrate gaps and provide a pass rush. They are skilled in moving forward, and are seldom asked to stand firm.
In the 2009 draft, there are only a handful of potential NFL nose tackles. Two of them play for Boston College.
Boston College’s B.J. Raji is the top defensive tackle in the entire draft. At 6’2″ and 334 lbs., he is viewed as a good candidate for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme. Raji dominated linemen at the Senior Bowl. At Senior Bowl practices, he dominated highly rated offensive linemen Alex Mack and Max Unger.
Raji’s Boston College teammate, Ron Brace, is also viewed as a potential 3-4 nose tackle. Brace is 6’3″ and 329 lbs. However, because he played next to Raji, Brace never had to face double-teams. It is unclear how well he will handle the double team. Moreover, Brace had recurring back injuries in 2008. That is not a good sign for someone his size.
Sammie Lee Hill of Division II Stillman (Alabama) College is considered another nose tackle prospect. Hill is 6’4″ and 328 lbs. However, the caliber of competition that he played against raises questions as to whether Hill can hold his ground against NFL linemen.
Michigan’s Terrance Taylor (6’0″, 308) was once viewed as a decent nose tackle candidate. However, Taylor struggled in the East-West Shrine Game. That raised questions in some scouts’ minds. Additionally, Taylors’ conditioning has been questioned.
As we said earlier, top tier nose tackle candidates are rare. Three of the four candidates mentioned above have significant question marks, and only Raji is viewed as a “sure thing”. Raji will probably be drafted in the top 10 picks, and will not be a candidate for the Steelers.
To read the other installments in this series, click below:
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