January 03, 2012
The interior of the line is the most important area of the field. As the the old adage goes, games are won or lost in the trenches. The guys who are bigger, stronger, more physical, and more imposing, generally dominate on the football field, and the biggest guys on the field play on the offensive and defensive lines. Both lines are composed of huge and extremely athletic men, but the most athletic players are on the defensive side of the ball. They are generally smaller than offensive linemen, however they are much quicker and just as strong. And, each position on the D-line has a specific purpose. Defensive ends pursue the quarterbacks on passing plays and contain the outside edge on rushing plays. The play of the defensive end is pertinent to the effectiveness of any other defensive linemen, but the most important position on the defensive line in a 3-4 defense is the nose tackle.
A 3-4 defense is a deviation from the standard 4-3 formation that uses three down linemen and four linebackers instead of four down linemen and 3 linebackers. The 3-4 utilizes its four linebackers to attack and confuse opposing offenses by having more play makers on the field. In general, the linebackers are the most agile, versatile defensive players on the field. They are nearly as big and powerful as the linemen and are quick and disciplined like the defensive backs. Linebackers in the 3-4 formation can blitz the quarterback or drop into coverage on any play. But, their ability to make plays is predicated on the ability of and the effectiveness of the defensive line which depends on the play of the nose tackle. While every other player on the defensive side of the field is free to attack the football with reckless abandon, the nose tackle has to engage two to three players on every play in order for the defense to be effective. For the linebackers to run and make plays at the second level of the defense, the nose has to keep the interior offensive lineman off of them. He is not expected to get sacks and make big plays, but he is expected to hold at least two blockers for two to three seconds on every defensive play of the game. The average offensive lineman in the National Football League today is 6’3″ and weighs 300+ pounds. A nose tackle has to occupy two to three of these gigantic men on any given play, and is still responsible for stopping interior rushing and getting a push towards the quarterback on passing plays.
Therefore the average nose tackle in any 3-4 defense is a freak athlete. He has to be enormous, with long arms and quick feet. He has to be stronger and more athletic than each lineman that he faces because he will have to face multiple linemen on every play. He has to be agile enough to wrestle and slap with one 300 pounder up high while dodging a second 300 pounder that is diving at his legs. The man that plays the position of nose tackle, though he may not look it, is surprisingly one of the best athletes on the field. And, the best nose tackles in the NFL are usually incredible athletes. Players like Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork, and B.J. Raji are three of the only defensive interior linemen that are regularly dropped in coverage, instead of only occupying blockers. At 300 lbs. or more, these guys are quick and agile enough to guard tight ends that release onto shallow passing routes and running backs that release into the flats. They anchor the defense and make it more versatile.
Nose tackles are the heart of the 3-4 defense. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis graciously thanked the management team of the Baltimore Ravens for acquiring Haloti Ngata, and thanked Ngata himself when asked what prompted the return of his defense to the top of the league. He told the media that he pushed his head office to look at film of Ngata in college at Oregon because he knew that Ngata would allow him up to roam from sideline to sideline like he did in his younger days. Lewis was right. The 6’5″, 330 lb. Ngata was the perfect fit to dispose of blockers, attack the run, and free the linebackers of the Ravens to make plays. And in order for a 3-4 defense to be effective, a player that can engage offensive linemen is a necessity. The nose tackle though not necessarily glorified as such, is often the most important player on the field.