How do I feel on Monday?" says Sugar Bear Hamilton of the New England Patriots. "Damn bad, that's how. You get hit from so many different points if you're one of us pinball-type guys that it's rough. And you hurt. On Mondays, I go right to the whirlpool and the steam room."
"Mondays are hell," says the Oilers' Curley Culp. "Something's sore all the time the first part of the week."
Such words may be accepted as understatement since Hamilton and Culp are defensive linemen who happen to play the most punishing position in football. They are NFL noseguards, or nosetackles, if you prefer. By any name they are singular athletes who bear the heaviest burdens of the 3-4 defense for the greater good of the team.
With their peers at the position, they are both the sacrificial lambs of pro football and force-fed gluttons for punishment—defenders for whom there is no escape from contact or collision, which they attract on every down they play. Thus the best—Culp, Hamilton, Dave Pear of Oakland, Rubin Carter of Denver, and the rest—should have even less love for the 3-4 than for the quarterbacks they are able to sack on rare occasions.
October 21, 1979
A bigger pain is the affront to the noseguard's ego. A defensive lineman in the 3-4 is no longer the freewheeling marauder and savage pass rusher he may have been in the conventional 4-3. Nor are he and his fellow linemen recognized by some catchy nickname. As a noseguard, his role is more disciplined and his tackles, sacks and applause all occur less often, although he has a heavier work load than he ever carried in the 4-3. Those defensive perks go to the linebackers he sacrifices for.
From the moment he lines up in the three-man front, it is obvious why the noseguard is so named, since there he is, nose to nose with the opposing center. But there is nothing odd or cute about his responsibility or the punishment he must take if the defense is to succeed. Once the ball is snapped, his territory becomes a free-fire zone replete with drive-blocking, clipping, holding, hand-fighting, hits from the blind side, legalized cheap shots—altogether, some of the game's dirtiest play. Amid all this, the noseguard must hold his ground and try to collapse the passing pocket even though he is invariably double-or triple-teamed by the blockers.
"There's no question in my mind," says Fritz Shurmur, the Patriots' defensive line coach, "that it's the most punishing position in football. The noseguard has a shot coming at him all the time, from a guard on either side as well as the center. We try to move the defense over once in a while to take a little bit of the heat off, but it's tough to protect him very much when you're rushing three and covering with eight."
The noseguard who can be handled by the center alone soon will be seeking other work. It is essential that he tie up as many blockers as possible to free a linebacker for the tackle or for pass coverage. Toward that end, his options are precious few: he can fire off the line straight into the center or go right or left at the center's shoulder or the guard gap. Occasionally, he may stunt with one of the defensive ends. But rarely does he avoid the battering of a double-team block, which some teams execute by using a back to help the center, on the aptly named Wham Play.
For an example of the noseguard's lot, consider Pear's opening series against Denver last month. Bear in mind that it was one of his easier times on the field:
First for the Broncos at their 42—Pear slams off the right shoulder of Center Bill Bryan, takes a shot in the side but helps tackle Rob Lytle. Second down—Pear surges in through the right-guard gap, hand-fights Bryan and collapses the pocket; Quarterback Norris Weese escapes for seven yards. Third down—Pear, in the 4-3 this time, is blocked out of the play as Lytle gets a first down at the Raider 47. First down—Pear is whammed in a double-team by Bryan and Running Back Jim Jensen, which enables an Oakland linebacker to sack Weese for a loss of five yards. Second down—Pear smashes into Bryan, spins off the left guard and tackles Lytle. Third down—Raiders go to a four-man rush and sack Weese for a loss of eight yards.
In those six plays Pear endured a dozen different body blows while helping to hold Denver to three yards. Unlike the end, who may get a breather when a sweep goes away from him, the noseguard seldom is far removed from any play or its blockers and—a cause of much frustration—he is always the defender closest to the quarterback, whom he so seldom even touches.
"A lot of the time it's very difficult," says Culp, "because as defensive linemen we want to get to the quarterback but we have to be team-oriented first. Psychologically, it affects you if you let it, because you get off one blocker and there's another one waiting for you, and it's like that the whole game. So you just got to try and try and try and try."
Culp has won All-Pro honors five times during his career, and much of his success springs from the ability to make the good play no matter how much he may have been bumped around before-hand. Culp gave a classic demonstration of his resiliency last month when the Oilers opened the 1979 season at Washington. With 6½ minutes left to play, Houston trailed by five points. Culp crouched lower over the center, steeling himself for another charge at a Redskin offense that had handled him through much of the game with the usual double-teaming and by running to the outside. As the ball was snapped, Culp fired into the left shoulder of Center Bob Kuziel, caromed off and immediately took an explosive block from Ron Saul, the left guard. Moving to his left, Culp slipped off Saul's block and again collided with Kuziel, whom he grabbed and threw aside like a grizzly swatting a salmon. Culp then lunged toward the ruck of bodies converging at the right-tackle hole in time to hit John Riggins, the Redskin ballcarrier, who fumbled under the force of Culp's tackle. Houston recovered at the Washington 29-yard line, scored a touchdown eight plays later and hung on for a 29-27 victory.
Culp had survived three solid collisions before he made Riggins the victim of another, thus saving the Oilers from defeat—and all in less than 20 seconds' time.
Quickness, strength and agility are obvious requirements for the kind of explosive All-Pro play that Culp showed the Redskins, but a noseguard must have technique as well as talent. Size doesn't hurt, either.
Culp is 6'1", 265; Hamilton 6'1", 245; Carter 6', 256; and Pear 6'2", 250. None is Too Tall, as in Jones. Height is a boon to a conventional defender but a detriment to a noseguard, who must get underneath the center's block and apply leverage.
"If I were 6'5" or taller," Pear says, "I'd be too awkward to play the position. It's also easier to keep blockers off my legs at this height."
For Joe Collier, the Bronco defensive coordinator, noseguards also should be blessed with an Oliver Hardy-model gluteus maximus. "They've got to be pretty wide," he says. "They can't be narrow-hipped because they take so many of those angle blocks that the guy with a skinny rump will just get wiped out."
As for technique, Culp and Pear are effective even though their styles are radically different. Pear is exceedingly mobile and as often as he shoves, rips, grabs and pushes his way through blockers, he will race by or pirouette off them, with moves vaguely akin to those of a vintage single-wing tailback. Pear beats many blockers because he probably has more speed than any other noseguard in the league, as well as a playing philosophy to match his reckless style. Convinced that the punishment of his position will shorten his career by games, if not seasons, Pear says, "My theory is I want to go for the gusto. I would rather play fewer years and do a good job than play a long time and do an average job." A wrestler in college, Culp uses his arms and upper body in a Greco-Roman approach to his art and, while he has won grudging respect from every blocker in the NFL, his highest praise comes from teammates who are trying to copy his work.
"You gotta realize how Curley uses his shoulders," says James Young, a third-year defensive end. "That's what he does better than anyone else. He looks like he's stepping right toward you, but he rocks and swings his shoulder to you and as he does that, he rips up and grabs and pulls you off balance."
"It's really like a chess game in there," says Carter. "What you have to do is use the different moves you develop—maybe a grab and rip, or a grab, fake and a rip. You've also got to rely on instinct. Sometimes you just feel that guard coming down and all of a sudden you know, 'I've got to shift my weight quick.' Sometimes you can dump the center in front of the guard and then you've got a big pileup. You can have some fun at times."
Every man who plays this rugged position, however, finds one aspect no fun at all. The job has grown more dangerous than honest football should be because of the chop block, which the NFL has yet to rule out.
It is decidedly a dirty technique. An offensive player employing the chop block nullifies a noseguard or other defender by hitting downward toward his knees while he is immobilized by another blocker. Combined with the legal clip zone in the line, the chop block is a crippler that jeopardizes the career of every defensive lineman.
"When that second guy goes for the knees," says Eddie Biles, the Houston defensive coordinator, "the defensive player has no chance at all. And it isn't necessary. If two people are going to work on one, the second guy doesn't need to hit below the waist. If they have to block that way, they don't belong in professional football."
"They don't really try to block, they try to maim you," says Culp. "It's something that shouldn't exist, but it does. They took the head slap away from us on defense and I never saw anyone get hurt from a head slap, but last year against Buffalo, the damn back came through the line, went past me and then turned around and clipped me at the knees. I don't mind a guy cutting me from the front, but when he's behind you, you can't see him and you can't defend against that."
Pear agrees. "It doesn't make any sense at all to me," he says, "that they can chop at my knees and maybe give me the kind of injury that can wreck my career and I have no legal weapons to compensate. Hell, they've made crack-back blocks illegal, as well as blocking below the waist on kick returns and late hits on the quarterback. They ought to start looking at some of the shots the defensive linemen have to take. Noseguards in particular are taking some unbelievable shots at the knees."
The NFL has reacted to this sanctioned sleaziness in the finest tradition of the Department of Energy. In a memo last June, Commissioner Pete Rozelle acknowledged the objectionable aspects of the chop block and urged every coach to abandon its use and instruction. Yet it remains a legal game tactic.
Despite the peril and punishment, however, the noseguard tribe increases. Since 1973, when Miami first employed the 3-4 defense on its way to a 17-0 season, eight other teams have adopted the 3-4 (though many of them revert to the four-man line on passing downs): Houston, Oakland, Denver, New England, Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. As of two weeks ago, when the Giants temporarily used the 3-4 to stun Tampa Bay—New York's first victory of the season—some 20 players were staffing a position that hadn't been seen seven seasons ago. Among those challenging Culp, Pear & Co. as the best are Denver's Don Latimer (6'3", 265), who has performed admirably the entire season, never better than during Carter's recuperation from an ankle injury; Philadelphia's unsung Charlie Johnson (6'3", 262), who has had only two years' experience at the position; and Tampa Bay's Bill Kollar (6'4", 250), who has helped make defense the most consistent asset of the improved Buccaneers.
His lot in football is not easy, but the noseguard is thriving despite his bruises, and what more can a sacrificial lamb expect?