ATTACK OF THE SPACE EATERS

January 10, 2011

They're big, they're hungry and they're primed to dominate the postseason. Wide-bodied defensive linemen have become a gargantuan piece of the Super Bowl puzzle

Even the laugh is big, and here it comes now. Steelers nosetackle Casey Hampton, 325 pounds (sure, whatever) in roughly the shape and density of a shot put, begins to shiver, and the sound rises from deep in his diaphragm. It happens frequently as he conducts a tour of his life and his work, which cannot be explained with a straight face. In this instance he is reacting to the routine (and apparently ridiculous) assertion that the chop-blocking of engaged defensive players is illegal. "Illegal?" says Hampton. "That never gets called." His eyes grow wider, and his mouth falls open as the laugh rumbles up through the chest into his windpipe and finally spills out, a stentorian baritone echoing off the walls in the hallway outside the Pittsburgh locker room. It is a huge sound from a huge man.

Hampton belongs to a singular fraternity: that of giant defensive linemen. Not just large, but enormous. Bigger than everyone else on the field. Bigger, even, than you think. In an absurd profession in which physically gifted men crash into each other for piles of money—and your entertainment—while suffering potentially life-altering damage to their bodies and brains, these oversized players have the strangest job of all. Their goal is not necessarily to defeat opponents but to occupy them; not to chase down ballcarriers but to fill space that might otherwise be exploited by them; not to make plays but to absorb punishment so that teammates can make plays. In pursuit of these unglamorous goals they are required to carry massive (but not too massive) amounts of weight that they unabashedly lie about in public and promise to lose later in life. They are sensational athletes who look at first glance as if they should be contestants on The Biggest Loser.

And in the coming weeks, as the NFL playoffs unfold, they are the immovable objects that must be moved. It will be cold in Foxborough or Pittsburgh, or it will be tense and late in the game for a team like New Orleans or Green Bay; a lead will need protecting, a team will need to run. "But you have these big men," says Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, a 19-year NFL coach, "and if you can't push them off the ball, if you can't get them out of the way somehow, you're going to have a very difficult time making a yard."

They stand in the way, and everything about them is big.

BIG JOB

For much of football history the defensive lineman engaged mano a mano with a blocker across the line of scrimmage, winning the battle by freeing himself to make the tackle. There were double teams, trap blocks, crackbacks and other creative ways to gang up and eliminate a defender, but that defender's primary responsibility was to beat his blocker. In the 1970s, with the introduction of the 3--4 defense, some linemen's job descriptions began to change. This alignment required a nosetackle to play directly over the center, where he would be double-teamed on almost every play because of his proximity to the backfield. That allowed his teammates more freedom.

"The first one I coached against was Dave Rowe with the Raiders [from 1975 to '77]," says Howard Mudd, who mentored NFL offensive lines from 1974 to 2009, most recently with the Colts, and in his first year of retirement has consulted for the Saints. Rowe was listed at 6'7" and 270 pounds—big for that era. "They were the first team that realized if you put a big guy on the nose and forced the offense to double-team him, you could free up other people. Rowe did that job with the Raiders. Other guys made plays."

The 3--4 took off in popularity. "[General managers] realized it was easier to find linebackers than defensive linemen," says Mudd. And while football innovation is fickle—over the last quarter century the 3--4 and 4--3 fronts have traded dominance—the space-eating position for which Rowe (probably) was the prototype has endured. Consider: Hampton, Vince Wilfork (Patriots) and B.J. Raji (Packers) are old-school 3--4 nosetackles (although Wilfork has occasionally played on the end this year). Haloti Ngata of the Ravens is a 350-pound 3--4 tackle. Remi Ayodele (Saints) is a 4--3 tackle. Each has a variety of skills built on a common foundation: They are difficult to push backward, and they will mess up a running game.

"It's not a glory position," says the 29-year-old Wilfork, who was named to his third Pro Bowl this season. "I'm not a quarterback. I'm not a receiver. I'm not even a penetrating three-technique [tackle]. I'm at the bottom of the pile. Sometimes you see the running back get up before me. You just have to learn what plays you can make and what plays you can't make. If I'm getting double-teamed, there's a high probability that I'm not going to make that play."

But somebody else is. "What you want to do is take up two guys," says Ayodele, 27. "One of those two guys is the center, and his job is getting out to block the linebacker. If you stop him, the middle linebacker makes 100 tackles, and then the fans can say, 'Woo, woo, look at the middle linebacker!'"

The space eater lines up in a three-point stance with his helmet inches from the center's, or slightly farther from a guard's or a tackle's. At the snap he and his blocker often collide like rams. "Believe me," says Dolphins guard-center Richie Incognito, "that's a lot of man coming at you in one step." And a lot of preparation and technique too. "You study tendencies just like a quarterback," says Raji, 24. "You're not always going to be right in your reads, but you need to prepare because everything happens fast."

These middle men employ tricks like attacking a center's right side after a shotgun snap because the center's right arm is tucked into his midsection after following through and there's almost no chance he can raise it to block before the defender has tied him up. Some of them, like Ayodele and Hampton, play mostly on running downs; the more quick-footed of the bunch, like Wilfork and Ngata, play nearly the entire game because they can be disruptive in bull-rushing a passer.

Yet even on the inside, where the work would seem to boil down to a simple wrestling match among massive humans, the game has evolved. Hampton, 33, was the 19th pick in 2001 out of Texas, where he twice led the team in tackles. He was moved to the nose in the Steelers' 3--4. "Everybody told me it was a big step up to the NFL," says Hampton. "It wasn't. It was easy. They would try to block me with one little guy, like 300 pounds, or even give him help with another little guy, and I'd just overpower them. I was dominating. It's different now."

As interior linemen have grown larger, offenses have moved from power-running, power-blocked attacks to the popular inside and outside zone-blocking schemes, where offensive linemen move laterally—"like on railroad tracks," says Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Mu√±oz—in an attempt to use space eaters' size against them. Once a giant man begins moving laterally, it's difficult for him to stop. The runner is instructed to wait until the defense has overrun the play and then to cut back against the grain.

Terrance Knighton, a 336-pound second-year tackle whose Jaguars were eliminated on the last weekend of the season, says, "We're comfortable working in a small space. They want to get us running sideways." Even this is no guarantee of success. Ngata is listed at 350 pounds, runs the 40 in 5.01 seconds and arrives with frightening momentum. "The truth is that some of these huge guys are surprisingly athletic," says Mudd. "You see them start running, and you just hope they don't catch up."

BIG PEOPLE

When big men make the Pro Bowl they find each other and find common ground. They talk defensive schemes, families, the sensational weather. But the primary topic is weight. It rules the life of the big man. "We talk about our coaches," says Wilfork. "'Man, is your guy trippin' about your weight?' We all just wish they'd leave us alone. We joke about it; that's all we hear. The weight, the weight, the weight."

Surely there are few positions that better demonstrate the growth—literally—of pro football. Consider the legendary Fearsome Foursome, who played for the Rams from 1963 to '66. The ends were Deacon Jones (275) and Lamar Lundy (245); the tackles, Rosey Grier (284 pounds) and Merlin Olsen (270). Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, this year's Heisman Trophy winner, goes 250.

These days, coaching staffs want their space eaters to be as big as possible, but not so big that their athleticism or endurance is stunted. The team establishes an ideal weight. The space eater, meanwhile, feels that the constant battle to maintain a prescribed weight is more exhausting than playing at a slightly heavier one. Take Knighton. As a high school junior he was a 6'2", 250-pound wide receiver. In a prep year before college he was a 285-pound tight end/linebacker. He kept growing, moved to nosetackle at Temple, and at the NFL combine in the spring of 2009 he weighed in at 321.

After a solid rookie year (during which he picked up the nickname Pot Roast), Knighton went home and ate his mother's cooking. He blew up to more than 370 pounds. During training camp this summer the Jags made him run daily after practice until they felt he had dumped an acceptable amount of weight. "[Coach] Jack [del Rio] told me, 'I want you big,'" says Knighton. "But he said, 'I don't want you too big.'"

And that's the battle. Wilfork had been a running back in Pop Warner, but by the time he was a freshman at Santaluces Community High in Lantana, Fla., he weighed 275. He shot up to 370 while sitting out a college season for academic reasons, played defensive tackle for the Hurricanes at between 338 and 350 and weighed 323 at the 2004 combine. The Patriots like him at a "program weight" of 325, and it is a source of constant frustration to Wilfork.

"I played at 345 pounds in college, every snap, in the heat," says Wilfork. "Up here they want me at 325. They tell me if you're 20 pounds lighter, you're going to do this or that better. That's a bunch of baloney. I don't buy it. As a player I don't feel stronger or faster at 325. I've had a hard time coping with that. But that's just me."

Actually it's not just him. Hampton also hates fighting weight. "I feel better when I'm a little bigger," says Hampton, who's listed at 325. "I do get a little more tired when I'm heavier, but I also get tired when I'm constantly trying to lose the weight. Say you're a little guy, walking around at 180 pounds. Then your boss tells you to come to work every day at 170. You know how hard that is?"

The Steelers have given Hampton financial incentives to keep his weight in their designated range. Three times a year—at the beginning of training camp, at the beginning of the season and in early December—he gets on the scale. If he hits his target weight in all three sessions, he gets a $1 million bonus. "If you offer me $100,000, with the money we make, I'm just going to weigh what I want to weigh," says Hampton. "But for a million dollars I'll get there. That kind of bonus benefits me and the team." (Most NFL big men have similar clauses, albeit not for as much money.)

Ngata would like to move in the other direction. He came into the league as a run-stuffing 335-pound nosetackle from Oregon but now plays as a 3--4 defensive tackle against the run and on the nose against the pass. A former rugby player at Highland High in Salt Lake City, Ngata is freakishly agile and tries to improve his movement skills in the off-season. The Ravens like his weight where it is, at 350, and he accepts that. "But I'd like to be a little lighter," says Ngata. "I think I'd be more consistent. The more you weigh, the more pressure it puts on your knees, your back. And at the end of the season, when it's cold out, you're not sweating and you get even heavier."

BIG LIES

The official weights published on team websites, in game programs and in this story? Some of them are absolutely wrong; the rest are just probably wrong. Hampton says, "Big men do not want you to know their real weight. Anything you hear from one of us, it's not accurate. We kind of hold on to that. It makes us feel like we're still a little sleek, you know." Hold for that Hampton laugh: There it is.

Hampton's 325? "Not accurate," he says. He divulges his true weight on the condition that it not be published. It is higher than 325. Not crazy higher, but higher. "The team knows the real number," says Hampton. "And I know it."

Ngata's official weight is 350. "Right now," he said in mid-December, while sitting on an overmatched stool in the Baltimore locker room, "I weigh 347, 348."

Raji's roster weight is 337. "That's close," he says. "We'll leave it at that."

Ayodele: officially 318. "Is that what it says?" he asks. "They want me at 325, and I'm 322 right now."

Knighton is on the books at 336. "I'm about 335," he says. "So that's not too far off."

That's the information. Believe it, or take a scale on the road. But in this discussion Wilfork is the lightning rod. There's no disputing that he is a terrific athlete and football player. He put the shot 68 feet in high school, underscoring his coordination and fast-twitch quickness. He makes plays up and down the line of scrimmage and is effective rushing the quarterback. The Patriots are paying him $40 million over five years for these skills.

However, few of his peers believe Wilfork weighs 325 pounds, as advertised. "Look at me," says Hampton, spreading his arms wide. "Now you know what I really weigh. Do you think Wilfork weighs less than me?" Well, probably not.

Coincidentally, Ayodele is in the process of getting weighed by the New Orleans strength and conditioning staff when he is told that Wilfork claims 325 pounds is his honest weight. "Three twenty-five?" says Ayodele. "No, I don't think so." He turns and tells his teammates, who are also getting weighed, and there is a roar of laughter. "No," says Ayodele. "Not 325. No, no, no."

Knighton, the youngster, says, "Well, if you had asked me to guess, I wouldn't have said anything close to 325. But if that's what Wilfork says, he's a good player and he's a lot older than me, and he's been playing this position longer than me. So 325 it is."

Deacon Jones might have been lying too. So 325 it is.

BIG RISKS

As much as some of the big men would like to be even bigger now, all of them claim an understanding that they must someday get smaller to preserve their health and prolong their lives. "I'm going to get down some," says Hampton. "It won't be easy. I'm a big person, not a fat person. All my weight is in my ass and legs. My family is big. When I lose weight, my head is going to look too big for my body. But I'm going to try to get under 300 pounds, for sure."

Raji can't remember being small. He was 255 as a freshman at Westwood (N.J.) Regional High, and in the NFL—when 600 pounds of offensive linemen lean on him in the middle of the chaos that is a single play—his size and strength are his survival tools. But not forever. "I think about that all the time," says Raji. "This is a business right now, and we're a part of that business. Teams want you at a certain weight. I try to eat well, but I don't eat like a vegetarian. I don't want this to come out wrong, but I'm in a financial state where, when I get out of the game, I can hire a chef or somebody to cook for me so I eat the right meals and lose a lot of the weight. I want to have a wife and kids someday."

Ngata already has a wife, Christine, and a 17-month-old son, Solomone (called Sam). Ngata's mother, Olaka, died in 2006 from complications due to diabetes and kidney disease, and further, Ngata says gout is also common among those of his Tongan ancestry. "My wife worries about me," says Ngata. "Right now I don't have any signs of diabetes or gout, but I'm hoping the older I get, the lighter I can play. And then when I'm done, I'm going right down to 270. We want to have more kids, and I want to be able to play with them."

Wilfork, too, has reason for health concerns. Both his parents died in 2002: his father, David, at 48 from complications due to diabetes, and his mother, Barbara, at 46, after a stroke. Wilfork and his wife, Bianca, have three children: sons D'Aundre, 13, and David, 16 months, and daughter Destiny, 7. He may complain that the Patriots keep his weight lower than he'd like, but in reality he says he's working every day to keep it from mushrooming and that he's preparing himself for a healthy life after football.

"When I was younger I never really ate bad," says Wilfork. "It was the portions that killed me. You wouldn't believe the portions. I'm a chicken man, any way you cook it. Fried, barbecued, you name it. And early in my career I was out of hand. Now I grill a lot. I drink a lot of water. I don't eat after seven o'clock at night. My wife stays on me."

Wilfork is standing in the catacombs of Gillette Stadium, just outside the New England locker room. This part is serious. It's another aspect of a brutal game, less visible than the blown-out knees that leave generations limping and less politically urgent than the concussions that rob men of their memories. But no less real. "The last thing I want," says Wilfork, "is to get sick with something I could have changed. When I stop playing, man, I'll be so small you won't even recognize me."

For now, though, the poundage has a purpose. So the big man stays big.

"IT'S NOT A GLORY POSITION," SAYS WILFORK. "I'M AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PILE. SOMETIMES YOU SEE THE RUNNING BACK GET UP BEFORE ME."

"BIG MEN DO NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW THEIR REAL WEIGHT," SAYS HAMPTON. "ANYTHING YOU HEAR FROM US, IT'S NOT ACCURATE."

"MY WIFE WORRIES ABOUT ME," SAYS NGATA. "I'M HOPING THE OLDER I GET, THE LIGHTER I CAN PLAY."

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICHPOUNDS FOR POUNDING For the Steelers' Hampton and his bulky brethren, the primary job is to occupy blockers, which frees teammates to make the plays. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSHEAVY DUTY At 325 pounds (give or take), the Patriots' Wilfork is, as one Dolphins blocker put it, "a lot of man coming at you in one step." PHOTOBOB ROSATOMAN IN MOTION Offenses have turned to zone-blocking schemes that force big tackles like Ayodele (92) to move laterally.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)