Sione Pouha and the violent, exhausting art of playing nose tackle in a 3-4 defense

Sione Pouha, right in the middle. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Sione Pouha, who played nose tackle in the Jets' 34-19 win on Dec. 4 over the Washington Redskins.

There’s an old football saying that if a team’s run defense is like a tent, the nose tackle is the tent pole: If it collapses, the whole thing collapses. Given this, Sione Pouha, the 32-year-old nose tackle who is winding down his third straight year as the unsung hero of the Jets defensive line, deserves a great deal of credit.

Pouha performed excellently the past two years after taking over at nose tackle for Kris Jenkins, the high-priced starter who sustained season-ending injuries both years. This year, the first of his seven he’s entered as a starter, Pouha has kept up the pace.

According to Pro Football Focus, a web site that grades each player on each play, Pouha has ranked fifth, eighth and second, among all N.F.L. nose tackles since 2009. This year, before yesterday’s game, he ranked first among nose tackles in stopping the run.

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He had another strong game yesterday. As usual, he played around two thirds of the snaps, sitting out only obvious passing situations like third-and-longs and situations that call for a prevent defense, like Washington’s final two drives. But he was extremely effective when he was on the field, showing how a low-profile nose tackle can make a huge impact.

Insofar as the Redskins had success on the ground, it came on off-tackle runs and sweeps to the outside. Only one run up the middle—a four-yard gain by Roy Helu on which Pouha was uncharacteristically blasted out of the hole—could have been considered a success. That is, until Marcus Dixon stripped the ball from Helu, and the Jets recovered the fumble.

Aside from that play, Pouha quietly went about winning just about every one-on-one battle with the man—or in most cases, men—who were assigned to block him. It was the type of outing that compelled Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to single Pouha out for praise last week.

“He’s been just quietly so solid for us,” Pettine told reporters. “He’s gotten better at all the little things, just understanding all the things that a nose tackle has to see in a game, all the different blocking patterns and the way teams attack a nose, and just kind of the tricks of the trade is where he has really progressed.”

That’s a nice quote about the fact that there’s more to being a nose tackle for the 300-pounders who play the position than throwing their considerable weight around. But even with high-definition television, it’s very hard to appreciate the intricacies of what nose tackles are doing, stationed as they are in the middle of the blur of the opposing lines smashing into each other on each play.

I CALLED UP ERIK HOWARD TO FLESH SOME of this out for me.

Howard played eleven years in the N.F.L. as a nose tackle and won two Super Bowls with the Giants. Howard’s crowning moment occurred during the 1990 NFC Championship game against San Francisco: With the 49ers clinging to a one-point lead and needing only to pick up a few first downs to run out the clock on the game, he forced an improbable fumble from 49ers running back Roger Craig that was recovered, before it even hit the ground, by Lawrence Taylor. On their ensuing possession, the Giants drove for a game-winning field goal.

Howard is now a land developer in Texas specializing in new construction of vintage-style homes, the first of which is a historic plantation house in Marshall, near the Louisiana border, where he lives with his wife and three kids. He told me he’d gladly talk about the technical aspects of playing nose tackle, but that he couldn’t speak to current events in football because he hasn’t watched the sport since he retired.

“I’ve seen enough football for two lifetimes,” he said of his years getting slammed around in the trenches.

Howard played nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive scheme similar to the one the Jets run, except the Giants’ had fewer wrinkles: Howard, as the nose tackle, pretty much lined up head-to-head—or “head-up”—on the center. With the Jets, Pouha lines up head-up some of the time, but also lines up shaded on either shoulder of the center.

Still, the job description is pretty much the same: React to the center’s first step and put yourself into a position to make tackles on either side of him. The requirement that defensive linemen position themselves to play two gaps distinguishes the responsibilities of linemen in a 3-4 from those in a 4-3 scheme, in which they start the play in one gap and attempt to penetrate it. While linemen in a 4-3 scheme take their first step forward and are charged with manning just that gap, 3-4 linemen must move laterally along the line.

This distinction is nothing less than that between attacking and reacting. For that reason, Howard, who played in a 4-3 in college at Washington State, wanted no part of the 3-4 scheme after the Giants drafted him. When he was told to play nose tackle, the most grueling, anonymous position, he asked coach Bill Parcells to trade him. Parcells' answer was, “No.” And that was that.

“Instead of attacking and being the hero and making all these tackles in the backfield, you’re moving laterally along the line," said Howard. “It’s really a totally different mindset.”

In this reactive mindset, the first, most important thing to react to is the center’s first step. If both the center and nose tackle are lined up straight across from each other, the center will always step laterally to wall the nose tackle off in whichever direction the play calls for. As soon as the center steps in either direction, the nose tackle must quickly mirror that step. If he is not quick enough in doing so, the center can simply turn his body on the nose tackle, thus creating a seam for the running back.

“It’s not rocket science, but you have to have good reflexes,” Howard said of this mirroring first step. “If you don’t move laterally quickly enough, you make it very easy for him to block you.”

Just as the center and nose tackle are taking their first steps off the snap, they’re also firing their hands into the middle of each others’ chests. Precision in hand-placement is absolutely crucial: A player has much better leverage if he can get his hands inside the numbers of the opposing player.

“That’s how you control a guy,” said Howard. “It may sound pretty simple, but given the time frames we’re talking about, literally milliseconds, it becomes harder. Remember, the [center] is moving laterally, and he knows where he’s going and you don’t.”

That’s why, said Howard, he practiced hand-placement “a hundred times a day in practice.”

But there’s no practicing quick hands. And the player with quicker hands will have the first crack at achieving ideal hand-placement.

“It’s like that game you play as a kid when one guy puts his hands out and the other tries to slap them,” explained Howard. “The other guy”—the center—“has the starting gun.”

Of course, there's one key way a defensive lineman can overcome the center’s advantages of knowing when the ball is snapped and where the play is going: anticipation. For Howard, the longer he played, the better he knew how to read an opponent’s stance. From his three-point stance inches across from the center, he would size up all the linemen across from him.

“When you’re in there, you can notice subtle shifts in weight," he said. "When a guy’s heavy in his stance, he’s coming after you. When he’s a little lighter, he’s gonna back up, and it’s a pass. Now look at the guard: Is he leaning to come after you or is he cheating up?”

Those linemen who have played enough snaps and studied enough film of opponents can take these subtle shifts in weight and formulate an idea about which play might be coming and what they have to do.

That’s what Pettine meant when he said Pouha understands “all the things that a nose tackle has to see in a game, all the different blocking patterns … and just kind of the tricks of the trade.”

Said Howard, “It looks like we’re just playing sluggo up there, but line play is a lot like a ballet, or karate. It’s using the other guy’s weight against him, it’s misdirection and footwork. It’s subtle stuff that you can’t see from up in the stands, but if you’re right there on it, you can see.”