NFL Draft

A 3-Way Discussion: Do The Steelers Use Or Need A “Nose Tackle”?

Every once in a while an exchange happens in the Comments to an article that is more valuable than almost any other part of a football blog. Those exchanges often inspire me to write an article on the point. Today I would like to go further, and actually quote a recent back-and-forth I had with posters Jeff Burton and HinesWardFan on Matthew Marczi’s article, Buy Or Sell: Daniel McCullers Will Be Steelers’ Primary Nose Tackle. I have edited only for clarity, and invite you to revisit the source if you want to double check.

The discussion took place because we differed on whether the team has a hole at the Nose Tackle (“NT”) position that needs to be addressed in the draft – the position taken by Jeff and HWF – versus my belief that the team has only the everyday want for superior talent that exists in every draft for every position. As you will see, the discussion branched into the “why” behind both of those sides. That is what made it so interesting.

Before letting you just read it all I want to include some description of the terms we’re using for those who aren’t as up on the X’s and O’s that we took for granted.

These “techniques” [red numbers] and “gaps” [blue letters] are what underlie the whole debate. They get at what the defensive linemen are actually asked to do. For purposes of this article we can summarize it by saying that half these techniques call for the defender to one-gap; i.e., to dart between two offensive linemen. A 1-tech like Javon Hargrave attacks the space between the Center and a Guard, a 3-tech attacks between a Guard and a Tackle etc. two-gap defenders like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel would essentially pin the offensive line in place so the rest of the defense could flow freely toward the ball. They played 0-tech and 5-tech roles.

Simplistic [read, “traditional”] descriptions say that this is the core difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 approach. 3-4 systems require a trio of interior two-gap players plus two standing Edge Rushers, while the 4-3 calls for only a pair of interior penetrators, plus two Edge Rushers who start with a hand on the ground. Not anymore. Modern “hybrid” defenses like Pittsburgh’s use penetration as a weapon from 3-4 formations, and/or 2-gap concepts from a 4-3 formation (Seattle does this a lot).

Note that this shows up in the depth charts accordingly. 4-3 teams need fewer backups on the DL because they play fewer starters. So what happens from a depth perspective when your nominal 3-4 plays like a 4-3, and vice versa? Debates like the one under discussion.

  • Next, serious confusion can happen because the term Defensive End (“DE”) has very different meanings for different defenses.

In a classic 4-3 that term means the two Edge Rushers who attack with a one-gap, 7- or 9-technique from outside the Offensive Tackles. The two interior defensive linemen inside the tackles (“IDL’s”) are called Defensive Tackles (“DT’s”) even though one will be more of a 1-tech and the other a 3-tech.

In Dick LeBeau’s classic Okie 3-4, “DE” meant interior defensive linemen assigned a two-gap, 5-tech role directly over the Offensive Tackle. NOTE: The 5-tech in that illustration may look like he’s shaded to the outside of the opposing OT, but that is an illusion. Once play starts the pocket turns into an arc with the ball at it’s center in the QB’s hands. A two-gap defender controlling the Offensive Tackle wants to place that opponent on a direct line between him and the QB, which means he must form up on the Tackle’s outside shoulder (from a line perspective) to be straight on against the Tackle when that line convert to an arc.

In the modern Steelers 3-4, “DE” is a geographic term rather than a position. As you’ll see us discuss, the Steelers play with three defensive linemen around a third of the time and, when they do, still use the term “end” to describe the two men outside the “nose”.

Confused? That is why the discussion keeps coming back to the underlying techniques rather than the geographic name. Modern Steeler IDL’s play the 1-, 2i, 3-, and 4i-techniques that are typically associated with 4-3 DT’s even when three are on the field together. They do not play the 7- and 9-tech roles assigned to DE’s in a classic 4-3, nor the 5-tech roles assigned to DE’s in a classic 3-4. So… are we looking at two 3-4 DE’s and a Nose, or three DT’s?

You will see that a lot of the exchange comes down to how senior posters ought to describe that confusion when the definitions get muddled and fans worry about the lack of a 0-tech specialist, which is a role (position?) the team no longer uses from any formation but the goal line defense.

  • Third, the terms “inside” and “outside” cause confusion too.

Consider: a classic 5-tech DE from a 3-4 defense (lAaron Smith) was an “interior” lineman, while a classic 7-tech DE from a 4-3 (Reggie White) was not. He was an Edge Rusher; but still considered a “Defensive Lineman” because he started with his hand in the dirt. 3-4 Edge Rushers are considered Outside Linebackers because they start out standing up. My advice? Use words like “inside” and “outside” Only as geographic descriptions, and focus on what the players actually do.

That was kind of my point all along… But perhaps it would be best to let the discussion stand on its own. No cheating Scott! Arguing through an introduction is as bad as calling a 3-tech an “end” just because the team has an extra one on the field. [Okay. Maybe I just can’t help it. Time to quit while I’m behind.] Let’s get on with what this article is actually about.

Remember: the conversation started with the premise of Marczi’s article, that Dan McCullers is the only NT on the roster because Heyward, Tuitt, Alualu, Wormley, and Buggs all get labeled as “ends.” I started the debate by saying this (two comments have been merged):

There is no such thing as a “nose tackle” position anymore, just a question of which DT plays where when the team chooses to employ a 3-DT package. It is a geographic description, not a position. Cam Heyward seems to offer the best upside at 1-tech, so I would expect him to be the primary inside DT for the heavy look.

***

P.S. In the context of this article that also means that “Nose Tackle” is not a starter role in the first place. No one can be the “starting NT” if it isn’t a starting role. But that is nitpicking, I admit. The real point is the one above: the Steelers play interchangeable DT’s with overlapping skill sets, and it is wrong to separate them into different positions just because they use three on one play and two on another.

Jeff Burton replied (again, two merged):

You keep saying there is no NT position anymore but there definitely is. Anytime a D-Lineman lines up as a zero or one technique he is playing the NT position. It’s still primarily run stuffing duty so you still need your stoutest D-Lineman. So it is exactly the same play calling and personnel wise as it ever was.

What has changed is the Steelers (and other 3-4 teams) only use the set about 1/3 of the time which makes it a much less important position than it was in Casey Hampton’s day.

***

Yes, it is nitpicking but Nose Tackle is still a ‘starting role’. It’s the same as Slot Back on defense and Full Back on offense. Both aren’t used all the time but they are still starting roles. [NOTE: I defined “starter” as the top 11 players on offense or defense. Jeff is arguing that each side of the ball may have as many as 13-14 “starters because of the sub-package and specialty roles. Add “role” versus “position” to the list of confused definitions.]

And yes I agree that there are three D-Line sets where the team uses a more conventional DT for NT. I think Wormley can be used in this way for a better interior pass rush. If you watch his film he’s plenty athletic and very active. Heck, I think he’s stout enough at the point of attack to be used as a conventional NT. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers didn’t take someone like Bravvion Roy in the 6th Rd rather than going to the position with one of the first four picks.

I followed Jeff’s thoughts as follows:

Yes, as a geographic matter there has to be someone in the center when you play with three DT’s, so the middle person is the “Nose” by definition. What I keep saying is that good 4-3 DT’s all have the ability to play both 1-tech and 3-tech. It is just a matter of shading when it comes to which one they are better at.

The old “3-4 Nose Tackle” played 0-tech, which required a different animal. The Steelers still play with three DT’s [it would have been clearer if I’d said IDL’s] on the field 30-35% of the time, but they ask the guy in the middle to play 1-tech or 2i, not 0-tech. Thus he is the equivalent of a 4-3 DT, not a 3-4 NT.

It matters because the Steelers do NOT have depth for 0-tech, but are overflowing with depth for 1- and 2i-tech. Since they only play the latter and not the former, they are overflowing with depth… for the current definition of a player at the “nose” position.

I keep going on about it because people keep demanding a 0-tech; which is what I meant by “no longer exists.”

If you are talking about a depth guy who is better than McCullers and Buggs, younger than Alualu, and without the 2021 contract questions of Wormley, fine. I can get on board with that. But this would be pure depth, and thus way down the priority list.

***

Are there any sets where you see them using the old Okie 3-4, where the front three two-gap and the one in the middle has to be a 0-tech colossus? Excluding, of course, the once-in-a-blue-moon formations that are done more for the sake of showing something to keep offenses honest. I’m trying to confirm that we agree this is a one-gap defensive line philosophy now, and the team therefore wants classic “4-3 DT’s” rather than the old prototypes for “5-tech DE’s and a 0-tech NT”.

Nice discussion, btw. It’s always good when we end up digging down instead of tossing things back and forth.

Does that clarify what I mean?

Jeff bowed out of that point, probably because HinesWardFan stepped up to expand on the arguments he’d been making:

There’s value in you reminding people that the Steelers now one gap instead of two gap. But regardless of technique, no one in the NFL is on board with the way you refer to these players.

Matt Feiler has position flexibility. Most experts say he’s equally good at guard and tackle. But when he plays next to the center, they refer to the guard Feiler, and when he plays two spots from center, they refer to him as a tackle. The same goes for Tuitt. When he plays at the end of the 3 man front, he’s playing defensive end. When he moves inside the 4 man front, he’s playing DT.

All defensive linemen are not equivalent. Slower, stouter players are generally used towards the middle of the line, and faster players are generally used towards the end of the line.

With your nomenclature, there’s no such thing as a defensive end or NT on the Steelers. They clearly disagree with that.

I understand that many players are so versatile that they shouldn’t be pigeon-holed, but the positions of NT and DE definitely still exist.

DIGRESSION TO PREACH: Take notes if you want to be the best possible poster on a football blog! This is an exchange where everyone is getting better and clearer, conducted politely and with mutual respect. It improves both the participants and the observers. Praise the mods and amen.

[Ahem]. Getting back to the discussion, I answered HWF’s comment with this:

Okay, I think we are together on the analytical part. So let me ask your advice – not being snide; I mean it.

My button keeps getting pushed because I seem some variant of this: “The Steelers have all these Defensive Ends, but the only Nose Tackle on the team is Dan McCullers! We can’t have McCullers start, so the team needs to draft a NT…”

I believe we have now agreed that the statement is false, because “Nose Tackle” does not mean what they think it does. It is a geographic term, but in the current Steelers defense one that can be occupied by Heyward, Tuitt, Alualu, Wormley, and possibly Buggs every bit as ably as it can be manned by McCullers (unless you think more highly of him than most). What is the proper way to *politely* correct that mistake? If I have gotten too shrill, what is the way to make the point? Perhaps this? “Any DT can play NT in addition to DE in the current Steelers 3-4, so we actually have five or six players that can handle the position…”?

Again, I am *not* being snide about that. I’m not that subtle.

HWF responded the next morning:

Sorry for the delay. We were enjoying world class craft beer… [That was more than enough explanation in my book, my friend!] But I digress.

I get where you are coming from with this. Can I assume that Hargrave was the perfect player for your vision of what the Steelers could use to complete their current DL? Tuitt and Heyward are very similar body types, basically a well-balanced hybrid of a traditional end and tackle, such that they can bounce back and forth between those positions effortlessly. Hargrave is built differently. He is shorter, and his weight is all in his butt, to exaggerate. He’s built like the traditional nose tackle you’ve described. They didn’t nickname him J Wobble for no reason! But he also had the mindset and skill set to get penetration, which made him a perfect hybrid NT/DT. He played almost all of our NT snaps, plus spelled Heyward and Tuitt inside the 4 man front when they needed a breather. He sounds like a perfect fit in that regard.

But the Steelers couldn’t even come close to keeping him. [Digression into points about other players omitted. Go to the original if you want to see HWF’s unfiltered thoughts]. … Hargrave is a Jack of all trades, master of none, at least in a 3-4 defense. He’s best suited to a 4-3 defense, where he can be very effective on every play from the DT position. With his body type, he’s not going to be very effective at defensive end. I loved the guy, and I’m going to miss him, but there just aren’t enough snaps for him in this defense.

I find myself wanting a specialist. A true NT, who knows that he should come off the field on passing downs. One who isn’t going to get $13MM per season and leave. … I’d be happy with adding an anchor, an immovable force with excellent leverage to our run defense. Someone we could afford when his rookie contract is up. Like you suggested, we have plenty of hybrids already.

I answered by going back to the underlying point:

I do not think Hargrave was all that different from Heyward and Tuitt. Like them, he was an interior defensive lineman who could play 1-, 2i-, 3-, and 4i-tech while holding up to double teams. He was very good at it too; just not as good as the two starters. The reason he came in for the big packages was not body type, it was quality. He’s better than Alualu, McCullers and Buggs. Just that simple.

Could Hargrave manage to hold up as a 0-tech too? I agree that he looks like he might, but we never found out because they never asked him too. Could Wormley or our other DT’s play 0-tech? The odds seem worse, but we will never find out because they won’t be asked to either. This is why I keep saying that Hargrave’s departure leaves a quality gap (he was a superb #3) but not a lineup gap, since they replaced him with a good #3.

[Answer to the digression omitted]. The question is whether Pittsburgh has a hole in the roster after Hargrave’s departure and Wormley’s arrival. The answer is no. How do I get that point across without repeating every time that “3-4 nose tackle” and “3-4 defensive end” now require identical skills in the Pittsburgh defense, even though they required starkly different ones 10-15 years ago? I have been trying to do it by saying those position titles are antiquated, and people should think of them all as “modern defensive tackles”. Sometimes you have two on the field, sometimes three, and occasionally one, but they all can play each other’s spot if asked to. You object to that approach. What would work better?

Apologies for the length. I hope you enjoyed the night with the family.

At this point HWF explained his thoughts from a different slant:

An offensive line rarely changes its size, weight, power or skill set throughout the game. The Steelers are constantly switching between a 3 man and 4 man front. Don’t you agree that there’s at least a slight need to for the NT to offset the weight lost at the point of attack by the 2 OLB dropping back off the line? On presumed running plays, teams put either 2 DT and 2 DE on the line, or 2 DT/DE hybrids and an anchor in the middle.

I disagree that the 3-4 NT and DE are now equivalent players in general, and that Wormley and Hargrave are equivalent in skill set. First, the end has to be quicker in space, so they tend to be more slender. In general, they also tend to be taller. [] Wormley is very much that compared to Hargrave. He’s taller AND lighter, with a much higher center of gravity. He’s better off outside, just as Hargrave is inside.

I think Wormley spells Heyward and Tuitt, as Hargrave did at times. But they don’t have a guy to replace the many Hargrave snaps at NT. Sure, they can ask one of their more-slender-than-a-NT DL to do their best imitation, but I’m in the group calling for someone predisposed to the NT position. I believe the Steelers would have drafted one in the 4th round if Hargrave hadn’t been underrated and a steal in the 3rd. Let’s just see what presents this time.

No worries on length [Grin]

Again, note that this is phenomenal poster technique. We are exchanging thoughts and questions rather than ‘merely bouncing back and forth with “my way good, your way bad.” All parties are digging, not poking, and I daresay that we (and all the observers) enjoyed the exchange much more because of that.

I followed HWF with this reply:

No, I do not think there is “at least a slight need to for the NT to offset the weight…” He does that in the current defense by getting a better jump and achieving penetration, with the ILB’s behind him having 2-gap duties to scrape and fill.

But that may be misleading. There are times when the player also has to withstand a double team. Some players are better at handling this than others, whether by splitting the double team or having the knack to stay in place even when it happens. Size helps with that, but more as a proxy for length and strength than in terms of simple tonnage. Remember that the model 0-tech from Hampton’s day was a bit shorter and typically very heavy, but he also had exceptionally long arms and had to be renowned for his country strength. If you could shrink Dan McCullers from 6’7″ down to 6’2″ while keeping his arms and his power, you’d have a perfect specimen. [What is the opposite of a medieval rack…? LOL].

Bottom line: it isn’t about size per se, it is about the ability to handle the double teams that get ever more common as you move closer to the Center. I just checked Alex Kozora’s article on Wormley being “A Run Stuffer’s Run Stuffer.” What are the primary physical and play-style assets? Excellent length, tremendous strength, ability to hold up to double teams, and short-area penetration. That skill set is everything we ever ask a “nose tackle” to do in the modern defense. He would have gotten worn down over time in Hampton’s day, but I’m not worried about that for someone playing less than half of Hampton’s snaps; and even less worried because the players behind him have the same assets to do this job.

BTW, I would like to spend some time on definitions. *All* of the Steelers’ defensive linemen are “interior” guys from the analytical point of view. The dividing line is whether a lineman plays outside the tackle box… “Outside defensive linemen” are your edge rushers; 4-3 DE’s and 3-4 OLB’s. Calling Cam Heyward or Stephon Tuitt and “outside” player is as misleading as saying they play the same position as Jadeveon Clowney. Both are called “defensive ends” on their respective roster, but the duties are totally different. This is why I keep trying to say the Steelers use “Defensive Tackles”; in order to avoid the misleading nomenclature.

Or to put it another way (you did say length was okay, LOL!)… Everyone will agree that the Steelers now play a hybrid defense. What does that mean? The classic way of describing it is a mix of 3-4 concepts with 4-3 personnel, and 4-3 concepts with 3-4 personnel. This is why our OLB’s have grown a little larger and longer, while the IDL’s have merged into a single DT category.

At this point I decided the exchange was so good that it deserved to be posted as it’s own, freestanding article. Which has now been done. My very sincere compliments go out to both of my unwitting fellow authors, along with thanks for making this author’s life that much easier!

Do you have thoughts to add? This is a conversation that ought to continue! Please share in the comments below. Just remember that we are all united in wanting to make the Steelers as good as possible, and the only disagreement in all this comes down to whether prioritizing the Defensive Line would be an optimal way to accomplish that. No one is knocking any of the prospects who might be available at DL, and no one is being accused of ignoring that or any other position/role on the team.

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