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.
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.