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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.
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!'"