Top defenses feature mighty men in the middle

NFL defenses covet swanky cornerbacks and safeties (got to have at least one of each). A wicked, pass-rushing defensive end induces grins (especially nice). Ever seen an exalted defense without a mobile, tenacious linebacker (essential)?

But the defensive tackle in today's game has carved his nook.

Actually, he requires a space more like a canyon.

Some of the best ones stand 6-foot-6 and weigh nearly 350 pounds. They reside in the trenches, sometimes positioned directly over the ball, oftentimes aligned directly to the right or left of the ball. Some of them are run-stuffers who also occupy linemen so that swift linebackers can make plays. Other defensive tackles' chief role is to collapse the middle and get into the backfield and down the line of scrimmage and make crunching plays. A handful are skillful enough to do both.

Defensive tackles are in the tightest, closest combat. The most grueling combat.

They take on frequent double-team blocks from offensive linemen.

Get a hat (on the offensive lineman) and create a crack (a bee-line to the ball), they are often instructed.

All of them are finding their roles magnified, their importance recognized.

The best of them make everyone around them better football players.

"You talk in any sport about your strength up the middle," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. "Those guys are right in the middle, right at the ball. The closer you are to the ball before it is snapped, the more impact you can have. I go back to my initiation as a player in the NFL in the '70s and being with Joe Greene at tackle in Pittsburgh. He created total havoc. And fear.

"The really good ones, you have to double-team them. And we are finding that the really good ones, you have to pay a big price to get that guy. When you can find a 300-pound-plus defensive tackle who not only is very quick off the ball but can make tackles in pursuit, that is the optimum. That is the prototype for the millennium."

The big brutes who occupy offensive linemen, negate the run game, collapse the pocket and keep linebackers free to make big plays are defensive tackles including Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325) of New England, Haloti Ngata (6-4, 345) of Baltimore and Jamal Williams (6-3, 348) of San Diego. Those relying more on quickness include Pat Williams (6-3, 317) of Minnesota and Trevor Pryce (6-5, 290) of Baltimore.

Among the rarest breed that routinely excel employing both traits are Albert Haynesworth (6-6, 320) of Tennessee, Kevin Williams (6-5, 311) of Minnesota and Tommie Harris (6-3, 295) of Chicago.

Linebacker Ray Lewis insists that the Ravens won their Super Bowl after the 2000 season largely because of a mammoth defensive front (i.e., Tony Siragusa, 6-3, 340) that kept Lewis free to roam. He believes that the Baltimore defense declined when his big tackles vanished. Ngata was drafted in the first round, the 12th overall pick, in 2006 by the Ravens to return to that blueprint. And when injuries this summer surfaced along its line, Baltimore did not sleep. On Wednesday, it traded a pick in each of the next two drafts to Tampa Bay for defensive tackle Marques Douglas (6-2, 292).

Minnesota, with the Williams duo at tackles, led the league in rushing defense last season. It all started with those two men closest to the ball, solidifying the middle. The Jets grabbed Kris Jenkins (6-4, 349) via a trade with Carolina to bolster the Jets' middle. The Raiders during the offseason paid Tommy Kelly $18 million in guaranteed money to remain a Raider. Tommy Kelly? As one Raider official said, requesting anonymity: "Where are you going to find a 6-6, 300-pound, 27-year-old tackle in his prime who can play tackle like he can? He has to fight off injuries and be consistent, but we think he can. If you've got a guy like that at that position, you think long and hard before you let him walk. The position is too important and too hard to properly fill."

Ask Cleveland. The Browns traded a solid cornerback (Leigh Bodden) and spent two high draft picks in grabbing tackles Shaun Rogers from Detroit and Corey Williams from Green Bay. The Browns want the middle of their defense plugged. Rogers (6-4, 350) and Williams (6-4, 320) can do that. And more.

And two of the first seven picks in this year's draft were defensive tackles: Glenn Dorsey (6-1, 297) by Kansas City and Sedrick Ellis (6-1, 305) by New Orleans.

Dungy says that Dorsey can be unique.

"Maybe the best we've seen in a while," Dungy said. "He has to learn and stay healthy. But he plays the position the way I like it, fast and quick but with power, too."

Bears coach Lovie Smith says that his tackle, Harris, cannot be blocked one-on-one. Like Dungy, he wants his tackles active and making plays all over the field.

"If Tommie is getting the double teams, somebody across the defensive line is getting single-blocked all day, and that guy has to win those battles," Smith said. "Tommie is powerful and with great agility can run things down. We want all 11 on defense getting to the ball. It makes sense that the guy who is closest to the ball when the play starts needs to make an impact in that. If an offense makes a mistake blocking him, it can blow up the entire play; he's right on the ball. Even if an offense makes a mistake blocking a defensive end, you can chip him at the start and sometimes account for that. Not with the tackle right in your backfield. He's already on the quarterback. On the ball."

Who is the premiere defensive tackle in today's NFL who keeps offensive coordinators up at night? Who is the tackle that forces offensive line coaches to tell their offensive coordinators, "This is what we can do against this guy -- this is what we can't do"? Who is the tackle who makes the defensive ends better, allows the secondary to play deeper, is primarily double-teamed and forces creative blocking schemes?

That would be Haynesworth.

Some people call him "Painsworth."

He has had his troubles, including stomping on the forehead of an opponent in 2006 that resulted in a five-game suspension. But last season he returned to being an in-game force, with the Titans 10-3 with him in the lineup and 0-3 when he was not.

"My job is to be disruptive," Haynesworth said. "Cause commotion. I usually line up with the ball to my left. I get in the backfield. People can play off of me. We all have our different roles. Mine is to dominate."

Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck plays behind Haynesworth. That is as tough a defensive tackle/linebacker combination in the league. Haynesworth says that players at his position who impress him most are Richard Seymour (6-6, 310) of New England and Cleveland's Rogers. Haynesworth is Tennessee's franchise player this year, earning $7.25 million this season. Both he and the Titans say they can work out a long-term deal before his contract expires next season. Hayesworth says these are reasons why:

"You have to be explosive, powerful and intelligent to play tackle in this league," he said. "I approach every game like I'm earning my reputation. I play the game like offensive linemen hate me and like I hate them. Dominate. Know I am superior."

For these defensive tackles, in their trench combat, it's the motor. It's the mind.

"It's the game now," Haynesworth said. "We've found a pretty important place."

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