Ranking the NFL's 10 Best Nose Tackles
By its nature, nose tackle is one of the most unheralded and selfless positions in the NFL. In recent seasons the position has taken on greater significance thanks to the proliferation of 3-4 fronts.
The most common requirement of a nose tackle is to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the rest of the defense.
Occupying multiple blockers and creating lanes of pursuit for fellow defenders is the weekly requirement of a nose tackle, regardless of system.
For many defenses the nose tackle's performance is the most critical element of the scheme. This list includes some nose tackles who operate in versions of a 4-3 front that rely on a powerful presence over the center.
But the majority of the players on the list operate as the focal point in a base 3-4 defense. This is due mainly to the fact that most of the standout nose tackles in the league play for 3-4 teams.
Here is a ranking of the 10 best nose tackles in the game today.
Kyle Williams and Others Who Missed the Cut
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A long injury layoff is the only reason that Buffalo Bills defensive linchpin Kyle Williams didn't make the list.
Had he not been denied the opportunity to follow up his stellar 2010 season, Williams would certainly have merited inclusion.
Houston Texans starter Shaun Cody has adapted well to the rigours of Wade Phillips' 1-gap 3-4. But he is not experienced enough at the position to warrant a place on the list.
The same argument applies to Barry Cofield of the Washington Redskins. Cofield has not spent enough time anchoring a 3-4 and is plagued by inconsistency.
4-3 duo Terrence Knighton and Brandon Mebane do not appear on the list due to the same inconsistency.
Corey Williams of the Detroit Lions performs an important function for Gunther Cunningham's defense. But his place went to a division rival who doesn't benefit from quite as strong a supporting cast around him.
10. Matt Toeaina, Chicago Bears
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Matt Toeaina is the most unheralded member of the Chicago Bears tough defense. But the tenacious and resourceful fourth-year pro is a significant member of the Bears defensive line rotation.
In the Bears under front, Toeaina is required to take on the center and occupy the interior, creating one on one matchups for pass rushing defensive ends and the 3-technique tackle.
With Toeaina in the lineup, there is often more space for destructive duo Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to exploit.
When Toeaina is over the center, the Bears run defense is more stout. This allows the safeties to stay deep and maintain the integrity of Chicago's preferred Tampa-2 coverage scheme.
9. Antonio Garay, San Diego Chargers
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When on form, Antonio Garay is capable of regularly collapsing the pocket. Relying on awesome strength and excellent leverage, Garay is able to create a powerful forward push, few centers can deal with.
An extremely aggressive player, Garay is one of the few 3-4 nose tackles who is at his best when threatening the quarterback.
He can sometimes be a little inconsistent against the run and doesn't always bring the same fiery determination to disrupting the ground game.
But Garay's brute force makes him formidable at the point of attack. He frequently drives blockers backwards and is a consistent threat to penetrate the line of scrimmage.
8. Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins
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Paul Soliai is one of the finest 2-gappers in the league. The Dolphins defensive anchor is steadily building a reputation as one of the most difficult to handle nose tackles in the game.
Soliai excels at drawing and occupying double teams. His power and ferocity at the point of attack make him virtually impossible to handle one on one.
An excellent run defender, Soliai needs to refine his technique in order to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage.
He could also expand his pass rush repertoire and become more of a rush threat for a Miami defensive line which struggles to support the efforts of Cameron Wake.
7. Domato Peko, Cincinnati Bengals
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Domato Peko is the fulcrum of the Cincinnati Bengals aggressive 4-3 defense. Like all 4-3 nose tackles, Peko regularly operates in a shaded alignment over the center.
From there Peko is able to frequently split double teams and spearhead the Bengals run defense. Peko plays with intensity, but his technique is smart and precise.
It is no coincidence that with Peko disrupting the line of scrimmage, youngsters Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunalp have been able to blossom into dangerous pass rushers.
6. Sione Pouha, New York Jets
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Sione Pouha has quietly emerged as one of the most effective run defenders in the game. Pouha has gone from a deputy to the oft-injured Kris Jenkins, to becoming a significant force at the heart of the Jets opportunistic defense.
Pouha is blessed with tremendous strength and possesses deceptive speed when working down the line. One of his best assets is his quick first step, giving him an excellent takeoff at the snap.
Pouha is the basis for the Jets swarming rush defense and his stout performances in the middle of the line ensures the schematic flexibility characteristic of Rex Ryan's multiple system.
5. B. J. Raji, Green Bay Packers
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Packers stalwart B.J. Raji possesses a more diverse and dynamic skill set than Pouha. Raji's versatility is the foundation of Green Bay's defensive scheme.
The third-year pro has the power, leverage and quickness to threaten the pocket on every play. Ostensibly a 2-gapper, Raji manages to make a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage.
His penetration causes havoc in the running game and makes him a credible danger to the quarterback. With a player like Raji over the center, Dom Capers can utilise every page of his zone blitz playbook.
4. Isaac Sopoaga, San Francisco 49ers
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Moving former defensive end Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle has made an already stout 49ers run defense even more formidable.
Sopoaga is a disruptive force over the center. His tremendous upper body strength and relentless motor help Sopoaga to constantly move the pocket.
Sopoaga is such a powerful and active presence, that he demands a double team on almost every play. With Sopoaga over the center, Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are always kept clean and remain free to chase plays down.
With a little more experience at the position, Sopoaga could be expected to top a similar list in the near future.
3. Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys
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A couple of years ago, Jay Ratliff would have comfortably topped a list of this kind. Concerns about his every down durability have persisted in recent seasons, but Ratliff is still the best pure athlete to play nose tackle in the NFL.
The best decision that Rob Ryan made when he took over stewardship of the Cowboys defense, was to leave Ratliff over the center, and defy the calls to move him to end.
At 6'4" and 287 pounds, Ratliff is taller and significantly lighter than the prototypical NFL nose tackle. But his lightning-quick first step, long arms and aggressive hands technique, allow Ratliff to challenge and overcome blockers.
Most of Ratliff's reputation is built on his pass rushing ability. He is comfortable using his speed to shoot gaps or lining up directly over guards and centers and overpowering them.
But Ratliff is a very underrated force against the run. His power and quick takeoff enables him to drive blockers backwards and his speed and range allow him to disengage and envelope a ball carrier.
Ratliff is one of the most dominant players in the league and is the key to the Cowboys multiple 3-4 scheme.
2. Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots
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Vince Wilfork is one of the smartest and most versatile defensive players in the game. Wilfork has served as the centerpiece of Bill Belichick's hybrid defenses for years.
Dominant against the run, Wilfork commands attention from multiple blockers. Probably the most technically sound nose tackle on this list, Wilfork's leverage and footwork are outstanding.
Equally comfortable operating as either a 1 or 2-gap defensive tackle, Wilfork possesses both the raw power and schematic versatility to disrupt any blocking scheme.
Wilfork has seamlessly transitioned to a 4-3 front and has been by far the Patriots best defensive player this season.
1. Casey Hampton, Pittsburgh Steelers
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It seems unfair to rank him above more versatile players like Ratliff and Wilfork, but from a purist point of view, Casey Hampton is the finest nose tackle in the game.
The number one requirement of a nose tackle is to take on and occupy blockers. Nobody is better at absorbing double teams than Hampton.
The quintessential 2-gap artist, Hampton is the cornerstone of the Steelers ferocious run defense. With Hampton occluding the middle of an opposing blocking scheme, ball carriers are consistently forced sideways.
The Pittsburgh run defense has been at or near the top of the league standings throughout Hamton's decade long tenure over the center.
As one of the few proponents of the traditional, 2-gap style 3-4 left in the game, the Steelers are absolutely reliant on a dominant nose tackle.
The 6"1' 325 pound Hampton is an immovable force in the middle of Pittsburgh's front seven. He benefits from a strong and talented supporting cast, but everything the Steelers are able to do on defense, is determined by the play of Hampton.
More teams have moved back to a 4-3 this season and many 4-3 teams are choosing to do without a nose tackle and attack an offense with double 3-techniques.
Many defenses are also choosing to play more nickel on first and second down. But nose tackle still remains a key position and its distinctive skills perform a vital function for many defenses.
These savvy veterans and youngsters such as Knighton, Cleveland Browns rookie Phillip Taylor and Arizona Cardinals youth Dan Williams, are collectively ensuring the nose tackle remains very relevant.