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For Haslett, Nose Tackle Is Front And Center


Jim Haslett knows the nose.

As the Redskins defensive coordinator, he understands how important a nose tackle is to the 3-4 defense. Any 3-4, not just the one under installation here.

As a player, he benefited from the presence of a really fine one. In his other coaching jobs, all of that love continued to grow.

Let's hop aboard the time machine and go back to 1979.

To Buffalo, where the Bills, under Chuck Knox, had just begun playing this relatively new alignment popularized by the Miami Dolphins. Yes, the 3-4, with its three down linemen and four linebackers. The Bills' draft that year was all about defense and this conversion.

They chose outside linebacker Tom Cousineau in the first round but he signed with the Canadian Football League and never played for them. So forget him.

In the second round, the Bills drafted a burly (well, for those times) nose tackle. Fred Smerlas was 6-3, 277 pounds and the future anchor of the defensive line. Smerlas was the 32nd overall pick, which today would make him the last to go in the first round.

With the 51st selection, the Bills acquired Haslett, a linebacker from Indiana (Pa.).

Haslett became a starter immediately and was Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 1980, Smerlas stepped in as a starter. With Smerlas snarling traffic in the middle and Haslett and the other inside 'backer, Shane Nelson, free to swarm to the ball, the Bills defense became known as the Bermuda Triangle – running backs entered but disappeared.

Smerlas was named to the Pro Bowl five times in his 11 seasons with Buffalo. He was added to the Bills' Wall of Fame in 2001. The Bills were a playoff team in 1980 and '81. When Knox left after the '83 season, the Bills floundered.

The Bills allowed 260 points in that first playoff season, 276 the second (and that included just seven touchdowns rushing). They had 44 interceptions over those two years, won twice by shutout and held nine teams to 10 or fewer points.

The division title won in 1980 was Buffalo's first since 1966. Haslett led the team in tackles (143 total) and notched a pair of interceptions to go with his two sacks. Smerlas posted 6.5 sacks. Nelson had a hand in 126 tackles, had a sack, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. The Bills ranked No. 1 in the league in defense, finished seventh in '81 and were second in '82.

Joe Collier, the long-time mastermind of the Denver Broncos' defense, once observed: "The nose tackle and the inside linebackers, those are the guys that are very important. But when you go through it, the nose tackle is probably the single-most important guy."

So what would it be like to try to implement this defense without a good nose man?

"It's like playing baseball and not having anyone catching," Haslett says.

Haslett served as the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator from 1996-99 and that club had taken on the 3-4 alignment in 1982. The glamour guys there were outside linebackers, because they get sacks.

Yet the guts and grit of the defense came from the inside, where Joel Steed (6-2, 300 pounds) occupied the turf and made the Pro Bowl in 1997 when the Steelers ranked first in the league against the run. They'd been third the previous season, second the year before.

"The nose tackle," Haslett says, "should beat the center up. Hopefully he can control the middle of the field."

When training camp opens on July 29, the Redskins hope Maake Kemoeatu will be fully healed from Achilles tendon surgery that cost him the 2009 season.

He's a classic nose tackle, at 6-5 and 345 pounds. In 2005, starting all 16 games for the Baltimore Ravens, he was in on 40 tackles and had one sack. That put him on the free-agency springboard to the Carolina Panthers, where he played in a more conventional front from 2006-08.


Maake Kemoeatu (Ned Dishman Photo)

Haslett wants the Baltimore version of Kemo, not the one in Carolina's 4-3. In Baltimore, Haslett says, "he was outstanding."

After Kemo would likely be Howard Green, a veteran of seven seasons who is 6-2, 320 pounds. Like Kemo, he's 31. He played briefly for Haslett with the New Orleans Saints and has been in games with three other teams, last year with the New York Jets and their Baltimore-style 3-4. Anthony Bryant, another free agent pickup, is in the mix at a whopping 335 pounds. Adam Carriker, who figures as the left end, also has taken snaps at nose. He's 311 pounds.

Are we leaving anyone out? Uh, yeah. Albert Haynesworth. He has not come around to Redskins Park for either voluntary or mandatory activities and says he wants to be traded.

The Redskins can't count on someone they can't count on. More likely the right end, he still would have worked some in the middle because the Redskins want their linemen to play every position.

The 3-4 defense is here and so are the likely candidates to fill the middle. Those are the people Haslett will work with and he likes the ones on hand.

Make no mistake, he knows the nose.

Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at *** and follow him on **.*

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