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Cody and Gregg: Mountains in the middle

In the first quarter of the Ravens' first preseason game, Terrence Cody Hulk-smashed the notion that he wasn't yet fit to play in the NFL.

Holding off a hefty offensive lineman with his left arm, Cody reached out and knocked down Pro Bowl running back DeAngelo Williams with his right. The finest of Cody's five tackles in the Ravens' 17-12 win over the Panthers silenced, at least for one night, the critics who mocked his less-than-svelte physique.

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"That's why we drafted him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said with a knowing grin after the game.

It takes a unique combination of size, strength, skills and savvy to play the unheralded position of nose tackle. That's why man-mountains capable of devouring double teams and anchoring the middle of the defensive line have become a hot commodity in the NFL. Veteran nose tackle Kelly Gregg has been doing it for years, and the Ravens are banking that Cody, expected to be Gregg's primary backup in 2010, can do it, too.

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Nearly half the league's 32 teams will use the 3-4 defense — with three defensive linemen and four linebackers up front — as their base defense in 2010 (the Ravens run a hybrid defense that switches between the 3-4 and the 4-3). A decade ago, the 3-4 was a novelty.

"Teams have a lot of good, athletic linebackers that they want to get on the field," Cody said, referencing Ravens linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson. The linebackers can plug holes against the run, blitz the quarterback from the edges or up the gut, or drop into coverage, taking unprepared passers by surprise.

But to be able to roam free and make plays in the 3-4, linebackers need their 300-plus-pound teammates on the defensive line — most notably the nose tackle — to neutralize as many blockers as possible.

"The D-line is just as important to me as the offensive line is to a running back," said Lewis, who initially had reservations about the 3-4 defense when the Ravens made the switch full time in 2003. "These guys do a lot of dirty work. The fans see all the sacks and the big passes, but they don't see what goes on in the trenches."

What most fans — their eyes fixed on the pretty-boy quarterback or the Twitter-happy wideout — are missing is a 10-car collision at the intersection of the offensive and defensive lines. And the nose tackle is the nondescript minivan — wood panels and all — at the center of the pileup.

"You're the focal point. It's a fun position to play, but it's tough," said Gregg, a former wrestler. "You're right in the middle of everything. I get nervous when there's space around me, so I like being in there."

Lining up against the center in the two-gap scheme the Ravens employ, the nose tackle is responsible for the gaps on each side of the center, meaning he must engage the center and a guard, and sometimes he'll get into a fender-bender with a feisty little fullback, too.

"You've got to be a badass to play there, no question," former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Jets head coach Rex Ryan once said.

To clog up the line of scrimmage, nose tackles must have bulk, girth and strength. "You don't want a big, tall, thin guy there," said Gregg, who at 6-feet, 320 pounds is considered to be a smaller nose tackle.

In addition to size, a nose tackle must have quick hands, exceptional balance, a low center of gravity and the ability to diagnose blocking schemes on the fly. "Kelly has great technique," Cody said. "That's why he's able to play it. He plays with real good leverage and has real good strength."

Since 2002, Gregg, a fan favorite, has been a fixture in the middle of a Ravens defense that has finished in the top six in total defense the past seven seasons. But the 33-year-old's contract is up at season's end, which led the Ravens to draft Cody, 22, in the second round of April's draft to be his eventual replacement.

"He's likable and he's learning," Gregg said of Cody, who had minor knee surgery last week and is questionable for the season opener. "Each week, he's getting better and better. ... He's going to be a good player."

Ravens center Matt Birk has encountered his fair share of nose tackles in his 13-year career — he listed Ted Washington, Casey Hampton and Gregg as some of the best — and says they have gotten bigger, smarter and more athletic over the years.

"You're talking about guys who are 350 pounds lining up two inches away from your face," Birk said. "It's almost like you're trying to wrestle the guy in a phone booth. There's a lot less room to maneuver. The thing about those guys is that they're not just big. They're agile.

"But there's very little glamour [with the position]."

Humility is another essential attribute for nose tackles. They often go unnoticed despite being among the biggest players on the field. Defensive tackles are "very unselfish people and they don't get the respect and attention they should get," Lewis said. "Those guys should be praised."

Teams who use the 3-4 defense are putting a premium on the position financially, though. Nose tackles Aubrayo Franklin (49ers), Ryan Pickett (Packers) and Vince Wilfork (Patriots) were slapped with the franchise tag in the offseason, and Hampton would have been, too, had he not signed a three-year, $21.3 million deal with the Steelers.

Trusty nose tackles are hard to find because most college teams run the 4-3. That's why the Ravens targeted Cody in the draft, hoping he will be a key cog in a defense that continues to dominate.

"You can't play great defense unless you have a great front," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "And that great front starts with the nose. ... It's key to have a strong football player in there. We've been blessed with Haloti [Ngata] and with Kelly Gregg in there, and now we end up with Terrence Cody."

{Cover design, above, by b's Aubrey Fornwalt}

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