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Matchupalooza: Chris Spencer V. Casey Hampton

I was never a big fan of Tim Ruskell selecting Chris Spencer in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. First, he's a center. Starting centers in the NFL are more often undrafted than drafted in the first round. Second he only played 11 games at the position in college. And third, he shot up the boards mostly because of tools and projectabilty. For a position that's more about technique and awareness than brute strength and athleticism, it was and still is a mystery to me what so enticed Tim Ruskell. But he's a Hawk now, and a potential asset if he ever learns line calling (reportedly Chris Gray is handling those duties this season, which is disturbing for quite a few reasons).

Sometimes, though, it's nice having a power lifting linemen in the middle. Like when he's squaring off against Casey Hampton. Hampton is one of that most rarified player, the true 3-4 nose tackle. Three exist in the whole NFL: Hampton, Vince Wilfork and Jamal Williams. Nose tackle is and will likely continue to be the least appreciated position in football. That's because they record nearly no stats, never make the highlight reel and are visible only occasionally beneath the raft of linemen attempting to block them. But if you need any proof as to their value, check how many teams each of these players has played for. Not even quarterback enjoys the kind of stability a nose tackle does. It's not necessarily because they have more impact on the defense than a stud linebackers or shutdown corner, the Steelers went 10-0 after losing Hampton to an ACL tear in 2004, it's just that players who can fulfill the duties of a NT and survive exist once a draft class or less.

The characterization of nose tackles as lumbering goliaths effective because of mass and muscle is cute but inaccurate. I always find it funny when people talk about a run stuffer and the first thing they mention is his weight. It's not Hampton's size that makes him special, it's his size combined with his agility. This same thinking applies to the idea that nose tackles "clog" or "absorb" opposing linemen, a more accurate description would be "steer". Like a guard might be asked to move an opposing defensive tackle left or right on a rush play, Hampton's primary responsibility is to force his blockers where he wants them. If madman Dick LeBeau calls an overload zone blitz to the left A gap, Hampton must then move the left guard and center right. If the center and guard are attempting to create a rush lane up the gut, Hampton and end Brett Keisel might stunt creating chaos in the oppositions' blocking schemes.

Perhaps Tim Ruskell saw teams switching to the 3-4 and figured an elite center could be invaluable in the near future. The Hawks now have two division foes transitioning to the faddiest of fad defenses, so I wouldn't be aghast if Ruskell were, again, prescient and ultimately correct. But Spencer isn't a top level center yet. Among the knocks on him include his health, his ability to read defenses pre-snap, and, paradoxically, his run blocking. It isn't too hard to see who might be partially to blame when a team ranks 5th and 9th running behind left and right tackle, respectively, but 29th running behind Mid/Guard. The major problem is that ever since his spate of shoulder injuries, Spencer just hasn't looked that powerful. The guy who once benched 500 lbs in high school, isn't just missing blocks, he's not overpowering anyone when he makes blocks either.

Paired with fellow bulldozer Rob Sims, the Seahawks should be uniquely able to deal with Hampton. In reality, this looks like a severe mismatch favoring the Steelers. Without a center that can make proper line calls (and therefore cannot understand the kookiness that is LeBeau's schemes) or muscle up against Hampton, Seattle faces a potentially disastrous scenario when the inevitable third and long surfaces. Ideally, Spencer and Sims/Gray will be able to control Hampton and if and when a linebacker comes free, be able to disengage and pick up the blitz. They were able to do that against the Niners and Aubrayo Franklin. That could be proof that young Spencer's shoulder is coming around after a lot of post-surgery soreness, it could be a sign that his technique and awareness is finally catching up with his tools, or it could just mean that the Niners defensive line isn't very good. My best guess is a little of all three are true, but mostly the last. In a way this is like the matchups from weak one and two, with more questions than answers. I can't say that Hampton will ragamuffin Spencer, steer the Hawks' interior line like a John Deer. Though I dread the possibility. I can say that Spencer has a lot to prove and a team that's counting on him mightily.