Nose tackles Gabe Watson (98) and Bryan Robinson (97) prepare for one of the late goal-line situations Sunday against Houston.
Often lost in the pile of bodies and thus lost on anyone viewing a game, the importance of the big men in the middle of the defensive line can also be lost.
But that's where every play starts, with the snap of the ball and control of the middle.
"It is like ground zero (of every play)," nose tackle Gabe Watson said. "You're making contact faster than anybody, it's more important than anywhere else because there's so little time to react."
The anchors of the line were spotlighted in Sunday's win, thanks to the goal-line stand at the end of the game. Overall, the Cardinals faced a total of 11 Texans offensive plays when Houston needed just one yard to get a first down or touchdown. Arizona's defense held up on seven of them.
"Honestly it's my favorite part of the game," Watson said. "More times than not it's you against that man. And if it's third-and-1, fourth-and-1 and the game is on the line and you get pushed back, they're going to know, 'The center pushed Gabe Watson back.' "
Fellow nose tackle Bryan Robinson said to win such a battle "you get the same rush as if you were on offense scoring."
The Cardinals stuffed Texans running back Steve Slaton on a third-and-1 in the second quarter to force a punt, and then did it twice in a row on Slaton on second and third down early in the third quarter, leading to a fourth-down incomplete pass.
The Texans won the next round, converting three such plays, including running back Chris Brown's one-yard run up the middle for Houston's first touchdown.
Yet that turned out to be the turning point.
On the fateful three-downs-from-the-Arizona 1 at the end of the game, the line stood up to stuff Brown on second down, and then held its breath as tight end Joel Dreessens came down just out of bounds on a third-down pass play.
Then Brown came back in the game, and Robinson noticed.
"Me and Gabe talked about it, 'They're going to run the same play,' " Robinson said. "We just remembered, and it was only an inch that was the difference the first time he scored."
Coach Ken Whisenhunt praised Watson in particular on the final play for having good technique and it was Watson springing off the snap – with Robinson clearing the middle down low and Darnell Dockett exploding off the left side – that blew up the final play for Brown.
Watson joked about using every body part – including his rear end – to try and plug gaps on the play. He even said the pile started moving a bit long after it seemed over, with the whistles to blow the play dead seemingly slow.
But once the Texans were officially ruled short of the goal line, the euphoria of winning the ultimate trench battle took over.
"Due to the fact I will probably never score a winning touchdown," Dockett said, "I think I want to be stopping the winning touchdown, especially when it goes down like that."
It's not always easy to be at the epicenter of the game. The specialized NFL and the push to more passing has limited the time of the behemoths in the middle. Watson and Robinson barely played against the Colts, since the Cardinals figured Indianapolis would pass often and defensive coordinator Bill Davis turned to a quicker dime package most of the time.
The one-on-one battles will never go away, though. Sometimes, they are the difference between winning and losing.
"When you get your backs against the wall, especially like that, no matter how the game went, it decides the game," Robinson said. "When you are backed up to the goal line, there is nowhere else to go. If you give up an inch, it gets magnified."
The Cardinals are the NFL's top rushing defense right now, giving up only 71 yards a game on the ground.
The Cards play seven of their next 10 games on the road.
Kurt Warner needed only 113 NFL games (and only 105 starts) to achieve 50 300-yard passing games, easily the fastest in league history. The Dolphins' Dan Marino, the previous fastest, needed 176 games.
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