Steelers keep 7 defensive linemen, but the solid group is aging

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When coach Mike Tomlin said before the draft the Steelers needed to get bigger on their lines, this is not quite what he meant: They have more bodies, not especially larger ones.

The Steelers kept seven defensive linemen on their final roster -- provided today's roster is final -- rather than the normal six, and the reason for that might reflect the age of the group. Only one will be younger than 30 when September ends, and that's backup end Nick Eason, 28.

Not only did the Steelers fail to draft a defensive lineman this year, they failed again to keep a young player drafted at the position previously when they waived Ryan McBean, a fourth-round draft choice in 2007. Brett Keisel, drafted in the seventh round in 2002, is the most recent drafted defensive lineman still with the team.

That should end the ongoing debate that they will switch to a 4-3 defense under Tomlin any time soon.

The lack of youth may not hurt them this season, though, because their front line of ends Aaron Smith and Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton is distinguished. Smith and Hampton are Pro Bowlers and Keisel led the team with 31 pressures on quarterbacks last season.

Even though he's 35, Orpheus Roye should be able to help the Steelers in spots.

"We have such a veteran group, guys can all play," Smith, 32, said.

Another important factor is all of them open the season in good health.

"Overall, I'm pleased," said Keisel, who turns 30 this month. "We've got a few nicks and things like that, but, for the most part, we're relatively healthy."

Tomlin was able to keep an extra lineman because he did not use a roster spot on a pure return man, as he did last season with Allen Rossum. Cutting veteran return man Eddie Drummond allowed them the luxury of keeping seven defensive linemen.

They kept the normal contingent of 10 offensive linemen but the fact they tried and failed to trade center/guard Sean Mahan or tackles Trai Essex or Max Starks -- Did they really think someone would pay Starks' guaranteed $7 million? -- meant that fourth-year guard Jeremy Parquet, who spent the past three seasons with the Chiefs or Rams, was released. Parquet was signed to the practice squad yesterday.

Roye, for one, will find that some opponents block the Steelers differently than they did when he last played on their defensive line in 1999. It has caused the linemen -- and the linebackers -- to adjust how they play the run.

Instead of blockers shooting out at the snap of the ball to get after their assignment, many offenses use a zone blocking scheme against the Steelers with their linemen waiting for the defense to make its move first.

"As defensive linemen, they're trying to get us to go one way," veteran backup nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "You watch their runs, they're all cutbacks. That's what they did to us last year."

The Steelers must have adjusted well enough because their defense ranked No. 1 overall and No. 3 against the run last season in yards allowed.

The solution?

"We have to stay in our gaps," Hoke said. "They used to keep the ball front side on us and we'd stuff the run. But now they come front side and cut back side because they know we have to stay in our gaps and they're going to the back side of the run. We just have to be more disciplined on defense. We have to work as 11 men and make sure everyone's doing their job. The thing about the 3-4 defense, if one guy doesn't do his job, we're gashed."

Instead of offenses being aggressive in their run-blocking, they try to take advantage of the Steelers' complicated, aggressive, blitzing defense. It may be a reason for their plans to align Keisel at different positions in the defense more than last season.

"Teams really aren't trying to push us back, like drive us back," Keisel said. "Teams are trying more to do what we call zone block, which is kind of let them come into you and let them run that way."

Here is how Keisel said it's done:

"If I'm the offense, and you go into the 'A' gap, rather than coming at you and missing you, I just come back, let me go there and just push."

He said it's similar to punt protection and works best against 3-4 defenses because "you can bring so many guys and you have so many different looks that you have to account for. Rather than say we're going to charge this as an offense, let them come to us and when they come we'll take it as it goes."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at . First Published September 1, 2008 4:00 AM


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