INDIANAPOLIS — The Steelers once were the NFL’s best run defense, impenetrable to the point that many teams simply chose not to try the ground game. Perennially ranked among the top 10 teams against the run, the Steelers were first in the league in rush defense four times from 2001-12 and finished among the top five teams 10 times in that 12-year span.
The constant for the Steelers during that time was nose tackle Casey Hampton. In the first season without Hampton, the Steelers in 2013 became vulnerable to the run and plummeted to 21st in the league.
That has to led to speculation that the Steelers could be in the market for a nose tackle with the No. 15 overall pick in the May draft — specifically, Louis Nix III of Notre Dame, projected as the top nose tackle prospect.
The Steelers last chose a nose tackle with their first pick in 2001 when they selected Hampton with the 19th overall pick. But in the past 13 years much has changed in the NFL that makes selecting a nose tackle in the first round risky.
“It has changed,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who is evaluating college prospects at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis. “It has become more passing, more sub-package defense. Our numbers were close to 60 percent sub-package defense this year. It has increased because of the change offensively, but it doesn’t change the way we evaluate.
“In the 34 defense you’re still going to start with the nose tackle because you still have to get to third down. You have to get to second-and-long. If you’re not going to get that player to help you get to those extended downs then you’re going to have problems, so nose tackle will always be important to our defense.”
But Steelers nose tackles have played much less in recent years. Over the final five years of his career, Hampton averaged 474 snaps per season, or roughly half that of most defensive starters. Steve McLendon, who started at nose tackle for the Steelers last season, played even less, 355 snaps.
If the Steelers take a nose tackle with the No. 15 pick they would project him as playing much more than that. A few nose tackles, but not many, stay on the field for the majority of their team’s snaps. Kansas City nose tackle Dontari Poe, the No. 11 overall selection in 2012, played 1,063 snaps this season, about 90 percent of the defensive snaps for the Chiefs. New England’s Vince Wilfork played about 80 percent of the snaps in his last full season in 2012.
“If you live in the 3-4 the nose tackle is really important,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think they like McLendon. The only [nose tackle] they could take at No. 15 is Louis Nix, and you would have to get a certain number of snaps out of him.”
NFL offenses are dictating to defenses and making general managers and coaching staffs adjust. In 2001, Tom Brady burst onto the scene for New England after Drew Bledsoe was injured and led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title. But in 2001, Brady and the Patriots were not a pass-happy team just yet. They averaged only 30 pass attempts per game.
Over the years, the Patriots have swung the pendulum to the pass more than the run. In 2013, Brady attempted 39 passes per game. He attempted more than 40 per game in 2012.
Brady and the Patriots are not the only team to morph into a high-powered passing attack in the past decade. The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, averaged more than 42 pass attempts per game last season. Matthew Stafford of the Lions set the NFL record in 2012 with 727 pass attempts in a single season, or more than 45 passes per game.
This has marginalized the nose tackle to some degree and increased the importance of other positions, most notably edge rushers and defensive backs.
McLendon was a solid player in his first year as a starter, but he plays the position in a different manner than Hampton. At 6 feet 4, McLendon is three inches taller than Hampton and was listed at 285 pounds, or 45 pounds lighter than Hampton, whose nickname Big Snack aptly described his appetite and body type.
Not all of the run defense problems can be blamed on McLendon, of course. There was the matter of rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams having to start at inside linebacker because Larry Foote had a season-ending injury in the opener. And there were plenty of missed assignments and poor tackling by all 11 starters.
McLendon signed a three-year contract before last season, but he has the skill set to slide out to defensive end should the Steelers feel a rotund run-stopper in the middle is the cure for what ails their rush defense.
And if the Steelers choose to address other needs with their first pick there are a few 3-4 nose tackles projected as second-day selections, including DaQuan Jones of Penn State, Ryan Carrethers of Arkansas State and Daniel McCullers of Tennessee.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.