The Steelers think they have found Casey Hampton's replacement at nose tackle with a player who possesses some of the same run-clogging, impossible-to-move traits as their five-time Pro Bowler.
Now, they are waiting to find out if Hampton still possesses some of the traits that made him the anchor of their 3-4 defense after having a third major knee surgery.
If not, they are prepared to move on after drafting Washington's Alameda Ta'amu -- a bigger, wider version of Hampton -- in the fourth round.
"I think you have to ask Casey that," defensive line coach John Mitchell snapped Saturday, when asked if Hampton will be ready to play when the regular season begins in Denver in September. Moments earlier, the Steelers moved up 10 spots in the fourth round to draft Ta'amu, a powerful 6-foot-2 1/4, 348-pound nose tackle who once weighed as much as 390 pounds
"I can't answer that. He was here about a week ago. He looks like Casey. I can't answer that. You have to ask Casey if he is going to be ready to play. When he shows up, I'll know."
Hampton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the playoff loss in Denver and did not have surgery until Jan. 27. It was the second time he has had ACL surgery on his left knee, dating to his senior season at Texas. He also had ACL surgery on his right knee in 2004.
Last month, Hampton restructured his contract and agreed to a pay cut in exchange for one more season with the Steelers. But when he will be able to play remains uncertain.
That's why the Steelers wanted to find a nose tackle in the draft. Dontari Poe of Memphis was gone with the 11th overall pick, but the Steelers had Ta'amu rated the second-best nose tackle. They had a low-second to high-third round grade on him.
When he was still available in the fourth, they gave up their sixth-round pick to the Washington Redskins to move up 10 spots to get him.
"Anytime in our scheme, when you get a nose tackle, first you want to make sure that this guy can play the double-team," Mitchell said. "His job is to keep the linebackers free or the safety free when we bring the safety down in the box. If he can't do that, then he'll have a tough time playing for us. He did that very well at the University of Washington.
"I'm not very smart, but I know that you play with 11 on both sides of the ball. Anytime the nose tackle can take up two of the other team, I know that leaves nine and we have one more than they have."
Ta'amu met with all the Steelers coaches at the scouting combine in Indianapolis and knew they were interested in drafting him. The feeling was mutual because Ta'amu wanted to play with Hampton.
"He's up the middle, he holds his ground, it takes more than one blocker to play him," Ta'amu said. "I'm going to try to do the same thing when I get there."
Curiously, Ta'amu's name already had surfaced on the first day of the draft when it was noted that Stanford guard David DeCastro, the Steelers' No. 1 pick, held him without a statistic in a 65-21 Cardinal victory last season. Stanford offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren said Ta'amu was so discouraged he took himself out of the game to "contemplate his life's goals."
"When you go against DeCastro, you feel his presence," Ta'amu said. "There are not a lot of guards that can block a nose guard and you can feel it. With DeCastro, he's explosive from play one all the way to the last play. He comes at you, and there are not a lot of guards that stay the same like that throughout the whole game."
Mitchell said he is not worried about Ta'amu's performance in that game.
"Here's what you have to see -- these guys are in college, they played a scheme that their coach is coaching," Mitchell said. "When he comes here, we will start from scratch. He is going to play the 3-4 the way the Steelers play. I have no concern for what he did in college. That is behind him. He is going to come here, and I'm going to teach him what we want him to get done."
In other words, be like Casey Hampton.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published April 29, 2012 12:00 AM