Brett Keisel pressures Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer in a game last season.
Don't look for Casey Hampton -- a mainstay at nose tackle since 2001 -- to be back this season.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a span of three years, the Steelers used two No. 1 draft choices to bolster what they thought was an aging defensive line.
In 2009, after beating the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, they drafted defensive end Ziggy Hood with the 32nd overall pick. And, in 2011, after losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, they drafted another defensive end, Cameron Heyward, with the 31st overall pick.
The intent was two-fold: To inject some youth into a line that had three starters, not to mention its top backup, over the age of 30. And to rebuild the front line of the defense with eventual replacements for Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.
Four years later, the Steelers are still waiting for those top picks to have a significant impact on their defense. And the time for them to do so likely is here.
The Steelers likely will lose the anchor of their defensive line -- five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is not expected to be re-signed despite starting all 16 games in 2012. He will be the second piece of what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has called "the best defensive line I've ever coached" to depart in as many years, joining Smith.
The lone holdover is Keisel, who will be 35 in September but is coming off one of his best seasons. He had 41/2 sacks -- all in the final eight games -- and led the team with a whopping 40 quarterback pressures, more than double any other Steelers player. But Keisel likely will be the only player on the defensive line who is over 30.
While other units of the defense are showing signs of age, that won't be the case on the defensive line.
Hampton's replacement, Steve McLendon, just turned 27. Al Woods, a backup defensive end with some promise, will be 26 next season. And nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, their fourth-round draft choice last year, will be 23.
Ta'amu was suspended two games and spent the final six games on the practice squad after he was arrested and charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors stemming from a drunk-driving spree and police chase on the South Side in October. It is still possible the Steelers could decide to part ways with him. If they do, they could seek another nose tackle in the draft.
But the Steelers built the future of their defensive line around Hood and Heyward, and it's time for them to produce.
Granted, it can be unfair to judge the Steelers' three-man line on production because of the nature of their job description. In the team's defensive scheme, the linemen are basically asked to play a two-gap style in which they engage the guard or tackle and keep blockers off the linebackers, allowing them to make the play.
And, for the most part, the Steelers did a good job of that in 2012. They ranked No. 2 in the league in rush defense, allowing just four teams to rush for more than 100 yards. What's more, they were leading the league in fewest runs of 20 yards or more (4) until the Cleveland Browns had two in the final game, one on a fake punt.
But if the Steelers want to generate more pressure on the quarterback -- something team president Art Rooney II suggested is needed if the Steelers want to create more turnovers -- then maybe that style has to be tweaked.
That's why using No. 1 picks -- and having to invest No. 1 money -- on two defensive ends doesn't make a lot of sense. Not if the Steelers are going to strip away the very physical tools that attracted them to Hood and Heyward in the first place and mold them into players whose primary job is to hold up at the point of attack.
The Steelers can find those players in later rounds, as they did so superbly with Smith (fourth round) and Keisel (seventh).
Hood has not been a washout, by any means. In fact, he is one of their most dependable players. He has made 39 starts, including 30 in a row, in his four-year career with the Steelers. And he has not missed a game because of injury.
What's more, Hood is a weight-room fanatic who is the strongest player on the team. But the Steelers have to determine what type of player they need Hood (6-3, 300) to become. Or maybe even what position might be his best.
For all his strength, Hood plays with more finesse than power. If the Steelers want to generate more pressure on the pocket, maybe he needs to use his strength to develop a bull-rush move to overpower tackles. Because he is so strong, Hood might even be better suited to play nose tackle.
Heyward, though, has been less of a contributor. He is naturally strong and more athletically gifted than Hood, and he uses his long arms to gain leverage against tackles. But too often he looks confused and plays tentative in the 3-4. His lack of development from his rookie season to 2012 was disappointing.
McLendon might be the key.
There is little question that if the most important element of the Steelers' 3-4 defense is the ability of the outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback, then the second-most significant ingredient is a nose tackle who is harder to move than a corner cabinet -- a role Hampton performed superbly for 12 seasons after being a No. 1 draft choice.
Hampton played well in 2012, especially in the second half of the season when his knee started feeling better after he missed the offseason and training camp with anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
Hampton took a $3.5 million pay cut to return for one more season and felt so good that he said he plans to play at least one more season -- if not for the Steelers, then for another NFL team. But Hampton will be 36 in September, and it appears the Steelers are prepared to move on without him.
That would turn the job over to McLendon, who played very well in the preseason but, surprisingly, saw only limited playing time in the regular season. Even Hampton has given him his stamp of approval, calling McLendon a "beast" and saying he is ready for the role.
McLendon, though, is a different type of player than Hampton. He is 6-foot-4 and has added nearly 30 pounds since he first joined the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He now weighs 320 pounds, but still moves like a defensive end.
Maybe the Steelers should consider flip-flopping starters -- moving McLendon to defensive end and Hood to nose tackle.
Maybe that will help develop something that has been missing from the defensive line -- production.