Next up our series is the Defensive Line. Let’s take a look at the big guys up front on defense and what the potential might be for 2012.
Brett Keisel: Da Beard just finished up his 10th season on the Steelers line. He was beyond a doubt the most consistent player in that group. He started and played in 14 of the 16 games in 2011, ending up with 48 Tackles, 3 Sacks, and 2 Forced Fumbles. He also was able to defense 6 passes by getting his huge paws up to bat down the ball before it could do further harm down field. That’s a pretty fair year’s work for a 3-4 defensive lineman who’s asked to basically stop the run at all costs while the Linebackers or Safeties sneaking up can make the majority of the sacks and big stops in the backfield. At 6’5”, 285 lbs. he’s a mountain of a man with some serious athletic ability and pass rush skills. He’s strong enough to hold his own and occupy a Tight End or Offensive Tackle, and still be able to get into the backfield and blow up the run before it starts. With so many injuries to Dick Lebeau’s vaunted line, Keisel has been a stable force and had one of his best years to date. The status of the groin injury he suffered against Denver in the wildcard game is still unknown, as doctors are still evaluating him. Hopefully it does not require any surgery. 2012 Outlook: Assuming Keisel is healthy, he’ll be back as the starter for 2012, and with so many potential changes to this group, that’s definitely a good thing.
Casey Hampton: The Big Snack played in 13-16 games this season, registering 31 Tackles. He dodged a bullet when he injured his knee against Denver, fortunately not requiring any surgery. He’ll rest and rehab and all indications as of now are that he’ll be fine. He’s got 1 yr. left on his 21.3 million dollar extension he signed in 2010. Hampton has a hefty cap value though, counting about 5.89 million against the 2012 numbers the Steelers will have to crunch. If he wants to return, and he hasn’t said otherwise to date, he’ll have to restructure his deal for sure. That’s not normally an issue for players but the team will need to decide if it’s time to let the big ole veteran go or let him play for another year. Casey was still a force and when he was out of the lineup, it was noticeable. The run defense finished 8th in the NFL, a significant drop off from being 31 in 2010. There will be a place for big Casey in 2012 if the Steelers can afford him, which I hope is the case. 2012 Outlook: If the team can pay his salary he’ll be back as the starter in 2012.
Evander “Ziggy” Hood”: Ziggy just finished up his 3rd season with the Steelers. The former 1st round draft pick had 31 Tackles and 1.5 Sacks on the year. He has found himself a home in place of Steeler great Aaron Smith who was placed on injured reserve again earlier in the year. Hood seems to be much more suited where he is now, rather than when he has to fill for Brett Keisel. The Steelers are still waiting for him to really break out and come into his own, but the progress is there nonetheless. Playing Defensive End in a Dick Lebeau defense is no easy task. You have to learn to be able to hold your blocks at the point of attack, move down the line towards the ball carrier and get to the Quarterback. Hood has some serious pass rush skills and even when he doesn’t get credit for the Tackle you can often times see him in the backfield or holding his man to string out the ball carrier. I look for him to take bigger steps in 2012 as he’ll be the regular starter now most likely, regardless of if Aaron Smith comes back. There’s also talk of playing him at NT (should Casey Hampton retire or be released), but the consensus is that he’d probably have to put on another 10-15 pounds to really be formidable at that position. His original 5 year contract is still in effect so he needs to have a big year to ensure a hefty payday after this coming season. 2012 Outlook: Would like to see him be a bit more stout and not get swallowed up at times by the offensive line; look for him to be the full time starter in place of Aaron Smith.
Cameron Heyward: The rookie’s workload increased as the year went on and injuries began to mount along the line. He showed flashes of what he can become; extremely strong and agile and the perfect size for a defensive end in a 3-4 defense; 6’5″ 288 lbs. Although he wasn’t a starter, Heyward was able to play in all 16 games in 2011, finishing up with 11 Tackles, 1 Sack, and 1 Forced Fumble. The Steelers use a regular rotation which gave him valuable experience against some stiff competition. His role will increase in 2012, and the team will need him to really take the next step and start to become a force. 2012 Outlook: Still needs experience playing in the NFL but he’s got a huge upside and should make big strides in his second year.
Steve McLendon: The 2nd year NT out of Troy finished 2011 with 13 Tackles & 1 Sack. A bit on the small size, relatively speaking, when you talk about a traditional 3-4 Nose Tackle, McLendon is 6’4″ 280lbs. He is strong as an ox though and showed some serious potential in the rotation backing up Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. Once Hokie left the lineup with eventual season ending surgery, McLendon saw significantly more playing time. After only playing in 7 games in 2010, the experience he got this past season will be invaluable to him in the future. With Hoke most likely retiring and the status of Hampton somewhat in doubt, he’ll have a leg up on any competition the Steelers bring into training camp this summer. 2012 Outlook: He showed enough this season to warrant a roster spot for the coming year.
Chris Hoke: Unfortunately for Hokie, his career may be finished. He sustained the eventual season ending neck injury against Jacksonville in October 16th. The team placed him on injured reserve in early December and the word is that he is seriously considering retirement. Hoke has been the primary backup to Casey Hampton his entire career and the 2 are best friends. It just won’t be the same without him on the team but his long term health is much more important. He was the perfect Steelers defensive lineman; a team player, a bring your lunch bucket to work, kind of guy. Hoke never made any waves with the media or his team and was always supportive and a great mentor to young players like McLendon who very much missed the presence of the veteran after the injury. 2012 Outlook: More than likely retiring after season ending neck surgery late last year.
The Steelers have spent 2 premium draft picks on the defensive line in recent years and with the salary cap issues they have, it’s no guarantee that Casey Hampton will be on the roster. Also the jury is still out on Brett Keisel’s groin injury. It would be wise to go with at least a mid-round pick in the upcoming draft to help fortify this group.