Next up in our post draft position analysis for the Steelers is the defensive line. A group that didn’t see much change via the draft in terms of numbers of players but this offseason has been anything but quiet for them. The DL is long known as the most important part of the Steelers 34 defense even though many think it’s the linebackers. For all the glory that guys like Harrison & Woodley get, if the big 3 grunts up front don’t do their job, there is literally no run defense to speak of. For a team that prides itself on the run, it’s imperative that this group always be at the top of their game because when they aren’t, bad things happen to the other 8 guys on the field from the steel city.
Changes started early for this group as long time reserve NT Chris Hoke retired earlier this offseason, a staple behind Casey Hampton for 11 years. Hoke was your lunch bucket player, a guy who everyone loved and just did his job every day without question and without complaint. We fans and the Steelers players will miss Hokie, maybe none more so than his best friend Casey Hampton.
So let’s see how things may shake out for the defensive line in 2012 since things came into focus a bit more from the draft.
Steve McLendon: Who would have thought that the the 3rd year player out of Troy would be in the mix to start this season? With the injury to Hoke, he got valuable experience backing up Hampton for the last quarter of the season. When Casey went down in the Broncos game, McLendon was the only healthy NT on the roster at the time and filled in admirably under the lights of such a big stage as the playoffs.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell feels that McLendon is a capable player, stating last year and this year after the draft that we need to wait and see what he can really do. A bit undersized for a traditional NT, 6’3″ 280 lbs yet he plays with good power and has a solid base. All he needs is experience, which he’ll definitely get in 2012 regardless of whether he starts or not. Stevie spoke very highly of Chris Hoke and was clearly upset when his mentor went down and ultimately hung up his cleats. That experience and knowledge he gained should serve him well this year. Logic would tell you that he’ll get the start in September and then see how things progress as the year goes on. He’s got a chance though and that experience will give him an edge in the competition for the starting job.
Alameda Ta’amu: The 4th round, potential steal, of the 2012 draft for the Steelers. A skyscraper of a man at 6’7″ 343 lbs as of the rookie mini camp a few weeks back, he’s definitely got the physical tools to be the next stud NT for the Steelers for years to come. You don’t normally see rookies come in and start though in a Dick Lebeau defense unless injuries force the coaches hand. You like to see them sit for a year or so and learn before taking on the responsibility of starting in Blitzburgh. Things have changed though, a changing of the guard if you will. In the past there was no way any rookie was going to unseat guys like Hampton, or Aaron Smith. With one injured and the other released it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a guy like Ta’amu to see more field time than in years past. Partly because of the reason we just mentioned but also because he might just turn out to be good enough to do so. We shouldn’t expect Ta’amu to start out of the gate but we shouldn’t be shocked if he does either.
Most media “experts” seem to think Ta’amu will barely see the field this year. I respectfully disagree 100% with that. You should see him on the field this year and you will. If things pan out the way some think, myself included, Ta’amu could be starting by midseason.
Brett Keisel: The bearded beast himself came off a solid 2011 season and while he’s no spring chicken he’s certainly got several more years left in the tank. He’ll be a staple again at his DE position for the coming year again. Keisel finished up last year with 3 sacks, 6 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and 33 tackles. Those are pretty solid stats for a defensive lineman in Pittsburgh who usually makes his living hogging up blockers for the linebackers. Da Beard has some good pass rush skills though too and considering his size, 6’5″ 285 lbs, he’s got a quick first step that enables him to blow up running plays in the backfield and bat down passes at the line. As long as he stays healthy (missed 2 games last season), the defensive line will be in good hands on his side.
Ziggy Hood: Coming into his 4th year, Hood has been a bit of an underachiever by many fans standards. He started 9 games in 2010 and 7 in 2011, both in relief of the now departed Aaron Smith. When he didn’t start he was mainly a role player in the defensive line rotation, seeing spot duty each week but never a consistent starter for an entire season. He’ll get his chance now, as #91’s position is now all his for the taking. He finished last season with 1.5 sacks and 23 tackles. Hood does his job on the defensive line and has improved according to his coaches but we’d all like to see him really take the next step and be a consistent force in both the run and pass game. To his credit, he may not always make the play but he’s got a knack of getting in the backfield and forcing the runner to change direction,which is exactly what you want to see. Hood is future of the Steelers line, as long as he keeps progressing each year he should earn a new contract after the 2014 season.
Cameron Heyward: The lockout in 2011 really hindered the development of all the rookies, including 2011 1st rounder Cam Heyward. It’s hard enough learning an NFL defense when you have an entire offseason, much less just a few weeks before you’re thrown to the wolves. Heyward backed up both Hood and Keisel last season but primarily played on special teams and in the defensive rotation behind the starters. He did have 13 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 1 pass defense but more importantly he got valuable experience. During training camp and in spot duty during the regular season he displayed flashes of brute strength and power, tossing lineman aside like ragdolls at times. This is a big year for Heyward and he’ll continue to see limited time behind the starters but with an entire season under his belt now and a full offseason ahead we should see significant increases in his production.
Casey Hampton: this offseason is one of recovery for Hampton, after successful surgery to repair a torn ACL sustained in the wildcard round in Denver was performed earlier this offseason. There is no timetable for his return. It’s likely he’ll be on the PUP list to start the season. You might think that recovering from an ACL injury would be longer than normal for such a big guy like Casey. That’s not necessarily the case though, with today’s procedures and rehab it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Big Snack to recover sooner than the normal 9-12 months. Still though to be safe you figure that he’ll be sidelined to start the year. The Steelers restructured his contract before the draft so he figures to remain on the final 53 man roster. NT was a concern all along this offseason since his injury and the retirement of Chris Hoke, prompting the drafting of Ta’amu in the 4th round. Normally the Steelers keep 3 NT’s on the roster, 2 active on gameday. Assuming that McLendon and Ta’amu are the primary players at the nose, the team can afford to let Hampton go on the PUP for the first 6 weeks and then see how things are. Either way this figures to be the final season for the big man so hopefully he can go out in style.
In summary, it’s going to be hard for guys like Al Woods, Mike Blanc, Jake Stoller, Kade Weston, Corbin Bryant, or Ikponmwosa Igbinosun to make the final roster. However, at least one of them, possibly two, figure to make the practice squad. The Steelers defensive line hasn’t been the healthiest group in the world over the years, so having quality depth will be key to the success of the run defense especially.