The Steelers answered a lot of questions by the time the NFL was over this past weekend. They filled serious holes on the offensive line, got some depth at linebacker and running back, and also found themselves the next Casey Hampton.
That’s some big shoes to fill no matter who you are, and not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Hampton started 148 of the 157 games he’s played in during his 10 years in the league. When you talk 34 nose tackles in the NFL, the big snack is always at the forefront of what you are looking for. The immovable object who’s main purpose is to do 1 thing, stop the run. In fact, that’s the main goal of the defensive line in general in a Dick Lebeau defense.
You don’t see guys like Hampton getting a lot of sacks; he’s got a total of 9 since being drafted by Bill Cowher back in 2001. You also won’t see nose tackles making the stat sheet on Tackles either, Hampton has 200 total for his entire career. So why then was drafting Alameda Ta’amu so important?
There are several reasons, the most obvious is the shear lack of healthy players at nose tackle for the Steelers. Fan favorite Chris Hoke has retired and there’s no firm date on Hampton’s return to the lineup after ACL surgery. Other than Steve McLendon, there simply is no one else who can play in week 1 right now other than Al Woods who is in a make or break situation this year. If he makes the team he would likely be more of a DE but could play nose in certain situations.
This past draft for the Steelers was one of their best in quite some time, with everybody from Joe Blogger to NFL Networks’ Mike Mayock singing their praises. Ta’amu could turn out to be one of the big steals of this year. Many had him projected anywhere from a mid to late 2nd round player to a late 3rd. Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin knew he wasn’t going to drop to them at pick 119 so trading up with Washington to the 109th spot and giving up only a 6th round draft choice in return was hardly a steep price to pay.
He’s definitely got the size for the job; 6’7″ 348 lbs is an absolute skyscraper of an athlete. If you watch any of Ta’amu’s highlights you can routinely see him use his long 32″ arms to grab hold of a running back and end the play before it starts. He’s powerful and stout enough to take on the guard and center and push his way into the backfield or just hold his ground and create a lane for a rushing linebacker. Doing that in college is an impressive feat but doing it in the NFL is something else. You can’t ever guarantee anything when it comes to draft picks but based on film and his workouts he’s got the ability to be the next anchor of the Steelers defensive line for years to come.
So who ends up starting this year at NT for the Steelers? Rookies don’t usually get that honor so if Ta’amu is playing in a reserve role to start the year none of us should be surprised. That doesn’t mean that he won’t see the field though nor would it be a reflection on how hard he will hopefully work this offseason. John Mitchell (Steelers defensive line coach) uses a regular rotation of his lineman to keep them fresh throughout the game. That is especially important in September and early October when it’s still hot and humid. No big guy likes the heat no matter who you are or what you’re name is so keeping them fresh using a rotation is key. Ta’amu will likely split time with McLendon and get much needed experience in the process. If he does well and proves he can handle the job it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he is the starter by midway through the season.
Things can always change, and if Ta’amu would start may buck the trend of how the Steelers generally handle rookies but it would also tell us that he’s earned the job.
Lebeau loves his veterans and would rather put his faith in an established player than a rookie any day. Ta’amu won’t be handed anything regardless of who’s on the roster right now ahead of him but I like his potential just based on his college career and combine workout. The Steelers saw something they liked in him too, and Big Snack Jr. will get his opportunity to prove that he’s got what it takes. The 34 defense starts with solid play by the front 3, and the future of that line depends on Ta’amu and McLendon to step up and handle their responsibilities.
Training camp and preseason is going to be fun to watch!