While many of us out there in the Steeler Nation use the term, ‘Steel Curtain’ to describe our defense, in my opinion there will always be just the one of the 1970’s. Mean Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White will forever be linked to that name and rightfully so.
Part of the problem with calling the current defensive line the same thing is that this line is comprised of three guys and not four and the responsibilities of the two are/were significantly different. Perhaps I’m being snobbish, but that’s my opinion. As we wrap up the defense today in our ‘roster throwdowns,’ I’m taking a look at who we can expect to see on the three-man front in 2012.
Casey Hampton – At 34 years of age, ‘Big Snack’ is coming off a season-ending knee injury coming in the first quarter of the team’s playoff loss in Denver. Very few men have played the nose tackle position in the 3-4 defense better than Hampton but how much does he have left in the tank?
The good news for Hampton is that he has one proven back up and another with loads of potential. Why this is good news is that Hampton should be able to be on the field less, but giving him more opportunity to be fresh, active and aggressive.
Hampton looked slower and weaker as the season began last year, but his play improved as the season wore on. Should his two replacements prove they can get the job done, Hampton will surely see less and less time but either way, I believe this is probably the end of the road for the Big Snack.
Steve McLendon – If you take defensive line coach John Mitchell at his word, then Steve McLendon will have a spectacular season. Commenting to the press following the drafting of Alameda Ta’amu, Mitchell raved about McLendon’s progress last season and throughout the the winter.
At 6’4″, McLendon is tall by typical 3-4 nose tackle standards, but the guy played the position pretty darn well last year when Hampton was resting and normal back up Chris Hoke was out with injury. John Mitchell is not the type to dabble in hyperbole so I’m taking him at his word. I look for a great season from McLendon in 2012.
Alameda Ta’amu – Listed at 348lbs., Ta’amu is roughly 60lbs. heavier than McLendon and only an inch shorter. In other words, this guy could be another bridge across the Ohio River.
Ta’amu frequently did at Washington what other great nose tackles do and that’s make the players around him better. At the collegiate level, Ta’amu routinely blew up double teams and all but shut down many teams’ inside rushing attacks. While he will have much to learn and needs to get more effective in the pass rush, he could be the future for the Steelers at the nose and what a steal he would be as a fourth round draft pick.
Brett Keisel – What else can you say about Keisel? The guy is a man’s man, a true professional. He’s a guy that goes hard every play and has the ability to disrupt an entire side of a quarterback’s line of sight by himself.
‘Da Beard’ is never going to be confused with Reggie White at the defensive end position because he isn’t that type of player. The 3-4 requires a very different skill set and set of responsibilities and Keisel will never dominate games like White did. Keisel allows the linebackers to do their jobs and when they can’t, he is an excellent pursuer for a big man.
There is no question, the playoff game in Denver turned when Keisel and Hampton were both knocked out of the game with injuries. At 33, it’s hard to say how much longer Keisel has, but I’m confident he is going to have an excellent year in 2012.
Ziggy Hood – Don’t feel bad if you aren’t able to recognize Hood this season because the man has undergone a transformation of epic proportions physically. Most 3-4 defensive ends are just ‘big guys’ but Hood has made himself into a well-cut, physically intimidating beast over the off-season. Will this translate into results on the field? I couldn’t tell you but it sure looks like Hood is poised for a break out year.
Hood now has the starting spot to himself as he enters camp. Long time great Aaron Smith has moved into retirement and has imparted as much wisdom on Hood as he could. Now it’s up to Hood to make things happen on a regular basis in 2012.
Cameron Heyward – Last year’s first round draft pick from Ohio State quickly became a fan favorite as his late father was the former Pitt star Craig ‘Ironhead’ Heyward. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Cameron however as he saw more and more action as the season ran on.
Heyward saw action in all 16 games last season which is not a usual thing for defensive rookies of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As you know, ends in the 3-4 aren’t supposed to dominate, rather, they are supposed to contain and occupy blockers and Heyward improved in both areas throughout the year. With Hood and Keisel in front of him, Heyward provides outstanding depth.
Other options – Rookies Jake Stoller from Yale and Ikponmwosa Igbinosun of Southern Connecticut State are long-shots at best to make the roster. Corbin Bryant and third year man Al Woods have much better shots but but still face massive challenges depending upon how many defensive linemen the Steelers choose to go with week-to-week.
Analysis – The Steelers will bring Hampton along slowly and he will eventually join the team. McLendon and Ta’amu will be the nose tackles. Keisel, Hood and Heyward will be joined by one other guy unless the coaches feel McLendon can move outside occasionally, but I still think you’ll see a guy like Woods in the fold.
When Hampton returns, don’t be surprised to see a three-man front consisting of him, McLendon and Ta’amu at times. LeBeau has tinkered with this before and I think he will again especially in short yardage/goalline situations.
As always, health will be a major factor for this group, but either way, I still expect better play than we saw at times last season even as good as they were.