By John Harris
Monday, June 4, 2007
Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton is talking more than ever. Funny, because the new season is still three months away.
Hampton is taking his role as one of the team's new leaders more seriously than a double-team block.
He promised to upgrade his 2006 performance, despite making the Pro Bowl for the third time in four years. He isn't too proud to admit that his numbers were good, but not nearly good enough as the Steelers finished 8-8 the year after winning Super Bowl XL.
Hampton realizes he can't ask more from his teammates, to implore them to take their play to a whole new level, without doing likewise.
In taking more ownership of the defense with the departure of fiery linebacker Joey Porter, he also accepts more responsibility.
"I have been a leader. I have been a vocal guy in the locker room. People didn't know it because Joey was our vocal leader. That was who you always saw out front talking," Hampton said. "Now that he's gone, I'll probably step up and talk more. I know the guys look at me as a leader."
Hampton picked apart his own game.
"I think I can play a lot better than I did last year," said Hampton, whose 33 tackles in 2006 tied his rookie numbers and was his second-lowest total in six NFL seasons. Hampton recorded 17 tackles in 2004 when he played in only six games because of a knee injury.
"I think I played good," Hampton said, "but I feel like I can play a lot better."
Hampton is a powerful two-gap nose tackle who engages two blockers on every play so his linebackers can roam freely and make the bulk of the tackles on running plays.
On pass plays, Hampton is asked to shove the center back toward the quarterback so that the quarterback can't step up in the pocket and evade the outside rush of the defensive ends.
Hampton is learning to counter how teams are preparing for him.
"Teams block me a lot different now," Hampton said. "Linemen don't really try to block me straight up, they just try to get in my way. It takes away from me making big plays.
"A lot of teams in the league play the 3-4, but nobody's nose tackle plays the way I play. A lot of teams let their (nose tackle) run behind blocks and get up the field and make plays. My job is way different than anybody else's."
Add increased leadership to Hampton's expanding resume. He plans to lead by words and example.
Hampton said his teammates are somewhat uneasy under new coach Mike Tomlin, which has made for spirited workouts at the Steelers' South Side facility.
Tomlin arrived agenda-free. He'll play who he wants, sit who he wants.
With few exceptions, no job is safe.
Because Tomlin doesn't play favorites, the players -- from big names such as Hampton to role players such as backup nose tackle Chris Hoke -- don't really know what to expect.
"You don't know what they're thinking about you, how they feel about your play," Hoke said. "Coach Tomlin says it doesn't matter what you've done in the past. You've got to prove you can play."
Prove it or lose it.