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For the first time in years the Steelers’ run defense showed some cracks.
The 99.8 yards per game that the defense allowed on the ground last season was the worst since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
The decline in run defense was understandable, though, as the Steelers put a focus on stopping the pass. It paid off as they had the top pass defense in the league, allowing 171.9 yards per game.
Despite leading the league against the pass, Pittsburgh’s defense did not pass the "eye test" as a dominating defense. That is because they weren't.
Last season, opponents were able to gash the Steelers' defense for big chunks of yardage on the ground. But the bigger concern was a lack of sacks and a lack of turnovers.
Pittsburgh’s pass rush suffered as LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were hampered with injuries. While the backups were not up to the task of rushing the quarterback, they did not get much help from the defensive line either.
Prior to being placed on injured reserve, the usually great Smith was ineffective. Age had finally caught up to him. Meanwhile, Hampton was no longer dominating in the middle and it became clear that his play was slipping.
After Smith went on injured reserve, Hood took over and started 14 games. While he did not perform poorly, his play was not where it needed to be either as a former first-round selection.
In 2010, Hood had a strong performance down the stretch and looked like he would develop into a force at left defensive end.
However, last year he did not build on the 2010 season and failed to dominate on the line of scrimmage and was a virtual non-factor rushing the passer.
Things should change this year after the offseason training by Hood.
Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that Hood felt that he wasn’t “in tip-top shape” last season and this had a negative impact on his play.
What better way to help my speed and help my agility but to lose body fat? Hood said. I play better when I feel good. When I don’t feel good, I don’t do as well as I want, and I didn’t feel good all the time last year.
Hood’s play will be a key this year for the Steelers’ defensive front. Besides continuing to improve against the run, he could really make an impact rushing the passer.
In fact, Hood told Steelers.com that rushing the passer is the area of his game that he wants to improve this year.
While Hood will be under a lot of pressure being a former first-round pick, Steve McLendon may be the most important player on the defense.
Pittsburgh needs a dominate force in the middle of the defensive line and Hampton has provided that for a decade.
Now McLendon will have to prove that he can control the middle of the line and he will be a huge factor in stopping the run as well as freeing up space for the linebackers to make plays.
McLendon is one of the strongest players on the team and with a year of experience as a backup, he now has a chance to make a name for himself.
The play of Hood and McLendon will be the key to the success of the 2012 Steelers defensive line.