Let's be frank: "Big Snack" was a big disappointment in 2011. Casey Hampton certainly held the fort to some degree last season, but nobody confused his performance with the ever-reliable and consistently great play of his past.
At the start of last season, Hampton bordered on crying foul over legal chop blocks that were taking him completely out of his game. While he worked to fix the issue that plagued the entire Steelers defensive front early in the most recent campaign, he still lost a step over the course of the season, and his curbed speed and range made gap control more difficult for himself and the linebackers or occasional safeties playing support behind him.
Now, with his career in question after a knee injury to close 2011, nobody quite knows how the nose tackle will respond. The man in the middle that has defined the d-front for the team's second championship generation could return back to relative form; or, he could falter.
The latter can't happen. Nose tackle is the most important position along the defensive front, if not beyond that scope. If the "Snack" can't get it back, somebody has to pick up the slack! For the Steelers more than any other team, this is important.
With Dick LeBeau returning and Keith Butler committing to the Black and Gold—which shows the team is committed to Butler as LeBeau's successor—the team is clearly comfortable in maintaining its defensive scheme.
The 3-4 is a wonderful defensive strategy. Yet, it requires key parts.
And make no mistake about it that, no part is as important as the nose tackle.
Unlike the 4-3 alignment, which sees four down linemen and two tackles lined up to either side of center, the 3-4 utilizes a singular tackle at its core. While the strategy allows flexibility with the looks seen upfront, it absolutely requires dominant play from the isolated tackle, or nose tackle.
Plain and simple. It's just that open and closed. Period.
The nose tackle often gets lost in the mass of the trenches, not showing up on the highlight reel with the sacks seen by dominant ends. Yet, in the chaos along the line of scrimmage, the beef in the middle of the 3-4 defense dictates how much liberty and space those defenders working behind the front have to penetrate and/or control the line of scrimmage.
It's not difficult conceptually: One guy with so much responsibility needs to be beefy.
Haloti Ngata, Vince Wolfork, Kris Jenkins.
The good news is that I believe the Steelers will see production at this position in '12 despite the pessimism of many, either from the gained experience and desire of Steve McClendon or the raw ability molded into professional production with Alameda Ta'amu.
I didn't think I'd say this, but: I believe the key contributor will be McClendon.
Alameda Ta'amu, the Steelers' fourth-round selection, is a case study in mixed opinions.
Many believe he needs to further develop to break free from a role of backup—or snap-seeker—and into the role of entrenched nose tackle. To which I say, have some faith in defensive line coach John Mitchell.
Yet, he's struggled so far in camp, taking a bit of heat from his coaches; hopefully, the phrase "par for the course" also applies to the greens at training camp in Latrobe, PA.
Though nobody confuses him as a projected all-pro at the position, Steve McLendon filled in nicely in spurts last year. I'm not sure if he can last an entire season or maintain consistency year-round, but if the game against the Eagles is any indication, I could be flat wrong!
Three tackles? One for a loss? And a sack? From a man who has shown up to training camp ripped, clearly in the best shape of his life?!
He showcased his ability in the preseason opener, keeping integrity along the front in the face of an impending Michael Vick rush and confidently sacking the "passer." He also did a great job in run support, getting penetration in each of the team's early defensive downs.
At least in chunks, McLendon can get the job done, and early indications are that he can be a force beyond my early offseason expectations. And, if he can be developed into a productive force on a proud defense by a renowned coaching staff, who should doubt that Ta'amu can also make that leap?
Among three options, any of which has the chance to be viable, somebody should step up and take the throne!