The defensive front is the foundation to any strong 3-4 defense, but there are some questions with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ line.
Steve McLendon will be replacing Casey Hampton at nose tackle, which will give the Steelers a different presence up front. However, this will be a welcomed change.
Another potential move could come at left defensive end where Ziggy Hood has been a disappointment so far. Cameron Heyward could finally push him for a starting job this year.
Besides the starting three, the Steelers will also need to sort out their depth chart as they utilize a rotation from their defensive line. Not only does this keep the players fresh during a game, but throughout the season as well.
Last year, the defensive line helped the Steelers to the second-best rush defense in the league, as they allowed 90.6 yards per game. While they were good against they run, they struggled to pressure the quarterback as they only generated 11 of the team’s 37 sacks.
As I continue my training camp preview, it is time to switch to the defensive side of the ball. Here is a breakdown of the defensive line.
For years, Brett Keisel was considered to be the “weak link” on a defensive line that included Aaron Smith and Hampton.
That is not the case anymore as the 34-year-old Keisel is not only the oldest starter on the roster, but he is arguably the Steelers' best defensive lineman.
Last season, Keisel finished with 46 tackles and 4.5 sacks to lead all defensive linemen on the team. He deflected one pass, which is down from the six that he had in 2011 and seven in 2010. It would be a nice boost if he once again got his hands in passing lanes to deflect passes.
Keisel will be entering the final year of his contract and it remains to be seen if the Steelers plan to keep him beyond this season.
The same could be said for 2008 first-round draft pick Hood, who will also be an unrestricted free agent in 2014.
Hood has not lived up to his draft status and could be on his way out of Pittsburgh if he does not step up his game. He was one of two starters listed by Pro Football Focus as “poor”—the other was Larry Foote.
Calling him “poor” may be a bit of a stretch, but the Steelers need a lot more from Hood, particularly in rushing the passer.
While the Steelers do not expect their defensive ends to get to accumulate sacks, they do not discourage applying pressure, either. According to Pro Football Focus, Hood was one of the worst pass-rushing defensive linemen in the league.
He isn’t particularly strong against the run, either, as opponents focused their rushing attack to his side of the field. Since defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau makes stopping the run a priority, this is a problem.
As disappointing as Hood has been, not all has been bad. In fact, he has played some terrific football at certain points during the season.
If you take a look at Hood's performance in December and January compared to the rest of the season, it is clear he raises his game as the season enters its final quarter.
If Hood could play at that level all season, no one would be talking about Hood being a bust.
One man who could take snaps away from Hood is Heyward.
Heyward was the Steelers' 2011 first-round draft pick and they placed him on a slow developmental path. Though his playing time increased last season, he has not been on the field nearly enough.
Entering his third season, it is time to get Heyward on the field. He had 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year in a reserve role and those numbers should once again expand as he will see a lot more playing time in 2013.
How much more playing time?
Bob Labriola of Steelers.com went as far as to call Heyward the better player and will take over as the starter before the regular season. That should not surprise anyone if that happens.
Heyward is better against the run and rushing the quarterback. He has the ideal size at 6’5” and 288 pounds to play defensive end in the Steelers’ system and still has plenty of unrealized potential to capitalize on once he finally gets the chance.
The depth gets a little thin outside of Keisel, Hood and Heyward, but the Steelers do have a reliable fourth defensive end in Al Woods.
Woods played 12 games in a backup role last year and only had three tackles. However, he is not a liability while on the field and has the ability to slide over to the nose tackle position as well.
An interesting player to watch in camp with be seventh-round draft pick Nick Williams.
Williams is a 6’4”, 309-pound defensive end from Samford who has a ton of upside, but is very raw. He will have a tough time making the roster, but would be a virtually lock for the practice squad if he doesn’t make the team.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell is very high on Williams and compared him to Steve McLendon in an interview with Steelers.com. However, he knows he has to teach him how to play his style of football and he could take two or three years to adequately develop.
The Steelers have a couple of undrafted free agents as well with Cordian Hagans and Brian Arnfelt. Both players are 6’4” and nearly 300 pounds, but will have trouble making the final roster.
There is a changing of the guard at nose tackle with Steve McLendon taking over for long-time starter Casey Hampton.
It has been three years in the making, but McLendon has earned the starting job, particularly after his stellar play in limited time last season.
McLendon finished the year with only seven tackles, but did have two sacks and a forced fumble. While it doesn’t show up on the official stat sheet, he also demonstrated the ability to rush the quarterback.
With more teams throwing the football, McLendon’s presence on the defensive line will allow the Steelers apply pressure up the middle. Rarely would this happen with Hampton on the field.
He is a powerful defender who can generate push against the center to collapse the pocket, yet is a large enough presence to command double-teams and hold his ground against the run.
Behind McLendon, the Steelers have several unproven options that will be vying for the backup job.
Last year’s fourth-round pick Alameda Ta’amu was a disappointment starting with a poor training camp. He showed no burst off of the line and was unable to generate any push. Basically, he was everything you wouldn’t want in a nose tackle.
If not for his draft status, Ta’amu may have been released prior to the start of the season.
Of course, his drunk driving incident that led to a suspension also put a damper on his rookie year, but he has had a year in the system and will look to bounce back.
Ta'amu is still a high-upside prospect at nose tackle with the potential to dominate the interior with his massive size and be a force against the run, as seen by his play at Washington.
The Steelers claimed Hebron Fangupo from the Seattle Seahawks last December and he will provide some stiff competition for the backup nose tackle job.
At 6’0” and 324 pounds, he has a compact body in the mold of Hampton and is strong against the run. However, he will struggle to generate a pass rush and at 28 years old, he is older than you would like to have in a developmental prospect.
As an undrafted free agent out of Florida, Omar Hunter is the last nose tackle on the roster.
He is a stout 6’0” and 318 pounds and was a contributor to the Florida Gators' outstanding defense last season.
The final candidate for the job may be the favorite as the Steelers worked out Al Woods not only at defensive end, but also at nose tackle during OTAs according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
We will see soon enough if he sticks there during training camp, but one thing we do know is that head coach Mike Tomlin loves versatile players and Woods could provide that.
Key Questions (and Answers)
Can Steve McLendon adequately replace Casey Hampton?
Not only will McLendon adequately replace Hampton, he will be a significant upgrade. Hampton was coming off an ACL injury and it took him a good portion of the season to play at a relatively high level. It was actually confusing why McLendon didn’t get more playing time.
With so much focus on passing, McLendon’s ability to generate pressure up the middle will be a nice boost to the defense. He has put in his time and earned a starting job and the Steelers will be a better team with him in the lineup.
Who will start at left defensive end?
Hood has had four years to prove himself—including two as the primary starter—and he hasn’t done so yet. It is time to move on and give Heyward his opportunity.
Heyward has already shown more upside in his limited stats and the Steelers need to put their best players on the field. Hood will still provide valuable depth coming off of the bench.
Who will be the backup nose tackle?
There will be some people that will want to re-sign Hampton, but Pittsburgh made the right decision to move on. With that said, I like the idea of Al Woods as the backup nose tackle. He is one of their top six defensive linemen and deserves to be on the field over a player that is less capable.
That does not mean that I wouldn't keep either Ta’amu or Fangupo. It would be worth developing another pure nose tackle, but until they are ready, Woods should be the top backup. As long as he shows growth, I would like to see Ta'amu on the final roster.
Will Nick Williams make the final roster?
Williams potential intrigues me more than most late-round defensive linemen. However, sometimes you get infatuated with rookies and forget how much they need to develop before they are ready to play.
If there is an extra roster spot and he can play special teams, I would keep Williams around. However, if the Steelers need another special teams player or an additional linebacker or defensive back, then by all means keep the more game-ready player and allow Williams to develop on the practice squad.