This is the third in a series of articles exploring each position and the battles going on in Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. Today we look at the front seven—defensive line and linebackers.
The Steelers front seven is arguably the best in football.
Not just statistically, but in on-field intimidation as well. Could it be any other way in Pittsburgh?
The success of the franchise has been because of rugged defenses and this version is one of the best in team history.
It all starts up front with big nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Listed at 325 pounds, believe me he's much bigger, the University of Texas product is the prototypical NFL nose tackle. His job is simple: clog up the middle and be disruptive.
Boy is he disruptive. Hampton is a run-stuffing machine who came to camp in much better shape than last season. Except for a slight knee twinge that kept him out of one practice, he's been his old, dominant self. Should he miss any time, Chris Hoke is a capable backup.
Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel return to man the starting defensive end slots. Both have been consistent in camp and should be counted on for solid 2009 campaigns.
Breathing down their necks is first-round draft pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Hood has performed better than even the coaches thought he would. He's been alternating at both defensive end and nose tackle with equally impressive results. Ziggy has looked more comfortable and consistent as camp progresses. Give him a year of seasoning and he'll be a starter in 2010.
The other backup end spot should be held by veteran Travis Kirschke, even though Sonny Harris and Nick Eason are giving him some competition.
This is without a doubt the best line backing corps in the NFL.
The Steelers' backers play fast, hit hard, and love to intimidate their opponents. They personify the old-school way of playing football.
The leader of this unit is ILB James Farrior.
Farrior is the quarterback of the defense, the play caller, and the one who makes sure everyone is in their right place. Farrior is a savvy, experienced leader who understands Dick LeBeau's idea of defense better than anyone.
Manning the inside with Farrior is third-year pro Lawrence Timmons, who takes over for the departed Larry Foote in the starting rotation. Timmons struggled early on in camp trying to learn the calls and make his reads, but with his athleticism and skills he should make the adjustment to a starter in smooth fashion.
The NFL 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison, is back and looking better than ever.
Harrison set a Pittsburgh record with 16 sacks last season, but he isn't resting on his laurels. He came to camp in the best shape of his life. Harrison is bigger, stronger, and he's cut his body fat down by two percent, thanks to a better diet. Up close, he looks like a big tree trunk.
His partner on the outside, LaMarr Woodley, has been battling a sore knee in camp, but should be ready to go full throttle by the season opener.
Woodley is a bonafide superstar who might have been MVP if not for his teammate. The former Michigan star blossomed in his second season, recording 60 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Look for more of the same in 2009.
ILB Keyaron Fox has had a great camp backing up Farrior. The defense hasn't looked at all different with Fox in calling plays and that's a good thing. He is a lock to make the team.
Also a lock is outside linebacker Andre Frazier. The fifth-year pro has played well in camp when Woodley rested his swollen knee.
The other two linebacker spots are up for grabs between Donovan Woods, Patrick Bailey, Arnold Harrison, Andy Schantz, Tom Korte, and Bruce Davis.
Schantz has been hitting people like a wrecking ball and may stick around if he keeps playing like that.
A big disappointment in camp so far is Davis.
The former UCLA standout is one-dimensional and even his pass rushing has been suspect. He's a liability against the run and even in his second year, he's having trouble learning his position. He was a defensive end in college and worked with his hand on the ground. If he doesn't start playing better, the third-round selection in 2008 will be cut.
The strength of the Steelers defense is the front seven. The only concern may be their ages. Seven players on the two-deep are over 30 and with age the chance of injuries rise.
If they stay healthy, Pittsburgh once again will have the best front seven in all of football. Look for another dominating performance from this group in 2009.