Since Brett Keisel joined fellow defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Casey Hampton in the lineup in 2006, the Steelers have fared no worse than third in rush defense.
These players are a model of consistency for the Steelers, but are not without concern. Since 2006, Keisel and Smith have only started all 16 games only twice, while Hampton did so only once.
The health of the starters will once again be of concern entering the 2010 season, as they are all over the age of 30—Smith, 34, Hampton, 32, and Keisel, 31. Of particular concern will be Smith, who is coming off a shoulder injury which caused him to miss 11 games last season.
Top nose tackle backup, Chris Hoke, is 34, and defensive end reserve, Nick Eason, is 30.
Pittsburgh will have to rely on several young players to move up the depth charts and contribute this season in their defensive line rotation.
Defensive End: Starters
There will be no competition to determine who will start at defensive end. Smith will return to his starting left defensive end spot, where he has established himself as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
Smith does not put up eye-popping stats, but he does not need to. He is responsible for holding the point of attack, which he does extremely well, to allow the linebackers to make plays.
As one of the best run stoppers in the league, the Steelers defense suffered in 2007 and 2009 when he missed time due to injury, but it is expected that they will regain form this year with Smith back in the lineup.
Though it is not his strength, Smith can also adequately rush the passer, accumulating 14.5 sacks over his last 48 games.
Keisel is not the force against the rush that Smith is, but he is still a good, all-around player. Though he does not get to the quarterback much, with only 11.5 sacks since becoming a starter in 2006, he can consistently put pressure on the quarterback
Playing on the right side of the line, Keisel has also played an important role in causing enough disruption along the line to allow James Harrison to thrive as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.
Defensive End: Backups
Entering his second year in the league, Ziggy Hood should assume the role as the top backup on the defensive line.
Hood was brought along slowly last season, as he had to learn to play defensive end in a 3-4 defense. However, as his opportunities increased towards the end of the season, Hood flashed pass rushing potential and recorded his first career sack.
With the Steelers often rotating their linemen, Hood should see increased playing time this season. He will have to improve his play against the run, and this will be something to look for at camp.
Eason should maintain the other backup spot along the line.
Never a spectacular player, Eason has been an effective backup and spot starter for the Steelers. There is a clear drop-off when he enters the game, but he is not a liability either and has earned his role on the Steelers roster.
Defensive End: the Rest
Second year player Ra’Shon “Sunny” Harris will compete with rookie Doug Worthington for a roster spot.
Harris came to the Steelers last year as a player with a very high upside, but one that was never very productive in college. It was his inconsistent play that resulted in him dropping to the sixth round.
In camp, though, Harris showed signs of becoming a decent NFL player. He has the size and strength necessary to succeed in the Steelers defense. While he won’t be a playmaker, if he could contribute off the bench, Harris could bring much needed youth to the team.
After not making the roster last season, Harris signed with the Carolina Panthers. He eventually found his way to their practice squad and the Steelers quickly picked him back up, following Smith’s injury. The team may not want to risk losing Harris again.
Worthington will give it his best to overtake Harris.
At 6'5", 292 pounds, Worthington already has the size and strength to be a 3-4 defensive end, yet still has room to grow.
Not the most athletic player, Worthington is much better against the run than the pass. He will have time to develop pass rushing skills.
Additionally, Worthington will have to make a transition from defensive tackle to defensive end. Defensive line coach, John Mitchell, also has high standards for his players, as we saw last year with the slow development of Hood.
Therefore, Worthington will have an uphill battle against Harris, who has the experience edge and could find himself on the practice squad.
Steve McLendon, who spent part of the 2009 season on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, will likely only be a camp body.
Nose Tackle: Starter
Casey Hampton is firmly entrenched as the Steelers starting nose tackle and should continue in this role for the foreseeable future, especially after signing a three-year contract this offseason.
After receiving the contract, Hampton has security and may not come to camp as motivated as he was last year, a contract year.
Just two seasons ago, Hampton was put on the PUP list after failing to complete the run test at the beginning of camp.
Even with the new contract in hand, Hampton will unlikely want to find himself in this situation again.
Expect Hampton to be in shape this season and ready to improve after the defense had a down year last season. He will be relied upon to clog up the middle of the line and demand double teams from the offense.
Though he is a year older, Hampton is still one of the better 3-4 tackles in the league and a dominant run stopper.
Nose Tackle: Backup
Behind Hampton, Chris Hoke will once again find himself as backup.
With Hampton being only a two-down player, Hoke finds himself on the field a lot when Hampton is given a rest.
Though he is not as large as Hampton, at a relatively lean 305 pounds, the defense rarely misses a beat with Hoke on the field.
With both players over 32 years old, it will be interesting how the coaches manage them in the defensive line rotation. It is unlikely that any other nose tackle makes the roster, so the defense will once again depend upon these two grizzled veterans.
Nose Tackle: The Rest
Unlike defense end, the Steelers do not have any backups with upside at nose tackle.
Scott Paxson is the only other nose tackle on the roster.
At 6'2", 292 pounds, Paxson is undersized to man the middle of the Steelers defense.
After signing with the Steelers prior to the 2007 season, Paxson spent time bouncing around between the practice squad and roster, though he only has one game to his credit in his career.
Paxson will likely be cut prior to the season and will only get called up to the roster if injuries occur.