Pittsburgh Steelers: Is Strength in the Trenches a Priority?

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2009

Since 2000, the Steelers put little emphasis on drafting defensive linesmen. In fact, when Kevin Colbert became Director of Football Operations in 2000, the Steelers drafted 10 defensive linesmen.

Of the 10 drafted, two DE were moved to linebackers, two remain active and the rest have gone to other teams or are no longer play football.

They are as follows:



Draft Rd



Current Assignment




Kendrick Clancy

New Orleans




Clark Haggans

(changed to

LB now with Arizona)




Casey Hampton

Active NT




Rodney Bailey

Arizona 2007)




Brett Keisel

Active DE/LB




Alonzo Jackson

Free Agent




Eric Taylor

Taylor (Edmonton Eskimos 2008




Shaun Nua

(2007 Buffalo Bills practice squad)




Orien Harris

(Cincinnati Bengals 2008)




LaMarr Woodley

Active LB






During the '90s, the Steelers' defensive line became formidable due to the drafting of nose tackle Joel Steed and ends Ray Seals and Aaron Smith.

Smith, drafted in '99 is one of the best defensive ends in team history with 38-1/2 sacks (ninth all-time). Only Keith Willis, of the 1980s Steelers had more sacks than Smith among Steelers ends.  

Barring injuries and turning 33 in April, this one-time Pro Bowler will enter into his 10th season and a contract to expire in 2011.

In 2007, Smith missed more games than in his previous seven seasons as a starter, missing two games with a knee injury early and was lost for rest of the season suffering a biceps tear in the first quarter of a game against the Patriots.

Casey Hampton, all 325 pounds of him, is considered one of best nose tackles in the league.

Known to stop the run and rush the passer, this four time Pro Bowler helped anchor one of the NFL's very best rush defenses by occupying blockers alongside Smith to create opportunities for inside linebackers in the pass rush.

But Hampton may be showing his age.

July 2008, Hampton reported to training camp out of shape and was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list by Coach Tomlin. It was reported that during the annual “conditioning test” consisting of eight 100-yard sprints, he could only manage five trips down and back.

After a two-week absence from training camp, Hampton was back in the pads. Could it be that at this age, Hampton is getting lackadaisical about his off-season training? Is he getting lazy? Hampton will be 31 in September and a free agent in 2010.

Right defensive end Brett Keisel is the third starter. Replacing former DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Keisel has worked his way up to become a decent DE. So much so that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau created a hybrid position suited to his skills as DE/LB.

When healthy, Keisel runs with the best of them and can disrupt a passing game with his vertical leap and above average sense of timing.

He has always been great at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage and manages a huge tipped ball against San Diego in the playoffs intercepted by LB Larry Foote. Soon to be 31, and battling knee injuries, Keisel will be a free agent in 2010.

The Steelers' run defense remains one of the best in the league, in large part due to the team's basic philosophy of running the ball and stopping the run. Hampton, Smith, and Keisel form a perfect Dick LeBeau front-line.

They are staunch against the run, and can break free to make plays in the backfield if the blitz is working correctly. 

However November 2007, the Steeler line allowed New York Jets RB Thomas Jones to gain his first 100 yards of the season and becoming the first running back in 35 games to reach 100 yards against a top-ranked Steelers defense.

What made matters worse Jones hadn’t total 100 yards rushing in the previous five games before playing the Steelers.

In Dec of the same year, RB Fred Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars gained 147 yards in Heinz Field.

A case could be made that the front three although one of the best units in the NFL is getting long in the tooth and three starters do start of the 2009 season over 30. With Hampton and Keisel’s contracts ending in 2010, the Steelers must consider the needs of this aging defensive line.

There is depth in the line manned by undrafted free agents: NT Chris Hoke, DE Travis Kirschke, DE Nick Eason and NT Scott Paxson. The primary backup goes to Kirschke and Hoke, who are 33 and 32, respectively.

Although signed in 2001, Hoke did not play until 2004 taking over the starting nose tackle position for the injured Casey Hampton six games into the season.

Hoke made his first start taking over for the injured Casey Hampton in 2005 against Seattle in the rotation, Hoke was part of the Steelers team that won Super Bowl XL and XLIII. On June 21, 2007, he signed a three-year extension through 2010.

Travis Kirshcke became a solid role player for the Steelers. No better than a journeyman, Kirschke actually ended up with a better statistical season that Keisel and played pretty well in place of him during injury.

DE Nick Eason, NT Scott Paxson, along with DL Jordan Reffelt and DE Kyle Clement are under 30 as undrafted free agents  

A free agent since 2007, Eason (28) played in all 16 games in his first season and recorded 14 tackles. In 2008, the Steelers resigned Eason to a two-year contract, played in 15 games to help catapult the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

Nose tackle Scott Paxson (26) spent the 2007 season as a member of the Steelers' practice squad and renewed his contract on Jan. 15, 2008.

Oct. 4, 2008, Paxson was promoted to the Steelers' active roster and made his first regular season appearance against Jacksonville. Waived early in October, Paxson re-signed to the practice squad on Oct. 21, and was promoted to the active roster again on Dec. 1.

As a reserve member, Paxson did little to contribute to the team. For 2009, the Steelers are looking in good shape provided the line doesn't get ravaged by the injury any more so than it did early on in the 2008 season. 

So what if, do the Steelers continue to pick up undrafted free agents as they have to fill in the holes or will the Steelers draft a couple of linemen in April?

If the Steelers do draft a lineman, it will take a couple years for him to play anyway.


A big, hole-plugging nose tackle who can occupy blockers and a run-stuffing defensive end should be considered priority, one to be a starter to replace Hampton and one to eventually replace Smith.  

The question is, how will they find quality players? The Steelers are known for their successful seasons and find themselves on the bottom of the draft selection process. (Not complaining, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.)

Generally in the earlier rounds the better players are picked up. However, Colbert has done well with selections in the later round except for defensive linemen. The Steelers select talent vs need, but the needs seem great in the defensive line.

One truism is that in order to win games teams have to be strong in the trenches. The Steelers are showing weakness-age and with age comes injuries.

Until the Steelers get on the draft board and build up the corps with young, fresh recruits, expect a decline in what is considered top-notch in the future.


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