Pittsburgh Steelers Position Breakdown: Defensive Line

Jim McMillen@pbblitzContributor IJune 7, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  (L-R) Chris Hoke #76, Aaron Smith #91 Travis Kirschke #90,  Casey Hampton #98 and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy in the locker room after defeating the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Steelers won the game by a score of 27-23.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

With our breakdowns of the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, cornerbacks, & linebackers now in the books, it is now time to move on to the Steelers defensive line.

One of the reasons Pittsburgh’s defense has been so good over the years is the unheralded play of this group of me. They may not get the stats but it all starts with them up front.

The Steelers run a 3-4 defense, and the linebackers are built to make the plays within that scheme. While the defensive line is built to take on blocks and open lanes for those said LB’s. Though they may not get the glory, this group deserves it.

With guys like Aaron Smith, Casey “Big Snack” Hampton, and Brett Keisel up front, the Steelers' defense is always one of the best in the league.

The one flaw with the DL though might be their age. As all three of the starters are in their 30s and are not getting any younger. The plus is the experience they bring to the field and the fact none of them have shown signs of slowing down yet.

‘Big Snack’ may be getting fatter but his size & strength is what makes him so damn good and allows him to take on two blockers every play. Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell believes that the age of the defensive line is still not a concern going into the 2009 season and recently said:

“They may be old, but when you look at these guys, Brett was here four years before he played. Aaron Smith was here two years before he played. Those guys, chronologically, are old, but football-wise, they are not…”I think they can be around for the next three, four or five years.”

With that said lets move on to the breakdown of the Steelers defensive line position.

The Starters

Steelers Position Breakdown of the Defensive Line

Aaron Smith - He may not get much recognition from the national media but he is quite possibly the best 3-4 Defensive End in the NFL. After missing several games due to injury in 2007,  Smith started all 16 games for the sixth time in his ten year career in 2008.

At age 32, Smith showed no signs of slowing down last year and added 5.5 sacks to his career total of 42.

Smith is a big motor guy who is one of the best in the league against the run and his play dictates how the Steelers defense attacks. His stats may not make him a fantasy hero but his play makes the Steelers defense go round. He is the main cog in the run game and it shows when he is off the field.

Smith should have at least two good seasons left in the tank and if he can stay healthy the Steelers defense has a chance to be just as good as the one that helped win Super Bowl XLIII.

Casey ‘Big Snack’ Hampton - His eating disorder got him into hot water with coach Mike Tomlin at the start of last seasons training camp, but Big Snack was able to get back into shape and back on the field after a few weeks in the dog house.

He is a big, strong NT and the anchor of the Steelers defense. Hampton often takes on two blocks and controls the middle of the field. When he is on his A game not many teams are able to find running room in his direction.

Hampton will be playing in 2009 to earn another contract in 2010 with either Pittsburgh or another NFL franchise but says he’s not concerned that he’s had no talks with the team about an extension despite entering a contract year.

With Hampton in the mix though the Steelers fell 54 rushing yards allowed short in 2008 of becoming the first team since Rich Kotite’s 1991 Eagles to finish a regular season ranked first in rush, pass, and total defense.

All indications during OTA’s are that Hampton is in shape and ready to play in 2009. So look for ‘Big Snack’ to try not to eat his way out of Pittsburgh and play his way into a new contract.

Here at Pittsburgh Blitz we would love to see Hampton get that new contract with the Steelers, but the cap situation and his willingness to give a hometown discount will play a key role in where he ends up in 2010.

Brett Keisel -Over the last few seasons Keisel has been consistent but not spectacular and like Hampton he will be playing in 2009 to earn another contract in 2010. At 6'5", 285 pounds, Keisel’s athleticism thrives when given those chances—chances that LeBeau has also given, in a more conventional fashion, to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

But Keisel is deceptively quick and athletic for someone his size.

In the Steelers scheme Keisel has been given the freedom to get up and move around and try and confuse the offense. Though listed at RDE, Keisel has been known to line up at LB as well in certain situations.

His stats might not show his worth but Keisel is always around the ball and though he might not get as many sacks as some fans would like he is consistently putting pressure on opposing QB’s every game.

Though Brett fits the Steelers system well, this could be his last season either as a starter, Steeler or both. With the recent addition of Evander Hood via the first round of the 2009 draft, Keisels days in Pittsburgh could be numbered.

Both he and the Steelers would like to get a deal done soon but like Casey Hampton, the salary cap and his willingness to take a pay cut will determine if he gets a new contract or not from the Steelers.

Key Role Players

Travis Kirschke -The Pittsburgh Steelers signed defensive end Travis Kirschke to a two-year contract extension a few months ago and he should again be the primary backup RDE for the team.

Though with the addition of Hood to the roster, his playing time could be cut as he may not be the primary when the Steelers rotate in fresh legs throughout games. Kirschke has been with the Steelers since 2005 and before that played for Detroit and the 49ers.

Nick Eason -The former Denver Bronco and Cleveland Clown, Eason has been with the Steelers since 2007 and has played little since signing with the team. His playing time will be even less this season and if Evander Hood gets on track soon enough, Eason could be looking for a new team by the end of training camp.

Evander “Ziggy” Hood - is a solid defender who plays with a high motor. He has great size and quickness, and plays with leverage. He’s fast off the line, blades through the gap and quickly locates the ball carrier. He’s physical at the point of attack and holds his own against a bigger opposition and double teams.

He’s a durable, reliable defender who demonstrates great toughness in the trenches.

OK great we know what the scouts said about him, but can the kid play? The Steelers coaches think so and so do we here at Pittsburgh Blitz. Hood has all the tools to be a great DE but will need time to learn the Steelers scheme and get used to the change from college to the NFL. Once Hood does though, he is destined to be a starter.

Hood should primarily be used as the first or second option in the Steelers defensive line rotation but could also see playing time at DT in nickel and dime packages. He could also be the reason Brett Keisel gets a new deal or not.

Chris Hoke - The backup to Casey Hampton and has consistently stepped in admirably when injuries have occurred. Hoke is an important piece of the puzzle as the primary backup NT because Big Snack is not getting any younger or slimmer and when he gets playing time the Steelers defense does not miss a beat.

Having a competent backup who can demand double teams from offensive lineman is very important in the 3-4 defense and Hoke is that type of player.

The Rest of the Pack

The other players on the roster, that matter, for the Steelers defensive line include Scott Paxson (NT), Orpheus Roye (DE), and the rookie Ra’Shon Harris (DE). Of the three only Harris has a real future with the team.

Paxson is a career practice dummy and Roye is so old, when he reads the bible he is remembering the good old days. Paxson and Ra’Shon Harris should both be on the practice squad this season but Roye may get sent packing sooner then later.

Overall we don’t foresee much change with the 2009 defensive line as compared to the 2008 group. The addition of Ziggy Hood will likely force out either Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason or Orpheus Roye but the rest of the core group will stay the same. 

We expect Ra’Shon Harris and Scott Paxson to either be on the 53 man roster but inactive for game days or be stashed on the practice squad. 

Perhaps one or two of these undrafted free agents from the 2009 class will come to camp, surprise everyone and grab a roster spot, however unlikely.  Regardless of what happens to training camp if the Steelers can remain healthy on the defensive line they will again be suiting up one of the better defensive front lines in all of football.

Well that’s the lowdown on the defensive line, thanks for reading and your comments are always welcome. Let us know what you think.

*Check back soon for the 9th and final edition of this series. Next up we will be the breakdown of the Special Teams.


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