Tuesday Morning Blitz

Much of the hype the last two offseasons has revolved around the Steelers' efforts to get their most dynamic defensive player, linebacker Kendrell Bell, on the field on third down. Makes sense; he was the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2001, you know. What baffles me though is why when the team finally includes its most dominant defender in its new third down package, the response is little more than a yawn.

You would think Casey Hampton sucked or something.

The Steelers selected Hampton 19th overall in the 2001 NFL Draft after trading down three spots with the New York Jets. Despite the outcry of Steelers draftniks worldwide, Casey would have been a great value, and the pick, even at 16. How a guy this good can be this under-appreciated is beyond me.

Of course, when your name is Casey Hampton, you're used to such things. He's been overlooked and underestimated most of his life. All it's done is steel his resolve.

Hampton grew up in government housing in the worst part of Galveston, Texas, an area wrought with drugs and violence and oppression. Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum refused to recruit him because he was an academic risk. When the University of Texas finally showed interest, Hampton was forced to take the ACT four times before he qualified academically.

"I know first hand that you are never guaranteed tomorrow," Hampton said. "I learned that one mistake where I lived could ruin my life. Too many people weren't making it. I didn't have any room for error."

"I don't blame Coach Slocum for what he did. A lot of schools shied away from me because of my grades. [There] was a lot of pressure [taking the ACT four times] because you know you're good enough to play Division I football. But a lot of guys are good enough and never make it because of grades. In high school, I was kind of lazy and didn't want to do the work. I did just enough to get by."

That has all changed, and now Hampton's work ethic is second-to-none. His mother's determination to stay off welfare and provide for he and his three siblings was all the example he would need.

"My mom's been through a lot," Hampton said. "I grew up seeing all these ladies on welfare, not working. They had their kids all dirty, walking around with no shoes. But my mom took care of us. It wasn't a lot. But she was out there working for it."

Casey is working for it, too.

The Good

When the New England Patriots spread the Steelers' 3-4 out on a Monday night last September, Casey was on the field. He and linemates Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen were left to pressure Tom Brady as he stood in the shotgun and peppered the linebackers and secondary with quick passes. They failed miserably. When the Steelers went dime, Brady got a two-fer; Hampton and Bell had to leave the field, and Lee Flowers was still there with a huge target on his chest. This, however, will be different. With Hampton and Smith inside in a four-man front, the 4-2-5 nickel alignment is essentially a 2-4 with five defensive backs. Outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Gildon are the rush ends, with Kendrell Bell and James Farrior lining up in the middle.

The Bad

Tim Lewis must be licking his chops. The flexibility of this alignment would allow the dust to be blown off some of the zone blitz schemes of the past. With Hampton and Smith driving the pocket back into the quarterback, drawing at least one double team between them, and Gildon and Porter coming off the edge, the pass rush should for all intents and purposes be formidable. Add the threat of a well-timed blitz by one or both of the inside linebackers, as well as the option to dropping one or both of the ends off into short zones, and the possibilities are endless. And that's before a blitzing corner or safety is factored in. The only issue will be how much gas does Casey ultimately have.

The Ugly

That however, shouldn't be a problem. The rotation across the nickel's defensive line would include the veteran von Oelhoffen, third-year end Rodney Bailey, and second-year end Brett Keisel, as well as rookie passrusher Alonzo Jackson, and last year's dime rusher, Clark Haggans. The defense could be used interchangeably with the base 3-4, but would be challenged when offenses go four and five wide. Even then, with Flowers now in Denver and either Mike Logan or rookie Troy Polamalu in his place, corners Chad Scott, Dewayne Washington, and Deshea Townsend will be allowed to play more press coverage. That's actually a very good thing.

The Outlook

There's been a premium on defensive tackles the last few years both in the draft and free agency, but the misconception is that it's all about defending the run. Fact is, you can have a great passrusher at defensive end, but if the quarterback can step up in the pocket, the end can be easily contained or ridden out of the play. And the ends are a non-factor against a three-step drop. Slap a 320-pound monster like Hampton on the nose and the rules change a bit. His presence will make the highly compensated passrushing trio of Porter, Smith, and Gildon all the more effective. Not that Hampton doesn't have a little something to bring to the party himself; he was after all the Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2000, and amassed 46 quarterback pressures his last two seasons at Texas, not to mention his awesome brute power and short area quickness. That should give quarterbacks something to think about, at least until Porter plants a helmet between their shoulder blades.

Random thoughts

:: If its football, I'm interested, and if it includes the Steelers, I'm all over it. Recently EA Sports unveiled the latest edition of John Madden's namesake game title at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. After a year of getting torched versus the pass and allowing an uncharacteristically high number of points, the Steelers defense took it on the chin. After being ranked among the elite in Madden2003, the defense has slipped to a very ordinary 85 rating. The offense improved marginally to an 84, while the team's overall rating is an 89.

:: Oh, and the Oakland Raiders have replaced the St Louis Rams as the team to beat. Must be something about losing the Superbowl.

:: While I'm on Madden2004, I've just got to wonder if this is the year they get Joey Porter's photo right. He did make the Pro Bowl and all. Who is that guy anyway?

:: Maybe the weather will be warm in September, too.

Let this one marinate …

The addition of Calvin Collins to the roster a week back made for some interesting discussion. In the long run, he's just a veteran guy who adds depth inside. This, however, is the same guy that anchored the line that paved the way for Jamal Anderson and the Atlanta Falcons' Superbowl run in 1998. So what happened that turned this 1997 all-rookie performer into a scrub on the Minnesota Vikings bench by 2001, and out of football in 2002? Well, following the 2000 season, disgruntled Falcons offensive line coach Art Shell resigned his post and was replaced by former line coach Pete Mangurian, who had left in 1998 to take the top job at Cornell. Mangurian demoted Collins that spring, favoring instead a lighter, more athletic front wall. Collins, a mauler, was summarily released that summer. Recently Mangurian was named the Falcons offensive coordinator. Go figure.

Donny Drummond

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