No problems up front for Steelers defense

The Steelers had plenty of trouble in 2002 keeping the opposition out of the end zone, but don't blame the defensive line. Pittsburgh's DL is probably the most misunderstood unit on the team. Some claim that the Steelers have one of the best lines in football, while others see no-names toiling in mediocrity. The Steelers organization clearly agrees with the former opinion, not the latter.

In 2001, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Casey Hampton in the first round. A number of "draft experts" labeled the pick a reach because they did not understand how important a nose tackle is to a 3-4 scheme and just how hard it is to find a good one. The Steelers would follow that up with the extension of DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen and re-signing DE Aaron Smith to a big contract that would become the standard for more famous ends such as Vonnie Holliday.

Why, exactly, did the Steelers pay these guys so much money? Smith, Hampton, and Von Oelhoffen are hardly household names. They don't post flashy stats in terms of sacks or tackles and they aren't likely to be voted into the Pro Bowl any time soon.

These starting three did their usual yeoman's work last season as the Steelers once again proved to be the best run defense in the NFL. Thus, teams shied away from the strength of the Steeler defense and tried to attack the secondary through the air. What about pressuring the quarterback?

The Steelers were not exactly weak in that department either. The defense tallied 50 sacks last season, 3rd best in the league. The defensive linemen accounted for 16 of those sacks (they had 15 in 2001, a great year for the defense overall), not counting the OLBs who play like a defensive end in the dime package. Such production wouldn't wow anyone looking at a 4-3 scheme, but that's a very good sack total for guys who are all essentially tackles, not ends.

However, Pittsburgh is not going to rest on their laurels, as they figure out a way to shore up the pass defense. The answer appears to be the nickel. In that scheme, the DL has to do a better job of pressuring the QB.

"They've got me playing over center," said Hampton about his new role in the nickel during the recent mini-camp. "I would like to get out there and rush the passer, get up the field. We'll see. I feel like once I show them that I can get out there and do a little something I can get on dime and nickel."

The Steelers really haven't asked Hampton to rush the passer. They drafted him to play in the gap between the center and the guard, trying to control both players and clear the way for the linebackers to make plays. But after teams decided to abandon the run, the Steelers had to ask for something more from their defensive linemen.

"I think I started taking advantage of some of the opportunities they gave me to get up the field and things like that," Hampton said about how he did towards the end of the season. "We were doing a lot of two-gapping and stuff, and at the end we were doing a lot of stuff to get up the field and I was just taking advantage of it. That's what I do best is get up the field and when they gave me an opportunity I showed them what I can do."

Instead of controlling the line of scrimmage by two-gapping, the Steelers started asking Hampton to move up field. Hampton showed that he could do it against Tampa Bay and the Steelers noticed.

As for the ends, they won't be on the field in the nickel. Hampton and Smith will likely play tackle and the OLBs will be the ends. Smith had 7.5 sacks in 2001. He's already proven to the Steelers that he can get up field when asked. Von Oelhoffen, on the other hand, is better known for grinding it out in the trenches. His only role will likely be in the base scheme against the run.

Even Von Oelhoffen's role in the base may be under attack if Rodney Bailey can prove he can play the run. Bailey's specialty is getting up the field and he has found plenty of playing time in the dime (5.5 sacks last season). But Von Oelhoffen will prove difficult to unseat. He's one of the team leaders and he's still an excellent lineman, despite the lack of flashy stats. Former Steeler center Dermontti Dawson said that Von Oelhoffen was the toughest guy he's ever played against and the Steelers signed Von Oelhoffen as a result of Dirt's reference. The only thing that slowed down Von Oelhoffen last season was injury. Age may be catching up with Kimo on that count.

If the Steelers do indeed use the nickel a lot in 2003, Smith and Hampton are likely to become stars. The question now is, will the nickel be a detriment to the run defense. Smith, Hampton and Von Oelhoffen are already stars in the eyes of the Steelers coaching staff on this count. The linebackers grab all the fame, but the defensive line makes it all work.

Jim Russell

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