Grading The Players - Defensive Line

Following is a series grading the players and strength of position for the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Steelers.<br><br> Today: <b> The Defensive Line</b>

Nose tackle Casey Hampton is fast becoming not only one of the best players at his position in the league, but one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.

The 6-1, 320-pound Hampton is the key to the Steelers' run defense and, heading into his third season in the league, is only getting better. Of course the shelf life for players at his demanding position is not a long one, so the Steelers had better get all they can out of Hampton now. Grade B

Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen has seen better days and at 32, is on the downside of his career. After a strong 2001 season, von Oelhoffen struggled at times in 2002 and was not a factor rushing the passer at all. Even though he's very popular with his teammates, the Steelers could decide to part ways with von Oelhoffen during training camp. Grade C-

On the other side, Aaron Smith remains a solid force, even though he saw his sack total fall from a career-high 8 in 2001 to 5.5 in 2002. Smith is as good as the Steelers have had in years against the run from the defensive end position and at 6-5, 300 pounds, is the prototypical 3-4 end. Grade B

In his second season, end Rodney Bailey showed more consistency than he had as a rookie in 2001. Bailey mainly rotated with von Oelhoffen and also played some rush end in the team's dime defense. He matched Smith with 5.5 sacks, tying for the team lead for defensive linemen and his emergence could force von Oelhoffen to the bench. He just needs to be more consistent. Grade C

Backup nose tackle Kendrick Clancy was a restricted free agent during the offseason and did not receive any other offers. If Bailey pushes von Oelhoffen to the bench, the Steelers could see Clancy as expendable. The former third-round draft pick has never lived up to the team's expectations and is a little small to be a 3-4 nose tackle. He may be better suited to be a 4-3 tackle. Grade D

Entering his second season, Brett Keisel is being counted on to make more of an impact for the Steelers this season. A seventh-round draft pick, Keisel didn't see much playing time in the base defense last season, but made quite a mark on special teams after being inserted into that unit halfway through the season. The 6-5, 270-pound Keisel still needs to add some weight, but his special teams play will make him tough to move off this squad. Grade D

Jabari Issa was signed by the team earlier this week as another big body to throw into the mix. At 6-5, 300 pounds, the former Arizona Cardinals player has what the team looks for in its ends, but it remains to be seen if he can pick up the team's scheme in time to make the club. Grade Incomplete

Defensive tackle/end Chris Hoke entered training camp a year ago with a legitimate shot to beat out Clancy as the team's backup nose tackle because of his ability to play end also. But Hoke was unable to beat out Clancy. Hoke will have a tough time making this year's club. Grade D-

David Upchurch, Roy Attieh and Dan Rumishek are nothing more than camp bodies at this point. Grade Incomplete.

Final analysis: More production from the line is a must this season if the Steelers are going to go anywhere. Hampton and Smith are pretty good, but can get better. Bailey taking over the other end spot this season would be huge.

Overall position grade C

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com

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