Casey Hampton: Steel Curtain Material ?

<b>LATROBE –</b> Not even the great Steel Curtain ever led the league in run defense two years in a row. <br><br> Of course, that team never had Casey Hampton in the middle of its line, now did it?

OK, so Joe Greene wasn't too bad. Ernie Holmes? Ah, pretty good. But Hampton has played two years with the Steelers and they've led the league both years. It's quite simple.

"Only two other teams in NFL history have done that," said Hampton. "It's not just the nose tackle, the whole front seven takes pride in that. We try to stuff the run and stop the pass later."

Hampton is the catalyst, however warning signs flashed last Saturday when the 338-pounder failed miserably in the team's run test.

Was it a sign that Hampton is eating himself out of the league? Hadn't he heard of William Perry? Gilbert Brown?

"My back locked up," said Hampton. "It was hurting real bad. That happened so we move on."

Hampton has sway back, a condition in which the spine curves in towards the stomach.

"It's been that way since I was small," he said. "It's just how it's always been. Sometimes it locks up on me, but it's no big deal. Even when my stomach was small it was curved."

The stomach is no longer small, of course, and Coach Bill Cowher told Hampton about it after the run test. A bad back and tired legs may have contributed to his poor performance that day, but the rather large stomach didn't help.

Defensive line coach John Mitchell is obviously concerned about Hampton, but Mitchell had no criticisms, at least none for public consumption.

"The guy knows how to practice and he comes to work every day ready to work. That's all you can ask from a football player," Mitchell said.

But isn't longevity a concern? After all, those 338 pounds are only spread over 6 feet and 1 inch, with a curved spine to boot.

"I might not even be here tomorrow," Mitchell said. "We go one day at a time. All I want is for him to get better today. That's all I want. Down the road, I can't worry about that.

"As for the run test, we aren't going to be running 40s on the field. I want to see what he can do when we put those pads on, and what I've seen this year is that he knows how to stay low, he's getting better using his hands and he has the quickness. This guy, every day, gets a little bit better and a little bit better."

That's been obvious in every practice since the run test. Hampton has been nearly unblockable. He's disrupted individual drills, team drills and has batted down passes, all with an attitude.

"He's probably a little peeved about that run test," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis.

"Well, I'm not obsessed with it," Hampton said. "My whole thing is I know what I can do and I know a run test won't make or break me. They pay me to play football. Other guys in the past haven't made it and they had great careers, so it ain't no big deal. Last year I didn't make my times either and I had a pretty good season, so I'm not really worried about it."

Last year, Hampton played steady football and really took off late in the season. He had his first and second career sacks in games 14 and 15. Against Tampa Bay, Hampton forced two fumbles in addition to his sack. In the playoffs, Hampton had three solo tackles against Cleveland and against Tennessee forced a fumble that led to a Steelers touchdown.

"I really started to understand how they're trying to block me," he said. "That's the whole thing. As I began to understand the blocking schemes, I didn't have to worry about being better and stronger than guys. When you know what they're doing, it makes things a lot easier."

One of his best friends on the team is Keydrick Vincent, who's running with the first team at right guard. Vincent's had to deal with Hampton on a daily basis, and he said it's not very fun.

"He's a load," Vincent said. "He called me just about every day this off-season and he really was working on his feet and quickness and it's showing out there on the field when he goes against me. He's going to be a beast this year. And that run test? It didn't mean a thing."

Jim Wexell

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