A look at the defensive line

While many other parts of the Steelers' defense fell apart in 2003, the play of the defensive line was the one shining point. <BR><BR> Week after week the line performed as well as any has since Bill Cowher became head coach of the team in 1992. And with the main ingredients returning in 2004 - and some new additions - the line should again be a strong point.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton came to training camp overweight last season and made his first Pro Bowl. Hampton looked to be in decent shape at the team's offseason workouts, but has had six weeks or so of down time since then, so it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he shows up in for training camp.

The team needs Hampton to keep his weight in check. He's a dominant nose tackle, but with the shelf life for players at that position already very short, the Steelers don't need Hampton to shorten his career because of weight problems.

End Aaron Smith had just two sacks last season, but easily had his best overall year. He was very active against the run and his sack total had more to do with Jason Gildon's decline at outside linebacker than it did with Smith's play. Because opponents no longer had to worry about Gildon beating one-on-one blocking, they were able to work harder on containing Smith.

At 28, Smith is at his career peak and should have another strong season in 2004.

On the other side, Kimo von Oelhoffen had a career year rushing the passer, leading the team with eight sacks. But it would be a lot to expect a repeat performance by the 33-year-old this season. Von Oelhoffen is counted on, however, to provide a steady leadership. He's the guy many of the younger defensive players look up to.

Top backup Rodney Bailey signed as a free agent with New England, but the Steelers feel they filled his roster spot adequately with veteran swing man Travis Kirschke, a starter with San Francisco last season.

At 6-3, and 292 pounds, Kirschke has the size and plays with enough leverage to play nose tackle or end for the Steelers. His presence means the Steelers likely won't keep veteran Kendrick Clancy around again this season as Hampton's backup.

After missing last season with a shoulder injury, Brett Keisel will also be in the mix at end. This is a big year for Keisel. He's shown some skills as a special teams wedge buster, but hasn't been able to break into the defensive rotation. Because the Steelers have some other talented youngsters, Keisel needs to have a great training camp.

One of those talented youngsters is seventh-round draft pick Eric Taylor, who like Kirschke is a plugger who can play inside or outside on the Steelers' line. Taylor looked good in the offseason workouts, but the key will be how he performs with pads on.

The only other veteran on the roster is Chris Hoke, who appears to have more lives than Morris the Cat. The only way Hoke makes this team is if there is a rash of injuries.

David Upchurch looked good in training camp and the preseason last year and landed a spot on the team's practice squad. The addition of Kirschke and Taylor will make it difficult for Upchurch to win a spot on the team unless he again looks good in camp.

If Upchurch has an uphill battle, undrafted rookie Brandon Calton faces even longer odds. This is a good, veteran defensive line and there's only room for one or two younger players.

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