Breaking down the Steelers/The defensive line

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br><br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed.

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The defensive line

When nose tackle Casey Hampton tore his ACL six games into the 2004 season, many predicted doom for the Steelers defense.

Hampton, the team's lone defensive Pro Bowl player in 2003, was seen as the linchpin to the Steelers defense. What people didn't realize was that with new/old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the nose tackle isn't the centerpiece of the defense. LeBeau instead made safety Troy Polamalu his defensive wildcard.

So while the Steelers missed Hampton, who eats up blockers the same way he gobbles up cheeseburgers, it wasn't as big a loss as it would have seemed.

Hampton was a regular at the Steelers offices throughout the season and looks as if he=92ll be fine heading into 2005, the final season of his rookie contract. His injury situation, however, makes things a little interesting for the Steelers. Normally, they would start working on a contract extension with Hampton during this offseason, but they will likely wait and see how he looks in mini-camp before they make any moves with Hampton in that regard.

Chris Hoke, the man who stepped in so admirably for Hampton is either a very smart, or very lucky man. The Steelers tendered an offer to Hoke, who was a restricted free agent during the last offseason, that Hoke signed. He then signed a two-year deal for much less money, while fellow backup nose tackle Kendrick Clancy stuck with the one-year tender for about $200,000 more than Hoke was going to make.

When it came time to trim the roster, the Steelers went with the cheaper player, though Hoke did have a better preseason than Clancy. Still, it was a well thought-out move by Hoke.

Given the way he played in Hampton's absence, Hoke has earned himself something much more than the bargain-basement deal he signed with the Steelers last year. He's not the most physically blessed player, but he is a high-effort player who finds a way to make things happen.

Clancy, who was re-signed when Hampton was lost, is an unrestricted free agent and won't be back. More of a speed defensive tackle than a point of attack player, he never really fit into the Steelers' defensive scheme.

One player who does fit into the Steelers' scheme is defensive end Aaron Smith. Smith could very well be the most underrated defensive player not only with the Steelers, but in the entire NFL.

No less an authority than New England head coach Bill Belichick called him the best defensive end in the NFL and he wasn't just blowing smoke. It was no accident that Smith's sack numbers tailed off after Hampton was injured. He had four sacks in the team's first six games and managed just four more in the final 10 games. That because Smith was drawing the double teams Hampton had been getting. Opponents weren't going to let Smith beat them.

On the other end position, Kimo von Oelhoffen didn't have the kind of sack numbers he did in 2003, but he also didn't log as much playing time as he had the season before, sharing playing time with veteran Travis Kirschke.

Kirschke is a non-descript plugger, the kind of player the Steelers need their defensive linemen to be. But they could certainly upgrade at the right defensive end position if somebody fell to them in the draft. Imagine how good the Steelers defense would be with an Aaron Smith lining up at both end positions?

Brett Keisel returned from missing the entire 2003 season with a shoulder injury, but didn't make much of an impact. He's a restricted free agent and the team will likely tender him an offer. But this is a big offseason for Keisel, who could be pushed by Eric Taylor, a seventh-round draft choice who spent the 2004 season on the team's practice squad.

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