Is there a changing of the guard in order?

Without a solid defensive line, you aren't the NFL's most difficult team to run the ball against. But while the Steelers do, indeed, have a very good defensive line, it is often underappreciated in NFL circles. It is also one in which three of the team's top six players at the conclusion of last season are currently scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2005 campaign.

How often do you hear the national pundits talk about end Aaron Smith as one of the best at his position in the NFL? The same goes for nose tackle Casey Hampton.

While both now have a Pro Bowl under their belts – and in Hampton's case, it's not the only thing under there – Smith only made it last year because several other players backed out. And Hampton earned his trip two years ago playing at a position that few people understand or recognize good play at.

With Hampton having missed the final 10 games of the regular season and both playoff contests with torn knee ligaments, people around the league got a good look at just how good Smith is. Few are as solid as Smith playing both the run and rushing the passer and he was a player opposing offensive lines schemed against in every game.

To get a good idea of how important it is to have both of them in the lineup, realize that in the six games Hampton played last season, Smith had four sacks. Opposing offenses couldn't double-team Smith at the expense of trying to block Hampton with one player. In the 12 games – including the playoffs – he played without Hampton lining up next to him, Smith had five sacks.

Maybe those statistics are just a coincidence, but it's not likely. Hampton's replacement, Chris Hoke, had an eye-opening season, showing he was more than just an end-of-the-roster player. In fact, the Steelers signed Hoke to a two-year, $2-million contract extension during this offseason to keep him from hitting the free agent market.

That could mean the Steelers won't be in the market to keep Hampton, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season. If that's the case, it would be understandable.

Though he's been a Pro Bowl player and disruptive force, Hampton hasn't kept himself in the kind of shape the team wants, reporting to training camp the past couple of seasons at least 20 pounds over his mandated weight limit. It's been a point of contention between Hampton and head coach Bill Cowher.

The Steelers are likely unwilling to lock up big money in a player who hasn't taken care of himself physically, especially one who plays a position that is so physically taxing as nose tackle.

On the other side of the line, end Kimo von Oelhoffen remains a leader in the locker room, but saw his sack total fall to just one in 2004 after recording a career-best eight in 2003. The 34-year-old von Oelhoffen is also entering his final contract year, meaning this will be his last season in Pittsburgh as well. He's likely to retire after the team makes one more run at a Super Bowl.

Veteran Travis Kirschke was brought in from San Francisco as a free agent last year and the team liked what it saw from him spelling von Oelhoffen 15 to 20 plays per game. Like Hoke and von Oelhoffen, Kirschke isn't a star, but he's a solid player who gives the Steelers depth.

As was said last season, this will be a big year for third-year end Brett Keisel. Keisel got a handful of defensive snaps last season before logging 45 in the team's meaningless regular-season finale at Buffalo. But despite getting all that playing time against the Bills, Keisel was credited with just one tackle. He's got to do more than that to open the coaching staff's eyes, especially considering he'll be a free agent after this season.

The Steelers drafted Eric Taylor in the final round of the 2004 draft and Shaun Nua in the seventh round this year hoping to find a diamond in the rough. Taylor (6-2, 305) is a big, strong end who needs to show more push rushing the passer, while Nua needs to fill out his 6-5, 270-pound frame to fit into the Steelers' defensive scheme.

Defensive tackle Grant Bowman spent a good portion of last season on the practice squad but will be hard-pressed to do the same again this year. The team also brought in first-year player Bob Dzvonick and rookie Elliott Harris to battle for a roster spot.

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