Pass Rush Taking On 'Special' Look

The Steelers' 36 sacks last season were their lowest since 2003. But that's all about to change because of what might be Dick LeBeau's fastest defense ever. (Updated with transcripts).

PITTSBURGH – If the Steelers' pass rush continues to flash, the NFL's No. 1 defense last season will have gotten better. Much better.

Of course, no one believes it will happen, particularly since Casey Hampton's too fat, Aaron Smith and James Farrior are too old, Troy Polamalu's injury-prone, and Brett Keisel was all hype last season.

The Steelers chuckle when they hear these stereotypes, and they hope no one's expecting the quickness, strength and depth of the pass rush they're about to unleash this season.

"Leave it alone," Keisel says of the story idea.

Then again, Keisel couldn't contain his own optimism.

"I think our defense is so fast; we can do so many things," he said. "I think if we can live up to our potential this year, we should see some special things."

Special things?

"Well, leave it alone," he repeated.

But he was too late. Smith tried a similar tact. "It's a little early to tell, don't you think?" he asked. But then even he became lost in his optimism.

"From watching practice, yeah, I think we've improved," he said.

A monstrous defensive end, Smith appears to be 100 percent recovered from a biceps injury that knocked him out of the final four games last season (1-3). Known as a run-stopper deluxe, Smith's been applying pressure and even has a sack this preseason. His counterpart on the 3-4 line, Keisel, is quicker, been more active, and also has a sack.

"I think Brett's really coming into his own. I think this is the chance for him to have a Pro Bowl year," Smith said. "He's feeling more comfortable, more confidence. He's a great player. It's just a matter of him maturing."

Last year, Keisel was the key piece in Dick LeBeau's new "mixer" defense, in which only Smith put his hand on the ground on passing downs. Keisel roamed and blitzed like a linebacker, and much was expected from him.

"I think he put a lot of pressure on himself, too," Smith said. "A lot of people said a lot of good stuff and all of the sudden he felt like he had to live up to it."

But Keisel, while leading the team with 31 QB hurries, had only two sacks. And now, few are expecting much more.

"But I think he's going to be a surprise for some people," Smith said. "I think he's really come on strong this last camp. He had an unbelievable camp in practices. There aren't too many guys who can block him in practice."

And these are just the defensive ends. While Smith and Keisel have more speed than any other pair of 3-4 ends in the league, real pressure is the domain of the Steelers' linebackers. With camp phenom Lawrence Timmons thrown into the mix, and LaMarr Woodley replacing Clark Haggans, and James Harrison proving he was not a late-blooming fluke last season, the Steelers are poised to post their best sacks total since the 2005 championship season, when they had 47.

"Timmons, he's a freak. He's so fast," said Keisel. "Woodley is so strong and quick for his size, too. Yeah, those guys could help us a lot. Teams can key on one side. They'll chip and double like offenses do. So, if you're solid all over the place, and you don't know who's coming or who's going, it opens it all up.

"I watched the tape last week, where we had eight guys in the box and Aaron was the only one down. That's hard to pick up. If some guy messes up one little thing, you have that opening to make a play. Hopefully we can do that."

With eight first-half sacks in three preseason games, compared to six first-half sacks in the first four preseason games last year, Coach Mike Tomlin has gone so far as to say, "I like where our pass rush is."

And LeBeau, the mad scientist of a coordinator, has hedged any retirement plans because "some of our young guys are showing a penchant for blitzing effectively" and "if we play defense like we did last year, it's going to be hard to give it up."

By any statistical research or "video evidence," as Tomlin likes to say, the pass rush has improved. And that could lead the Steelers to the "special things" they haven't seen since 2005.

(For transcripts of the Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel interviews, go here.)


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