D-Line: Steelers' heart and soul

The league's No. 1 defense is driven by its linebackers, but they know it starts up front. Here's a look at the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PITTSBURGH – The Steelers' linebackers are on a record pace for sacks, but they're quick to put the credit elsewhere.

"It starts with the line," said LaMarr Woodley, a first-year starter who knows how to grease the right wheels. "That a way to respect your elders," said Aaron Smith at the next-door locker.

Smith, of course, is the elder statesman of the Steelers' starting line, but his play's not slowing down a bit.

"Aaron Smith, they just don't block him," said coordinator Dick LeBeau. "I've been back five years and I can count on one hand the number of times in five years he's been blocked. Why people don't recognize that around the league, I don't know. He's tremendous."

And then there are the guys next to him. Casey Hampton blew open the middle of the Washington Redskins' line a couple of times Monday night. On fourth down at the one-yard line, both Hampton and Chris Hoke stacked bodies so high behind the center that the league's leading rusher wouldn't have made it back to the line even if he'd tried. The Redskins were instead wise enough – after watching tape of the Steelers' magnificent goal-line stand the previous week – to throw.

The pass fell incomplete, giving the Steelers goal-line stands in successive weeks against the Nos. 1 and 2 rushing attacks in the NFL. It reflected back to the Steelers' rugged line.

"Those are huge," said Hoke. "They give your team a lot of energy, and a lot of excitement, too."

Imagine how the defense will feel the next time it's backed up at the goal line.

"Arrogance," Hoke said, before adjusting his comment. "No, confidence. There'll be some confidence for sure."

Arrogance, too, and why not? This could be the best defensive line the Steelers have had since Chuck Noll went to a 3-4 alignment back in the early 1980s.

"Across the front, I think all three of us, whoever's in there, are playing well," said Smith. "We haven't always had that. Usually there were guys here or guys there, but everybody's playing well now, even the reserves. That's the biggest thing. You can come off the field and the guy behind you will do the job. That's a big advantage, and one people don't appreciate, but it makes a big difference. You don't have to pace yourself now. You can play hard every play and come out if you need a break."

Smith used to be the Iron Horse for the Steelers, and Brett Keisel knew that all too well.

"I was behind him," Keisel said. "He never used to come out of the game. I used to beg him, but he'd say, ‘Ah, no.'"

Keisel's grown into that role now. He played the most snaps of the starting three Monday, and at halftime apologized to his backup, Travis Kirschke.

"It's hard for me to come out because I really love being out there with those guys," Keisel said, and that enthusiasm shows. Keisel, the fastest of the three, came down the line at one point Monday night and nearly decapitated Clinton Portis.

Was that Keisel's favorite play of the game?

"My favorite play would probably be Aaron's sack, just because I love it when he or any interior guy gets a sack," he said. "Nick (Eason)'s sack was great, too, but I liked this one because Aaron and I have that nice little dance we bust out in if one of us gets a sack. It's sweet man."

Keisel calls this the best defensive line he's seen since he was drafted in 2002. "Just the speed we have," he said.

"And the attention to detail each guy has, each position, as far as getting their job done. When Coach LeBeau calls a play, we know what it's for, what it's trying to stop. I just think everybody has a real good understanding of what we can do, what we're capable of, and we go out and get it done. And it's so much fun when we do."

The Steelers lead the NFL at the halfway point in overall defense, sacks, yards per play, passing defense, yardage on first downs and red zone efficiency. They allow 2.9 yards per rush and only 70.1 rush yards per game. The Steelers have led the NFL in run defense since 2001, a reflection of the stellar line play over the years. But this line just might be the best of the lot.

"We're blessed to have guys from top to bottom who can really play in this league," said LeBeau. "I think they've proven that, and I'm just a lucky coach to have them."

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