D-line old on paper only

It can be argued that the Steelers never played defense better than they did last season, and a key component was the play of the defensive line. The line, though, is getting old -- on paper -- and management may have no choice but to draft fresh blood.

It was the last play of Tuesday's practice and wide receiver Brandon Williams sped down the sideline with a screen pass as if it was the first play.

Of course, anyone would appreciate Williams's sense of urgency; he was just picked up off the street. But running stride for stride with Williams, and angling him out of bounds, were a couple of defensive linemen – Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke. What were these "old men" doing running with a guy who was just picked up as a kick return specialist?

"The only time I feel old is when I'm in here, because everyone's always telling me I'm old," Hoke said from his seat in the cafeteria. "Out there, I feel young. Hey, I'm only 33 years old. I AM young."

Hoke went on a two-year college mission, and once he came to Pittsburgh stood on the sidelines for three years. Those five years off are the reason he believes he has plenty of tread left on his tires.

As for Kirschke, the other top backup on the defensive line, last season was his best with the Steelers. D-line coach John Mitchell raves about Kirschke's improved play every chance he gets.

On the field, the unit is not old, as their practice habits and 3.29 rush-yards-allowed average (best since 1997) attest. But, on paper, Kirschke is 35, Hoke is 33 and the starters are all over 30. It's the reason those players realize that top brass is looking for young blood in this year's draft.

Here's the breakdown of the seven college prospects on the Steelers' first-day board:

* B.J. Raji – The Steelers believe any of the nose tackles, such as the 336-pound Raji, could train as defensive ends as management considers the final year of Casey Hampton's contract. But Raji, drug rumors and all, will be long gone.

* Tyson Jackson – He's a true 3-4 end who, in a normal year, might slide to the bottom of the round because of his average workout numbers and lack of the speed rush required of 4-3 ends. But with so many new 3-4 teams, Jackson will also be long gone.

* Peria Jerry – Classic 4-3 playmaking tackle who'll also be gone and thereby won't tempt the Steelers to make a schematic reach.

* Evander "Ziggy" Hood – Another 4-3 tackle who thrived off of shooting gaps last season, but in the process had trouble against the run. The Steelers like him, and he has athleticism (4.88 40) to give them an inside guy on pass downs and the size (6-3, 300) to learn to play the run. If the Colts don't take Hood, he could intrigue the Steelers in the first round.

* Ron Brace – Raji's 330-pound sidekick at Boston College is a second-rounder who also projects to nose tackle, but would initially learn defensive end, again, as the Steelers gauge Hampton and Hoke this year.

* Fili Moala – Some draft analysts feel this USC tackle should be the Steelers' first-round pick, but a source with the team believes the 6-4, 305-pound 24-year-old is too inconsistent to be drafted that high.

* Jarron Gilbert – This 6-5¼, 288-pound defensive tackle from San Jose State has the perfect size to become a 3-4 end, and he has the speed and athleticism as well. One key source loves Gilbert's ceiling, but also worries about his passion for the game and his strength at the point of attack. Gilbert's a boom-or-bust prospect who'd be an ideal second-round pick.

Of the group, Moala and Gilbert are the most likely to land with the Steelers. But the team would have to either trade down in the first round or up in the second to get the proper bang for its buck.

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