Pittsburgh finished 2nd in the league in rush defense in 2008 and all the starters return except for Bryant McFadden and Larry Foote. In Foote's place, Lawrence Timmons assumes the role at mack inside linebacker. While Timmons is an explosive athlete, there have been some warranted concerns about his ability to stop the run and how that will impact the upcoming season.
However, warning signs with the run defense started to manifest last year, and the trend has continued through preseason.
If we examine the numbers, Pittsburgh only allowed an average of 80.3 rushing yards per game, second to Minnesota's 76.9. But, down the stretch the defense allowed an average of 110 rushing yards over the last 5 games. That number would equate to the 16th ranked rush defense over the course of a full season.
Pittsburgh was gashed up the middle on numerous plays, and this is confirmed by the following table:
|LAST 5 GAMES||LEFT END||LEFT TACKLE||MIDDLE||RIGHT GUARD||RIGHT TACKLE|
In those games, some uncharacteristic long runs were surrendered by the No. 1-ranked defense in runs allowed of +10 yards. Pittsburgh allowed inside runs of 41 yards to New England and 22 yards to Dallas. Interestingly, these both occurred in situations when the Steelers were in their nickel package, helping explain why Hampton is being used in that personnel set during preseason.
So far in preseason, opposing offenses have amassed 287 rushing yards for 4.1 yards per carry. More importantly, teams have been able to run the ball against the first-team defense. While it's true that run defense takes more time to gel because players need to understand their assignments and maintain gap integrity, the defensive line has, at times, been handled up front.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the middle of the line. Hampton is no longer a player that ‘must' command double-teams. Bills center Geoff Hangartner was largely able to single block him off the line of scrimmage, only getting chips from the guard periodically. He was also pushed off the line regularly against Washington and was substituted by Chris Hoke early on, once again bringing his conditioning into question.
Hampton's production has also steadily declined over the last several years:
By almost every statistical measure his overall production (plays) and disruptive ability (stops, defeats, average yards, run stop %) have decreased. Compared to his peers at nose tackle, Casey comes in last for total plays, stops, defeats, average yards, and QB pressure. Some of this is due to the schemes in which they're asked to play, but players like Vince Wilfork and Jamal Williams are true 2-gap defenders and their main responsibility being to clog up the middle allowing others to make the tackles. However, in both cases, Williams and Wilfork were involved in significantly more plays allowing less average yards.
It's possible the Steelers have come to the same kind of assessment, because the lack of conditioning in combination with his declining skills may make him a commodity not worth keeping. The organization has a long history of knowing when to cut ties with aging players, and it seems that he may be next in line.
It's not that Casey doesn't have value, because he certainly does. He remains a quality player who can turn it on in spurts. The question, though, is a guy with declining skills who is purely a 2-down player -- and against teams like New England or Arizona sees no more than 25-30% of the total snaps -- worth the kind of money for which he may ask. Casey, meanwhile, prefers to remain quiet on the subject, and was quoted recently as saying, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
While the loss of Hampton would certainly have an impact, the team has a capable backup in Chris Hoke, providing them the opportunity to draft and groom his long-term replacement next year.
Free safety, on the other hand, is going to be a different matter, with no one of significant ability able to replace Ryan Clark. Peter King also recently tagged him as the top free agent prospect for 2010. This will not be forgotten by one Daniel Snyder either, since he was recently quoted on local Washington sports radio saying that "Ryan Clark will always remain a Redskin." I'll leave it up to you to figure out what that means.
Clark is the quiet assassin on defense, delivering bone-jarring hits to anyone willing to come into his area of responsibility. That often means finding him in single-high coverage playing deep center field. This is confirmed by Football Outsiders ‘distance' metric of 15.2 yards in the air for passes targeted at him while in coverage. This ranks 9th overall in the league behind players such as Ed Reed (8th at 16.1 yards) and LaRon Landry (7th at 16.4 yards). Both players are true center fielders and are asked to play that way schematically. Playing center field, Clark still found himself ranking 7th overall (out of 78 safeties) in total number of plays on defense. Finding his replacement will be much more difficult, and will most likely require signing or drafting a free safety prospect high in the draft.
Either way you look at it, not signing Casey Hampton or Ryan Clark leaves a lot of what-ifs for the middle of the defense. Nose tackle, free safety and outside linebacker remain the most important positions in LeBeau's scheme, so it's imperative to keep at least one of them on the team. Based on what I've seen, and taking into account the current roster along with the going salary rates, I would look to keep Clark. That may become problematic because I believe Washington will make a real effort to sign him during free agency. In the meantime, look for how the middle of the defense is holding up in the run game. That will be the determining factor of who remains and who goes.