The heart of the Steelers' defense is a run-stop unit that – at 69.2 – is closing in on a team record (74.7, 2001) for fewest rush yards allowed per game.
One Steelers defensive lineman and one assistant coach agreed on the center of that run-stop universe.
"It's Hamp," one of them said of nose tackle Casey Hampton. "He's been unbelievable this year."
"Give him a one-year contract," said the other. "Obviously he's been motivated."
Of course, the latter comment was made in reference to Hampton playing in the final year of his contract, one the Steelers didn't seek to extend this past off-season for this very reason: It's a salary drive for "Big Snack."
Hampton is playing much better than he had the previous season, when he reported to training camp overweight and was singled out by Coach Mike Tomlin and forced to work on a different field for a couple of weeks.
The Steelers' no-bid ploy this offseason was a risky one since it opens the door for Hampton to test the free-agent market in March. The last Pro Bowler from Pittsburgh to reach free agency was Alan Faneca, and he was so annoyed by the lack of a competitive offer that he grumbled his way through his final season and signed with the New York Jets the first day he was eligible.
Hampton has made comments about leaving the Steelers, but they've been made in a joking manner, such as his comment that "me and Ryan (Clark) are a package deal. We'll go anywhere but Denver."
Of course, he has admitted he'd prefer to stay in Pittsburgh, and surprisingly, the aforementioned sources believe he'll stay here, even though he'll be 33 next opening day.
"He'll be here," said one source. "Both sides need each other too much, and there's still a limited market with the 3-4."
"He's talked to Kimo (von Oelhoffen)," said the other source. "Kimo has come back and said that, yeah, he got a few extra dollars, but because the teams throwing around the big bucks are usually desperate teams with coaches who are on the spot, those coaches work you to death. Kimo said that if he'd stayed here, he'd have made up the money by playing an extra two years and enjoyed himself in the process. Hamp understands that. He knows how the coaches here take care of you. He'll be here next year."
* The Steelers should be just as worried today about their shaky depth at quarterback as they should've been to start the season. Charlie Batch has been fragile his entire career. He missed the 2008 season after an injury in the preseason opener and this year was lost after only four snaps. And one look at the skinny legs of the No. 3 QB, Dennis Dixon, should've caused the Steelers to find a more durable No. 2. As it is, they're left warming up Mewelde Moore as the emergency QB for Sunday night's game against the Baltimore Ravens. I'd have opted for Hines Ward, since Tom Matte and Walter Payton aren't available, but the old Georgia quarterback is six years older than Moore, who, as an added bonus, won't be able to pitch to himself on the game's most critical play.
* Tomlin claimed he's not worried about Rashard Mendenhall's mental state coming into his long-awaited rematch with Ray Lewis. The Ravens' MLB ended Mendenhall's rookie season last September with a shot that busted Mendenhall's right scapula. It took Mendenhall at least this training camp to trust his shoulders in blocking drills. Some within the organization expressed concern about his mental state for the rematch with Lewis as they watched Mendenhall favor his left side in those drills. It's unlikely – in spite of Tomlin's public stance – that the concern has abated.
* Troy Polamalu felt he could play last week and is dying to play this week, but the Steelers have shut him down. It's been explained to me that while the injury to his PCL is not as limiting as was his injured MCL, a weakened PCL is a bigger threat to Polamalu in the long term.
* At his weekly press conference, Tomlin went into a soliloquy about the need to force turnovers. But if the Steelers really want to force more turnovers, particularly in the passing game, they'll have to begin drafting defensive backs with better ball skills.
The current starting quartet of Clark, Tyrone Carter, William Gay and Ike Taylor had a combined 12 years of full-time starting experience in college, but they combined for only 13 college interceptions. This season, those four have combined to intercept four passes. Meanwhile, Jairus Byrd, Buffalo's rookie second-rounder who left Oregon after his junior season, has an NFL-leading eight interceptions after intercepting 17 passes in college.