For the past several years, I've felt and written that the Pittsburgh Steelers peak window for competing for Lombardi Trophys would be in 2010-2012. In 2008, the Steelers wowed us with their remarkable run to Super Bowl win number six, but considering how the offense performed for most of the season, I think most of us realize that the Steelers were fairly fortunate to win one for the other thumb in 2008.
I thought the team would be better than they were in 2009, but injuries to key stalwarts on defense and the inexperience of many of the young players thrust into action played a role in the team's struggles. There was however important progress made and experience gained last season. The offensive line was better, Rashard Mendenhall proved he can be a workhorse 1,200+ yard type of 'back, Big Ben (for most of the season at least) played like a quarterback that was really 'getting' it in terms of understanding what NFL defenses try to do to confuse opposing offenses.
Still, I felt like 2010 and 2011 were really the years that the Steelers would peak. Big Ben would be a full fledged veteran who had seen just about everything a defense can throw at him; Hines Ward would still be able to contribute while Santonio Holmes would be an established, legit #1 option; Woodley and Timmons would no longer be 'young' guys learning the ropes; the offensive line would presumably get a bit better; etc etc.
To me though, the team needed to retain the big man in the trenches who's responsible for so much of what happens at the point of attack. Casey Hampton is that good in my estimation and well worth every dollar he commands for his ability to disrupt the running game. Sure he may not be an every down player anymore, but he's not at all 'over the hill' in terms of his core strength and ability to occupy space effectively and consistently.
The terms of Hampton's deal are reportedly 3 years and $21 million dollars, $11 of which is guaranteed. To me, this appears to be an extremely fair deal for both parties. Make no mistake about it though, Hampton could have made more somewhere else. I think that will become evident when we see what kind of contract Vince Wilfork eventually gets in New England or elsewhere. I guarantee you it will be for more total dollars and more guaranteed money. And no, Wilfork is not better than Hampton now. In fact, I don't think he's ever been as good as Big Snack.
To conclude for now, I found it interesting in Kevin Colbert's press conference from the Combine that he mentioned Hampton's leadership qualities and status in the locker room. Nose tackles don't often get much airtime or feature articles in the media, but remember the ESPN The Magazine article about the Steelers defense around the Super Bowl last year? Take a read and a look at the complimentary video feature about the unit. There's Big Snack front and center.
I was growing up in Austin, Texas when Hampton was dominating for the Longhorns at the University of Texas. I remember reading and hearing about how Hampton could bench press over 450 pounds when he was just a sophomore. He was the strongest guy on the squad when he walked onto the campus as a freshmen, and that reality didn't change until he'd graduate and move onto the NFL.
The Steelers identified Hampton's uniquely rare gift of being huge but not fat. I've been told by scouts that this combination is one of the primary things teams look for in their interior linemen on both offense and defense. Hampton is just that. A true beast in the middle. And though his absolute best days are behind him, he's still very much capable of anchoring the Steelers defensive line for another couple of years.
Because I think the team is in great, great shape to make a run at Lombardi Trophies number seven and eight this next two to three years, I couldn't be more excited that the Steelers were able to get a deal done with what's been one of the most integral cogs of their defense for the past decade.