When talking about the Steelers defense, it is easy to see the Linebackers, but what allows our linebackers to be successful throughout our history has been steady play from our defensive lines. From the original Steel Curtain, to it's modern manifestation, the Steelers defensive line does the dirty work, and makes everyone else look good. So, as we did with linebackers, let's start off with the starters.
Casey Hampton 6'1"/ 325 lbs./ NT
The anchor of our defense, Casey Hampton enters his tenth season as a member of the Steelers. Despite what was a murky contract situation, Big Snack is back, and hopefully here to stay. The epitome of run stuffer, he is not known for his pass rush, but is notorious for being an immovable object. Without Hampton, you really have to ask where we would be defensively, and if we would still be ale to consistently end the year at or near the top of the league in run defense year in year out.
Strengths: Raw power, lane clogging, eating up double teams
Weaknesses: Conditioning, literally eating up everything in sight, Grey Goose and shirt buttons
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Aaron Smith 6'5"/ 298 lbs./ LE
This is the best 3-4 end in football, period. Entering his twelfth year as a Steeler, Aaron only has so many years left in him, and with the injury bug plaguing him recently, I think we all hope he can put another two solid healthy years under his belt before it's all said and done. Anything more is a gift from the football Gods. When Aaron doesn't play, his absence is as noticable as Jeff Reed's hair. It is no coinsidence that the two seasons he has missed significant time in recently have been our most disapointing finishes in recent memory. He is every bit as tough as any guy out there, and is very much so a leader on this team. It will be a sad day when 91 hangs them up for good.
Strengths: Ideal build for a 3-4 end. Tall, strong, long armed and relentless.
Weaknesses: Somewhat injury prone
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Brett Keisel 6'5"/ 285 lbs./ RE
Brett is often the forgotten man on this line, but his play is crucial to our success in every way. He seems to never leave te field, and can be found clogging the lane, absorbing double teams, and every now and again, standing up and creating mismatches and confusion. Keisel the Diesel fought his way from seventh round pick to every game starter, and proves why he earned that spot every Sunday. Resigning to a four year deal that will keep him here through 2013, Brett is here to stay, and he'll be slinging celebratory arrows for years to come. Where as Hampton is the anchor, Smith is the constant, Keisel plays the wild card, you just never know what his next move is.
Strengths: He is the best athlete amongst our starters, and he is able to line up schematically where ever LeBeau puts him.
Weaknesses: Our smallest linemen, and can be rooted out by the better tackles, but rarely is.
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Ziggy Hood 6'3"/ 300 lbs./ DE
ZIggy, Ziggy, Ziggy. Last years first round pick, who wasn't supposed to have to play last year per usual under Coach LeBeau, was forced into action in spot duty later in the sason due to injury. He showed the skills you love to see from a highly drafted young player, and with another year of coaching from the best in the biz Coach John Mitchell, it's really exciting to think about what he could do this year. He's got the build, strength, long arms and hand placement to be great. The one thing it always seems I'm repeating with all our guys is motor. And it's clear that is something that Tomlin and Co. covet in a player, especially the front 7 defensively. We want players that don't stop until the whistle, 100% of the time. Ziggy is that type of player and I expect some good things from him this season. Notice who he beats in this clip here, and hear some more good things from Ziggy here.
Strengths: Good all around football player, who has a great work ethic and dedication to the game.
Weaknesses: Needs to be more stout against the run and get better at playing within the system
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Chris Hoke 6'2"/ 305 lbs./ NT
Chris Hoke has come from the practice squad to playing 16 games four seasons in a row for the Steelers. At 34, Chris is also nearing his post-NFL life, and only totaled 4 tackles all last year. Perhaps he needs more live, who knows? What Chris is, is another plug nose tackle, who can anchor the line at times, or at least showed he was capable of it in 2004, starting ten games.
Strengths: Build, bulk, passion
Roster Shot: 95%
Nick Eason 6'3"/ 305 lbs./ DE
I remember watching one of those rookie specials on either NFL Network or ESPN when they decided to follow a young defensive tackle from Clemson throughout his draft journey. He struck me as a very modest, laid back, but hard working young man. Nick Eason had his draft history filmed, and had his family and friends by his side when the Denver Broncos called his name in the fourth round. A journeymen, Eason never played for Denver. Instead an achilles injury forced him to Europe, where he suited up as a Scottish Claymore. After some time overseas he came back to join the Cleveland Browns where he played three seasons before signing with Pittsburgh as an unheralded free agent in 2007. When Aaron Smith went down last season, it was a recently resigned Eason, not first round lineman Ziggy Hood, that stepped in to play in his place. Eason faired well, holding his ground, and occaionally making a play here or there in his fie starts, although you can never truly replace big number 91. In case you were curious, Eason was released to make room for all world talent Isaac Redman, so perhaps he souldn't be measured by his play, but by the fact he was able to knock a sure fire Hall of Famer off the roster.
Strengths: Good motor, strong at point of attack
Weaknesses: Limited upside
Roster Shot: 65% His roster spot is decided by the play of the younger guys around him, although his play last season showed glimpses, youth in the trenches is a much needed change, and Eason is 30 years old.
Scott Paxson 6'4"/ 292 lbs./ NT
The thirty first (or thirty second depending on how you look at it) Nittany Lion to win a Superbowl, Paxson's bio at Steelers.com is nothing but released, signed, released, signed. To me, his size and build suggests end, but he is and has been listed as a NT for as long as I remember. I don't know much about Paxson, but I know he has impressed someone, because he just keeps sticking around. It will be very interesting to see how he plays in training camp and preseason, because I think his practice squad time is running out. This is probably a make or break year for Mr. Paxson.
Strengths: He's got good size, and I would think some positional flexibility, scouts liked his burst at snap during the draft process.
Weaknesses: Strength and undersized for a nose tackle
Roster Shot: 20% He'll have to push Hoke out of the lineup, but with his age and practice squad status, he may get the nod if someone likes him enough.
The other half of our nicknamed linemen of '09, "Sunny" Harris was selected 205th overall in the sixth round. After originally being placed on the practice squad, the injury plagued Carolina Panthers came calling, and put him on their active roster to start last season. After seeing limited action in two regular season games, Carolina released him to their practice squad, and he came back to Da Burgh after our injury issues. Got it? One thing Ra'Shon clearly has is size. He's a big man. Unfortunately, he didn't always play up to his size at Oregon, as some scouts thought he played a little soft at times. He has limited passs rush technique, but can definitely occupy blockers. He showed some fatigue issues late in games, but if he can get that fixed, Coach Mitchell has a solid prospect to work with. Here are the clips of every sack Ra'Shon had in college all 1, 2, 3 of them.
Strengths: Strong and powerful bull rusher
Weaknesses: Needs to learn how to play within system
Roster Shot: 35% He can win a spot with good play in training camp and preseason.
Steve McLendon 6'4"/ 280 lbs./ DT
Also known (as far as I'm concerned) as an international man of mystery, I can't really find too much on Steve. He played football and basketball at Troy, which has produced some fairly good defensive line talent, with Usi Umenyora and DeMarcus Ware calling it their alma mater. He had a solid senior season, and put up respectable numbers at his pro day, totalling 30 reps of 225. We'll have to get a look at him in preseason, because he is a big question mark right now.
Roster Shot: 5%
Doug Worthington 6'5"/ 292 lbs./ DE
What could turn out to be a great late round pick, Doug Worthington comes to camp as a seventh round pick with plenty of upside. He is very strong, and has good awareness of the ball. Scouts loved his ability to over power offensive linemen, and loved his mean streak while doing it. He can absorb blockers and keep their attention, which is a great thing to be able to do in our scheme. Much like a lot of Tomlin's draft picks, this guy is relentless and plays through the whistle every down. I could see him fitting in nicely to a role similar to Keisel's (another seventh rouder), but he's got to prove it on the field.
Strengths: Size, frame, build. Attitude and work ethic
Weaknesses: Lacks pass rush and athleticism
Roster Shot: 35% This may seem high, but I like this kid's potential. It's either him or Sunny in my book, so I give them an equal shot at making this team. Time will tell.
And that will do it for our defensive line. I wish their was a little more to say about some, but let's face it, this is a position which lends itself to the anonymous player. They do the work, but don't normally get much credit. Coach Mitchell... Let's see what they've got.