The character of certain players on the Pittsburgh Steelers has come into question in recent years through a myriad of incidents, but there is one unit that has been free of any real character issues for quite some time: The defensive line.
Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke are just some of the names that have manned the defensive front in recent years for the Steelers and have been nothing but model citizens off-the-field, displaying great character and representing their organization quite well.
The only peep of trouble that has come from the unit in the recent past was the weight problem that nose tackle Casey Hampton reported to camp with a few years ago. And knowing what the nose tackle position requires, maybe "Big Snack" was just going above and beyond for his team.
All kidding aside, maybe it's not just a coincidence that the Steelers have employed some exceptional character guys on the defensive line over the past decade or so. The Steelers play a 3-4 defense, and defensive lineman is not the glamor position in a 3-4 scheme.
Speaking of Hampton, as the nose tackle, it's his job to take on double-teams and plug-up the middle so the linebackers can make the tackles. On passing-downs, Hampton will normally come out of the game to make way for a pass-rushing specialist or extra defensive back.
A defensive end in a 3-4 defense must maintain gap integrity on running plays and occupy as many blockers as possible on passing plays in-order to allow the outside linebackers to have an easier shot at the quarterback.
A 3-4 defensive lineman must come to terms with not making very many pro bowls or racking up a high number of quarterback sacks.
It's a "Team First" position and requires a selfless quality that not every player has in his DNA.
Albert Haynesworth was one of the most dominant defensive tackles of the past decade for the Tennessee Titans in a 4-3 defense, but after signing a huge deal with the Washington Redskins, he refused to be a 3-4 nose tackle. For all of his stats and pro bowls, Haynesworth obviously didn't have the heart and character to be a 3-4 defender.
Of all the Steelers' defensive linemen I mentioned, no player has demonstrated every quality necessary to play the position better than Aaron Smith.
Years ago, when Kimo Von Oelhoffen was still with the Steelers, he called Smith the best defensive end in the NFL. Being an uninformed fan, I was surprised by that because Smith wasn't exactly the poster-boy for great pass rushers. But now, understanding what Smith's position requires and seeing the respect he's earned not just in the Steelers' locker room, but around the league for how well he's played defensive end throughout his career, I realize what Kimo was talking about.
Aaron Smith might lack the pro-bowl accolades of an Albert Haynesworth, but you can't always measure quality of play in the number of pro bowl selections, and Smith has been one of the most important members of the Steelers defense over the years, both on the field and in the locker room.
Smith, Hampton and Keisel may not have the impressive resumes of a "Mean" Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes or LC Greenwood, but their unit has been every bit as important to the success of this era of dominant Steelers' defensive football as the Steel Curtain was to those 70's Steelers' defenses.
The Steelers have gone about trying to ensure the quality of play from their 3-4 defensive linemen continues-on in the years ahead.
In two of the past three drafts, the Steelers have selected defensive linemen with their first round selections--Evander "Ziggy" Hood in 2009 and Cameron Heyward this year.
Both Hood and Heyward appear to possess all the character qualities necessary to be 3-4 defensive linemen for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they obviously have the pedigree to perform at a high-level on-the-field.
If the talent-level of Heyward and Hood matches the level of their character, if they have more Aaron Smith in them than Albert Haynesworth, the future of the Steelers defensive line is in great hands.