One of the most popular phrases uttered when analyzing any NFL game is "the team that wins the battle at the line of scrimmage usually wins the game." Despite the fact the NFL is now quarterback-driven, the team coming out on top is usually the one dominating the line of scrimmage.
As most loyal fans know, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been using a 3-4 defense for many years, and the main job of a defensive lineman in this scheme is to take on double teams and allow the linebackers to flow freely so they can either get to the quarterback or shut down the running game.
This is especially true for a nose tackle in the 3-4 defense.
If the other team must use both a center and guard to occupy the nose tackle, he's more than doing his job. And if he excels in that role, he becomes a very disruptive force.
For the better part of the past 11 seasons, Casey Hampton has been one of those dominant Pro Bowl (five times) nose tackles, and is one of the main reasons why the Steelers have had so much success on defense in recent years.
Unfortunately, the nose tackle position also happens to be one of the most physically demanding in all of sports, and big Casey is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Early last season, teams like the Ravens and Texans had success running against the Steelers as Hampton had problems trying to deal with double-teams.
Age and injury are also starting to catch up with Hampton. He'll be 35 years old by the time the Steelers play their next regular season game, and he may not even be physically ready to go when the season starts. Hampton suffered a torn ACL in the playoff game against the Broncos and recently had surgery. At his age and weight (he's listed at 325, but he's probably much heavier than that), who knows how effective Hampton will be if and when he is ready to return.
And, of course, salary will also play a factor in whether or not Hampton is back next season. The Steelers are still working toward finding a way to get under the NFL salary cap, and Hampton could be one of many cap casualties this off season.
With all of that in mind, I think it's time for the Steelers to finally draft their nose tackle of the future.
Even if Hampton does play another year or two, the team is still going to need to address that position sooner or later.
Age along the defensive line started to become a concern a few years ago, and the team went about trying to rectify that by using their first round picks on defensive ends in two of the last three drafts.
In Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, the Steelers seem to have their defensive ends of the future, but what about the nose tackle?
With longtime backup Chris Hoke forced to retire due to a neck injury, only Steve McLendon remains as a backup to Hampton. But at 280 pounds, he obviously lacks the size to dominate the position like Hampton has for so many years.
With Hampton's contract and injury situation, are the Steelers prepared to go with McLendon as a starter in 2012?
There has been talk of moving Hood over to the nose tackle position if Hampton isn't with the team next year. That might be a good answer for a year or two, but I believe Hood is too athletic to keep at nose tackle, and like Mclendon, he's not the ideal size at 305 pounds.
The Steelers have done a wonderful job of targeting certain positions in the draft in recent years, and while inside linebacker and offensive line need to be addressed, as well, the Steelers might be in the ideal drafting position to go after a nose tackle.
If Pittsburgh was picking in the top half of the draft, I'd say go with a guard or inside linebacker, but at 24, they'll probably have the pick of the nose tackle litter--they drafted Hampton 19th in 2001--and there will be no need to trade up or reach for another position.
Some people might say that in today's day and age of passing offenses, the nose tackle is normally only a two-down player, so why invest so much in that position? Well, because if you have a team 3rd and 12 after those two downs as opposed to 3rd and 3, your chances of forcing a punt are much greater. Hampton has been a two-down player his entire career, and if his value on those two downs wasn't so great, he wouldn't have been voted to those five Pro Bowls.
Despite the defense's number one ranking, there was a noticeable drop-off in sacks and takeaways last season. You could attribute that to injuries, but you could also attribute that to a lack of a push up front and losing too many battles along the line of scrimmage.
Many people consider the nose tackle to be the most important position in a 3-4 defense, and it's pretty obvious the Steelers are committed to that scheme for the foreseeable future - why else would they be so determined to hang on to Keith Butler? If they want to remain a dominant 3-4 defense, they're going to need a dominant nose tackle.
If you're going to stay committed to something, you might as well go all the way with it.
This might be the draft to go out and find the next Big Snack.
This is the fifth part in a collaborative effort from the editorial staff at BTSC, providing some arguments behind possible positional directions the Steelers may go with their first round pick - currently scheduled for the 24th overall. These will be posted each day this week, and will not be distributed based on order of preference.