Talkin' Defensive Line: The Next Generation Begins in 2012

PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 23: Ziggy Hood #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates William Gay's second quarter touchdown scored after Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets fumbled during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

We're smack dab in the middle of a transitional period among the Steelers defensive line. The hallowed group that helped bring the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships looks to be on its last breath.

In seeing that coming down the pike, the Steelers have drafted defensive linemen quite a bit (two first round picks in 2009 and 2011, and a fourth round possible future starter in 2012). In one of the more intriguing Steelers positional units, the defensive line has more than just a few questions - many of them can and will be answered.

Questions You'll Hear:

Is Casey Hampton going to play?

To be honest, I wouldn't wager much on Hampton dressing in Week 1. Big Snack will be 35 when the Steelers travel to Denver to open the season, and if not for his injury (he couldn't be released without having a significant portion of his $4.89 million salary hitting the 2012 cap), he may have joined Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and the rest of the victims in the Steelers' veteran slashing of 2012.

Both sides agreed to a reduced but guaranteed contract for Hampton in 2012, which is basically saying we'll take what we can get from him. NT Steve McLendon has been a big riser for the defense, playing a gutty and inspiring game in the playoffs this past season. Keep in mind, with Hampton out and several other injuries already in place, the Steelers had no defensive line back-ups. Brett Keisel and Hampton were out, leaving just Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and McLendon to play against a good running team and a mobile quarterback in high elevation.

Is Alameda "Lunch Plate" Ta'amu going to play?

Rookie defensive linemen don't typically get many snaps, although Heyward did last season, mostly due to injury. The defensive line isn't the deepest in the NFL, but his playing time will depend on how quickly he can learn the defense and how to play his position in the NFL.

Adjusting to the speed of the game is the answer most rookies seem to provide when asked about the hardest part of that first year. But with Hampton's injury situation and no experienced nose tackles behind McLendon, he could see the field in sub packages.

Is Ziggy Hood's seat getting a bit hotter?

Hood did not have a great 2011, and it was the season for him to shine. With Aaron Smith's injury, he had an opportunity to establish himself as the next man up on the famed Steelers defensive line. Simply put, he failed to do that, and there's no more reason to feel secure at his position than there was at this time last year.

It's a big season for him. With his contract expiring at the end of the 2013 season, and many other similar-aged Steelers also looking for extensions around the same time, he's going to have to take a step or two forward this year.

There has been speculation regarding Hood moving inside to help alleviate the potential lack of nose tackles on the squad, but I don't see him being effective in that role. He doesn't have the kind of anchor strength that position requires, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Will Cam Heyward break out?

Heyward showed flashes of being the most athletic and potentially dominant lineman last year. There's plenty of film showing him out of position and slow to react, but there are others where you could see a high level of football instinct leading to disruption among the opposing offense.

With a year under his belt now, he's only going to improve, and this could be a great season for the former first round pick.

How much does Brett Keisel still have in the tank?

Keisel injured his groin in the playoff loss to Denver, and would not have played had the Steelers won. With an advancing age, it's fair to wonder how much time Keisel has remaining. It's unfortunate, because Keisel played the best football of his career in 2010, and was still at a high level in 2011 despite a few injuries throughout the year.

Keisel, more than any other Steeler in the last two years, did his legacy proud. He's been a consummate pro and played some outstanding football, being named to his first Pro Bowl at the end of the 2010 season. Hopefully he has another year of that high level still in him as the defensive line transforms into something younger over the next year or two.

Point to remember in 2012

With the rise of the passing sub package era in the NFL, the Steelers, like nearly everyone else, played with at least one extra defensive back more often than they played out of their base defense. That typically means removing a defensive lineman. Depth among the defensive line may not be as important has it traditionally has been for the Steelers defense, so long as teams just don't run the ball as much as they used to.

One also should look at the third round selection of cover-skill-laden LB Sean Spence as an indication of where the Steelers defense is going. Linebackers coach Kevin Butler has said he sees Spence as a mack linebacker, and he'll back up Lawrence Timmons. He doesn't have great size, but his coverage skills and athleticism are supposed to be outstanding. Seems more like a future plan for the nickel defense would be to include Spence in passing situations, along with removing a lineman, maximizing the amount of players with coverage skills in the package.

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