We Steeler fans count ourselves as some of the luckiest fans in all of sports. Our favorite team has one of the best histories in the NFL, the best management/ownership in all of sports, and they consistently field a competitive team. We are also a group of people who have been able to witness the best Defensive Coordinator work his magic for the last decade while instituting the type of defense we all know is best: the 3-4.
There are many reasons why the 3-4 is better than the 4-3, such as the fact that it replaces larger, slower players with faster, more agile ones. Having more linebackers allows a team to compete better against faster offenses, particularly in a pass-dominated league. In the 3-4, the linebackers are kings, and they are typically paid like it. This is highlighted by the fact that the Steelers paid $25.137M last season to their LB's, while players on the DL received a total of $14.653M in 2012.
Another reason the 3-4 is better (and another blessing we can count for ourselves as Steelers fans) is the reality that the nose tackle is praised for being the biggest, heaviest guy on the field, and his sole job is to hit the middle of the line and ensnare as many offensive linemen as possible, while not giving an inch of ground. This about what he is asked to do on every play for a minute. Football asks men who look like they are one burrito away from a triple bi-pass to take on two, admittedly slightly less gigantic men and either not give an inch, or in an ideal world push back 6 inches to a foot. If a nose tackle doesn't do his job, it is likely the offense will be able to move the ball easily down the field, regardless of what the other 10 players on the field are able to do.
Steelers fans have witnessed one of the best nose tackles in NFL history line up for them almost every Sunday for 12 years, and even though we may have seen the last of him in Black & Gold, the importance of his exit has flooded this blog. Half of the mock drafts out there are mocking the Steelers to take a nose tackle at 17. Hampton was a first round pick at number 19, and this is a pretty decent year for nose tackles, so the logic fits. But the Steelers aren't just considering using a first rounder on a nose tackle because they are losing Casey Hampton. Part of the consideration has to be that there is now a hole at what is, in my opinion, the most important position on the Pittsburgh defense.
Casey Hampton has 9 sacks in his career, yet he has gone to 4 pro bowls. He isn't expected to rack up statistics, or to win praises, yet the Steelers paid a cap hit of $5M last year for him, more than everyone except Harrison & Polamalu on the defense.
We fans have grieved over the lower sack numbers for our favorite team. We have been angered by the dropped interceptions or the lack of fumble recoveries. But one thing we can all agree on is that the last few years, the Steelers do not give up yards. They are the best defense in the league at stopping teams from moving forward, even while they have moved to the back of the pack at pushing teams backwards. But for the nose tackle, that is all that can ever be asked of him. Casey Hampton only has 9 sacks on his career because it is not his job to push teams back. His job is to only make sure that they do not move forward. By that measure, Casey Hampton is far and away the most successful Steeler defender of the last few years.
Losing Hampton is going to be tough. Whether that loss is this off-season, which is likely, or an off-season in the not-so-distant future it will still be tough. The Steelers need to seriously consider if they have a replacement on the roster because in my opinion, nose tackle is not outside linebacker or cornerback. Nose tackle is not a position where a defense can survive with a, "next man up" mentality. The Steelers better have a replacement for the most important player on the field, because if the Steelers can't sack anybody; if the Steelers can't intercept anybody; and then if the Steelers can't stop anybody, 8-8 will seem like a dream season.
Thank you Mr. Nose Tackle. Now go forth and eat that burrito. I'm sure you'll be fine.