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mesaSteeler
01-20-2012, 11:50 PM
Changes likely in veteran D-line
Friday, January 20, 2012
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Steelers defensive lineman Aaron Smith's future status with the team is still up in the air.

Aaron Smith looked emaciated the week before the Steelers season ended in Denver. The 13-year veteran had lost 20 pounds after his neck injury and resulting surgery ended yet another season way too short, this one after four games.

It followed a 2010 season that lasted only six games (torn triceps), an '09 season that lasted five (torn rotator cuff) and an '07 season that lasted 11 (torn biceps). He will turn 36 in April, and it has been assumed since he was put on injured reserve that he has seen his last football. Presumed by others, perhaps, but not necessarily by Smith.

"I'm sure they'll have to come to me," he said, reaffirming that he might not know when to call it quits. "I'm sure it will be more along the lines of, 'Hey, you might want to make that call.' "

The Steelers are in the process of determining the futures of Smith and other longtime, venerable veterans as it pertains to next season. Team president Art Rooney said Tuesday that, especially because they are $25 million over the salary cap, the Steelers face "some tough decisions."

Nowhere might those decisions cut so deeply as in their defensive line. Perhaps three of their top four linemen over the past half decade could be in jeopardy of not being with them for training camp in August.

Those include Smith, their starting left defensive end since his second season in 2000; Casey Hampton, their starting nose tackle since his rookie season in '01, and Chris Hoke, their top backup lineman, mostly at nose tackle, since '04. Hoke also had neck surgery that ended his '11 season.

Truly, they will be tough decisions for Rooney, his personnel men and coaches. The three have been through five AFC championship games, three Super Bowls and each own two Super Bowl rings. They have been part of the best defensive line to perform for the Steelers in the 30 years they have run the 3-4 as their base defense.

But, like the best 4-3 defensive line in their or maybe football history, the Steel Curtain of the 1970s, it might be time for the Steelers to move on. Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes saw that day come, too.

"Yeah, we're all getting older," Smith acknowledged. "We can't go forever, although we'd like to. I don't know whether it's this year or next year."

The Steelers have prepared for this day. They drafted defensive end Cameron Heyward in the first round last year, two years after they drafted defensive end Ziggy Hood in the first round. Hood started every game at left end this past season after Smith's injury.

The other veteran, right defensive end Brett Keisel had one of his best seasons at 33 and should not be among the tough decisions.

But Hampton could be. He is due $8 million and will turn 35 before next season begins. On the other hand, the only other nose tackle is Steve McLendon, who began the season on the practice squad and filled in at nose tackle. No one knows if he could handle the position full time, and they have no obvious backup.

There have been discussions about Hood possibly moving to nose tackle, where he has practiced and where, in essence, he has lined up in some passing situations. At a listed 300 pounds, he weighs maybe 50 pounds less than Hampton, but there is more than one way to play nose tackle, and it does not always have to be played by short, squat linemen. Hoke, for example, is listed at 305 pounds, and he started 10 games -- all victories -- and played well for an injured Hampton in '04.

If they move Hood to nose tackle, they would move Heyward up to starter but would need to find depth at end. They have good regard for prospect Al Woods, but he ended the season as their only other end. If Hampton and Hoke are not here next season and they do not move Hood, they need to draft a nose tackle. Whoever it is, Smith said he has no doubt they will find someone capable as they have done for years in their defensive line.

"Oh, yeah, they always bring in the same character for all the guys, and they don't miss a beat. The next guy comes in, and they keep going."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-

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