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Old 07-16-2008, 03:09 PM   #1
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Default Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

Is the Steelers defensive line a strength or weakness?

By James Pete | July 16th, 2008

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A case could be made that the front three of the Pittsburgh Steelersí defense are one of the best units in the NFL. Defensive Tackle Casey Hampton, and Defensive Ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel form a perfect Dick LeBeau front-line. They are staunch against the run, but can break free and make plays in the backfield if the blitz is working correctly.

So, why is this unit considered to be a weakness for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

There are two worries for this squad, age, and depth. We found out last season that when both are issues, the Steelers defensive line can be downright average.

Casey Hampton is simply one of the top two defensive tackles in the game. Heís not going to win any weight loss competitions, but his obesity has never really caused his play to diminish in any way to this point. He is an extraordinary run-stopper, who is overpowering. He can easily shed blocks, or ride his block into the path of the play. His ability to absorb two blockers is a key to many of the Steelersí stunts, and blitz packages. In many ways, Hampton is the anchor of the entire defense. He played in his fourth pro bowl this past season.

Brett Keisel signed a new deal before last season, and many speculated that he was going to be placed in a role similar to former Ravens end Adalius Thomas. That didnít happen as much as Dick LeBeau would have liked, but look for things to change this season. Already this year, thereís been more speculation that Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and in some cases, Lawrence Timmons and Bruce Davis, will all have opportunities to move around. Keisel is truly solid against the run, and consistently leads the Steelers in hurries, even if he doesnít get to the quarterback. He can overpower linemen, but his strength is the speed into the backfield. He uses his mobility and speed to beat the linemen to a spot in the backfield, and disrupting the action. The typical Steelers defensive linemen absorbs the offensive line (see Casey Hampton) to allow the linebackers through in blitz-schemes. Keisel can absorb, but is best on the move. Look for more of that this year, with a better group of linebackers behind him.

Aaron Smith is a prototypical run-stuffer in the traditional Pittsburgh Steelers mold. This isnít a guy that sets out to sack the quarterback. Heís just so good at what he does, that he finds the quarterback in front of him often, as his 35 1/2 career sacks would indicate. What he does is simple, attack the line, and hold them there so that speed and blitz guys can get their job done. Many times, however, Smith not only attacks and holds, but ends up pushing back lineman into the backfield. This guy is truly one of the unheralded players in the league.

Of course, after last season, most Pittsburgh Steelers fans know all about Aaron Smith, and what happens when heís not there.

This defensive line is good, but they are also starting to age. Aaron Smith just turned 32 years old. Casey Hampton will turn 31 in September. Brett Keisel will be turning 30 in September as well. No, we arenít talking ancient, but it does bring up concerns.

For Smith, injuries became an issue for the first time last season. No, it wasnít a wear-and-tear injury, but the bicep tear could bring into question his durability down the stretch. When heís healthy, heís one of the best in the game. When heís not, the defense drops dramatically.

Hampton seems to be as durable as they come. Hereís the catch. I do worry about his weight issues. He has had some trouble in offseasonís past to come in at a decent weight. When do we hit that offseason where he goes from being able to work back down to slightly fat, to just plain obese. There has been several rumors around the South Side that Hampton is currently at an all-time high with his weight. It probably wonít hurt his strength as a nose tackle, but it could limit his already limited mobility, and increase the chance of injury.

Keisel is an enigma to me. He absolutely pressured the quarterback last season, but I didnít see the Adalius Thomas experiment implemented all that much. Perhaps that was expedited out with the Smith injury, or perhaps there was more going on there than it seems, as the Steelers seem much happier with their linebacking situation this year. Still, I think Keisel is primed to have a break-out year. This yearís version of the Steelers linebacking crew should give him more opportunity to move around. If he can play in that Thomas, Vrabel mold, he could be dangerous.

Hereís the thing. Who will play if these guys get hurt? Travis Kirschke is entering his twelfth season, and last year he got manhandled anyways. Nick Eason is a guy that I was high on, but this is his sixth year. He looked as bad as Kirschke last season. When does the promise turn into something more? Hopefully soon, because Pittsburgh just re-signed the guy. Ryan McBean is a monster, and the guy thatís slid into my Ďhigh hopesí category. In all seriousness though, the Steelers cut him, then re-signed him as a practice squad guy. How high is this guy going to go? Chris Hoke backs up Hampton, and heís fine as a back-up, but heís no Casey Hampton.

Throw in the fact that Kirschke will be 34, and Hoke is 32, and you have old back-ups.

The Steelers front office, and Mike Tomlin donít seem worried about the issues, and right now, Iím not either. If one of the top three go down, however, this defensive line gets pretty average, pretty quickly.

I know this was the top defense in 2007, but if you look at the line after week 11 when Aaron Smith went down, you see a considerable drop-off across the board. The linebackers became less effective, and so did the run-stopping ability. In particular, this became glaring against teams that can run, such as the Jaguars.

The Jags, also having line injury issues actually played better, because their back-ups werenít just back-ups, but players being groomed for a starting role.

Pittsburgh doesnít have that system in place right now, which scares me for the future of this line.

Letís just hope that the future doesnít come sooner than we think.

http://mvn.com/nfl-steelers/2008/07/...h-or-weakness/
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Old 07-16-2008, 03:59 PM   #2
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

I sounds like he is saying its a strength if no body gets hurt, a weakness if they do.
I think I would probably agree with that.
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Old 07-16-2008, 04:20 PM   #3
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

I feel the Steelers DL is still very much a strength. Smith, Hampton and Keisel are 32, 31 and 30 respectively - hardly geezers on the back sides of their careers. Hamptom is a chub, but is strong as an ox and imho, the best DT in the NFL hands down. I'm quite sure Smith has been rehabbing that torn bicep and will be 99.9% back to his fierce style of play at DE. As for Keisel - he's a beast without the fur and I firmly believe if Lebeau would open it up a bit more for him as far as blitzing the QB, his overall value to the line would skyrocket. It's not like the guy doesn't have the speed.

I am very confident in our DL going into this season.
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Old 07-16-2008, 05:41 PM   #4
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

Well, depth is the issue. But what team in the NFL is two deep at every position? The key is to stay healthy and address this need in the near future. The one nice thing about 3-4 DL is they don't need 3 years of seasoning: They can come in and play and contribute right away.
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Old 07-16-2008, 05:45 PM   #5
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

Smith is still strong at DE. When he was out last season, Hampton and Keisel couldn't step up and carry the load. Part of the problem was that Kirschke and Eason below average at Smith's DE spot.

From what I have seen last season...and I hope it was just a bad season by these two...Hampton is really slowing down and Keisel is several notches below Smith. IMO, Smith is the key to the entire DL this year for us...as he was last year.
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Old 07-16-2008, 06:03 PM   #6
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

Your starters are a strength, your depth is a weakness. When healthy, you'd be hard pressed to find a better group of lineman in the league at what they do. They may not be the best at generating pressure themselves, but their job is to tie up blockers first and let the LBs make plays.
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Old 07-16-2008, 06:52 PM   #7
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

What about Bruce Davis? If I recall he played DE in college, and is now doing the transistion to outside linebacker. If Kiesel or Smith gets hurt, could B. Davis step in?

Or rather, maybe the question is, could Bruce Davis step in and play better than Kirschke or Eason?

Just wondering if this might be the key to Tomlin and the FO's apparent lack of concern for DL depth.

Aside from that, we have a great defensive line, and defensive unit as a whole. I'm looking forward to (another) solid season from these guys.
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Old 07-16-2008, 07:13 PM   #8
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steelman16 View Post
What about Bruce Davis? If I recall he played DE in college, and is now doing the transistion to outside linebacker. If Kiesel or Smith gets hurt, could B. Davis step in?

Or rather, maybe the question is, could Bruce Davis step in and play better than Kirschke or Eason?
:
no, he's about 40-50 lbs too small. even woodley (who also played DE) is about 25-30 lbs too small... atleast for a 3-4 defense.
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Old 07-16-2008, 07:30 PM   #9
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

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Originally Posted by tony hipchest View Post
no, he's about 40-50 lbs too small. even woodley (who also played DE) is about 25-30 lbs too small... atleast for a 3-4 defense.
I couldn't find his weight at the time of posting, but that's what I figured.

Well, hopefully he'll be a beast at LB and our D-line won't get hurt.
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Old 07-16-2008, 07:48 PM   #10
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Default Re: Is Steelers D-line a Strength or Weakness

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no, he's about 40-50 lbs too small. even woodley (who also played DE) is about 25-30 lbs too small... atleast for a 3-4 defense.
Possibly an emergency 4-3 package in the works?
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