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Steelers Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

July 24, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency, Players

July 24, 2009
By John DeWald and Donald Starver

Training camp is now less than 2 weeks away, so it is time to take a look at what we are likely to see in Latrobe.

The Steelers will bring 82 players into training camp.  Those players will compete for spots on the final 53-man roster.

In this series, we are going to look at each each position and evaluate who is likely to make the roster.  We will start with the defensive line.

In his first year as head coach, Mike Tomlin carried 6 defensive linemen on the team’s roster, 2 nose tackles and 4 defensive ends.  Last year they increased it to 7 defensive linemen (2 nose tackles and 5 defensive ends).  If we assume that Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will remain true to history, then the Steelers will probably carry 6-7 defensive linemen on this year’s 53-man roster.

Orpheus Roye has retired, so that opens up one spot on the roster.  However, the Steelers brought in Ziggy Hood and Ra’Shon Harris through the draft, and Steve McLendon through free agency.  They also have Scott Paxson and Jordan Reffett from the practice squad.  That means there are 11 players vying for 6-7 roster openings.

Let’s  start with the most important position on a 3-4 defensive line, the nose tackle.

Casey Hampton - “Big Snack” is the incumbent at nose tackle, and he will be the starter at the position this year.  Even if he comes to training camp weighing 6,000 pounds, Hampton is the starter.

This is a contract year for Hampton, and after being out of shape at the beginning of training camp last year, he is reportedly training harder this off-season.

I have read comments on various Steelers message boards claiming that Hampton is too old, too out of shape, too unmotivated, etc.  This is pure nonsense.  Hampton is still one of the best in the NFL at what he does.  Moreover, the Steelers did not draft a nose tackle, nor did they sign one as a free agent.  Hampton is a lock.  Count on it.

Chris Hoke - Hoke has been Casey Hampton’s backup for the past 5 years.  He filled in admirably when Hampton was lost for the season in 2004.  Moreover, the Steelers didn’t miss a beat anytime he came in for Hampton last year.  Hoke lacks the size and strength of Casey Hampton, but he makes up for it with pure tenacity.  Hoke is guaranteed to be the backup nose tackle this season.

Scott Paxson - Paxson is listed as a nose tackle, despite being smaller than most of the Steelers’ defensive ends.  After signing as an undrafted free agent 3 years ago, Paxson spent his first 2 years and part of last year on the practice squad.  He has used up his practice squad eligibility, so for him it is 53-man roster or bust.  Sorry Scott.  It’s been nice knowing you, but your days as a Steeler are likely over.

Moving to the defensive end position, first up is……..

Aaron Smith - Smith may be the most under-appreciated (outside of Pittsburgh) defensive lineman in the NFL.  Smith may be the best DE in Steelers history.  That is saying a lot.  Smith is 33, and he’s signed through 2011.  Unless he breaks both legs, his spot on the 53 man roster is assured.


Brett Keisel - Keisel is also in a contract year.  He has made no secret of the fact that he would like an extension, and that he wants to end his career as a Steeler.  As the incumbent starter, Keisel’s roster spot is safe.

Evander (Ziggy) Hood - The Steelers didn’t draft the DT out of Missouri in the 1st round in order to place him on the practice squad.  To quote Kevin Colbert “He’s a special guy, he really is….He was somebody we felt good about from the first time we scouted him.  There’s so many superlatives about this kid.  We’re excited to get him”.  Not only will Hood make the roster, he will also see playing time (though not as a starter) in his rookie year.

Ziggy Hood

With Hampton, Hoke, Smith, Keisel, and Hood pretty much guaranteed roster postitions, and Scott Paxson almost guaranteed to be released, that leaves 5 players vying for the remaining 1-2 roster spots.

Nick Eason - A career backup, Eason signed as a free agent 2 years ago.  While not spectacular, Eason was solid in his play last season.  He is only 29, but his play has not been strong enough to lock in a roster spot.  He is going to have to have a good training camp to hold off the competition.

Travis Kirschke - Kirschke will be 35 years old this season.  In NFL terms, he may as well be a brontosaurus.  However, he filled in quite well for Brett Keisel last season, registering 46 tackles and 2 sacks.  He may not be as fast as he was 10 years ago, but Kirschke knows Dick LeBeau’s defense, and that is a big advantage.  Despite his age, I am betting that Kirschke holds off the young guys and makes the team.

Steve McLendon - Signed as an undrafted free agent from Troy, McLendon is a long shot to make the team.  His small school background, combined with the fact that he is the smallest of all of the Steelers’ defensive linemen, gives McLendon a small chance of making the team.  Enjoy your time in training camp, Steve.   You won’t be on the roster in September.

Jordan Reffett - Reffett signed as an undrafted free agent last year and spent time on the practice squad.  Reffett still has practice squad eligibility, so that is his most likely home.

Ra’Shon Harris - Drafted in the 6th round out of Oregon, Harris has good physical tools, but he was inconsistent in college.  The Steelers essentially took a 6th round flyer on him to see if there was enough talent there to mold into a good lineman.

Ra'Shon Harris

So there you have it.  We believe that Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Travis Kirschke are going to make the 53 man roster.  If the Steelers keep 6 defensive linemen like they did in 2007, then that will be it.  If they keep 7 like they did in 2008, then Harris, Reffett, McLendon, Paxson, and Eason will battle for the final roster spot.

So readers, what do you think?  Do you agree with our analysis?  Can Travis Kirschke hold onto a roster spot despite his age?  Who will snag the 7th roster spot if the Steelers decide to keep seven defensive linemen?  We want to hear from you.

To read part 2 of this series, click here.

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

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The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 3)

March 27, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 28, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 3 in a series.  If you haven’t already read part 1, please click here.  If you haven’t read part 2, please click here.

In part 2 our our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we talked about the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.  In this installment, we will take a look at the other position on the 3-4 defensive front, the defensive end.

In a 3-4 defense, there are two defensive ends.  The left defensive end lines up to the left of the nose tackle, and the right defensive end lines up to the nose tackle’s right.  Those three players make up the front line in a 3-4 defensive scheme.  Contrarily, in a 4-3 defense, the front line would consist of a defensive end, two defensive tackles, and another defensive end.

The roles of the defensive end in a 4-3 and a 3-4 are different.  In a traditional 4-3 defense, the defensive end is responsible for bringing the pressure from the edge.  The primary weapon of a 4-3 defensive end is his strength, speed, and athleticism.  The right defensive end is generally the faster of the two defensive ends, and he brings the pass rushing threat from the typical quarterback’s blind side (this is not the case for left-handed quarterbacks).   The left defensive end doesn’t have to be quite as fast, but he must be able to stop the run, since most right handed runners prefer to run to the right.  The  ideal 4-3 defensive end will be around 6’5″ tall, and weigh between 265 - 280 lbs.

The ideal 4-3 defensive end can beat his defender with either strength or speed.  But one way or another, the 4-3 DE has to get around the corner and either tackle the runner or pressure the quarterback.  Premiere 4-3 defensive ends include the Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers (6’7″, 283 lbs.), the Houston Texans’ Mario Williams (6’6″, 283 lbs.), and the Tennessee Titans Javon Kearse (6’4″, 265 lbs.).

The 3-4 defensive end is typically bigger than his 4-3 counterpart.  Unlike the 4-3 defensive end, the 3-4 defensive end is not primarily responsible for pressuring the quarterback.  In the 3-4, that responsibility typically falls to the outside linebackers.  Instead, the job of the defensive ends is to occupy blockers to allow the linebackers to be isolated against a running back or tight end.  In either case, the linebacker should have a decided advantage.

While the 3-4 defensive end won’t face double-teams as often as the nose tackle will, he must be able to handle the double-team on a fairly consistent basis.  That’s why the prototype 3-4 defensive end will typically be around 6’5″, and weigh between 290 - 310 lbs.  Many 3-4 defensive ends were actually defensive tackles in college.

If we look at the defensive ends who ended the season with the Steelers, their physical stats are as follows:

Nick Eason (6’3″, 305 lbs.)

Brett Keisel (6’5″, 285 lbs.)

Travis Kirschke (6’3″, 298 lbs.)

Orpheus Roye (6’4″, 330 lbs.)

Aaron Smith (6’5″, 298 lbs.)

Brett Keisel is the runt of the litter.  He is probably a bit light for a 3-4 defensive end.  Moreover, he is not as stout against the run as his predecessor, Kimo von Oelhoffen.  Kimo was 6’4″. 299 lbs.

Keisel does bring much greater speed than von Oelhoffen had, and Dick LeBeau has talked about moving him around like he does Troy Polamalu.  However, while LeBeau has talked about it, we have seldom seen that type of movement of Keisel actually utilized in games.  Some might even argue that Keisel would be better as a 4-3 defensive end than as a 3-4 DE.

With an understanding of what is required of a 3-4 defensive end, we can now take a look at the class of 2009 and see which draftees might be appropriate candidates for the Steelers to consider.

The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at this year’s draft class is that most of the top defensive ends are too small to play DE in a 3-4.  Many project to be 3-4 OLB’s at the next level.  Others seem more appropriate for a 4-3 than a 3-4.

Of the Defensive ends coming out of college this year, Tyson Jackson may be the only premiere 3-4 DE in the class.  Jackson is 6’4″ and weighs 295 lbs.  He is strong, and can hold up against the run.  However, he lacks the speed to generate adequate edge pressure.  This makes him best suited to play in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Brian Orakpo (6’4″, 256 lbs.) is probably the top DE in the class.  However, he is best suited for a 4-3 defense.  In a 3-4 defense, he projects as a rush linebacker, not a DE.

Everette Brown (6’4″, 246 lbs.) is another 3-4 rush linebacker or 4-3 DE.

Michael Johnson (6’7″, 259 lbs.) has rare physical tools, but is much too small to play DE in a 3-4.

Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 236 lbs.) is another super-athletic player who will probably be best as a 3-4 rush linebacker or 4-3 DE.  Definitely not a 3-4 DE.

Robert Ayers (6’3″, 273 lbs.) projects as a 4-3 DE.  He has the frame to add weight, so he might someday be able to play the 3-4.  But at his current size and skillset, his best position in a 3-4 would be OLB.

Paul Kruger (6’5″, 265 lbs.) is a versatile player with a non-stop motor.  He is a very intelligent player who will be equally effective as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB.

Jarron Gilbert (6’5″, 287) is the only other DE besides Tyson Jackson who projects as a potential 3-4 DE who could potentially be drafted on the first day (likely a 3rd round pick).  Gilbert displays incredible speed for his size.  He is a bit raw, and is more of an athlete than a football player.  He played at a small school (San Jose State) against sub-par competition.  Moreover, he is not particularly physical, and is recognized for being fast rather than strong.   However, there are so few potential 3-4 DE’s in this year’s draft, that someone might take a gamble on Gilbert in the second or third round of the draft.  Because speed is his primary weapon, Gilbert may be more of a 4-3 DE than a 3-4 DE. He may even be a better candidate for 4-3 DT.  That is the problem with Gilbert.  It’s hard to determine what position he projects to at the next level.  But with so few 3-4 defensive ends in this year’s draft, he will certainly be considered for the position.  In my opinion, using Gilbert as a 3-4 DE will negate his primary weapon (speed), and accentuate his primary weakness (stoutness at the point of attack).

Despite the lack of quality 3-4 DE’s in the class of 2009, all is not lost.  I believe there are several defensive tackles who will be best served converting to 3-4 DE’s at the next level.

Fili Moala (6’4″, 303 lbs.) projects as the second best 3-4 DE in the class of 2009.  He has all of the tools to fulfill the role.  USC has 3 linebackers coming out this year who all have legitimate chances of being drafted in the 1st round.  They can thank Fili Moala for their success.  He occupied blockers for them the same way that a 3-4 DE must do for his linebackers.

Evander Hood (6’3″, 298) is another college DT who doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to excel at the position at the next level.  However, his size and strength may project well to the 3-4 DE position.

Sen’Derric Marks (6’1, 295 lbs) is a bit short and squat, but he might be able to make the transition to 3-4 DE.  He is a very good run stuffer who uses leverage to anchor himself against blockers.  However, his height is less than ideal.

With more and more teams playing the 3-4, the competition for players is becoming more intense.  This class is very deep in 3-4 OLB’s, but there are few quality 3-4 DE’s, and even fewer 3-4 nose tackles.  Teams that play the 3-4 will have to keep this in mind as they make their draft picks.  Some teams may have to reach a bit for players in order to make sure they get the personnel that they need to run the 3-4 properly.

Of course, this probably won’t be the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Steelers have always believed in drafting the best player available (BPA), regardless of team needs.  Therefore, we aren’t likely to see them reach in order to fill a need, regardless of how few candidates are available.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

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