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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 2)

March 23, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 23, 2009
By Donald Starver

In part 1 of this series, we did a primer on the 3-4 defense.  We talked about the unique characteristics of the 3-4, and how it impacts the type of players the Steelers select in the draft.  In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.

The nose tackle is the central figure in any 3-4 defense, and is one of the most difficult positions to find.  There just aren’t many athletes that have the unique characteristics needed to play nose tackle.

Nose tackle is probably the most physically demanding position in football.  His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps.  Those are the two openings between the center and the guards.  The nose tackle must hold his ground and not allow himself to be pushed back into the linebackers.   If the nose tackle is unable to do this, his team will be susceptible to running plays.

The nose tackle must be prepared to face a double-team on every single play.  This means the nose tackle must have tremendous stamina and endurance.  Taking on two offensive linemen who both may weigh over 300 lbs. is no easy task.  To do it for a full 60 minutes requires excellent conditioning, despite carrying around tremendous bulk.

This is one of the reasons why Mike Tomlin was so hard on Casey Hampton during the Steelers’ 2008 training camp.  Tomlin knew that Hampton could not afford to be out of shape.  The concern was not his weight, since the extra weight might actually prove helpful at nose tackle.  Rather, the concern was with Hampton’s endurance.  There is a very thin line between being an immovable, athletic nose tackle, and being a fat, out-of-shape slob.

That’s one of the reasons that NFL teams don’t simply import 600 lb. sumo wrestlers and plug them in as nose tackles.  While those guys may have the necessary girth, they don’t have the other attributes needed to play nose tackle.

The nose tackle must have tremendous size, powerful arms and legs, excellent stamina, durability, mental toughness, lateral quickness, solid technique, and an ability to generate maximum leverage.  In addition to all of this, the nose tackle must also have a unique mental profile.  He has to be completely selfless.  He must understand that while he will have to perform a more physically demanding task than any other player on his team, he will seldom be recognized for his work.  His best efforts will rarely show up in the statistics.  Moreover, the linebackers will receive all of the glory, even though the nose tackle actually does the heavy lifting.

3-4 nose tackles don’t have to be as fast as 4-3 defensive tackles, since they are not tasked with generating a pass rush like 4-3 tackles are.  In the 3-4, that responsibility fall to the linebackers.

The ideal nose tackle will be proficient at reading and reacting to offensive plays.  He must be able to quickly diagnose a play and know where the ball is going.  He must have quick lateral movement to fill either “A” gap before the runner can get through it.

The standard for nose tackles was probably set by Ted Washington.  At 6’5″, 365 lbs., Washington was an immovable man-mountain.  One AFC personnel director said that Washington “was huge, had long arms, and you couldn’t budge him.  He could hold off a 320 lb. lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other”.

Current notable 3-4 nose tackles include the Steelers’ own Casey Hampton (6’1″, 325 lbs.), the Chargers’ Jamal Williams (6’2″, 348 lbs.), the Browns’ Shaun Rogers (6’4″, 350 lbs.), and the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata (6’4″, 345 lbs.).  Hampton is smaller than the others, but his low center of gravity and powerful legs allow him to generate tremendous leverage.

As a side note, you may have noticed that the AFC North is filled with big, powerful nose tackles.  This is why Sean Mahan was not a viable center for the Steelers.  He just wasn’t big enough to handle the huge nose tackles that he had to face in the AFC North.

The thing that makes it even harder to find a potential 3-4 nose tackle is that most colleges play a 4-3 defense.  Few college players have experience holding the point of attack.  Instead, most college tackles are asked to penetrate gaps and provide a pass rush.  They are skilled in moving forward, and are seldom asked to stand firm.

In the 2009 draft, there are only a handful of potential NFL nose tackles.  Two of them play for Boston College.

Boston College’s B.J. Raji is the top defensive tackle in the entire draft.  At 6’2″ and 334 lbs., he is viewed as a good candidate for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme.  Raji dominated linemen at the Senior Bowl.  At Senior Bowl practices, he dominated highly rated offensive linemen Alex Mack and Max Unger.

Raji’s Boston College teammate, Ron Brace, is also viewed as a potential 3-4 nose tackle.  Brace is 6’3″ and 329 lbs.  However, because he played next to Raji, Brace never had to face double-teams.  It is unclear how well he will handle the double team.  Moreover, Brace had recurring back injuries in 2008.  That is not a good sign for someone his size.

Sammie Lee Hill of Division II Stillman (Alabama) College is considered another nose tackle prospect.  Hill is 6’4″ and 328 lbs.  However, the caliber of competition that he played against raises questions as to whether Hill can hold his ground against NFL linemen.

Michigan’s Terrance Taylor (6’0″, 308) was once viewed as a decent nose tackle candidate.  However, Taylor struggled in the East-West Shrine Game.  That raised questions in some scouts’ minds.  Additionally, Taylors’ conditioning has been questioned.

As we said earlier, top tier nose tackle candidates are rare.  Three of the four candidates mentioned above have significant question marks, and only Raji is viewed as a “sure thing”. Raji will probably be drafted in the top 10 picks, and will not be a candidate for the Steelers.

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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Snackin’ with “Big Snack” (10-15-08)

October 14, 2008 By: Admin Category: Players

During the Steelers 2008 training camp, NT Casey Hampton (aka “Big Snack”) arrived weighing almost 400 lbs.

"Big Snack"

"Big Snack"

Coach Tomlin wasn’t happy about this, and placed Hampton in the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Tomlin made Hampton run laps until he shed the excess weight.

Run big fella!

Run big fella!

Hampton still loves to eat, but he wants to stay out of Coach Tomlin’s doghouse, so he now does his snacking in secret. Each week, we will be sneaking into the Steelers’ locker room and peaking into Hampton’s locker to see what snacks he is hiding from Coach Tomlin. Stop by every Wednesday to see Big Snack’s latest snack.

Today’s Snack:

Yummm, beefy!

Yummm, beefy!

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