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Steelers position-by-position review: defensive ends

March 15, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 9 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 5 (wide receivers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 6 (running backs), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 7 (quarterbacks), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 8 (nose tackles), click here.

Next up, we’re going to look at the Steelers defensive ends.

Brett Keisel

Brett Keisel was the most productive of the Steelers defensive linemen in 2011.  He had one of the best seasons of his career in 2011.

Brett "The Beard" Keisel

He has become a fixture on a defense that is consistently among the best in the NFL.  That says a lot about Keisel.  Particularly since he was a 7th round draft choice, from a school that is not a football powerhouse.

But despite Keisel’s skills and dependability, he’ll be 34 years old next season.  The Steelers are beginning to realize that keeping aging veteran players hinders the team’s ability to groom future stars.  So it will be interesting to see how often the team substitutes Cameron Heyward in for Keisel next season.

Ziggy Hood

When Aaron Smith went down with an injury in 2010, Ziggy Hood replaced him, and the defense actually became better.  Based on that, I was certain that Ziggy would enter 2011 as the starter for the Steelers at the position.  But instead, Aaron Smith resumed his role as starter.

But just like in 2010, Aaron Smith went down with an injury in 2011, and Ziggy Hood replaced him as the starter.  And once again, the defense got better when Ziggy took over.

2011 was Ziggy’s best season, as he recorded personal bests in just about every statistical category except sacks.

Ziggy will only be 25 years old next season, and he’s still learning how to play the position.  So I think that the Steelers are set at left defensive end for a very long time.

By the way, there has been talk of playing Ziggy at nose tackle if Casey Hampton doesn’t recover from his injury quickly.  I don’t want to see that happen.  Ziggy is just finding his groove as a defensive end.  He needs to stay there.  In my opinion, the Steelers should draft a nose tackle, or find one in free agency.  Ziggy Hood should only be used there in an emergency.

Aaron Smith

As mentioned earlier, Aaron Smith began 2011 as the starter, but he suffered a neck injury, and missed most of the season.

2011 was the 4th season in the past 5 years in which Aaron Smith missed significant time due to injuries.

Following the 2011 season, Smith decided to announce his retirement.  He has been a role model as both a player, and as a citizen.  He has been one of the most consistent players in Steelers history.

Thanks for the memories, Aaron.  Steeler Nation loves you!

Cameron Heyward

Cameron Heyward didn’t get a lot of playing time during his rookie season, but he looked good when he did get in the game.  He even managed to get his first NFL sack.

The coaches are very high on Heyward.  As mentioned above, I hope to see him substitute in for Brett Keisel more often this season.  I think that it will give Heyward more experience, and it will keep Keisel fresher as he gets older.

Despite having two young players to man the position for the future, and a veteran starter, the Steelers still lack depth at defensive end.  Al Woods spent most of 2011 on the Steelers’ practice squad, and he’ll be given a chance to make the team in 2012.

But the Steelers still need more depth at the position.  Al Woods is unproven.  And if Ziggy Hood has to spend some time at nose tackle, that will deplete the depth at defensive end even more.

I won’t be surprised if the Steelers draft a college defensive tackle in April’s NFL draft.  They typically select college defensive tackles with the hope of converting them to 3-4 defensive ends.



Steelers lose Smith, add Harris

October 14, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

As if playing without Troy Polamalu weren’t enough, the Steelers were dealt an even harder blow.  Defensive end Aaron Smith has been lost for the season.

Smith suffered a shoulder injury in Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions.  Yesterday, Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Smith’s injury  “might be significant”.  After being evaluated, it was discovered that the injury was a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.  Smith has been placed on injured reserve and will be lost for the remainder of the season.

Smith is a quiet, unassuming player who seldom draws attention to himself.  Yet he may be the best player in the league at his position.  Smith is second on the team in sacks with 2.  He also leads the team in quarterback pressures.  But his real strength is in stopping the run.  Smith is virtually unmovable on the left side of the Steelers’ line.

Steelers DE Aaron Smith

Steelers DE Aaron Smith

While he doesn’t receive the attention that Troy Polamalu does, Smith’s loss may be more significant than playing without Polamalu.  For starters, when Polamalu went out, we knew that he would be coming back in “3 to 6 weeks”.  However, Smith has been placed on the injured reserve and won’t be returning this season.

The last time Smith was injured, the defense saw a precipitous drop in their effectiveness.  In  2007, Smith tore his bicep and was lost for the last 3 games of the season.  Prior to the injury, the Steelers’ defense was #2 against the run.  After Smith was lost, the defense allowed opponents to rush for over 157 yards per game.

The team will try to replace Smith with a combination of 1st round draft pick “Ziggy” Hood, Travis Kirschke, and Nick Eason.

To bolster their depleted defensive line, the Steelers have signed Ra’Shon “Sonny” Harris from the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad.

Ironically, the Steelers tried to sign Harris earlier this year when the Panthers cut him.  However, Harris chose not to sign with the Steelers, and he re-signed with the Panthers because he felt he had a much better chance of making the 53-man roster with the Panthers.  How quickly things change.


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Steelers win Not-So-Super Bowl.

August 14, 2009 By: Admin Category: Post-Game Reports

August 14, 2009
By Donald Starver

Thursday’s Super Bowl rematch turned out to be not so super.  While fans are always anxious for the start of a new NFL season, the early pre-season games are always rather dull.  This game proved to be no different.

The Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 20 - 10.  However, the score sounds much more exciting than the game actually was.

As expected, the Steelers starters played very little.  Big Ben completed 4 of 6 passes for a whopping 33 yards.  Hines Ward caught 2 passes for 19 yards, while Santonio Holmes caught none.

But of course these games aren’t for the veterans.  After all, we already know what they can do.  Rather, the early pre-season games are an opportunity for the young players to show what they can do.  So let’s look at how the young players did.


Limas Sweed - Following an infamous dropped pass in last year’s playoffs, Limas Sweed has been heavily scrutinized by Steelers fans.  He needed a good game, and he delivered.  Sweed only caught two passes, but they both had a fairly high degree of difficulty.  Moreover, he averaged 28 yards per reception, and his longest was a 45 yard catch.

Sweed catch

Limas Sweed

Shaun McDonald - The free agent from Detroit led all receivers with 69 receiving yards.

Joe Burnett - Rookie cornerback Joe Burnett caught his first NFL interception and almost ran it back for a touchdown.

Ziggy Hood - The Steelers’ first round draft pick collected his first NFL sack.

Isaac Redman - The free agent running back made a strong statement that he should be the Steelers’ short yardage back.  He has been the most impressive in training camp, and this game proved to be no different.  Redman led all Steelers backs in rushing yards, while also scoring 2 touchdowns.

Isaac Redman scores again.

Isaac Redman scores again.

Dan Sepulveda - No more Berger.  No more Ernster.  Nope, Dan the man is back.  Sepulveda punted 6 times and averaged 49.5 yards per punt.  That’s much better than the 12 yards per punt that Mitch Berger and Paul Ernster averaged last season (okay, maybe they averaged more than 12 yards per punt, but it certainly seemed like 12 yards).


Rashard Mendenhall - Did he even play?  I see his name in the box score, but I certainly don’t remember seeing him do anything.

Joe Burnett - Yeah, he made an interception.  But he also fumbled a punt return.  He’s not going to win a job like that.

Frank Summers - Everyone is waiting for Frank “the tank” to become the next bus.  However it’s undrafted free agent rookie Isaac Redman who’s scoring all the touchdowns.

Piotr Czech - It’s going to be almost impossible to displace Jeff Reed as the Steelers’ kicker.  Czech is going to have to be perfect in order to do it.  Missing a 36 yard field goal didn’t look like perfection to me.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Steelers’ offensive line didn’t allow any sacks.  Not one (yeah, I don’t believe it either).  That’s got to count for something.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ offensive line allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 4 times.  It’s too soon to draw any conclusions yet, but I’ll take any opportunity I can to compliment the Steelers’ o-line.

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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.

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AFC North Review: Pittsburgh Steelers

June 07, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

June 7, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is part 4 of our AFC North review.  On Thursday,  Joe Barnes from the Baltimore Ravens blog  The Ebony Bird started things off with a review of the Baltimore Ravens’ off-season.  On Friday, Adam Kiefaber from the Cincinnati Bengals Blog Bengal Stripes gave us his review of the Bengals’ off-season.  On Saturday, Don Delco from the Cleveland Browns blog No Logo Needed shared his perspective on the Browns’ off-season moves.   Now it’s my turn to share my views on the Steelers’ off-season thus far.

AFC North Offseason Review: Pittsburgh Steelers

2008 overall record:  12-4  
AFC North record:  6-0
Key losses:  CB Bryant McFadden, WR Nate Washington, ILB Larry Foote, QB Byron Leftwich, S Anthony Smith
Key Free Agent Signings/Trades:  CB Keiwan Ratliff, WR Shaun McDonald, P Dirk Johnson
Key Draft Selections: Round 1 - DT Ziggy Hood (Missouri); round 3A - OG Kraig Urbik (Wisconsin); round 3B - WR Mike Wallace (Mississippi); round 3C - CB Keenan Lewis (Oregon State); round 5A - CB Joe Burnett (Central Florida); round 5B - RB Frank Summers (UNLV); round 6 - DT Ra’Shon Harris (Oregon); round 7A - C A. Q. Shipley (Penn State); round 7B - TE David Johnson (Arkansas State).

Best free agent signing and impact:

As usual, the Steelers were not active in free agency.  Rather than participating in the free agent bidding wars, the Steelers sat on the sidelines and picked up a few leftovers when the bidding had subsided.  Keiwan Ratliff will provide another veteran defensive back, where the Steelers are woefully short-handed.  However, the greatest impact will probably be from WR Shaun McDonald.  McDonald is a solid veteran receiver who played for a very bad Detroit Lions team.  He was the Lions’ leading receiver in 2007 before losing the title to superstar Calvin Johnson in 2008.  McDonald will make a great #3 receiver, although he will be pushed by 2nd year player Limas Sweed and rookie Mike Wallace

Biggest Loss and Impact:

The Steelers suffered 3 key losses during the off-season.  Wide receiver Nate Washington signed with the Tennessee Titans, cornerback Bryant McFadden signed with the Arizona Cardinals, and LB Larry Foote signed with the Detroit Lions.  None of these players constitute a major loss, and all should be easily replaced.  Washington was the Steelers #3 receiver.  He will be much easier to replace than a #1 or #2 receiver would be.  McFadden was a starting cornerback, but he was splitting time with William Gay.  Gay will step in and replace McFadden full-time just like he did last year on a part-time basis.  Like McFadden, Foote was splitting time with former 1st round pick Lawrence Timmons.  Timmons is younger, faster, and more talented than Foote.  Despite the 3 losses, the Steelers should actually emerge as a stronger team because of them.

What is your reaction to the Steelers’ draft?  I really like the players the Steelers selected.  Ziggy Hood adds much needed youth to the Steelers defensive line.  Kraig Urbik should be able to win a starting position at right guard by mid-season.  Mike Wallace has amazing speed, and is a star receiver of the future.   Keenan Lewis should see some playing time if he can learn the playbook.  Frank Summers is the short yardage back that the Steelers have lacked since Jerome Bettis retired.  And getting a center in the 7th round who won the Rimington Trophy in 2008 was the icing on the cake.  The Steelers addressed most of their needs, got much stronger in their return game, and added pieces for the future.  Overall, an excellent draft.

Was the Steelers’ biggest need addressed?  Yes and no.  Some fans would say that the Steelers should have taken offensive linemen in all 7 rounds.  The fact that they only took 2 offensive linemen will be viewed as a failure by some.  After all, $100 million quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 4 billion times over the last two seasons (okay, maybe not that many time, but he’s been sacked a lot).  I think the offensive line will be much better next year.  But of course, I said the same thing after the 2007 season.

What storylines will you follow in camp? 1) Will the sophomores finally make an impact.  Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Tony Hills, and Bruce Davis need to make their presence felt this year.  They were all MIA last year, and that will have to change if they want to hold onto their roster spots.  2)  How is Lawrence Timmons adjusting to being a starter?  I think he’ll do fine, but I’d like to see it on the field.   3) Can the Steelers’ offensive line finally figure out how to keep QB Ben Roethlisberger off his back?  Let’s face it.  Big Ben gets sacked way too often.  If he is going to last in this league, he is going to have to get better protection.  4)  Can Joe Burnett and Mike Wallace make an impact on the return game?  The Steelers didn’t have many weak spots last year.  Their return game was one of the few.

So, that is my review of the Steelers’ off-season so far.  I really like what they’ve done.  I don’t think we’re going to miss any of the players who left, and I think the rookies are going to be solid.  We won the Super Bowl last year, despite having the toughest schedule in the NFL.  The road to the Super Bowl will be much easier this time around.

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