Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line

Tomorrow is the magic day as the Steelers report to the 2010 training camp in Latrobe. We have been previewing each position this offeseason leading up to camp and this preview is dedicated to the defensive line position. Make sure to read our previous previews by following the links below. We have only the special teams yet to go and that will be posted this evening or early on Friday.

Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line |Training Camp Preview – Safeties |Training Camp Preview – Linebackers | Training Camp Preview – Offensive Line | Training Camp Preview – Tight Ends | Training Camp Preview – Wide Receivers | Training Camp Preview – Running Backs | Training Camp Preview – Quarterbacks

Overview: The Steelers lost both Aaron Smith and Travis Kirschke to injuries in 2009 and were forced to play Nick Eason and rookie Ziggy Hood more than they anticipated. Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel anchored an aging line that still ended up ranked 3rd in the NFL against the run. The pass rush lacked in 2009 and the Steelers must improve that in 2010 along with continuing the long tradition of stopping the run well.

Casey Hampton: Big Snack went into the offseason without a contract, but the Steelers franchised the nose tackle and went on to give him a three-year deal, worth $21 million. Hampton has responded by showing up at the OTA sessions looking a bit trimmer and more conditioned. He has one job and that is to clog up the middle on running downs and take on double teamings as well. He might be spelled a bit more this year on passing downs in an effort to keep in fresher for late in games. If things go right, Hampton could be headed back to the Pro Bowl in 2010, especially if he is able to get a bigger push and more pressure on the quarterback. He is the anchor of the defensive line and a great run stuffer.

Aaron Smith: Smith is returning from a torn rotator cuff injury that forced him out of action early in the season and ultimately to the injured reserve list. Smith is great when it comes to creating blitzing lines for the linebackers and is above average in recognizing and stopping the run. It is not unthinkable that Smith, like Hampton will be spelled more this season, especially now that Ziggy Hood is more up to speed going into his second year. Smith ignored orders to sit out until training camp, so by all accounts he should be back healthy. He knows his role in the defense and understands schemes completely. Smith is signed through the 2011 season, so the Steelers hope he can stay healthy this year.

Brett Keisel: Keisel is the force on the right side of the defensive line that never gets a ton of credit. Like Smith, he is well into the over 30 club, but put up good numbers in 2009 despite missing the final game against Miami with a stinger. Also like Smith on the other side, expect Ziggy Hood to get some reps in his place as well. Keisel needs to get back to getting a strong inside push to enable outside linebacker James Harrison a shorter route to the quarterback in 2010. Left tackles seemed to handle Keisel better in 2009 on passing downs, so this does need attention.

Ziggy Hood: 2010 should be the huge jump year for the 2009 first round draft pick out of Missouri. Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell has raved about the progress he has made since his rookie year. According to Mitchell, Hood has a better understanding of the defense entering his second season and his mechanics should allow him to remain on the field longer. That is great news for a starting defensive line that features all 30 somethings. Hood very well could push either Smith or Keisel for a starting spot as the year wears on, but for right now, he will spell both and expected to do so without any drop off of production. Hood needs to prove in 2010 he was worth the number 1 selection and force his way onto the field more as a future starter.

Chris Hoke: Hoke is the man counted on to spell Hampton at nose tackle once again in 2010. He is entering the final year of his contract. While not a lock to make the final 53 man roster, he has inexperience behind him. He is a bit undersized and often gets pushed around against the run. He does have a strong motor still and can get after the quarterback occasionally. He is a pretty sure handed tackler if he gets his hands on the ball carrier, but is not a guy you want starting 16 games for the Steelers. Great all around 3-4 nose tackles are hard to find and I see no reason why Hoke can’t be serviceable one more year. The Steelers may look at final cut down players across the league, but they will be hard pressed to find any that grade out above Hoke and his understanding of the defense.

Ra\’Shon Harris: Sunny had a rough rookie year and it started with missing time last year in camp with a groin injury, but performed above average in pre season games. The Steelers hoped to stash him on the practice squad following the 2009 camp, but he was signed by the Panthers instead. After a short stay in Carolina, the Steelers signed him back, but he stayed inactive every game since his return. Sunny looks to challenge for a reserve left defensive end spot behind Smith and Hood. There is talk he might work inside at the nose position as well, but that has yet to be seen. If he gets off to good camp he will make Nick Eason expendable in a hurry.

Nick Eason: When left defensive end Aaron Smith went down last year, the Steelers turned to Travis Kirschke to fill the spot, when Kirschke went down with a calf injury, Nick Eason was the next man up as rookie Ziggy Hood was not ready to assume the role. Eason’s play was pedestrian at times yet was brought back on a one year deal this off season. He will have a tough time fending off the youth on the roster this Summer and could be a final cut down casuality.

Doug Worthington: Doug Worthington was drafted in the 7th round with hopes of becoming the future at right defensive end. He was blessed to work in the Ohio State 3-4 defense and was even moved inside on nickel fronts on passing downs. He slipped in the draft because of a mediocre combine that was a result of a lingering injury, but could really be a steal for the Steelers if he can get up to speed fast and stay healthy in camp. He indeed has an outside shot at a 53 man roster spot, but at worst should find his way to the practice squad. Watch him close on the right side during preseason as you could be looking at a future 7 year starter on the right side for the Steelers.

Steve McLendon: Steve McLendon is a hold over from the 2009 practice squad that is mostly an interior lineman. He has a hard path in front of him to make the roster and one would think he would have to do so as a nose tackle although undersized. The Steelers will likely only carry 6 or 7 defensive linemen, so McLendon has a ton of traffic, talent and experience ahead of him.

Scott Paxson: Another year, another look at Scott Paxson. Paxson will try to show he has the goods to beat out veteran Chris Hoke for the back up nose tackle spot. While not impossible, it is highly unlikely and Paxson will likely be a first cut down causality. He needs have his name called quite a bit during the preseason games in order to have an outside chance. Good luck, Scott.

Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
RDE1 B. Keisel RDE2 Z. Hood RDE3 D. Worthington
NT1 C. Hampton NT2 C. Hoke NT3 S. Paxson NT4 S. McLendon
LDE1 A. Smith LDE2 Z.Hood LDE3 R. Harris LDE4 N. Eason

Summation: The growth of Ziggy Hood is paramount in 2010 as he will be looked to spell both Smith and Keisel all season long. It would be nice to see him force himself into the starting left end role at some point during the year, so Aaron Smith can then spell him and stay fresh. Hampton looks to be motivated inside with his new contract, so no let down is expected there. The biggest concern is depth behind those 4 players. Sonny Harris needs to prove he belongs on a 53 man roster and Doug Worthington could surprise everyone and stick on the right side. Age, injuries and depth issuers are the only concerns, but starting camp, the line looks in great shape all things considered.

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