For a long time after the new millennium in 2000, the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers was widely considered the barometer by which opposing defensive lines were measured. The foundation, or bedrock, in the middle, was none other than Casey Hampton, aptly nicknamed “Big Snack”, who’s listed weight of 325 pounds was perhaps off by a few buckets of KFC. Flanking him on the outside were bookend 5-techniques Aaron Smith, perhaps the most underrated Steeler in history, and Brett Keisel, whose infamous beard took on an identity of itself.
Led by those three up front, the Steelers ranked #1 in the league defensively on a handful of occasions, and became so steady and reliable, that fans seemed to take their greatness for granted.
“You are talking about fans and other people — I was spoiled,” said defensive line coach,John Mitchell, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “How often do you get a Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Aaron Smith who play for you for 10 or more years? I was spoiled.”
The past several seasons have seen fans wave goodbye to Smith, then Hampton and just this past March, Keisel. Now, there’s new blood along the defensive line, and according to Mitchell, he feels like if the potential is unleashed, it could rival the old, dominant one he had during the early 2000s. Defensive end Cameron Heyward is a budding star, and should receive Pro Bowl recognition this upcoming season. The other end, 2014 second-round pick, Stephon Tuitt, clearly has an arrow that’s pointing way up, as evidenced by the way he came on down the stretch in 2014.
The starter at nose tackle, Steve McLendon, has done a serviceable job, taking over the reigns after Hampton left. However, it’s sixth-round draft choice, Daniel McCullers, who could be the driving force behind the revamped defensive line. Nicknamed “Shade Tree”, McCullers came out of Tennessee about as raw as a steak at the butcher shop, but after a full year in an NFL offseason program, Mitchell already sees big differences.
He noted how when players get to the professional level, there are nuances of the job they never really heard of like honing technique, proper nutrition and hitting the weight room.
“This is a long-term deal and they have to adjust to that,” he said. “I think that happened to Dan. He’s been around good football players. He watched how Cam Heyward worked. It got contagious. He’s in great shape right now, he understands what we are going to do and he’s here. I’m excited about the defensive line.”
The Steelers added to their defensive line in the sixth round again in the 2015 draft, in the form of Letterious Walton, otherwise known as L.T.
“When you can get a guy 6-4, 319 – that can run and stay on his feet that’s a big plus,” Mitchell said. “Here we have had a lot of success with taking special defensive linemen in the later rounds.”
This rings especially true of the aforementioned Smith and Keisel, who were fourth and seventh-round picks, respectively.
“He goes by L.T and I told him if he can play like L.T, then he and I will both be happy, ” Mitchell said.
One thing that would likely make every Steelers fan happy is if defensive end Cam Thomas is NOT on the opening day roster next season. Thus the onus is on Walton, and newly re-signed Clifton Geathers to make sure of that. There is one thing, in Mitchell’s opinion that is of utmost importance, and that’s shutting the run down. At times last season, watching McCullers was like watching a newborn play with toy cars as he tossed centers and guards around with ease, plowing them into the backfield, but he struggled to get off his blocks at times too.
“A lot of times guys say that you need sacks and all of that but I’m not a big sack guy for this reason: If you don’t stop the run in the National Football League, you aren’t going to have the chance to get sacks,” Mitchell said, according to Bouchette.
Now we will never truly forget what Hampton, Smith and Keisel meant to the team, as without them, there would be no Super Bowl victories in 2005 and 2009. But if the collective unit Mitchell has on-tap currently can resemble them, then it’ll have a trickle-down effect on the entire defense. Because after all, it all starts up front.