Since the days Casey Hampton left his post patrolling the middle of the Pittsburgh defensive line, the defense has seemingly gotten worse, as potholes were filled with duct tape instead of asphalt. After his retirement from the game, Hampton’s shoes have yet to be entirely filled to capacity, although current starting nose tackle Steve McLendon has done an admirable job.
However, since Hampton’s departure, the defense has been pushed around, been bullied and, at times, blown off the line of scrimmage. Several games last season, including the home game versus New Orleans, the team couldn’t stop anyone, as wide receiver Kenny Stills eviscerated the secondary and running back Mark Ingram ran wild. Without leverage at the point of attack, which the stout Hampton provided as he engulfed double and triple-teams, the team has yet to take a stranglehold on the line of scrimmage like they once did.
As the old adage goes, “it all starts up front” and this can be no further of the truth. Several games last year, and the previous few years, the team was punished on the ground in a painful-to-watch display for those unaccustomed to seeing the Steelers get manhandled along the line of scrimmage in such a manner. However, getting a push up front and knocking the pocket back has a domino effect on the rest of the defense, from the linebackers to the secondary. The linebackers in this scheme are the playmakers, and without a push up front, they can’t stay block-free and swarm to make plays. The secondary is exposed as well.
Look at the last great defenses of the Steelers in the 2000s, when their defensive line was in its heyday. For example, featuring Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, the underrated Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke and of course, Hampton. In Super Bowl XLIII, on the back end, the team had star safety Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, with Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden on the outside, and although Taylor was a solid starter, he was by no means a star. Still, the pass defense was ranked first, and that’s a testament to the front seven and their ability to punish opposing offensive lines and chase the quarterback.
The job of a 3-4 defensive lineman is as selfless as they come, and as a participant in 174 games after being a first-round selection in 2001, Hampton is without a doubt one of the most underrated in team history, as without him locking down the middle of the defense, there likely are no Super Bowl titles.
What does the future hold? Well, the team’s efforts are clearly focused on helping a sagging defense play catch-up to an offense on the verge of going bananas in 2015, with three of the first four picks in the latest draft on the defensive side of the ball. Since 2011, four of the team’s five first-rounders have been spent on this side of the ball, so the emphasis clearly is there.
With McLendon entering the final year of his contract, coupled with his age, the team may opt to move on, perhaps handing the reigns to second-year player Daniel McCullers, who physically looks like the second coming of Albert Haynesworth. However, he is still putting it all together and a starting gig next season may be asking too much too soon. Is the future of the position still playing in college? Perhaps we find out next offseason, as the front office will have a firmer grip on what it has beyond the aforementioned two after this season.