Casey Hampton was a popular player in his time, to be sure, but I think he may be even more popular now among Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to the way that the game has evolved since Hampton retired. The Pro Bowl nose tackle was once the prototype for the position that is now regarded as an obsolete model.
The Steelers’ new nose tackle is Javon Hargrave, a far different body type with a different skill set. Of course even then there were different sorts of nose tackles. Hampton himself played with a couple of them in Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon.
But the six-foot, 350-pound immovable object was in many ways the ideal for the nose tackle in the traditional 3-4 defensive scheme, particularly in Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme that was built upon shutting down the running game to force teams to pass.
Now teams willingly choose to forego the run and go straight to throwing the ball around, to the point where the nose tackle is no longer a starting position but rather a sub-package player. High draft picks used on ‘true’ nose tackles are now a rarity simply because they don’t play enough to justify it. See Andrew Billings and his draft-day slide.
Hampton hasn’t been blind to this change, and he spoke about it recently with the Talk of Fame Network. “Nobody plays the true nose-tackle position like I played it because the game has changed so much”, he said in the interview.
“I mean, I was like a two-gapper all the time. That’s what I did. And I don’t think guys really do that anymore”, Hampton continued. LeBeau’s system often relied upon the entire defensive line two-gapping, but that model has changed in recent years, and we have seen the statistical change as a result of that, most notably with Cameron Heyward’s 12-sack season in 2017.
“I think it’s more up-the-field and get-to-the quarterback because it’s such a passing league now”, the former Steelers nose tackle said. “So I think what I did is almost entirely extinct now. It’s still the nose-tackle position, but it’s entirely different the way they play it now”.
If you think about it, there really are few players left in the league who truly fit the mold, and usage, of that old prototype of the nose tackle. Brandon Williams is one of the few. Damon Harrison was one of them before he signed with a 4-3 front.
Hampton himself of course came from a 4-3 front in college. He talked about how that transition was difficult. He led his team in tackles before becoming the block-absorbing force that enabled others to make the plays.
“It was a huge adjustment, and it was something I never had to do before. But it was something I ended up taking a lot of pride in”, he said. “I had a lot of great linebackers that played behind me, and it was just fun to see those guys go there out and make plays. That’s pretty much what I got my joy out of — watching those guys do their thing and watching our defense be successful”.