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Steelers' Hampton making best of chances

When the Steelers didn't come to Casey Hampton during the offseason with a contract extension, he knew exactly what that meant.

The two-time Pro Bowler and a member of the franchise's 75th anniversary team hasn't quite given up returning to the only team he has ever played since being a first-round pick in 2001, but he knows the odds of him returning are not favorable.

"Like anything else, it is a business to me and it is business to them," said Hampton, who is in the final months of a 5-year, $22.75 million contract he signed before the start of the 2005 season. "They let me go into the final year of my contract, so the consequences with that is that there is a possibility I might not be here. That's bottom line, point blank. No other way to look at it."

So instead of complaining about the possibility of not being in the team's future, Hampton decided to take a different mode of operation.

The big man in the middle of the Steelers' 3-4 defense that has finished No. 1 against the run four times since his arrival has been on a mission to prove that he is still one of the most disruptive nose tackles in the NFL.

And he's succeeding.

"He is playing well, and it is an accumulation of several things," defensive line mate Brett Keisel said. "It is his contract year. Also, I think Casey had a lot of criticism from a lot of people about his weight and stuff like that. It got to the point where he wanted to go and show people what he is capable of."

Hampton has been one of the few bright spots on a maligned defense.

He already has a career-high three sacks, is on pace for his third-most tackles and very well could set a career high in that category by season's end. He's also on schedule to play in all 16 games for the first time in five years.

"All of that, and he is usually just a first- and second-down guy," Keisel said. "For him to be doing what he is doing says a lot about him."

That's because Hampton only plays in the Steelers' base defense. When they go to any of their sub packages, Hampton comes off the field, thus making his opportunities to make an impact limited.

"I am taking advantage of opportunities that I get," Hampton said. "That's about it. I am taking advantage of it. I am not missing a lot of tackles. When I have the opportunity, I am making the best of it."

Hampton's resurgence has been linked to arriving to training camp in August in much better shape than the year before. Coach Mike Tomlin was so upset how he prepared for the 2008 season that he placed him on the physically-unable-to-perform list to start the year and didn't allow him on the practice field until he got into better shape.

That took two weeks. This year, there was no problem.

"His health is better this year," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He is in great shape and is just playing some outstanding football, but year in and year out, that is what Casey has done for us."

Defensive captain and veteran linebacker James Farrior also thinks a slimmer and trimmer Hampton has been the secret to his success.

"I think Casey has come into the season in better shape than years past," Farrior said. "He didn't need that extra time to try to get himself in shape. He came into camp ready to go, and that really helped out a lot."

Hampton, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 325 pounds, politely disagreed with the assessment of his coach and the captain's theory about his physical health.

"Nah," Hampton said. "I came in shape and out of shape and still played good. It really doesn't matter."

But the difference on the field between last year and this year has been stunning, and that very well could change the minds of the organization come March 4 when Hampton officially hits the free-agent market.

"I am not going to sugar-coat it like I am going to be back here because there is definitely a chance that I won't," Hampton said. "But I have not given up on it. I would love to be back here. You never know how things are going to go. I am not going to say I am not going to be here because you never know."

The Steelers don't really have a replacement in waiting, which could make them seriously look into re-signing him.

"I am sure all of that will take care of itself," Keisel said. "I can't imagine this locker room without him."

Additional Information:

Snacking on defenses

Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton is having one of the best years of his career. He already has set a new career high in sacks and is on pace to play in every game for the first time since 2005.

Year -- Games -- Tackles -- Sacks

2009 -- 14 -- 38 -- 2.5

projected -- 16 -- 42 -- 3

2008 -- 13 -- 25 -- 1

2007 -- 15 -- 36 -- 1

2006 -- 15 -- 33 -- 0

2005 -- 16 -- 43 -- 0

2004 -- 6 -- 17 -- 0

2003 -- 16 -- 44 -- 1

2002 -- 16 -- 41 -- 2

2001 -- 16 -- 33 -- 1

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