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Steelers' assistant lauds defensive line

GRETNA, La. -- Asked about the state of his defensive line, Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell said he has never felt better about starters Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel.

"You tell me three better guys," Mitchell said. "You ask me any three guys I can pick, those three guys I want."

Since Keisel joined Smith and Hampton as starters in 2006, the Steelers have never been ranked lower than No. 3 in rushing defense. They've led the NFL in total defense twice and were ranked No. 1 in passing defense once during that span.

Since 2000, the Steelers have led the league in total defense four times, rushing defense three times and passing defense once. The 2000 and '03 seasons were the only years when the Steelers didn't feature a top-five finish in total defense, rushing defense or passing defense.

"There's never been a better defensive front in the National Football League," said Mitchell, the Steelers' defensive line coach since 1994. "If you go back and look at the stats where the Steelers defense has finished, people would be shocked how well we've played. You're always appreciated later in life. People don't realize how great you are until later."

Speaking last week at cornerback Ike Taylor's football camp in suburban New Orleans, Mitchell said he believes the Steelers' defensive line should become even stronger this season because of a projected increase in playing time for Ziggy Hood, the team's first-round draft pick in 2009.

Hood has a better understanding of the defense entering his second season and his mechanics should allow him to remain on the field longer.

A projected increase in playing time for Hood should mean that Smith, 34, Hampton, 32 and Keisel, 31, will be fresher in fourth quarters. Last season, the Steelers' defensive line wore down late in games, and the inability to pressure the quarterback was key during the team's five-game losing streak.

Smith has recovered from a shoulder injury that required surgery and forced him to miss 11 games last season.

"Aaron didn't want the operation. He wanted to play the rest of the season," Mitchell said. "We had to be smart enough to say the wear and tear on his body's not worth him playing, where it might get worse. Aaron's got a lot of years left in that body."

Mitchell envisions a defensive line rotation including Hood, Nick Eason and Chris Hoke.

"I'm really excited about Ziggy. The transition he's made from his first year to his second year has been tremendous," Mitchell said. "He's using his hands better. Last year, Ziggy let people into his body. Right now, he's playing with better pad level, he's using his hands better and he's staying on his feet.

"Now I can rest Aaron Smith, I can rest Brett Keisel. There's not going to be a drop-off, and it's the same with Nick Eason. I can put those guys in there. We're going to have six guys this year who are going to play. We're going to rotate those guys and keep them fresh."

And focused on stopping the run.

"Aaron Smith could have been All-Pro I don't know how many years, but he doesn't get sacks; we don't ask our guys to get sacks," Mitchell said. "I'm not going to ask Brett Keisel to get sacks. I don't ask Casey to get sacks. I ask those guys to stop the run, let our outside linebackers get those suckers, our inside linebackers can get sacks.

"If we don't stop the run, the fans and the (media) are going to say the defensive line is not playing well. I want a guy who can stop the run."

Another reason why Mitchell said he is so partial to the trio of Smith, Hampton and Keisel is their consistent level of play.

Their performance varies little from game-to-game, or even season to season.

That makes it easier for Mitchell to teach his younger players. Sometimes his veterans do the teaching for him.

"That's probably the biggest thing we have over a lot of other ball clubs," Mitchell said. "When guys come here, the veterans are going to show them how to do it the 'Steeler Way.' They're going to show them how coach (Dick) LeBeau wants it done, how the position coach wants it done. That makes us a lot better than a lot of teams we're going to play.

"That's why we've been as good as we've been. We know what we're going to get."

Additional Information:

Stopping the run

Steelers' NFL ranking in run defense under defensive line coach John Mitchell since 2000:

Year -- Rank

2009 -- 3

2008 -- 2

2007 -- 3

2006 -- 3

2005 -- 3

2004 -- 1

2003 -- 12

2002 -- 1

2001 -- 1

2000 -- 12

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