Aging but effective line still key to Steelers' 'D'
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Monday, Aug. 8, 2011
No one compares the current Pittsburgh defensive front with that of the Steel Curtain.
There are no doggedly menacing pass rushers such as Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood. No one alters the opposition's game plan as did Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes.
The Steelers, though, have a wealth of experience in the trenches. It's an aging yet effective defensive front without an awe-inspiring stat sheet, but its unique skills suit a defensive scheme designed to funnel running backs to its ball-hawking linebackers.
The Steelers' linebackers - Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior and James Harrison - combined for 246 solo tackles last season. In contrast, six defensive linemen - including defensive end Brett Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton - totaled 68 solos and seven sacks.
The numbers don't mean a thing to defensive line coach John Mitchell.
"A lot of guys in this league want to make the Pro Bowl and worry about sacks," Mitchell said. "My guys would rather get to the Super Bowl than make the Pro Bowl - that's the difference.
"We do all the dirty work. That's why our linebackers are good. We keep them free, and they'll get the sacks.
"Our first and only priority is to stop the run," Mitchell added. "It's why we have happy linebackers. Our defensive front knows the linebackers are going to make the play."
The Steelers had the best run defense in the NFL, allowing only 51.7 rushing yards during the 2010 regular season. They were second in total defense behind AFC rival Baltimore, which hosts the Steelers in the Sept. 11 season opener.
The defensive front, said Harrison, is largely responsible for the Steelers having the top-rated defense in the NFL twice in the past four seasons. The Steelers win far more trench wars than they lose, partly because of their experience.
"It all starts up front with our defense," Harrison said. "The defensive line helps the inside linebackers more than the outside linebackers. The defensive linemen have to be unselfish and sacrifice their numbers -- something they've been doing for a long time."
Still, time and age will soon become an issue for the Steelers' defensive line. Hampton, Keisel, defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke all have at least 10 years experience.
"When people talk about our guys being old, I ask, 'Old compared to what?' Mitchell quipped. "Football-wise, they're not old.
"I'm old, but does that make me less of a coach than I was last year• I don't buy it into it. If they take care of their bodies, it doesn't matter.
"Smith has been in this league a lot of years, but he's not an old player," Mitchell said. "He hasn't had to play every snap."
The Steelers' defense was on the field for 1,004 snaps last season, including the Super Bowl. Other AFC defensive teams average nearly 1,500 snaps from scrimmage.
"We don't have to plug someone in because our experience puts us ahead of the curve, especially with the lockout," Hampton said. "We have been in this system a long time, and it works."
Coach Mike Tomlin and Mitchell recognized during the NFL Draft that the Steelers' defensive line is stacked with more warhorses than thoroughbreds. So, they made former Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward their first pick.
Heyward, along with third-year veterans Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon, add depth to the defensive line. The expectations are high for Heyward, but Mitchell figures the former Buckeye will discover it difficult to transition from college to the NFL.
"When he was at Ohio State, he was the whale with a lot of minnows," Mitchell said. "Now, he's a minnow against a lot of whales. He needs to forget everything he learned at Ohio State.
"(Heyward) is going to learn to play football the 'Steelers way.' We have thrown a lot of things at him and the rest of our young linemen, and it's tough to grasp."
Heyward appears to be gaining confidence. He wasn't impressed with his performance in the first two scrimmages, but he did help the defense claim a 4-3 victory in Saturday's goal-line drill.
"At some point, we'll replace some of these veterans," Mitchell said. "It won't be today, tomorrow or next year."
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