Age continues to stalk Steelers' defensive line
For the Steelers, it's not that they're growing old gracefully on the defensive line. It's more like they're growing young grudgingly.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon, now 27, and defensive end Cam Heyward, who will be 24 in May, graded out as two of the better players on the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
But both were on the field for only a fraction of the overall defensive snaps, and that could be a signal of trouble as the Steelers begin preparing for 2013 — a season that could provide some uncommon upheaval on a long-stable defensive line.
Defensive end Brett Keisel, who will be 35 at the start of next season, and nose tackle Casey Hampton, who will be 36, have started for a decade. Keisel is expected to return after a solid if not stats-sheet-filling season; Hampton is a potential free agent who probably won't get much more than the veteran's minimum if he returns to the Steelers.
“Pittsburgh is an older team, and when you're not winning, there's not that inspiration to play better,” former Cowboys player personnel; director Gil Brandt said. “They didn't play as well as they could have.”
Given Hampton's age, it could be time for the Steelers to find out if McLendon is ready to take about 60 percent of the snaps, or about what a nose tackle gets in their 3-4 defense. McLendon took 139 snaps in 2012, while Hampton played 503. Keisel, by comparison, had 887.
The Steelers use their defensive line to clog the middle, slow the run and create rush lanes for their outside linebackers, but the unit's inconsistent play was reflected by the team's 8-8 record.
“I think it's a few things here and there,” Hampton said. “The older guys have got to do a better job of getting the young guys ready to go week in and week out. And it's not just the young guys, it's everybody. Every game is important, and you can't take nobody for granted.”
The enigmas were two of those young guys: Former first-round draft picks Ziggy Hood and Heyward, both of whom will be entering potentially career-defining seasons in 2013.
Hood, a 2009 first-rounder, will be going into the final season of his rookie-year contract as one of the NFL's least-productive players at his position.
Hood was, by far, the league's worst-rated pass-rushing defensive end, based on Pro Football Focus' every-down grading, yet he was on the field for more than three times as many snaps (833) as Heyward (267).
Their stats were similar: Hood had three sacks and three quarterback hurries; Heyward had 1 1⁄2 sacks and five hurries. Hood has been in the NFL for four seasons, yet still hasn't forced a single fumble.
Hood is one of the Steelers' strongest players, yet questions persist among NFL scouts about his down-to-down effort and the frequency with which he disappears for long stretches.
Heyward, a 2011 first-rounder, has only 2 1⁄2 sacks in two seasons and, at times, seems to watch plays rather than take part in them after he gets moved off the line of scrimmage.
Hood won't be playing in 2013 just for a big contract, but a contract, period; Heyward, in his third NFL season, will be trying to establish for the first time that he is an every-snap player.
The Steelers need to find out if it's finally their time — or if it's time to move on.