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Tomlin makes mark on discipline

| Thursday, July 31, 2008

The motivation for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's decision to banish overweight and out-of-shape Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton to the physically unable to perform list (PUP) can be traced to an eerily similar situation two years ago.

In his lone season as Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, Tomlin butted heads with one of his star players.

After landing on the PUP list at the start of the 2006 training camp because of a lack of conditioning, Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams missed 13 consecutive practices and received a public rebuke from Tomlin.

"We wouldn't have done this if it wasn't necessary," Tomlin said about Williams at the time. "He's a quality player and a veteran leader, but he had to take care of things before we put him back on the field."

Williams spent practice time at training camp doing conditioning drills on an adjacent field with Minnesota's strength and conditioning coach.

Sound familiar• Tomlin has assigned Hampton to running and working out during practice time on an adjacent field with conditioning assistant Marcel Pastoor.

Hampton, however, has been absent from those outdoors workouts during the Steelers' past three practices. Tomlin hasn't addressed the change in Hampton's workout structure, nor has he put a timetable on the nose tackle's return to the active roster.

"I'll be happy when we get him back on the field," Tomlin said Wednesday, succinctly answering a question about Hampton's status.

The Steelers have conducted six practices without Hampton. That's seven fewer than missed by Williams, who responded to the Vikings' challenge by making the Pro Bowl that season.

"We have a plan that we believe that's conducive to him getting right providing he (sticks) to it, and that's what we're in the process of doing," Tomlin said earlier in the week.

Tomlin is not only following a blueprint for player discipline that he saw work in Minnesota, his tough love is a tried-and-true method that shows the lengths a coach will go to get his point across.

During training camp in 1999, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher released tackle and former first-round draft pick Jamain Stephens the night after he failed the run test earlier in the day.

In 1992, Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka opened training camp by telling reporters he was tired of William "Refrigerator" Perry, who helped the Bears win a Super Bowl a few years earlier, constantly being overweight.

"I don't think he'll be with the football team this year," Ditka said. "He's not coming in until we sign him, and we're not signing him until we weigh him."

Perry, who played at around 325 pounds, spent two more seasons with the Bears before his career fizzled out in 1994.

Hampton is listed at 6-foot-1, 325 pounds, but he appears to be much heavier. His inability to finish Sunday's conditioning run was troubling to Tomlin -- and not only because he reported to camp out of shape.

As a one-gap nose tackle, Hampton is expected to be active around the line of scrimmage and make plays. A loss of weight resulting in quicker feet would likely help in that regard.

There was a point early last season when Hampton told reporters he considered himself a two-gap nose tackle. Tomlin's response following Hampton's comments in late September was telling.

"Two-gap capable, but I'd be less than truthful if I said we played him in a two-gap mentality every snap. We don't," Tomlin said. "We play him in a bunch of one-gap."

Generally speaking, a defensive lineman who uses a one-gap technique is expected to take on his man and occupy that space. A defensive lineman who uses a two-gap technique is expected to fill between two offensive linemen and plug two gaps.

"Most everything we do now is one-gap," defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "We got away from two-gap. We play a little (one-gap) with our nose tackle when he's lining up over center. But most of the things we do in our scheme now is one-gap. We don't do a lot of reading."

As a one-gap nose tackle, Hampton should be more active because he only has to control one gap. In other words, the Steelers want Hampton to become more of a playmaker.

"You're attacking more," said backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, who has moved to No. 1 on the depth chart in Hampton's absence. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it. You're decisive."

In his first season under Tomlin, Hampton started 15 games and was named to the Pro Bowl as a reserve. He recorded one sack and four quarterback pressures.

Hampton's argument after going on the PUP list for the first time in his career is not to worry because he made his first Pro Bowl in 2003 after failing to complete the conditioning run at the start of training camp. At that time, however, he was permitted to practice with the team while playing his way into shape.

Under Tomlin, the Steelers want to see a slimmer and quicker version of Hampton, who rumbled 36 yards with a fumble recovery to set up a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2002.

Hampton turns 31 before the Sept. 7 opener against Houston. It'll probably take him longer to get in shape than when he didn't complete the conditioning run five years ago, which could explain why Tomlin felt compelled to make an example of the four-time Pro Bowler.

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