December 30, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood (96) looks on from the sidelines against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sizing up the Steelers D-Line

Can you feel it? Palms sweating, heart beating just a little harder….training camp is approaching and we are less than 50 days away from the start of the season. For Steeler fans it’s been to long of an offseason, much longer than we’re accustomed to. But in less than a week, our black and gold will be pouring their sweat and blood into prepping for what we hope will be a more successful 2013 campaign.

Lots of familiar faces have departed this offseason: James Harrison, Max Starks, Mike Wallace, Charlie Batch (finally!). One departure which may be felt more acutely than the others is that of NT Casey Hampton, one of the best and most underrated of Steeler defenders over the last ten years. Both fans and coaches are eager to see what young and untested fourth year pro Steve McClendon will do replacing Hampton. McClendon has nice feet and movement for a nose tackle but does not have the same bulk or strength as Casey, thus opposing teams may find it a little easier to run inside this season. Behind McClendon are very raw prospects Hebron Fangupo and police blotter boy Alameda Ta’amu. Quite frankly I’m surprised Ta’amu is still on the team following his chase by police through the streets of Pittsburgh. I guess he has something they really like, namely his 350 pound frame.

If the tackles are raw, the defensive ends have a little more experience. Brett ‘the beard’ Keisel is easily the best defensive lineman on the team and his steady,veteran presence will be much needed this year. Even at the ripe age of 35 he shows no signs of slowing and he is the second longest tenured starter on defense, after Troy Polamalu. Keisel is solid against the run and can be counted on to provide a sack in clutch situations. He’s one of those guys whom you don’t talk about when he’s in there, but you notice when he’s not. Along with Keisel are the pair of first rounders, Cam Heyward (2011) and Ziggy Hood (2009). I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about these two, and as I have said neither one impresses me, and if both don’t show improvement this season, then it’s time to show them the door. Heyward has more athletic ability than Hood, but neither has made any sort of impact, and both will be competing to start opposite Keisel. Another fourth year pro, Al Woods is on hand to provide depth, but faces some interesting competition from 7th round pick Nick Williams of Sanford. Williams is a former basketball player who made a successful transition to the gridiron. He was all conference in 2012, his best season, frequently finding his way to the quarterback.Williams has nice size (6-4, 310)to go along with his athleticism and if he beats out Woods could work his way into the DE rotation. Personally, I am rooting for the small school Williams to beat out the SEC product Woods.

Much like Williams, free agent rookie Brian Arnfelt of Northwestern has some skills that could translate, producing six tackles for loss and three sacks in 2012 serving as a team captain,and displaying great leadership skills. Again like Williams, Arnfelt has nice size, going 6-5 and 300 pounds, too light to play inside, but could translate well to end. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arnfelt a member of the practice squad come this season.

Other than the battle proven Keisel, this is the most unsettled unit on defense. How much will the team miss Hampton? If McClendon can’t hold the point and clog the middle, it could be a long season for ILBs Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. They NEED McClendon to come through and not have to rely on the very raw reserves or look at final cuts from other teams. And if both Hood and Heyward don’t come through it will set the team back a few years and force them to address the position in the 2014 draft. The Steelers as we all know prefer to draft and groom their own rather than reach in free agency. So if both Heyward and Hood prove to be busts, well…I told ya so.

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