The 2008 season will go down as one of the best in Steelers history. It was a year that had the perfect ending, but the journey to that point was far from ideal. We'll take a position-by-position look at the season that was - both good and bad. To start, we examined the running backs. Now we're moving on to the guys paid to stop the run - defensive lineman.
We'll be examining the seasons of Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Travis Kirschke. This group is interesting because they are all getting up there in age. More than any other unit on the Steelers, the defensive lineman will look totally different a couple years from now.
Regular Season: 22 tackles, 1 sack
Playoffs: 7 tackles
Big Snack had an interesting start to the year when he showed up to training camp overweight and failed the running tests to open camp. Not only did that upset the coaches, but Hampton wasn't very popular among the fans either. The worst thing an athlete can be called in Pittsburgh is lazy (Exception: The Kordell Stewart is gay rumors).
Hampton plays a position in the 3-4 defense that doesn't give a lot of glory. His main job is to stop the run and he's watching from the sidelines on most passing downs. It's really hard to actually judge how effective he is through stats.
Still, the entire defense was exceptional this year so I'd say Big Snack had a lot to do with that success. He's been an elite defensive tackles since he's entered the league and I honestly don't see weight as being an issue with him this year.
The knock on Hampton entering the year was that he just wouldn't be mobile enough to do his job with the added weight gain. I didn't see that out of him at all this year. He was about as effective as he's always been and the only way to really measure his value to the team is to play a stretch of games without him. Maybe the Steelers won't miss him for one or two contests, but as the season wears on and people get tired, those 2-3 yard runs up the middle turn into 4-5 yard gains without an elite tackle like Hampton. Maybe he's on the downside of his career, but don't think he wasn't a big part in the overall success of the defense once again.
Regular Season: 60 tackles, 5.5 sacks
Playoffs: 6 tackles, 1 sack
Everybody who follows the Steelers has been saying that Aaron Smith is underrated for the past three or four seasons. It's actually gotten to the point where I don't think Smitty is underrated anymore among Steeler fans. I think Steeler Nation knows that he is right up their with James Farrior as the locker room leader of the defense and Smith is probably the most widely respected guy in the locker room. This is a guy who learned his son had leukemia, watched him undergo a spinal tap and numerous other procedures, and managed to show up for work on Sunday. Aaron Smith is a Pro Bowl player and a Hall of Fame person.
When you look down through his stats during his career, Smith has been remarkably consistent each and every year. 2008 was one of his better seasons yet, and to amass 60 tackles as a 3-4 end is outstanding. Like Hampton, it's hard to qualify the importance of Smith to the Steelers, but he's played all 16 games in ever season except one since 2000 and is as much of an anchor as the defense as anybody.
In a different defensive scheme, Smith makes the Pro Bowl in 2008 and most every year. He's a great football player and is finally getting his dues among Steeler fans. Hopefully the rest of the media takes note as well.
Regular Season: 41 tackles, 1 sack
Playoffs: 9 tackles, 1 sack
Keisel is an interesting case. After a breakout season in 2006, his production has dropped the past two seasons. He battled leg injuries this year and wasn't healthy for most of the year. He has always been great at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage and did manage a huge tipped ball against San Diego in the playoffs that was intercepted by Larry Foote. But other than that, Keisel was quiet for most of the year.
After the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, a lot of talk in the offseason revolved around Keisel being a LB/DE hybrid-type player who would stand up on 3rd downs. That was implemented some, but never really worked out the past couple years. It will be interesting to see what the Steelers do when Keisel's contract expires. There's no real reason to lay out any amount of money to keep him here, but he does offer a rare blend of size and athleticism for a defensive lineman.
Regardless of what happens in the future, Keisel was a white defensive end drafted in the 7th round from BYU. Expectations were obviously low. And he's managed to give the Steelers 182 tackles and 11.5 sacks over his career. That is another great example of the Steelers finding diamonds in the rough and getting maximum value out of their players.
Hopefully Keisel is healty in 2009 and has a 2006-type season. If he plays really well, though, the Steelers probably won't pay to keep him around. It'll be interesting to see what transpires and with both him and Hampton becoming free agents after the 2009 season, there will be an added twist to their upcoming seasons.
Regular Season: 46 tackles, 2 sacks
Playoffs: 2 tackles
Kirschke actually ended up with a better statistical season that Keisel and played pretty well in place of #99. Kirshcke isn't a special player like Hampton or Smith, but he's been a solid role player for the Steelers and - again - a great value signing.
After spending his career with the Lions and 49ers, he's won 2 Super Bowls in 5 years with Pittsburgh, so it's a safe bet he's really enjoyed himself here.
Nobody will remember Travis Kirschke after his time with Pittsburgh is done, but he was good enough to get the job done during the regular season in Keisel's absence and was a key cog in keeping the defense playing at a high level.
As always, we'd love to hear your views. Did we get it right? What are your thoughts on the Steelers defensive line in 2008? Who impressed you and why? Should Hampton or Keisel be rewarded with new contracts after the 2009 season?