The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the league's best defensive lines last year; the front 3 of Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense contributed to the team's No. 1 ranking in the NFL for opponents' rushing yards. Steelers fans can take comfort in the fact that, on paper, 2011's defensive line shouldn't look very different from the 2010 version. The only significant departure was defensive end Nick Eason, who left in free agency for Arizona. Nose tackle Chris Hoke was up for free agency but re-signed with the Steelers.
But could Pittsburgh reasonably expect the same high level of performance it saw last year? As we've said here before, the Steelers' defensive line isn't young. The front three are getting old, and they're also getting hurt: defensive end Aaron Smith missed most of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons with a recurring rotator cuff injury. As far as we know now, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton are healthy and ready to play, but the high-impact requirements of playing on the defensive almost make it a matter of time before these veterans hit injury.
As always, though, the Steelers' management has prepared for potential age and injury holes in the defense. Young guys are waiting in the wings to take over in any vacancies. Ziggy Hood started last year, filling in for smith. The Steelers' most recent first-round pick Cameron Heyward could be ready to fill in at Eason's backup right end role. And besides those big names, Steelers may soon find themselves acquainted with names like Steve McClendon and Ra'Shon Harris.
With a team that places great importance on defense, especially on controlling the run game, the outlook of the defensive line is one of the most important issues for Steelers fans every year, and certainly no less this year. Steelers fans can be recommended a "cautiously optimistic" outlook on the d-line. Big issues to look for are how long the line's veterans can perform well and healthily, and how quickly the young players can get the experience necessary to fill in for the veterans without disrupting the line's performance. There's no reason to be worried in the case of veteran injury, but the fear of the unknown is always there.
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