The 2011 D-Line: Savvy Vets. + Talented Youngsters = The Steelers’ Recipe for Success

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Aaron Smith:

What more can I say about Pro Bowler Aaron Smith?  For my money this guy is representative of everything a Steeler should be.  Drafted in the 4th Round in 1999 out of the University of Northern Colorado, the 6’5″ 300 lb. Smith has become the embodiment of a prototypical 5-Technique at Left Defensive End during his 12 seasons with the Steelers.  Never one for personal accolades, Smith has been a total selfless player during his years with the Black and Gold, all while playing a position that doesn’t rack up the “sexy” stats throughout the season (a.k.a. not Albert Haynesworth).  Whether it’s clogging space, holding gaps, and/or penetrating through the line so the Defense can stuff the run, occupying blockers to allow his LB’s to wreak havoc on the opposition during passing downs, or even providing pressure on the QB himself when necessary, Aaron has proven himself to be one of the most valuable players the Steelers have had on their roster over the last 20 years.

Yet, like most good things, Smith’s tenure with the Black and Gold is nearing its end.  Even at 35, Smith is still capable of playing outstanding football as was proved in the first 6 games of last season.  Sadly, the injury bug has caught a hold of Aaron, and 3 of his last 4 seasons have been ended prematurely due to injury.  (It should be noted that the only season where he was healthy in the last 4, the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.  Coincidence?  I think not).  Whether it be the torn bicep in 2007, the torn rotator cuff in 2009, or the torn triceps in 2010, Smith has just not been able to stay healthy.  In past seasons this was a “death-knell” in terms of the Steelers’ success on the field.  However, Ziggy Hood’s excellent performance last season and the drafting of Cameron Heyward represent the young depth the Steelers now have at the DE position.  This new found depth is ripe with numerous benefits to be had by Smith and the team as a whole.  In 2011, Smith can be fresh and rotate in and out of the game with Keisel, Hood, and later Heyward.  He will no longer be forced to play the whole game, and this rest should allow his aging body time to recover from week to week and give the Steelers a healthy Aaron Smith for hopefully an entire season.

Ziggy Hood:

Having played little to no 5-Technique Defensive End as a DT at the University of Missouri, Ziggy Hood walked into the unknown after being drafted by the Steelers in the 1st Round of The 20o9 N.F.L. Draft.  But if last season was any indication of the bright future the Zig-ster has with the Steelers, it seems all the guy needed was a year of seasoning to become the next solid and versatile 5-Technique Defensive End pumped out by longtime Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell.  Unlike most 5-Technique DE’s, Hood is an adept pass rusher when called upon, and is arguably the best on the team right now at harassing the QB from the DE position.  Ziggy amassed 3 sacks in the 2010 regular season and 2 sacks in the postseason where he was able to showcase his pass rushing/disrupting ability (especially the Baltimore game).  It was likely that Hood’s solid play down the stretch led to former backup DE Nick Eason being let go in the offseason.  If Smith or Keisel happen to go down at any point in the season with an injury, Hood should be able to step in and perform well.  With his strong finish to 2010, Ziggy should enter 2011 as the top backup at DE.  Furthermore, Hood should inevitably gain some first team reps in practice so he can spell the aging starters and keep them fresh throughout the season as well.

Cameron Heyward:

Kevin Colbert got Coach Mitchell an awesome prospect in Heyward when they selected him with the 30th pick in this past April’s Draft.  Heyward at 6’5″ and 290 lbs. fits the bill in terms of size as a prototypical 5-Technique DE.  According to his profile, Heyward amassed career stats of 162 tackles and 15.5 sacks while playing all 4 years at O.S.U. and starting 3 of them.  And while his sack production may have been a bit down last season (Down from 6 to 3.5), Heyward’s pass rushing ability from a 5-Technique DE standpoint is very effective.  Heyward’s size has allowed him to hold his own and perform well in his college career against the run.  Many scouts and scouting websites such as, view his ability to play the run and occupy blockers as quite good and something a team running a 3-4 would look for in a DE.  One cannot argue with the production he had in college playing against teams of the highest caliber that were keying on him every week.  Heyward’s finest performance of the 2010 season was no doubt in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas.  Heyward’s stat line at the end of the game read 1 sack, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 QB hurries, and a pass deflection.  Truth be told, those impressive stats don’t do Heyward much justice, because anybody who watched the game could see that he pretty much had his way with future Minnesota Viking OT DeMarcus Love.

In terms of making an impact on the field at DE in 2011 sooner rather than later, Heyward does have one important advantage going for him.  Unlike Hood, who had almost no experience whatsoever at the 5-Technique or DE spot alone in college, Heyward is a bit more of a refined prospect in terms of his years playing at O.S.U. and lining up as a 5-Technique at times.  Instead of the almost 1.25 seasons of “seasoning” that it took for Ziggy to join the DE rotation full time, Heyward could be called upon earlier to play DE if he proves himself ready.  Thus, we could see Cameron on the field sooner than most Steeler Rookies on Defense are used to if he can prove to Coach Mitchell that he is worthy of joining the rotation.


The Steelers appear stout when it comes to their Defensive Line heading into the 2011 season.  What used to be an Achilles Heel in years past (D-Line depth), has now morphed into a positive with the youngsters coming into the mix and allowing veterans like Smith and Keisel to remain fresh throughout the season and less likely to be injured.  With Hamtpon, Hoke, Smith, and Keisel still with some decent years ahead of them, and the Front Office building the D-Line of the future, I see no reason why this group can’t have a monster season and a wonderful future.