The following is another in a series that picks a Steelers All-Modern Era Team. Players were considered based on having careers with the Steelers from 1992 until the present. The All-Modern Era team is made up of 26 players – 11 on offense, 11 on defense, and four specialists.
TODAY: Defensive Line
More than any other unit on a football team, it was the defensive line that led the Steelers out of their dark ages. Chuck Noll's first draft pick in 1969 was spent on a defensive tackle named Joe Greene, and when the Steelers snapped their 0-for-39 season streak by winning the first division title in franchise history in 1972, the Steel Curtain was on the way to becoming the most dominant defensive line in NFL history.
There would be more Lombardis for the Steelers in their Modern Era, and while the team again used its defense as an instrument to inflict pain on the opposition, the switch to a 3-4 alignment had made the defensive linemen a part of the supporting cast. In this scheme, it was the linebackers who had to be the stars.
Check out the greatest photos of Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton.
During the Steelers' Modern Era, only four of their defensive linemen were voted to the Pro Bowl, and there have been 23 of those held since 1992. Casey Hampton went five times, and Joel Steed, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel each made one appearance. By comparison, there was at least one Steelers linebacker in 16 of those 23 games.
But even if the defensive linemen labored largely outside the spotlight, their work still was necessary to the overall success of the unit, and the Steelers have had some players do it very well. The three who make the All-Modern Era team are Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Cam Heyward.
Through the bulk of his career, Hampton was a two-down player, but he typically owned the middle of the line of scrimmage on those two downs. The Steelers' immovable object, Hampton was a No. 1 pick in 2001 and a full-time starter at nose tackle for 164 of the 173 games that made up his 12-year career. The Steelers finished in the top three in the NFL in run defense 10 times during Hampton's career. That's not a coincidence.
Casey Hampton also was a beloved member of the social structure of the Steelers locker room, even though guys like Jerome Bettis and Joey Porter and Hines Ward often were the ones out front. Hampton always told his teammates he knew George W. Bush from their days in the weight room at the University of Texas, and when the Steelers visited the White House in June 2006 after winning the Super Bowl they learned it was true.
On his walk to the podium in the East Room of the White House, with the Steelers' players and coaches aligned on risers behind him, Mr. Bush stopped dead in his tracks to shake hands. "Hey, Hamp, how ya doin'," said Mr. Bush.
Check out the greatest photos of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith.
Aaron Smith gets the nod at one of the two defensive end slots, because he was a difference-maker as a run defender who also was capable of generating pressure in passing situations on third downs. An undersized defensive lineman when he was drafted in the fourth round in 1999 from Northern Colorado, Smith worked himself into the starting lineup in 2000, and over the course of the next 12 seasons he played in 160 games, with 153 starts, and contributed 44 sacks and another 20 passes batted at the line of scrimmage. Smith is another individual who was beloved by his teammates.
The third spot goes to Cam Heyward, whose career is still in its early stages, but he has shown enough and done enough to this point to have established himself as a key part of the next generation. A first-round pick in 2011, Heyward took two years to become a full-time starter, but in the two seasons in which he has been a full-time starter he has 12.5 sacks and 12 passes batted at the line of scrimmage. Heyward finished 2014 tied with Jason Worilds for the team lead in sacks, the first time a defensive lineman has been at the top of that category since Smith in 2004.
Heyward will play his whole fifth NFL season as a 26-year-old, and he is one of the alphas in the locker room as the Steelers continue the process of getting younger and faster on defense.
Top photos of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER**
It was tough to keep BRETT KEISEL off this unit. He played 13 seasons for the Steelers, eight as a full-time starter, and those who doubted Keisel's athleticism did so at their own peril. A difference-maker in kickoff coverage early in his career, Keisel finished with 30 sacks, nine fumble recoveries, 37 passes batted at the line of scrimmage, and two interceptions.
Keisel was kept out of the starting lineup until 2006 by KIMO VON OELHOFFEN, signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2000, who played both nose tackle and end during his six seasons in Pittsburgh. JOEL STEED was a third-round pick in Bill Cowher's first draft as the Steelers coach, and he was the nose tackle who preceded Hampton. The end of Steed's career is what motivated the Steelers to go looking for another nose tackle in the 2001 draft. Another defensive end with singular ability was RAY SEALS. Maybe the best pass-rushing 3-4 end in franchise history, Seals' career was a short one – just three seasons – but he had 15.5 sacks in 27 starts for the team in 1994-95. He missed all of 1996 with a torn rotator cuff.