Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Getting Draft Ready - Assessing the
Defensive Line

As Steelers fans wait breathlessly for the conversion of the defense from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme there is this breaking news -- it's not going to happen any time soon. Yes, Mike Tomlin has indicated that the Steelers may show some 4-3 as a "wrinkle" every now and again, but the players on Pittsburgh's roster are built for the 3-4 scheme -- both literally and figuratively -- and nowhere is this more true than along the defensive line.

According to information available through at NFL.com there are 26 teams that employ the 4-3 defensive scheme as their primary, defensive formation. In looking at the depth charts of those teams, more specifically the weight of the starting defensive linemen on those teams, it seems obvious that the Steelers do not have the types of players that would allow them to change formations on an on-going basis.

Of the teams using the 4-3 the average left defensive end weighs 274.54 pounds. The average left defensive tackle weighs 312.69 pounds. The average right defensive tackle weighs 302.35 pounds, and the average right defensive end weighs in at 272.5 pounds. Conversely, the Steelers left defensive end -- Aaron Smith -- has a listed weight of 298 (the same weight, or more, than seventeen starting defensive tackles), and the right defensive end -- Brett Keisel -- is listed at 285 pounds.

But beyond the weight, or perhaps because of the weight, there is the speed factor. In a comparison/contrast of the two defensive schemes the folks at Football Outsiders say this about those playing defensive end in the 4-3: "Ends are lighter and quicker. Right ends . . . are usually the best athletes on the line . . . with incredible quickness and agility." Both of the Steelers defensive ends are terrific, indeed the opinion here is that Aaron Smith has still not peaked despite having a career year in 2006, but it is difficult to envision a scenario in which either of them could be described as "lighter and quicker." So unless the Steelers plan on making a major play in free agency (sure Dwight Freeney is an unrestricted free agent, but that isn't going to happen) then it would seem that the team is several seasons away from any major transition in defensive schemes (of course if they DID sign Mr. Freeney they could move Aaron Smith into one of the defensive tackle spots . . . hmmm).

Of course at the nose tackle spot is the all-world Casey Hampton. There is no doubt that he could play, and play exceptionally well, in any formation that his coach could choose to employ. His 25 tackes and 15 assists represented the second highest total in his career, and he even defended on a pass play (granted, it was a screen) for the second time in his career. Additionally, his backup, Chris Hoke, played well -- getting nine tackles, the second highest total of his career.

Whatever Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau decide to do with the defensive unit there is little doubt that one of its strengths are the excellent players in the trenches. Of course, both Mr. Smith and Mr. Kirschke are currently on-track to be free agents at the end of the 2007 season -- and Mr. Smith's cap figure for the upcoming season is $6,860,000 -- so there are opportunties for young players who can perform.

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