The core of every NFL team is it's offensive and defensive lines. No exception. If your core isn't strong, your team will suffer. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Still, both lines for the Steelers have needed a transformation in order to be that necessary solid core. We know of the offensive line's recent history, but I'm going to focus here on a defensive line that gave up an unheard of 100 yards per game (99.8 ypg to be exact).
Though, much has been written about the inconsistency, injuries and age of the Steelers defensive line, those issues are seemingly being transformed right in front of our eyes.
And if the ends on that defensive line were to star in a movie, the obvious title would be "Transformers 4."
OPTIMUS PRIME: Brett Keisel, with Casey Hampton being on the PUP list to start the season due to an injury suffered in January's playoff game against the Broncos, is the elder statesman and unquestioned leader of the defensive line. The 33-year old Keisel, who suffered a severe groin injury in the same playoff game, was able to avoid offseason surgery and appears to be ready for his 11th year.
Keisel was interviewed by Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider a couple of weeks ago and credited Steelers strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont for helping him rehab and that he feels ready to get back out on the field. Keisel told Wexell that his age is not a factor and that he feels like he has gotten better as he has gotten older. He also said he is not concerned at all about his ability to be able to go out and perform. Without Aaron Smith on the other side anymore, his performance will be important.
IRONHIDE: Ziggy Hood has seemingly had a fire lit underneath him and looks to be the big bruiser expected from the beginning. I blogged a few days ago about a weighted vest he's been wearing at the OTAs, but more information has come out since then about his offseason regimen. He has taken up training with Outer Limits Sports and has truly transformed his body.
A tweet to Jim Wexell from Outer Limits tells the story: “@outerlim: @jimwexell Ziggy Hood's transformation 2012. Photos taken 29 days apart. Bodyfat:18% (from 24%) Wt: 305 lb to 307 lb. http://t.co/6WARqvCn "
It was also noted that Ziggy lost 18 lbs. of fat and gained 20 lbs. of muscle. The photo attached shows how he's transformed his body already, and this is just phase one. I look forward to seeing the next phase(s). There are video clips of his workouts on the site also. Give them a look at http://www.outerlim.com/
As I've written before, strength is one thing but his gap and technique deficiency is another. Much is expected this year from him as he has another level to go before being the dominant presence that Aaron Smith was.
RATCHET: Cameron Heyward will have to wait before making his first NFL start, especially if the transformation Ziggy is making translates to the practice/playing field. That's not to say, though, that Heyward won't get a lot of snaps in his second season and be the main reason Keisel stays healthy all season.
Heyward was asked on 93.7 The Fan last week just how comfortable he is now and how much of a jump he expects to make this upcoming season. Heyward replied, "Oh, I feel a lot more comfortable. My confidence has rose, just because I feel comfortable in the defense and I'm expecting a better result. You know, I'm going into this season with high hopes and just get out there and prove myself and just go from there."
That comfort level may just allow him to get several snaps at both end positions in 2012, spelling Keisel, as well as Ziggy, throughout the season. Keisel even said himself last week that he will probably need to be spelled more this year. Keisel said in his interview on 105 The X last week, "He's got to be ready be to go. He's got to be the guy that's versatile, that can play all three positions - knows all the nickel and dime - he's got to be that guy you know. I'm getting older. I'm going to need a few spells during the game. He's got be that guy that can come in and be reliable and be accountable."
Heyward says he's ready, though: "I haven't even worried about that, I'm just trying to get better out here. I'll let my play show it off and continue to improve." He also said how important the OTA sessions are to him this year, "I think it's vital for me to take-in the playbook a lot more and learn from my mistakes and take time to shine up and oil up and learn my technique and get better at it."
Well said, Heyward. Though, I prefer not to even picture the "oil up" part. Leave that to your lady. (Is her name "Arcee", by chance? I digress...)
BUMBLEBEE: Steve McLendon has played defensive end before as well, but will be mainly responsible for anchoring the line. A protector of sorts.
McLendon's solid weight gain (from about 290 lbs when signed in 2009, to 305 lbs at the start of last year and to a reported 325 lbs now) and work ethic have caused the Steelers to have enough confidence in him that he will be the starting nose tackle Week 1.
"Everybody wants to discard McLendon. Let me tell you this, hold your opinion until the season is over," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said at April's NFL Draft. "I'm just saying keep your opinion until after the season, [then] you make the decision."
Undrafted out of Troy in 2009, the 6'4" McLendon spent his first season on the Steelers' practice squad before appearing in 21 games over the past two seasons. He has 15 tackles and one sack in fewer than 200 total plays.
McLendon pinpointed his opportunity to earn a starting job: "That comes from trust," McLendon said. "That trust comes from doing everything right. You are not going to be perfect, but [Coach John Mitchell] saw that I came in day in and day out with my lunch pail and I was ready to work. Coach Mitch knows that I know my stuff."
The coaches know all their "stuff." They know who their players are and of what those players are capable. Despite so many in the media saying their age and injuries are a reason to overlook them, the coaches know that there's more than meets the eye.