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Steelers Hampton will get first start

But usual rotation at NT with Clancy stays intact

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It's not so much the Steelers would prefer a little bigger body in the middle of their defensive line against the Tennessee Titans. Or that they want to get away from their two-man rotation at nose tackle.

Casey Hampton ready for prime time. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

It's not even that they're displeased with the performance of Kendrick Clancy, their second-year nose tackle who started the first five games of the season.

It's just time to put No. 1 pick Casey Hampton in the starting lineup.

"He deserves the opportunity," defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said. "It's time to get it done."

Hampton, the 19th overall pick in the National Football League draft, probably will continue to rotate every other series with Clancy, just as they have every game since the beginning of the preseason. In fact, the Steelers are hoping that rotation will keep each player fresh and help them wear down Tennessee center Bruce Matthews, 40, who is in his 19th NFL season.

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But Coach Bill Cowher was looking for the right time to insert Hampton (6 feet, 315 pounds) into the starting lineup. And he found it.

"I think, particularly going into the next few games, we're looking at some teams that I think are going to come in here trying to run the ball against us," Cowher said. "We feel with his size and what he's done to this point, we want him out there in the starting group."

Hampton couldn't ask for a bigger stage to make his first professional start. The Steelers (4-1), who have won four in a row, will play host to the Titans (2-3) at Heinz Field on "Monday Night Football."

"It's Monday night," Hampton said. "Anybody would be excited."

It's not every day a defense that is ranked No. 2 in the NFL -- including No. 1 against the pass in the American Football Conference -- makes a change in its starting personnel for something other than injury.

What's more, with the exception of two late drives against the Kansas City Chiefs, it isn't as though teams have been running against the Steelers. Despite Priest Holmes' 150-yard outing against them two weeks ago -- a game in which 92 of those yards came on the final two series against the dime defense -- the Steelers rank tied for fourth in the AFC in rush defense, allowing an average of 89.4 yards per game.

But, with the next five games against AFC Central Division teams, Cowher wanted to beef up the run support in the interior of the 3-4 defense. And he's not afraid to do it by having two rookies start in the middle -- Hampton and inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, the team's No. 2 pick.

"It's nothing Kendrick hasn't done," Cowher said. "Casey's obviously a bigger guy. We're still going to play Kendrick as much, but [Hampton] is playing very well. Right now he deserves to be in there with that first group."

Cowher consulted with Lewis and defensive line coach John Mitchell about his plan to switch nose tackles. When they supported the idea, Cowher told Hampton before practice Wednesday that he would start against the Titans, who have won their past two games after an 0-3 start.

"He didn't say anything more," Hampton said. "I have no idea [why he made the change] and I didn't ask. That was the end of it."

Clancy said part of the reason for the change is the Steelers wanted a little more bulk in the middle of the line against Titans running back Eddie George, who has 290 yards on 106 carries but is averaging just 2.7 yards per rush attempt.

Hampton is very difficult to move because he plays so low to the ground. Clancy (6 feet 1, 289 pounds) uses his quickness to make plays.

"They said they want to go bigger than usual," Clancy said. "We're still going to rotate like normal, but [Hampton] will get the start."

"When Casey comes in, it's a big body inside and he's hard to knock off the ball," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "He'll draw some double teams."

Hampton will become the third rookie to start on defense this season. Rodney Bailey, the team's sixth-round pick from Ohio State, started the second game in Buffalo because right defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen was injured. Bailey has played so well he continues to spell von Oelhoffen and get action in the dime defense.

Sometimes, younger players can present more problems, Matthews said.

"I think there is always a tradeoff," he said. "In one regard, they don't have the experience that older and more seasoned players have. But, on the other hand, they don't have any bad habits. When you're watching film on young players, it's real hard to know what to expect."

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