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Steelers Mighty Casey Hampton adds weight to top defense

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

He's the other rookie starter on the NFL's No. 1 defense, and while he does not have the hardware, it's the opinion of coaches and teammates that without him, Kendrell Bell might not have it, either.

In two games against Baltimore this season, Steelers rookie defensive lineman Casey Hampton got three of his 23 tackles. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Casey Hampton has served as Bell's straight man all year. He's the one who has done the dirty work that has allowed his teammate the freedom to swoop in to make plays and pick up rookie of the year awards as if they were penny candy.

"To be a rookie and have the impact he's had this year is amazing," said All-Pro linebacker Jason Gildon, the captain of the defense. "You can look at the success Kendrell's had; Casey hasn't had the same attention as far as media coverage, but his success has been parallel."

Hampton plays nose tackle, which is the toughest job with the least public notice of any on the team. Hampton's duties are relatively simple: Throw yourself on barbed wire and let your teammates walk across you to make plays. He spends his Sunday afternoons taking on double-teams and clogging up the center of the line for two reasons: To allow the linebackers to be free of blocks to make plays and to allow no running back to go through him.

The Baltimore Ravens ran up the middle against the Miami Dolphins as if no one was home. The Steelers have Hampton, ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen and Bell and Earl Holmes to greet them. It's not likely the Ravens will try to run up the middle against the Steelers.

The Steelers not only had the No. 1 defense overall this season, they were No. 1 against the rush, and the 320-pound rookie in the middle was a big reason for that.

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"I think the big reason we're the No. 1 defense is because of Casey," Smith said. "The defense is really centered around him. If he doesn't do his job, the defense falls apart."

The 3-4 defense has always counted on a strong nose tackle to make it go, and the Steelers have been fortunate to have one. Before they switched to the 3-4 in 1983, Joe Greene moved over the center in a slant 4-3. Gary Dunn became their first real nose tackle when they moved from the 4-3 in 1983. Edmund Nelson succeeded him, then Gerald Williams and, after a brief interlude of several different players, Joel Steed took over in 1993. Steed was the only Pro Bowl player of the bunch, but they all played the position well.

Steed fell to the job's industrial hazard -- bad knees. He retired after the 1999 season and von Oelhoffen played the position last year. But he wasn't the prototypical nose tackle who should be short and squat so he can get low and root like Punxsutawney Phil. Von Oelhoffen stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 300 pounds. Hampton goes 6-1, 320, and his presence allowed von Oelhoffen to move to right end, which suits him better.

"Casey solidified the middle," Smith said. "He's such a force, he has that low center of gravity and he's so strong. You have to account for him. He's quick and he's going to make some plays. In our defense, the nose has to hold the point and if he doesn't hold the point, if he doesn't do his job, the defense folds."

Hampton, the team's first-round draft pick from the University of Texas, doesn't begrudge all the attention and awards Bell has received this season. In fact, he takes pride in helping him to it.

"If he's doing good and the linebackers are doing good, I feel I'm just as big a part of that as anybody else," Hampton said, "because I know I'm eating up the blocks so they can make the play. That's how I get my enjoyment."

While the Ravens are not likely to run up the middle Sunday, they nevertheless present a challenge to Hampton.

Steelers rookie defensive lineman Casey Hampton started nine games this season and had 23 tackles and one sack. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"They try to get up there and be physical and run right at you. Me being a defensive linemen, that's a great challenge. When people try to run right down your throat, you can't ask for anything else. All the action comes toward you. That's the kind of game you want as a defensive lineman."

Given any defense he could start from scratch, coordinator Tim Lewis picked the 3-4 but for one reason: "If I had a nose guard like Casey Hampton, no doubt about it. If you have a stout guy in the middle of the 3-4, it allows you to do a lot of other things with those other people. You know they're always going to be working with one man down [on offense] because they have to account for him, too."

Hampton shared the position with Kendrick Clancy in the first five games of the season, preventing him from joining Bell as a rookie 16-game starter. Nevertheless, the two have made the Steelers strong up the middle.

"It is more than I could ever ask for," Hampton said of his first NFL season, starting for the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. " I couldn't enjoy it any better, the position we're in right now. Coming in, you would never think you'd be in a situation we are."

Hampton is a big reason they are.

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