[This feature ran in the paper on Sunday as a print only feature]
HISTORY OF THE DECADE: A look at the Steelers' success and failure at defensive line in the draft and free agency since 2003 ...
23: Combined years NFL experience of Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel
11: Combined years NFL experience of the other five defensive linemen on the 53-man roster
The success of the Steelers' 3-4 zone-defense scheme is predicated on play up front, and to that end the team invested heavily in it via 2009 and 2011 first-round picks at DE, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, as well as 2012 fourth-rounder, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu. But, after that, the most recent defensive line draft pick on the roster is Brett Keisel, who is headed into his 12th season.
In other words, the Steel Curtain is getting threadbare.
And with Hood in a contract year and Ta'amu facing possible legal sanctions, the Steelers might have to make up ground quickly for an otherwise lackluster decade of drafting defensive linemen. The Steelers spent seven mid-to-late round picks on the defensive line since 2003, but players such as Ryan McBean, Ra'Shon Harris and Shawn Nua never developed into diamonds like Keisel (7th round in 2002) or Aaron Smith (4th in 1999).
The Steelers were fortunate to have long, productive and mostly healthy careers from 2001 top pick Casey Hampton and Keisel, but those days nearly are over.
With the core members of the front three -- and their presumed successors -- mostly in place over the past decade, the team signed only a few complementary pieces.
DE Travis Kirschke was added in 2004 from Detroit and made regular contributions in the 2005 and '08 Super Bowl winning seasons; NT Nick Eason did the same in 2007 and 2008. 2009 undrafted free agent Steve McLendon has impressed at times with his play and work ethic and will challenge to take over for Hampton. Journeyman backup Al Woods also saw action in 12 games this past season, mostly on special teams.