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July 28, 2013

Youthful look to Steelers defensive line

LATROBE — Casey Hampton’s deep belly laugh, the one that could cut the tension in a meeting room or light up the sideline in an instant, is gone. So is the massive backside that could send opposing centers back onto their heels and the wisdom that comes with being a five-time Pro Bowler.

And for the man used to trotting onto the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Hampton’s familiar No. 98 came chugging off, it’s just weird.

“Sometimes, I wish he was still here,” Steve McLendon said. “There’s not much you can say about it. I miss him. I think we all do.”

While the decision to cut 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison in the offseason created headlines, the 35-year-old Hampton was nudged quietly toward retirement when the longest-tenured member of one of football’s most stable franchises was not offered a new contract. He remains unsigned, even though McLendon insists Hampton can still play.

McLendon may be right, but it most certainly won’t be with the Steelers, leaving defensive end Brett Keisel as the last man standing from a defensive front that led Pittsburgh to three Super Bowl appearances and two championships during a six-year stretch between the 2005 and 2010 seasons.

Chris Hoke retired at the end of 2011. So did end Aaron Smith. Now Hampton is gone and Keisel doesn’t have a deal beyond 2013.

“If it is the end, I want to go out on top,” Keisel said. “And I want to go out on top if it’s not the end.”

As has become tradition, Keisel arrived for training camp at Saint Vincent College on Friday in a dump truck with a Steelers hard hat perched atop his head and the barely-in-control thatch of hair that serves as his beard in midseason form. The entrance was more than a little symbolic, with Keisel pointing out the team is “under construction.”

If so, the strongest beam needs to be replaced.

Even as Hampton’s play declined as he approached his mid-30s, he remained the unquestioned heart and soul in the middle of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.

He clogged up running lanes between the hash marks and served as a mentor on the sidelines and in the classroom, one who knew how to push buttons with his homespun charm.

The job has now been passed down to Keisel, coming off a steady season in which he picked up 4.5 sacks and was credited with 40 quarterback pressures.

Surrounded by a bunch of 20-somethings, Keisel understands he’s now the old guy, one who is ready to carry on the legacy left behind by the players who molded him from a seventh-round reach in 2002 to a veteran well into his second decade in the NFL.

“If we need answers, we look to him,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “If he leads us through, I’m just going to follow.”

The Steelers hope that path leads to the quarterback. Pittsburgh finished No. 1 in total defense for the fifth time since 2004 last year but was a middling 15th in sacks (37) and created just 20 turnovers, with four of them coming in a meaningless season finale.

There was competence but little chaos, something Hood, McLendon and 2011 first-round pick Cam Heyward know it’s time to produce after spending the early portions of their careers learning instead of leading.

So does Keisel.

“Our young guys have got to step up and seize this moment,” Keisel said.

It’s why McLendon decided to become one of the world’s largest joggers in the offseason.

The 320-pounder would head outside for a run a handful of times a week, plodding along in alternating 30-second and

1-minute bursts while drawing astonished looks from the folks he’d pass along the path.

“I just had to do it,” said McLendon, who had two sacks while spelling Hampton last fall. “I had to be in better shape.”

A decided departure from Hampton’s more sedentary training plan. It wasn’t exactly fun, but McLendon didn’t have much of a choice. It took him four years to rise from undrafted free agent to the top of the depth chart, though he hasn’t stopped to wonder if he’s finally arrived.

“The journey hasn’t ended, it’s really just beginning for me,” McLendon said. “It’s really going to be a test right now. It’s a lot of pressure. The best way to handle pressure is to apply it.”

Notes: DB Cortez Allen was slowed by knee discomfort on Sunday while fellow DB DeMarcus Van Dyke is dealing with a tweaked hamstring. Both players are listed as day-to-day ... Tight-end David Paulson, who is No. 2 on the depth chart while Heath Miller recovers from left knee surgery, made a series of diving grabs in traffic ... The Steelers don pads for the first time today, a move coach Mike Tomlin likened to “the first day of school.”

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