Hampton a big man in Steelers' plans - except on offense

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) -Casey Hampton, like many players who spend their careers stopping the run rather than carrying the ball, always wanted to be in the backfield once. Just once.

Let him plow his 340 pounds through the middle of the line, Hampton always thought, and he'd show them how to carry a pile. Sure, he may be 100 pounds heavier than most running backs, but few men of his weight can move their feet like he can.

Hampton got that one play in this Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and, when he did, he understood why he is on defense rather than offense.

Trying to lighten the mood of what has been an intense, up-tempo and unusually physical camp since it began July 23, new coach Mike Tomlin allowed his Pro Bowl nose tackle to line up at fullback at the end of a goal line drill.

Hampton, blocking for Najeh Davenport, hadn't hit the line before linebacker Clint Kriewaldt plowed into his chest and knocked him backward, causing Hampton's helmet to shift sideways.

"I think Casey Hampton was on the take on that snap at fullback," Tomlin said, laughing at what figures to be a one-and-done experiment.

Count defensive end Brett Keisel among those glad to be getting Hampton back for the rest of his career. To Keisel, it's possible the Steelers may have better players than Hampton, but none are more valuable.

Hampton, one of the NFL's top run stoppers, comes off the field on most passing plays - or, roughly, at least 50 percent of the time. Regardless, his teammates chose him and wide receiver Hines Ward as their most valuable players during their Super Bowl championship season two years ago.

"He's the anchor of our defense and if he doesn't do his job, everything else falls apart," Keisel said. "I think everyone else can pretty much mess up and we have so much speed that we will get to the ball. But if Hampton doesn't take his two or three guys, things fall apart and everyone respects him for that."

It's not an overstatement, Keisel said, that Hampton sometimes occupies two offensive linemen at the same time.

"There's no guy in the league I've watched, and this is my sixth year, that can take on men like he does," Keisel said. "He's just so strong and so solid. I've said this before, but when God built a nose tackle, he built Casey Hampton."

Hampton laughed at that.

"He built a short, fat guy, that's what a nose tackle is," Hampton said.

Still, while nose tackles may look alike, they don't all play alike. Hampton, a first-round draft pick in 2001, has made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and three times overall and often is cited among opposing players as one of the league's toughest linemen to block.

Hampton fits the Steelers well because he occupies the middle of their 3-4 defense. But even if Tomlin decides to shift to a 4-3 in a year or two, Hampton thinks he will fit in.

"It would be nice to switch it up a little bit," he said.

Hampton, a former star lineman at Texas, could prove more valuable to the Steelers this season as they adjust to not having linebacker Joey Porter, who was released in a salary cap move and signed with Miami.

Keisel wouldn't be surprised if Hampton replaces Porter as the vocal leader of the defense, even though Hampton isn't one to stir up rivalries and speak his mind the way Porter does.

"I always said something when it needed to be said, I'm just not as rah-rah as Joey was," Hampton said. "I'm always holding everybody accountable, just as I'm holding myself accountable."

The respect his teammates have for Hampton allows him to speak his mind without creating internal disputes.

"Everybody knows how I am, so they don't take it the wrong way if I call them out in front of everybody," Hampton said. "Even as a rookie, if something was wrong I was going to let it be known, that's just the way I am."

Notes: When camp began, Tomlin said all players would be required to attend all practices, even those devoted to special teams. But players not on special teams are now being excused from those practices, including Tuesday morning's workout. ... With LB James Harrison bothered by sore ribs, second-round draft pick LaMarr Woodley is taking some snaps with the first-unit defense.

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