PITTSBURGH — The job of a nose tackle is sometimes a thankless one. Generally tasked with more of a role absorbing blockers than making plays, the man in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 defense has not always been covered in glitz and glamor — especially recently.
Since the retirement of Pro Bowler Casey Hampton a decade ago, the Steelers have cycled through a number of names in the middle of their defensive line, but none have had the kind of star and staying power that Hampton did, who played in five Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls in his 12-year career.
The Steelers have high hopes that 2023 second-round pick Keeanu Benton develops into that type of consistent presence at the position. He’s seen significant playing time in the first two games of his rookie season, and that should only be expected to grow as the season goes on.
While the nose tackle position does not lead itself to statistical dominance — he has five tackles in two games — he is beginning to make a name for himself among those who obsess with play in the trenches.
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger highlighted Benton’s strong play in the Steelers’ Week 2 Monday Night Football win over the Cleveland Browns.
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 21, 2023
As for Benton himself, because he played nose tackle at Wisconsin, he thinks the double-team blocks and selfless nature of the position have come naturally to him, but he feels he still has plenty to work on.
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“I feel like I’ve been able to hold my ground,” Benton said. “Not crazy different from college. I feel like I still have a feel for where to anchor my weight at and kind of how to transfer their weight into the other offensive lineman. …
“I feel like I had to come to that (mindset) in college. That it’s not me making the play directly, but I’m still making the play by taking two players and letting my linebackers go free. I find joy in that, as well, just being a part of this team and being part of the overall defensive scheme.”
Benton isn’t resting on his laurels, though. One of the reasons the Steelers haven’t had a long-term solution at nose tackle since Hampton departed has been the continual de-emphasizing of the position in response to more three- and four-wide receiver sets from offenses around the NFL.
So Benton wants to make sure that while being a solid nose tackle is the top priority for right now, he wants to be able to do more than that down the road.
“There’s still things in my game that shines when I got against these offensive lineman and things that really don’t,” Benton said. “So I’ve really got to focus in on those things that I’m not to good at and focus in on them so I can get after the passer and stop the run, as well.”