Colbert: NT still critical in Steelers' defense

PITTSBURGH -- Louis Nix III, the top nose tackle prospect in the draft, has been linked to the Steelers as much as any player in the mock drafts that have already proliferated.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have done two mock drafts apiece and each time they have had the Steelers taking Nix with the 15th overall pick.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert rarely talks about individual players before the draft. And true to form he didn't tip his hand when discussing how the role of nose tackles has changed as the NFL has become more of a passing league.

Colbert acknowledged that the Steelers only played their base defense about 40 percent of the time last season, and the nose tackle is the first player to come off the field when the Steelers use one of their sub-packages.

But he dismissed the notion that such math devalues nose tackles, especially on a Steelers' defense that is predicated on stopping the run.

"In a 3-4 defense you're still going to start with a nose tackle," Colbert told Pittsburgh reporters at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "You have to get into third-down situations, and those second-and-longs, too. If you don't have that player help you get to those extended downs then you're going to have problems.

The Steelers had their share of problems stopping the run last season.

They yielded 125 rushing yards per game, an increase of 30 yards from 2012, and that spike coincided with Steve McLendon taking over at nose tackle for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to pin the Steelers' struggles in stopping the run solely on McLendon.

It certainly didn't help that the Steelers had a rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams learning on the job in 2013. Or that the Steelers were not nearly as sound from an assignment standpoint as they have been in past seasons.

Whether they think they need an upgrade at nose tackle is another question.

When asked last week to assess McLendon's performance in 2013, Colbert said, "He did OK. He fought through some injuries and gave us some good work. But to say anybody was good enough, including myself, when you're 8-8 that's a disservice to the organization."

That qualifies as neither an endorsement nor an indictment of McLendon, which is why the Steelers are presumably open to taking a player who will be on the field less than half the time with their first-round pick.

If they use their first selection on a nose tackle, Nix appears to be the only one worthy of such a high pick.

The former Notre Dame standout fits the prototype for a space-eating nose tackle, one who can anchor the middle of the defensive line and free the inside linebackers to flow to the ball.

Nix has to check out medically at the combine after undergoing surgery last November to repair torn meniscus in his knee. It will also be interesting to see what he weighs -- the 6-2 Nix is generally listed at 345 pounds -- and what kind of shape he is in three months after his surgery.

If Nix is in good shape that would shine a positive light on his work ethic and answer questions the Steelers may have about his knee.