Three defenders occupy a number of blockers

DETROIT -- Normally, the three names filling out the starting spots along the line of a 3-4 defense don't make headlines. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen are the exceptions. Though they aren't the stars of Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh's Hampton, Smith and von Oelhoffen are highly regarded in personnel circles.

In an age when the 3-4 is gaining renewed popularity, the Steelers are that rare team that has members of the scheme who have been to the Pro Bowl. Smith went to the Pro Bowl last year and, after Richard Seymour of the Patriots, is considered the second-best 3-4 end in football. Hampton came back from a knee reconstruction in 2004 to earn his second trip to the Pro Bowl.

That leaves the not-so-anonymous von Oelhoffen, who led all Pittsburgh defensive linemen in regular-season sacks with 3½.

"There are no selfish players on our defensive line," Smith said. "The guys want to win and get after it. We have such a good group of guys. Guys get along so well and play so well. I think we push each other."

Perhaps the saddest moment of the past two years for the Steelers occurred in their 2004 Week 6 contest against the Dallas Cowboys. Hampton ripped apart his knee and was lost for the season. The scene was emotional in the locker room. Hampton was in the training room crying because his season was over. His teammates were just as emotional.

"I knew what type of team we had last year and when I got hurt, it was very hard not to be a part of that," Hampton said. "I thought we'd be good again this year, so coming back for me was very important."

Most people will tell you it takes two years to come back completely from a torn ACL. Full speed and explosion rarely return in the first season back. The rehab is long and hard. The frustration level is high.

"I felt I was back from the injury about midseason," Hampton said. "Early on, I struggled. It was like I was playing on one knee. I babied it a little. I never panicked. I knew I was going to get better each week, but I knew it was going to take awhile."

The Steelers consider Hampton somewhat of a freak. Most nose tackles are known more for the blockers they consume than the tackles they make. A nose guard who draws double teams is essential for the success of a 3-4. Imagine a concept in which a defense starts with three linemen going against five offensive linemen weighing an average of 320 pounds who often are helped by a tight end.

A former first-round choice from Texas, Hampton is just getting started after two offensive linemen try to stop him.

"He's kind of the rock in the middle of the defense and he's a guy that uses up two blockers," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He's got great balance. He can still go sideline to sideline and has a good feel for the game and understands what teams are doing to him. He may not have a lot of sacks, but I think when people watch him on tape, they'll see how good a football player he is and how important he is to our defense."

Hampton's matchup against Seahawks center Robbie Tobeck is one of the most underappreciated battles of Super Bowl XL. Hampton is 6-foot-1, 325 pounds. Tobeck is going to the Pro Bowl, but he is considered an undersized center, so he'll need blocking help from one of the guards, either Steve Hutchinson or Chris Gray, to make sure Hampton doesn't collapse the middle of the Seahawks' line.

"I think the thing that surprises you about Casey is how well he moves," Smith said. "He can move sideline to sideline. You never expect a guy of his size to be able to do that. He can also drop into coverage. He's just a great athlete. That just sums it up."

Smith is a freak in his own regard. He's 6-5, 298 pounds, and he can dominate right tackles. He's going against first-year Seahawks starter Sean Locklear, who has handled most of the league's best left ends well this season. But Smith, who had two eight-sack seasons in his career, is so good, Locklear may need the help of a blocking tight end.

Van Oelhoffen is considered the lunch-pail worker among the three. He wasn't drafted in the first or second round like Hampton or Smith. He was a sixth-round pick of the Bengals in 1994 and came to the Steelers in 2000. He's 34, and he's slightly undersized at 6-4, 299. But his résumé speaks for itself.

"Both of them, Aaron and Kimo, play off blocks well and make plays when you try to run on them," Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones said. "I've never seen guys that [if] you try to stop them on the first move, they'll come up with a counter and then come at you with a bull rush. Right when you begin to worry about them stuffing the run, that is when they will give you a club move and rush the quarterback."

"Most of my game is just defeating blocks," von Oelhoffen said. "I have to understand running plays and recognize a running play. I need to … get to where the ball can go and squeeze gaps so other guys can get to the ball. Most of it is strength and leverage. Most of the time, I can recognize a play by the alignment."

It was von Oelhoffen who knocked Cincinnati's Carson Palmer out of their wild-card game when he inadvertently rolled on the quarterback's left leg and tore up his knee. One week later, he was free on numerous plays, putting pressure on Peyton Manning and totally confusing the Colts' blocking scheme.

One of the things the Steelers' defense does so well is work stunts, mostly using linebacker Joey Porter and von Oelhoffen.

"I get all the credit but Kimo does all the dirty work," Porter said. "He goes in there and he beats up on the tackles and gives me an opportunity to try to run around them when they get tired."

Such praise makes von Oelhoffen, perhaps the lowest profile of all the linemen, laugh. Von Oelhoffen's home is in the state of Washington, and he owns a microbrewery called "Kimo's" in Richland, a 3½-hour drive from Seattle. To see the name Kimo in lights has to be unusual for him -- and for his teammates. He comes from a family of fishermen and was a walk-on in college. He went to junior college in Walla Walla, Wash., before going to Boise State.

Now he's a Steeler with a business in Seahawks country.

"I'm undercover," von Oelhoffen said. "I changed the name [from Rattlesnake Mountain Brewery] last year, so I really haven't gotten the brunt of it. I guess I will when I get back."

He's even thinking of serving Pittsburgh-based Iron City Beer in Kimo's, but that's for another time. For now, his job is to occupy blockers and let the linebackers run free.

"It's tough," Smith said of the jobs of the Steelers' defensive linemen. "When you have 900 pounds leaning on you, it's not much fun."

But the results are good. The Steelers are in the Super Bowl.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.