clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line has transitioned into a strength

There may be concerns about the Steelers defense as a whole in 2016. As for the defensive line, however, it may actually be the most talented and deep position on the roster, and will surely anchor Keith Butler’s unit this season.

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

I was talking football with some folks the other day, when the subject of Bud Dupree’s addition to the Injured Reserve list came up and how it could possibly hinder the Steelers pass rush in 2016.

Fair point, but I immediately blurted out (with barely a hint of homerism), “Yeah, but their defensive line is just so good.”

After that, we talked about the division of labor (that seems to be a new Tomlinism) regarding the pass-rush a year ago, and how 16 different players were credited with a portion of a sack, as the defense recorded 48.

Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt led the way with 7.5 and six sacks, respectively; pretty rare for defensive ends in a Steelers 3-4 defense to lead their team in sacks. But it’s important to point out this was most-likely the result of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler--in-conjunction with head coach Mike Tomlin’s influence and blessing—switching from the traditional two-gap style utilized for many years under the legendary Dick LeBeau, to a more aggressive, one-gap approach that allowed these athletically gifted and extremely talented linemen to be disruptive in the offensive backfield on a regular basis.

Heyward and Tuitt are play-makers (always were), so why not devise a scheme that allows them to make plays?

Heyward was a first-round pick in 2011, while Tuitt would have surely been a first-half of the first-round choice in 2014 had it not been for a hernia that slowed him during his final year at Notre Dame.

While few will argue that Heyward is Pittsburgh’s best player on defense, even fewer will protest the idea that 2016 could be a breakout year for Tuitt. That’s a lot of pedigree right there on the defensive line and reason to be optimistic about the pass-rush, along with the front-seven’s overall ability to make plays.

Yeah but how do you make up for the free agent loss of nose tackle Steve McLendon, a nice, serviceable player who signed with the Jets in March? By drafting a player in the third-round who performed so well in the preseason, “serviceable” would be an insulting way to describe his abilities.

I’m talking about Javon Hargrave, the nose tackle out of tiny South Carolina State who is actually explosive and athletic enough to also play defensive end (which, he no doubt will at various portions of the 2016 season).

Just how well did Hargrave perform in his rookie preseason? So well, if the little injury scare that forced him to leave Labor Day practice doesn’t prevent it, he will start against the Redskins in Week 1 on Monday Night Football.

After those three studs, the line gets a little thin, right? I thought so, that is, until I watched BTSC’s Nathaniel and Mike Frazer breakdown the nose tackle play of the new and improved big Dan McCullers.

Defensive line coach John Mitchell mentioned we’d be seeing a much better version of the 6-7, 350 pound sixth round draft pick out of Tennessee in the 2014 NFL Draft; I didn’t believe it as recently as a few days ago, but if coach Mitchell said it, it was obviously foolish to doubt him.

After three studs and a “Shade Tree,” you have veteran Ricardo Mathews, a free agent defensive end Pittsburgh signed from the Chargers. In his first preseason with the Steelers, Mathews showed enough ability that “serviceable” would be the ultimate compliment, considering why he was brought here in the first place (good depth is just so hard to find).

As for L.T. Walton, a sixth round pick in 2015, he hasn’t put a whole lot on tape. But if he was able to do enough to hang with such an impressive group of linemen...maybe next year, we’ll get to watch some film breakdowns of his improved play.

The cliche is, “Football games are won in the trenches.”

Much kudos has been given to the Steelers in recent years for infusing the offensive line with so much pedigree, and it’s gone from a liability to an asset.

When you look at the talent on the defensive line (to review, it includes a first-round pick; a second-round pick who should have been a first round-pick; a third-round pick who, had he attended a division I school and been even 75 percent as dominant and productive, probably would have gone in the first round; and a 6-7, 350 pound nose tackle who may have just figured out how to use his size to maul centers and push them into the faces of NFL quarterbacks on a weekly basis), it may actually trump the hogs on the offensive side.

So, will Dupree come back sooner rather than later from his sports hernia? Will Arthur Moats be able to pick up the slack? Will Jarvis Jones finally figure out how to rush the passer on a consistent basis? If he doesn’t, will the veteran James Harrison have his back at age 38?

What about that secondary?

Those are all questions that will be answered over the course of the regular season.

As for that defensive line. It may actually be the most talented unit on the entire team, and one that could be the anchor for the Steelers defense in 2016.