Ernie Stautner, Joe Greene, Joel Steed, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Cameron Heyward. . . Pittsburgh Steeler defenses are almost always built from the defensive line back, and this Steelers team is no different.
While the edge rushing duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree rack up all-time great statistics, and the secondary blossoms into one of the best in the NFL under young superstar Minkah Fitzpatrick, the strength of this defense remains the defensive line.
The big two
Cameron Heyward just signed an extension, making him the 8th highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL. While fans will fret the salary cap with all the players needing signed in the coming years, Cameron Heyward is not the 8th best defensive lineman in the NFL. You could rank him anywhere between 2nd and 5th and I could make an argument for it. In 2019 he was clearly a top 3 defensive lineman, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. His contract is also only $100K more per season than the one Geno Atkins signed in 2018, it’s an incredibly team friendly deal for a player and leader of Cam Heyward’s level.
The last three seasons have been great ones for Heyward, recording 29 sacks, 63 QB hits, 37 tackles for a loss and 110 solo tackles, 12 passes defended in 47 games. Every one of those is top five for interior defensive line, the only player to be top five in all those categories at his position (Aaron Donald only misses due to passes defended). One of the most well-rounded defensive tackles in the game, there is truly no way to scheme around Cameron Heyward’s strengths. Whatever the defense wants to do, whatever the opposing offense wants to do, Cam Heyward is gong to be elite.
Stephon Tuitt looked like he might be even better than Cameron Heyward before his injury in week 6 of 2019. Tuitt’s production through game five, 3.5 sacks, 6 QB hits, 6 TFL and 18 solo tackles was one of the best lines in the NFL. He and Cam Heyward were easily off to the best start of any defensive tackle pairing in the NFL. It is easy to think that Tuitt turned a corner and was better than he has ever been, but the truth is, we’ve seen that level of production before from Tuitt.
Stephon Tuitt’s stats from the first 5 games of 2015: 3.5 sacks, 6 QB hits, 5 TFL, 20 solo tackles. Almost identical to his production from early last season. 2015 was his most productive NFL season, 6.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 8 TFL, 39 solo tackles. He even intercepted a pass that season. Stephon Tuitt isn’t a finisher, he isn’t great at turning pressure into sacks, he isn’t the best at getting off blocks, he’s a defensive lineman who is big and strong and bullies opposing lineman, driving them backwards and destroying the offense’s play design.
Because of his playstyle, his stats are more erratic than other players. He will go stretches without recording a tackle for loss, sack or even a QB hit, but then when a favorable situation presents itself, he’ll record a flurry of stats. Week 10 of 2017 was such a game, that season he had 3 QB hits, 2 TFL and no sacks heading into a game against the Colts, a game Tuitt would record 4 QB hits, 1 sack and 3 TFL. More than doubling his stats for the year. He would record 5 QB hits, 3 TFL and 2 sacks the rest of the season.
While Tuitt’s stats are highly inconsistent, his impact on the game isn’t. Tuitt is a monster to block, and he regularly creates opportunities for other players to make plays due to the attention he gets. In 2018 opponents were worried about Tuitt early in the season, and while Tuitt recorded 0 sacks, 0 TFL and 4 QB hits in the first 5 games, T.J. Watt recorded 6 sacks, 7 TFL and 12 QB hits. In 2019 as teams focused more heavily on Watt, they were able to lower Watt’s production, but Tuitt’s production increased. Compare their combined stats from 2018 and 2019 over the first 5 games of the season:
2018: 6 sacks, 7 TFL, 16 QB hits.
2019: 7 sacks, 12 TFL, 16 QB hits.
No matter who the stats go to, Stephon Tuitt is a big part of the success of the Steelers defense. If Tuitt can stay healthy in 2020, the defense is gong to be that much better for it.
Key supporting staff
Tyson Alualu was a popular pick for the Steelers in the second or third round in mock drafts back in 2010, he ended up being selected tenth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, a draft status he would not live up to. Tyson Alualu has never made the Pro Bowl, never recorded 5 or more sacks in a season, and has only been a starter for 6 of his 10 seasons in the NFL.
Alualu may not be a star, or even a starter, but he is smart and strong and experienced. Alualu is a tough man to move, and he does a good job diagnosing plays and responding correctly. He isn’t explosive or quick, he doesn’t create much pass rush threat, but he’s stout against the run and does a good job sealing the pocket for other rushers.
In 2020 Alualu looks to have an expanded role as the #3 defensive lineman on the team. He is the second oldest player on the roster, behind only Ben Roethlisberger, but he has missed a total of 3 games in his career. He is the epitome of a reliable veteran presence, and gives the Steelers confidence in their depth on the line. His reliability is a big plus for a team with Stephon Tuitt, who is more impactful when healthy, but who has also missed 20 games in the last 5 seasons and hasn’t started 16 games yet in his career.
Chris Wormley was a Baltimore Raven for three seasons before a trade brought him to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A team captain and first team all big ten defensive tackle for the Michigan Wolverines in college, his stat line for the Baltimore Ravens might seem disappointing. Wormley was the third defensive lineman, behind Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, and his 1.5 sacks, 2 TFL and 6 QB hits don’t jump off the page at you. But those numbers actually led his position group, tied for the most tackles for a loss among Raven’s interior lineman, and leading in both sacks and QB hits. Wormley also came second in solo tackles and recorded the only 2 pass defenses on the unit.
One has to wonder if the system in Pittsburgh will be better suited for Wormley, and if so, how productive can he be? The Steelers defense relies more on the defensive line to create pressure and wreak havoc on the offense, and not just setting up the linebackers and blitzers to get stats. We may have to wait a while to really find out what Wormley can do in this defense, as he missed a lot of training camp and could take some time getting his feet under him.
Developmental players and depth
Isaiah Buggs was a 6th round pick in 2019. He made the roster but wasn’t active until Stephon Tuitt was lost for the season. After the bye week Buggs was active and saw the field in every game, and on film he didn’t look bad at all. Isaiah Buggs will likely move up one spot in the pecking order on the defensive line in 2020, with Dan McCullers on the practice squad and rookie 7th round pick Carlos Davis likely behind Buggs.
Isaiah Buggs play time and production puts him in the same category as Steve McClendon and Daniel McCullers rookie seasons, it will be interesting to see how he develops from here.
Carlos Davis was the Steelers 7th round pick in 2020, and after a scathing film review of his college tape (link below), I had written him off as simply a long-shot developmental pick that was unlikely to do anything but get a year on the practice squad. His college film showed good quickness and agility for a man his size, but it also showed really poor technique that had him getting pushed around most of the time. To his credit Davis made this 53 man roster over several other options, so whatever he was doing at camp, it was a lot better than his college film. If he can stick on the 53 man roster and see some spot duty on defense it will be a good sign for his future.
Daniel McCullers is the only former Redman Award winner still connected to the Steelers, and right now that’s only as a practice squad player. Daniel McCullers was the mountain of a man that Steeler fans wanted at nose tackle, but there is a reason that position is dying out in the NFL, big strong men that can anchor against double teams rarely have the quickness to be good at defending the horizontal game the NFL has become. While McCullers isn’t on the roster right now, the Steelers can call him up 2 times from the practice squad if they feel he offers more than Davis or Buggs on the active roster for a specific week.
Henry Mondeaux made the practice squad after earning a training camp invite as a non-rookie at rookie camp (I don’t make the rules, I just fail to understand them). Mondeauz stayed on the practice squad all season, even when the Steelers were undermanned on the defensive line and ended up carrying 5 while bringing Tuzar Skipper back to the active roster. Mondeaux making the practice squad again is a good sign, especially with 2 young and largely unproven players on the roster. But sitting on the practice squad a second full season isn’t the kind of start to a career you want. If the Steelers pass him over again in call up situations he’s not likely to survive to a third season.
The Steelers don’t have the depth they had in 2019 on the defensive line with Javon Hargrave in Philadelphia, but with the addition of Wormley and development from Isaiah Buggs, they should be in good shape behind their dynamic duo of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
K.T. Smith’s breakdown from week 6 (first half is d-line)