clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2021 Steelers Roster Outlook: The defensive line

Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt return, who will join them on the defensive line?

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Welcome to my series of articles leading up to the start of free agency, looking at who is currently on the roster at each position, and what the Steelers could look to add to each room in free agency and the draft.

The Steelers defense was the strength of the team in 2020, and the defensive line was the heart of that defense. As good as the secondary played, and as valuable as T.J. Watt is, the Steelers defense starts with the men in the trenches, and they are the heart of that defense. Their numbers stand out among interior defensive lineman in the NFL.

The Steelers led the NFL in Sacks, tackles for a loss, and QB hits. But even when they didn’t get a hit on someone in the backfield the Steelers led the NFL in pressure rate, their 35% rate was more than 7% higher than second place, and while T.J. Watt’s numbers top the entire NFL the Steelers interior lineman rank really highly compared to their peers. No other team has two interior lineman with pressure rates higher than Stephon Tuitt’s 10.9%, and Cameron Heyward beat that with an 11.8% pressure rate. Aaron Donald recorded a 12.8% pressure rate. While Cameron Heyward only recorded 4 sacks on the season, he led all interior lineman in QB hits with 38 in 2020. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward were the top interior defensive line duo for pressures and QB hits.

That pressure from the interior drives the sack numbers from the edge rushers, as pressure up the middle destroys the quarterback’s ability to avoid edge pressure. It is no coincidence that the Steelers ranked 8th in defensive line spending at 31.9 million in 2020, and that didn’t include Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt’s contracts, while about half of the teams above them include edge rushers in their defensive line, because the Steelers edge rushers are linebackers.

For 2021 the Steelers defensive line cap hit is currently 26.3 million, as Cameron Heyward’s cap hit drops due to his restructure, and they shed over 5 million in salary with Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley’s contracts expiring.

But that also leaves the Steelers without their #3 and #5 defensive lineman by defensive snaps played. Let’s look at the names:

The Stars:

Cameron Heyward: Always underrated, even when he is winning All-Pro honors, Cameron Heyward is not a flashy, highlight reel defensive lineman, but he does his job as well or better than anyone, no matter what that job is. He can line up anywhere on the defensive line and excel, he plays the run and the pass both at an incredibly high level, he can 2-gap or penetrate, and is one of the best at containing quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. There are very few snaps you can find where he really loses to an offensive lineman 1v1, and there are entire games where he dominates almost every single snap.

Heyward is easily top three all time for Steelers defensive lineman, behind only Mean Joe Greene and right there with Ernie Stautner. There’s nothing that any coach asks their defensive tackles to do that Cameron Heyward isn’t great at, but more than that he shows the intelligence to adapt his play on the fly to fill holes and adjust to what is happening around him, all while being blocked. Oh, he’s also been a team captain for more than half his career.

The Steelers rewarded Heyward with a new contract before the 2020 season, and he has already restructured that deal this offseason. only question here is how much longer Heyward can keep playing at this high of a level as he turns 32 this offseason.

Stephon Tuitt: The best smile on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster fittingly belongs to the guy that plays with the most ferocity. It’s often said that opposites attract, and that may explain Tuitt and Heyward playing so well together for the past 7 years with no sign of that coming to an end soon. Where Heyward is methodical, incredibly versatile and sound in his responsibilities, Stephon Tuitt is almost reckless in crashing the offensive line and disrupting what they want to do. Tuitt creates chaos, and the numerous elite athletes in the Steelers front 7 feast on that chaos.

At 27 years old, Stephon Tuitt currently has the third highest cap hit on the team (14.9 million), and while that contract has been restructured before, he is a candidate for a restructure again with a 9 million base salary that could see a chunk of that pushed into 2022.

Those are your starters, and they are the best starting pair in the NFL.


Depth:

Isaiah Buggs: The Steelers 6th round pick from 2019 has made it through 2 NFL seasons, and played more and better in 2020 than he did in 2019. He doesn’t offer much of anything as a pass rusher, recording 1 pressure each in his first two seasons. A good depth piece, but he doesn’t seem to have much chance to become more than that. Being on a 6th round rookie deal, he is about as cheap as they get, and the Steelers rarely cut players on rookie contracts. Buggs is almost certainly going to be a Steeler in 2021, whether he can build on his role or not.

Henry Mondeaux: Mondeaux went undrafted in 2018 and joined the Steelers in 2019, sitting on the practice squad that entire season. He started the season on the practice squad again in 2020, but was called up for the week 7 game against the Titans, playing on defense in almost every game, while playing roughly 60% of special teams snaps. He is set to make $780 thousand dollars in 2021, and will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2022. With his ability to play on special teams and add situational pass rushing depth to the line, as well as the team having him cheap for the next two years, Mondeaux is also very likely to be on the team next season.

Carlos Davis: I was surprised when Davis made the 53 man roster as a 7th round rookie this year, instead of heading to the practice squad. He didn’t play much, and he didn’t stand out when he did play, but he looked a lot better than his college film, and that bodes well for his ability to compete for a roster spot in 2021.


Long shots:

The Steelers have a few more players that haven’t seen the field at all in the NFL, they are likely just camp bodies, but they also have a shot to unseat someone above them on this list.

Calvin Taylor: A big project, and by big I mean 6’9”. The Steelers take chances on guys like this because at their size they don’t have to be really good, they just need to be good enough to take advantage of their length and size. Taylor was a rookie last season, and he’s 23 years old, so there’s a chance he makes it, just not a good chance.

DeMarcus Christmas: He was offered a futures contract for 2021 after he was signed to the practice squad in November.

With three cheap and pretty solid depth options, the Steelers don’t need to add depth players to the defensive line, but they do have a need for the #3 defensive lineman, a player that will be getting around 40-50% of defensive snaps.

There are a few ways the Steelers could go in filling that spot.


Free Agency options

The Steelers would likely be looking for a cheaper veteran in free agency, because they are already in salary cap trouble, and younger, proven players are more expensive. If the Steelers are looking for young, unproven players with some upside, they have three of them on the roster right now, they don’t have any reason to sign a comparable player in free agency.


Potential signings:

J.J. Watt: I’ve covered it before, J.J. Watt would be primarily an edge rusher on the Steelers, but he would also play defensive end in their 3-4 sets. The Steelers could move Heyward or Tuitt inside, and even move Watt inside a bit as well, while relying on Isaiah Buggs or Carlos Davis to man the nose tackle spot when they want more run defense.

The reason he makes sense for the Steelers is Watt would fill the gap of a third defensive lineman and provide a rotational upgrade at edge rusher, making his cost versus replacement a much smaller hit for the Steelers, since they wouldn’t need to sign mid-tier veterans or spend a higher draft pick at those two positions.

Tyson Alualu: Alualu was a solid backup for the Steelers before the 2020 season. In 2020 he was incredible, dominating the line of scrimmage to the point that the Steelers kept their 3-4 front on the field more than they have in recent seasons, even as the rest of the NFL continued the trend of moving away from 7-man fronts.

Watt or Alualu are the only free agents that make sense to me. If they don’t sign one of these two I expect they will draft a player to fill the #3 role.


Draft Options

I’m not a draft guy, so mostly I’m going to tell you the profile to look for. The Steelers like defensive lineman that play the run and pass well, and look more for guys who mess up the offensive play more than put up stats. If no free agent is signed I expect a higher draft pick to be spent on the position. There’s really only one spot that needs filled, any players added beyond that take a roster spot from someone who played last season, and with the number of players needed and the salary cap constraints, I don’t expect that.

Look for players that are touted for their leadership, motor, intelligence and who was physically dominant while not putting up great stats.

A high profile player that really fits the Steelers defensive line would be Alabama’s Christian Barmore, he reminds me of both Tuitt and Heyward on film, and would be a great addition to the defensive line. Again, more of the profile than a real potential pick as the Steelers have bigger needs than defensive line and Barmore isn’t likely to even be there when the Steelers draft.