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Steelers Vertex: Examining the Steelers depth on the defensive line

It’s the only defensive position group who had the same players for the entire 2020 season and returned them all for 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There are some positions the Steelers are likely to completely pass over in the 2021 NFL draft. One such position is the interior defensive line. While some so-called “experts” might still mock players to the Steelers high in the draft, Steelers’ Nation knows better. It also doesn’t help that defensive tackle is not a position of strength in the draft this year.

With the Steelers returning all seven players on the interior of the defensive line from 2020, what do the Steelers have when it comes to depth? This is the topic for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

For this exercise, we are excluding the three projected starters for the 2021 season in Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu. The Steelers and their fan base have a pretty good idea what they have in these three players who were arguably the best interior defensive line in 2020. Other their combined $24,459,500 in salary cap in 2021 and their ages of 32, 28, and 34 respectively by the end of May (ironically their birthdays are all within 17 days of each other), our focus is going to be on the remaining four players.

The Steelers had the same seven players on the 53-man roster for the entire 2020 season. While players missed time due to injury or the Reserve/COVID-19 List, the Steelers did not need to add anyone else as they were carrying seven players instead of the typical six. Keeping the extra defensive lineman comes at a cost somewhere else on the roster, so there is no guarantee the Steelers will do it again this season.

When it comes to the statistics for the four reserve players on the defensive line, Chris Wormley had the most playing time with 148 defensive snaps during the regular season, exactly 300 less than Tyson Alualu. Next came Isaiah Buggs with 131 snaps followed by Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis with 88 and 54 respectively. In the playoff game, Wormley had 15 snaps and Davis had 5 while Mondeaux only played on special teams and Isaiah Buggs was inactive.

Chris Wormley was the only reserve defensive tackle to register a sack or start a game in 2020. He also led the way with three quarterback hits and added eight tackles. Isaiah Buggs actually had the most tackles with 11 and also had a quarterback hit. Henry Mondeaux also had two quarterback hits and added a tackle for loss on five total tackles. Rookie Carlos Davis finished with six tackles with one being for a loss.

While the stats paint part of the picture, the film will ultimately help determine the quality of the depth on the defensive line for 2021.

The Film Line:

The backup defensive linemen didn’t play a ton, and they rarely played together, but they did play a good bit in Week 9. With Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley both out for the game, and the Dallas Cowboys starting Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, the Cowboys rightly identified the defensive line depth as the best place to attack the Steelers. The Cowboys used heavy sets to force the Steelers into their 7-man fronts where they would be forced to play a backup, and multiple ones when Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt needed a breather. That makes it a great game to find film for these men.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 10:00. Henry Mondeaux is the nose tackle, Isaiah Buggs is the end to the left side of the screen.

The second quarter the Cowboys focused heavily on running the ball and wearing down the Steelers two great lineman, setting up opportunities to attack their depth. On this play Isaiah Buggs fights through a block that looks like he’s lost at first, and he makes a tackle for no gain. Henry Mondeaux is not a run stuffer, and the left guard doesn’t even need to double team him. Mondeaux is not a nose tackle.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 8:38. Defensive lineman left to right: Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, Henry Mondeaux.

All three reserves are in, and they actually do pretty well on this play. Isaiah Buggs gets combo blocked, can’t keep the double team on him, but he does slow down his blocker and that forces the runner to cut upfield on an inside lane. But look at the nose tackle. Carlos Davis takes the shove from the right guard, and still controls the center, not allowing him to seal the lane and he makes the tackle. Good hustle from Henry Mondeaux on this play, getting off a cut block to get in on the play.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 7:52. Carlos Davis is the nose tackle.

Here’s a pass rush play from Carlos Davis, he’s not going to beat that double team, but he gets off of it and chases the quarterback, and you see the quickness he brings to the interior, even if his pass rush is limited by a lack of good moves.

Week 9, 3rd quarter, 11:12. Carlos Davis (#73) is the nose tackle.

Love this play. Davis picks up on the screen (not as quick as Heyward does) and is fast enough to get to the ball for a 4-yard loss. That’s good awareness, hustle and athleticism.

Isaiah Buggs showed his value as a scrappy, tough and fighter on the line throughout the season, he’s not polished or athletic but he’s gonna give you a dog fight every snap he’s on the field, and sometimes on the sideline as well.

Henry Mondeaux was better this season than he has been, but he’s still really only a pass rusher, he either wins with a rush move or gets pushed around.

Carlos Davis flashed some real talent though, he’s fast and big and he hustles. and after a call up for Week 9 ended up playing in 6 games while Isaiah Buggs battled injuries and illness. He was still showing up late in the season.

Week 17, 4th quarter, 5:51. Carlos Davis (#73) is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen, he starts the play behind the goal post.

My favorite part of this play is the point when he has read the play, and he puts his head down and drives into his blocker to create space to get off the block and make the tackle. He’s got fight in him.

Week 17, 2nd quarter, 3:34. Chris Wormley is the defensive lineman furthest to the left on screen

This is Chris Wormley’s lone sack and only tackle for a loss in 2020. He wasn’t good for the Steelers, and only played 17 snaps more than Isaiah Buggs. The Steelers re-signed Wormley for two seasons at essentially the same rate he was paid in 2020, so they clearly believe that 2020 didn’t show his actual value, as he was fighting through injuries all season.

On film, even if Chris Wormley can’t be what the Steelers think he is, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis and even Henry Mondeaux can be solid depth for the main three lineman. If Wormley becomes the clear #4 lineman, this group will be really good and deep.

Carlos Davis is the one I’m most excited about. When he was drafted I did his film room, and it wasn’t complimentary.

His first action in the NFL, in Week 9, Carlos Davis looked like a much better player. That kind of growth arc makes me wonder if the Steelers might have found another Javon Hargrave, just in the 7th round this time.

The one area of his game that shows up on film as a big negative is his lack of pass rush moves.

If only he could improve that. . .

Yeah. That’s Chuck Smith, the guy who worked with Bud Dupree to develop his pass rush beyond the “run fast and push hard” we saw early in his career, into a guy that can beat one-on-one blocks regularly. If Davis can add pass rush ability to his rapidly improving skill set, he could be a real asset for the Steelers as they push to get to the Super Bowl, a game Carlos Davis’s twin brother played in last season for the Buccaneers.

The Point:

It’s not that all of the Steelers defensive lineman are locked in to the roster going into the 2021 season, but we can see why the Steelers kept all seven of them on the active roster in 2020. Were any of these players not able to make the roster for 2021, chances are they would be picked up by another NFL team and would not make it to the practice squad. If the Steelers choose to only keep six players, it will be a battle to see who can stay in Pittsburgh. This list doesn’t even include Abdullah Anderson who signed with the Steelers after playing in one game last season with the Minnesota Vikings, as well as 2020 practice squad players Calvin Taylor and Demarcus Christmas.

As for looking at this position in the draft, with it being a very weak class along with any new player fighting for playing time as the starters seem to be pretty locked in, it wouldn’t be in the Steelers best interest to add a defensive tackle this year. If they were use high draft capital, the player is likely going to end up only with a rotational spot and the Steelers should use their top picks to help fill other needs. If they decided to pick up another defensive tackle late, they run the risk of being lost in the crowd. When looking at the Steelers roster at this point, the interior defensive line may be the most productive at the top as well as having quality depth way down the chart more than any other position group.