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The Steelers defensive line restructuring reveals a rebuilding mindset

In typical Mike Tomlin fashion, the Steelers said alot while saying precious little with their recent defensive line restructuring.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Personnel evaluations are a crucial part of any successful rebuilding process. Contending teams have usually built established and productive lineups. Any starting lineup or depth chart changes are often based on injuries or ineffectiveness. Personnel stability allows for team chemistry through familiarity.

The Steelers are a franchise renowned for their stability. From the front office, to the coaching staff, to player personnel; changes are infrequent and, therefore, noticeable. Most substantial changes are the result of free agency losses and additions, or retirements. That has definitely been the case for the Steelers over the past four or five seasons.

The Steelers went from perennial contender to determined pretender. I say pretender because the Steelers are in the middle of a complete rebuild that they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge, at least publicly. However, the past few draft classes and free agency acquisitions, and their usage, reveals the truth. As did the change to the Steelers starting defensive line announced this week. The type of difficult change that is often a necessity for a rebuilding team.

The Steelers announced on Tuesday that Montravius Adams was being promoted to starting nose tackle, and veteran Tyson Alualu will be relegated to the bench. There are multiple reasons for this change to the starting lineup, both of them the obvious and subtle variety.

Mike Tomlin stated during his weekly press conference that the move was made because Adams has simply been outperforming Alualu thus far this season. While that may be true, I believe that there is more to the decision than meets the eye.

Alualu had a strong performance in the Steelers road upset of the Bengals in the season opener. His performance was nondescript against the Patriots in Week 2, and he followed that up with the worst performance of his Steelers career against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football.

The fact that Alualu's performances have been trending in the wrong direction is unarguable, but the reasons why are worth discussion.

Alualu is a 35 year old veteran who is returning from a broken leg that caused him to miss basically the whole 2021 season. The Steelers run defense suffered badly in his absence, finishing the year dead-last in the NFL. In 2020, just a year prior, Alualu was part of the highest graded defensive line in the league, especially of the 3-4 variety.

Many have already assumed Father Time has finally caught up with Alualu, accompanied by all the various aches and pains that comes with the advancing years. While that may be partially true, I believe there are other unforeseen factors at work here.

For starters, the Steelers are currently missing the other-worldly talents of T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Every member of the Steelers defense is feeling his absence, including the Steelers other star defenders. Standout performers like Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Alex Highsmith are still effective, but none are as impactful without the offensive game plan destroying talents of T.J. Watt, easily the Steelers most valuable player. Every Steelers defender's performances have diminished in Watt's absence, including the aforementioned Big Three. Why should Alualu be any different?

Secondly, the Steelers played the Cleveland Browns’ league best rushing attack on the road, coming off a short week. Only four days after a particularly punishing second half against the New England Patriots, where the Patriots dominated the time of possession by leaning on their fundamentally sound running game to close out the game. The Steelers issues on defense are two-fold. The Steelers offense has struggled mightily to convert third downs needed to possess the football. The Steelers defense is missing the four or five momentum shifting plays that Watt creates each week; whether they be batted passes, QB sacks, or tackles for losses. However you spin it, the big plays are few and far between without Watt.

Finally, replacing a possibly deteriorating veteran with a substantially younger up-and-coming player with potential is exactly the kind of insightful maneuver that a rebuilding team needs to make.

In case anyone hasn't been paying attention, the Steelers have made a concerted effort to get younger and more talented over the past few seasons. The established core of proven veterans has retired and moved on. The Steelers now possess one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, especially on offense, and it appears destined to get even younger in the near future. The Steelers are building a talented roster young enough to grow together.

Montravius Adams is a 27 years young athlete with explosive potential. He has a lightning fast first step that he utilizes to split double teams and penetrate the opposing backfield. He is a disruptive force in the middle of the Steelers defense. Adams doesn't anchor as well as Alualu, but he has proven effective in a different way. The Steelers defense needs difference makers at the moment. Hopefully, Adams can supply some of what's been missing.

That doesn't mean Alualu has lost his value for the Steelers, quite the contrary. Alualu offers invaluable experience and depth at the position. Often times an aging veteran proves more effective with decreased usage, allowing them to stay refreshed enough to go all out with few snaps. Alualu's insights and leadership are also beneficial to the younger linemen.

When confronted with the situation of starting an aging veteran versus a much younger understudy, a prudent rebuilding franchise will start the young up and comer. The player with the greater probability of making meaningful contributions to the rebuilding efforts for the foreseeable future.

In some small way, whether intention or not, this defensive line reshuffling perfectly exemplifies the behavior of a rebuilding franchise.