Draft month is here! For the next few weeks, my articles will examine which position groups the Steelers might target in Round 1, and at the prospects who may be good fits for their scheme. We begin with the defensive line.
One of the worst-kept secrets of the 2021 NFL draft was that the Steelers needed a running back. The player they were most enamored with was Alabama’s Najee Harris. The Steelers were drafting at 1:24, and with no team in obvious need of a running back ahead of them, it was a safe bet to project Harris to Pittsburgh.
This year, the story is different. Pittsburgh still has needs entering the draft, but none so glaring as last season. Kevin Colbert remarked recently he believes the team has all of its starters in place except for the strong safety position, something that could not be said at this point a year ago. This gives the Steelers the flexibility, particularly in Round 1, to pursue a player they want over one they need.
Defensive line is one of the position groups they may consider in that pursuit. The Steelers have lots of bodies up front, and if everyone stays healthy they should be fine. But what if everyone doesn’t? That was the case last season, when starters Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu missed most or all of the season and the Steelers were forced to play a host of backups. They finished last in the NFL in stopping the run as a result, yielding 143.8 yards per game. Maybe players like Chris Wormley, Montravious Adams and Isaiahh Loudermilk will be better than they were a year ago. Maybe they won’t.
The good news is that Alualu will return, and so might Tuitt. Cam Heyward remains a stalwart up front, too. The bad news is Tuitt’s status remains uncertain. Also, Alualu will be 35 when the season starts, while Heyward will be 33. The unit must be restocked, not from the bargain-bin but from the top-shelf. That makes it a strong consideration in Round 1.
There’s been substantial talk about Pittsburgh’s interest in massive Georgia nose tackle Jordan Davis. The 6’7-365 pound Davis is a force inside, and would immediately upgrade the run defense. Davis is expected to go somewhere in the middle of the 1st Round, and would tempt the Steelers if he were on the board at 1:20.
While Davis is a unique talent, and would be a great addition to the defense, he’s not my favorite lineman in this draft. He’s not even my favorite lineman from Georgia. That title belongs to Devonte Wyatt, Davis’s teammate, who would provide greater versatility. Should the Steelers use their Round 1 selection on a defensive lineman, Wyatt would be my choice.
Let’s look at what makes Wyatt a special player, and at why he may be a better fit for the Steelers than Davis.
At 6’3-315, Wyatt is big and strong enough to play the interior 1 and 3-tech positions, but quick enough to move outside to the 5-tech. Against the run, his speed makes him disruptive, as he can slant and penetrate, but he can hold two gaps if necessary. He has plenty of experience, having played 42 games at Georgia, where he accumulated 113 tackles.
When I searched for film of Wyatt to study, I went immediately to Georgia’s two games against Alabama — first, the SEC championship, then the national championship — to see how Wyatt fared against the best college-level competition. Unfortunately, there was little to see. Not because Wyatt played poorly, but because, in one of the biggest compliments Nick Saban and his staff could have bestowed upon Georgia’s front, Alabama refused to run between the tackles. In both contests, their offense consisted of edge runs, perimeter throws, play-action passes and the vertical game. The inside rushing attack was nowhere to be found.
While that speaks volumes about Wyatt, Davis and their teammates, it didn’t help me much. Fortunately, some of Georgia’s opponents were
dumb kind enough to run between the tackles. Generally, these were futile exercises, as the Georgia front swallowed them up.
Here, Wyatt (circled) is too quick and too strong for Kentucky’s left guard. He beats him off the ball with a great first step and wins vertical leverage by keeping his pads low. When Wyatt plays with low pads, he is extremely hard to block.
Georgia capitalized on Wyatt’s mobility by often stemming him before the snap. Here, he slides from the B-gap to the A-gap and times the snap perfectly, beating the guard to make a tackle for loss. Wyatt combines a great get-off with excellent technique. Look at how he dips his left shoulder as he penetrates to reduce the blocking surface for the guard. This is a great example of a player applying his drill work from practice to a live situation:
Wyatt is also adept at taking on blocks and anchoring against double-teams. This is one of my favorite clips of him. Watch him widen his base and lower his pads to prevent movement against this guard-tackle combo from Auburn. Wyatt does an exceptional job of preventing the tackle from turning him, which ultimately results in a defender giving ground. Instead, Wyatt remains square and is able to play off of the block to make a tackle:
The only time I saw Wyatt struggle was when he played too high. That’s a common issue for young players. When he keeps his pads down, Wyatt is stellar against the run.
Wyatt is a solid pass rusher who would not need to be subbed out in passing situations. This is the thing, in my opinion, that elevates his value above Davis. Wyatt is a three-down lineman in the Cam Heyward mold. Davis is not. Davis was on the field for just 17 of the 202 snaps Georgia’s defense played in 3rd and 3-or-longer last season. While Wyatt was subbed out a fair amount in these situations too, that was often out of scheme preference, not necessity. The fact Wyatt can stay on the field is likely the reason Pro Football Focus ranked him ahead of Davis as their top-rated interior defensive line prospect in this draft.
Georgia ran a lot of games with their fronts, meaning they often slanted, pinched or looped their interior players. This was done to pull pass protectors out of their gaps and open rush lanes for other defenders. So, when we watch Wyatt rush the passer at Georgia, he’s not often a primary rusher, but is used to clear a path for someone else to get to the quarterback.
Below, we see him do this for Davis in the national championship game. Wyatt, aligned as the 3-tech to the left of Georgia’s defense, pinches across the guard’s face, collapsing him into the A-gap and impeding the center’s ability to block Davis, who is aligned as the nose. Look at Wyatt’s quick get-off, the speed at which he spins past the guard and, once he’s knocked down, how quickly he gets back to his feet. I’m not a big fan of the spin move as a pass rush tool — frankly, I think it’s a gimmick that competent offensive linemen who know how to stay balanced can easily counter — but here, as a way of penetrating the A-gap to muck up Alabama’s blocking scheme, it’s excellent:
Here’s another variation of that stunt, with Wyatt aligned as the 1-tech to the left of the center and Davis as the 3-tech on the opposite side. Wyatt is again used to pinch, with Davis crossing behind him. Alabama’s center does a nice job of not getting caught up with Wyatt, and comes off to block Davis. Wyatt, though, bull-rushes the guard into the lap of the quarterback. This combination of speed and power will undoubtedly be attractive to the Steelers.
When Wyatt was not being used in this capacity, and was one-on-one with blockers, his repertoire of moves made him difficult to contend. We’ve seen him spin and bull rush. Here, against Tennessee, after using a heavy dose of power moves to get the left guard to anchor his feet, Wyatt breezes past him with a nicely-executed two-hand swat. While this is bad technique by the guard, Wyatt was able to coax him into the mistake by consistently driving him into the backfield, then countering once the guard adjusted:
Here’s that move again, with Wyatt lined up on the nose against Auburn. Watch how he knocks down the hands of the center, then rips with his left arm to create a direct path to the quarterback. Wyatt is tough to block one-on-one, which, with Heyward and T.J. Watt on the field, is a scenario he’d see often in Pittsburgh.
Wyatt is not Aaron Donald. He’s unlikely to register double-digit sack totals. But he will be able to push the pocket to free up other rushers. And, when he’s left one-on-one, he will get pressure on the quarterback. His acumen as a pass rusher is significant to his overall value.
Scheme fit with the Steelers
The way a player fits in a team’s scheme outweighs their overall ability. This is why New England succeeded for so long with marginal receivers and why Kyle Shanahan values athletic linemen for his wide-zone run game. It’s why the Steelers have spent the off-season pursuing players who mesh with Matt Canada’s system. A player might be talented, but if he’s a bad scheme-fit his success will be limited.
The Steelers have trended away from being a traditional 3-4 team with a Casey Hampton-style nose for some time now. They play more two-man fronts, which require versatile linemen. With Brian Flores on board, it’s logical to expect some of his schemes to filter in as well. Flores values big men who can move, like he had in Miami with Christian Wilkins. Wilkins is 6’4-310 with good quickness and use of hands. This makes him comparable to Wyatt. Flores moved Wilkins up and down the line, playing him anywhere from the 0 to 5-tech. Often, like we see below, he schemed ways to get Wilkins (94) to the quarterback:
This should look familiar. It’s the pinch-and-loop stunt we saw above from Georgia against Alabama. Because Wyatt, like Wilkins, can play multiple positions, he could be deployed as either the pincher or the looper. The same cannot be said of Davis, who can penetrate but struggles to be effective moving laterally. In this sense, Wyatt’s versatility makes him a better fit for some of the looks the Steelers will employ.
Watch this clip from Pittsburgh’s 2020 defense. Look at how active they are up front. From left to right, Tuitt slants into the B-gap while Heyward and Alualu execute a beautiful pinch-and-loop. The stunt disrupts Denver’s blocking scheme, leaving both Heyward and linebacker Vince Williams unblocked:
The Steelers were unable to play these games up front last season because they lacked the interior players to do it. Wyatt would give them a versatile, athletic and powerful player with whom they could again get creative. His role in Georgia’s defense seems like a perfect training ground for how the Steelers would use him. While his teammate Jordan Davis is an attractive option for his run-stuffing ability alone, the do-everything nature of Wyatt’s game makes him an optimal choice should the Steelers select a defensive lineman in Round 1.