Stephon Tuitt announced his retirement on June 1st, and while it was a surprise to most of Steeler Nation, we don’t know how much of a surprise it was to the Steelers management. June 1st has big implications for salary cap management, and Tuitt saved the Steelers significant money by not retiring until the day he did.
With his retirement, a lot of analysts and fans have been saying the Steelers need to bring in another player to fill that spot on the roster. While that is certainly a possibility, and I’m not going to tell the Steelers how to run their team, I wanted to take a look at the roster, and the usage of the defensive line to see if there really is a need, or just an option to add a player.
Let’s start with how the Steelers use their defensive linemen. The Steelers use two main fronts in their defense. First, a three-man defensive line when they use a 7-man front, their 3-4 alignment Steeler fans have grown used to over the last 30 years. That front uses two defensive lineman as defensive ends and a third defensive lineman as a nose tackle. The other front is a four-man front that uses outside linebackers as the defensive ends and only two defensive lineman, both lined up as defensive tackles.
That means there are three basic alignments that Steelers defensive linemen will line up in. Defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle. Inside of those three designations there are tons of tweaks and roles that alter a player’s responsibility on a play, but for our purposes, those three basic titles will work fine.
How much do the defensive lineman actually play?
One thing that is almost guaranteed is there will be at least two defensive linemen on the field for any defensive play. There are plays where the Steelers go with only one, but those are rare plays.
So when we start looking at how many defensive lineman the Steelers use, we start with two guaranteed linemen per snap. When the Steelers use only two, those two are going to be lined up as defensive tackles with edge rushers outside of them. The defensive tackle alignment is also the one the Steelers use all of their linemen to fill. If the Steelers carry six defensive linemen, then they have six players that can, and will, play the defensive tackle alignment.
The Steelers also go with two defensive linemen far more often than they go with three. Even last season, when teams frequently sent out heavy sets to force the Steelers to play more defensive linemen so they could attack the injury depleted defensive line, the Steelers only averaged 2.34 defensive linemen per snap. So roughly 2/3 of the game the Steelers were running two defensive tackles, and 1/3 of the game they had a three man defensive line.
Looking at Pro Football Focus’s snap data we can look at Stephon Tuitt’s alignment data and see he was used as a defensive tackle roughly 2/3 of the time, with almost 1/3 of the time he was a defensive end, while a few snaps here and there he lined up as a nose tackle. Cameron Heyward moves around more in his alignments, lining up on the edge and at nose tackle more than other defensive ends, but he still spent roughly twice as many snaps at defensive tackle as he did at defensive end, his two most common alignments.
Lastly, looking at Tyson Alualu, he played slightly more snaps at defensive tackle than he did at nose tackle, but it was closer to 50/50 than the splits you see from Heyward and Tuitt. Going back before Alualu took over the nose tackle job, Javon Hargrave played anywhere from roughly 50/50 splits of defensive tackle and nose tackle to a 2/1 ratio of defensive tackle to nose tackle in his last season with the Steelers.
As Hargrave developed beyond being a nose tackle into one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, the Steelers gave him more snaps, and those snaps came at defensive tackle, and the Steelers even played him at end more as well. Nose tackle is not a flashy role where you put your play makers. It is a hard job with little statistical payoff.
With Tuitt gone, the Steelers lost one of their top defensive ends, so next we will look at the state of the Steelers depth chart with the division of labor in mind.
The defensive line depth chart is complicated
There are essentially two depth charts, because there are two different alignments the Steelers put their lineman in. Most depth charts only look at the three-man, 3-4 front, and that depth chart looks like the Steelers could use a veteran starter.
Right Defensive End: Cam Heyward, DeMarvin Leal, Henry Mondeaux
Nose Tackle: Tyson Alualu, Montravious Adams, Carlos Davis
Left Defensive End: Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk
Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk and third round rookie fighting it out to be a starter on the defensive line doesn’t sound like the best situation. Especially with both Wormley and Loudermilk showing that their impact on the football field is not well-rounded. Wormley is a good pass rusher and outside zone run defender, but struggles against power-based run schemes. Loudermilk is great defending the run, but offered almost nothing in pass rush his rookie season.
We’ll come back to this topic, but I also want to cover the other depth chart, the two-man front depth chart that matters 2⁄3 of the game.
Defensive Tackle #1: Cam Heyward, Isaiahh Loudermilk, DeMarvin Leal, Carlos Davis
Defensive Tackle #2: Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Montravious Adams, Henry Mondeaux
That depth chart is fine. Behind Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu you have four solid competitors for filling a defensive tackle spot. Montravius Adams showed he was a really good defensive tackle option on a rotation in 2021, and did a lot to shore up the Steelers run defense once he arrived. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Chris Wormley are both solid options and did pretty well as defensive tackles when they were forced into bigger roles in 2021.
Even Carlos Davis and Mondeaux showed they could be solid backup defensive tackles if they weren’t relied on too much. So really, the Steelers should be fine, well off and deep at defensive tackle if they don’t add anybody to the roster at this point. And that is assuming little to no growth from Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal doing very little in his first season.
Do the Steelers have a hole at defensive end?
With the defensive tackle depth chart in a good spot as is, the question becomes, do the Steelers have enough defensive end talent or do they need to go sign a veteran end?
We start with Cameron Heyward, Heyward is the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and right at the top of the list of all defensive linemen. he just needs a backup that can spell him for a while each game, and that’s not a key position. For the other side, the players that will be tasked with stepping up in Stephon Tuitt’s absence are mostly the ones that were tasked with that job in 2021. And that’s where the question marks begin.
Chris Wormley is a solid defensive end. He’s smart and positionally sound, he is athletic and a solid to good pass rusher who collects “mop up” sacks, getting to the quarterback when the play extends or the pocket has been disrupted and the quarterback is scrambling. Chris Wormley also does well against outside zone runs, screen passes and almost anytime awareness, smart movement and athleticism can win the play. His weakness is when the play is based on power and the offense is not trying to contain Wormley, but move him out of the way. Wormley doesn’t hold ground well, and he gets destroyed by double team blocks.
Isaiahh Loudermilk, as a rookie, was a great run defender who offered almost nothing in pass rushing. He also wore down the more he played, and the Steelers had to limit his play time. Loudermilk has talked about working on being ready to play more and in in more situations. I don’t expect Loudermilk to suddenly be a good pass rusher, but I expect we’ll see a more versatile player with better stamina who can be a top tier run defender for the Steelers at end or defensive tackle. I think Loudermilk, this season or in the near future, can become for the Steelers what Tyson Alualu was before his move to nose tackle, when he was the primary backup on the defensive line.
If the Steelers could perfectly line up when they need run defense and when they need pass rush, Loudermilk and Wormley would make a great rotation at defensive end. But the real wild card in this discussion is DeMarvin Leal. Leal was a disruptive penetrator on the defensive line in college. He was used quite effectively in the 4i alignment at defensive end, which is just inside where the Steelers typically will line up their defensive ends. It’s also an alignment that Brian Flores has used a lot to allow his defensive lineman to be more aggressive and disruptive.
Leal had the knock on him of not turning disruption into production, but finishing the play isn’t as important on the Steelers defense, Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Myles Jack, Devin Bush can all finish off plays when that play has been disrupted. Stephon Tuitt was inconsistent statistically, but he was always a disruptive force. I think Leal can be that player, even if it is in limited play time as a rookie.
Conclusion: The Steelers can stand pat if they want
I wouldn’t be shocked or angry if the Steelers go out and sign a veteran to step into Tuitt’s spot on the depth chart as the left defensive end. It’s quite possible they have seen Leal isn’t quite ready and Loudermilk is going to need more time to make that leap and go out and add someone.
But in my opinion, I think between Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk heading into year two and DeMarvin Leal’s fit for Brian Flores’ system the Steelers don’t need to go out and add a player. For one thing the Steelers typically carry 6 defensive linemen, and with the team playing 2.34 linemen a play on average, I doubt they would carry seven. That means an added lineman would kick Wormley, Loudermilk, Leal or Adams off the roster, and likely onto another team.
If it was Adams off the roster, that would leave a hole at backup nose tackle, which isn’t a likely move if you are upgrading defensive end. It’s hard to see Wormley, Loudermilk or Leal being cut for me, so I am doubtful that the Steelers add another lineman. But if they aren’t thrilled with how those three look in camp, then it would make sense.
The bottom line is, while the Steelers have space and money to go out and add a higher pedigree defensive end to replace Stephon Tuitt, there is no pressing need to do so. The Steelers have set themselves up to withstand the loss of Stephon Tuitt, so they don’t need to panic now that it happened.