This is the third article in a series reviewing how the Steelers’ positional groups fared in 2022. Here, we look at the outside linebackers and defensive line, or for practical purposes, the front. It was a group that performed well overall but could use an infusion of depth and young talent to complement its star players.
Let’s start with the obvious: the Steelers have some high-end players along their defensive front. Counting the outside linebackers, who often play like defensive ends in Pittsburgh’s scheme, they have two of the best at their respective positions in the NFL. Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt remain sensational players with the ability to change football games by themselves. And Alex Highsmith, who led the team in sacks this past season, appears to be a star-in-the-making. With three-fifths of the front in the hands of elite players, the group appears in great shape.
Look closer, though. Heyward is 33. He’s still playing like a Pro Bowler, but there were times this year, like the first game against Baltimore, where he got pushed around a bit. Heyward should remain a force on defense next season. But he’s reached the point in his career where it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can play that way.
Watt, at age 28, is still in his prime. He missed seven games in 2022 with a pec injury, though, and the Steelers went 1-6 in those contests. The Steelers are 1-10 in games Watt has missed over his career, which speaks to how valuable he is to the franchise.
The degree to which Pittsburgh depends on Heyward and Watt to lead the front is problematic. An injury to one or the other leaves them perilously thin. Highsmith is a bright spot, but beyond him the forecast gets cloudy. Who among the remaining cast played well enough in 2022 to be counted on to supplement their star players moving forward? Here’s a breakdown.
When Ogunjobi was healthy, he was a beast. He is incredibly quick for his size (6’3-305) and his get-off at the snap allows him to penetrate and collapse the interior of an offensive line. Plays like this one demonstrates Ogunjobi’s athleticism. Look at his initial step, and how he wins first contact. No interior player along Pittsburgh’s front possesses this type of quickness:
We see something similar on this play, where Ogunjobi works a jab step with an arm-over move to beat a zone block:
Ogunjobi plays with power, too. Watch him toss New York’s 320-pound right guard to the ground with a great push-pull move:
A healthy Ogunjobi is an ideal complement to the physically dominant Heyward and gives the Steelers an imposing duo at defensive tackle.
The key word above is “healthy.” The foot injury Ogunjobi suffered in 2021 lingered. He missed early-season games against Buffalo and Philadelphia and was limited in others. Ogunjobi didn’t get fully healthy until after the bye week. Once he did, the defense took off. Ogunjobi participated in at least 67% of the snaps in seven of Pittsburgh’s final nine games. The Steelers went 7-0 in those contests and gave up 17 points or less in each one.
Unfortunately, Ogunjobi is an unrestricted free agent. He is 28 years old and may look for a multi-year deal with an annual salary north of the $8 million he earned this past season. The key to Ogunjobi’s return likely revolves around general manager Omar Khan’s ability to resign him at a number with which Khan is comfortable.
Wormley is another unrestricted free agent whose return to Pittsburgh is questionable. His production dipped in 2022. He went from 51 tackles, seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 2021 to 29 tackles, half a sack and one QB hit this past season. The decline in numbers was partly a factor of a reduction in playing time. Wormley played 40% of the defensive snaps in the games for which he was active, as opposed to 71% in 2021. He also missed the final four games after injuring his knee in Week 14 against Baltimore. The injury will require surgery and could delay his start to the 2023 season.
Wormley has never been great against the run, often getting overpowered at the point of attack by some of the better blockers in the league. Here, lined up to the left of center against Philadelphia, Wormley (95) can’t keep his gap integrity on a zone run, which creates a cutback lane for the back:
This was not an uncommon sight. Wormley lacked the strength to anchor against the run and was often overpowered because of it.
In 2021, Wormley offset his shaky run defense by providing good pressure on opposing quarterbacks. For some reason, he lost that ability in 2022. Too often he wound up glued to opposing linemen. Here, working against the right guard from New Orleans, Wormley can neither separate nor get a push. He begins with a bull rush, then tries a half-hearted swim move when the initial rush is thwarted. It’s a bad rep, and one which raises concerns about Wormley’s effectiveness:
Still, as a veteran backup who can spell the starters and mentor his younger line mates, Wormley has a role in Pittsburgh. The knee injury will probably drive down interest in him in free agency, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return on a one-year deal in the neighborhood of the $2.25 million for which he played the past two seasons.
Adams is back in 2023 on a contract that comes with a cap hit of $3.2 million. Cutting him would result in a sunken cost of just over $700,000, which is manageable should the Steelers go that route.
Will they? It’s hard to say. Like Wormley, Adams was a bit under-whelming in 2022. He lacks ideal size at the 1-tech, where he often plays, and is neither strong nor quick enough to compensate in an every-down situation.
Also like Wormley, Adams has proven to be a reliable backup. He can play both interior tackle positions and he understands Pittsburgh’s scheme. Adams also showed his value in the locker room by being vocal about preserving Mike Tomlin’s streak of consecutive non-losing seasons.
“Something that means a lot to me is Coach T,” he told reporters in December. “He’s never had a losing season, and I don’t want that under my belt.” Adams’s remarks carried weight with his teammates, and I’m sure with the coaching staff as well.
Still, saving $2.5 million by cutting Adams may be tempting if there’s a young player at the position the Steelers like. It will be interesting to see what route they take with him.
Speaking of, Leal showed plenty of promise as a rookie. He is quick and agile, which fits what the Steelers are looking for in their defensive linemen. Gone are the days when they sat in a base 3-4 and asked their linemen to eat blocks and plug gaps. The Steelers want penetrators who can disrupt blocking schemes and get into the backfield. Leal fits that mold.
They also want their linemen to rush the passer. While the outside linebackers are most closely associated with this in Pittsburgh’s scheme, the emphasis on quick linemen has increased their sack production in recent years. Heyward had a combined 25 sacks over his first six years in the league. In the last six, he has 53.5. He’s improved as a player in that time, but the scheme has turned him loose.
Leal fits that mold, too. Look at this beautiful spin move from Pittsburgh’s pre-season game in Jacksonville. Granted, it’s pre-season, but it shows the athleticism he possesses. Leal didn’t record any sacks in 2022, but in limited reps showed plenty of potential as a pass rusher.
What makes Leal really exciting, though, is his versatility. He can kick outside and play the edge when necessary. The Steelers used him in that role when Watt was injured, and Leal afforded himself respectably. Here, we see him squeeze a down block, then redirect quickly to take on a pulling guard:
On this play, Leal shows decent lateral quickness, beating the reach block of an offensive tackle to disrupt a bubble screen:
Some have made Lamar Woodley comparisons with Leal. I don’t think he’s quite that athletic or moves as well as Woodley. But I do think he’s versatile enough to move anywhere on the front from the 1-tech to the edge, which makes him a valuable player. Leal should make a jump next season as the Steelers find bigger roles for him in both their base and sub-package defenses.
2022 was a disappointment for Loudermilk. After showing potential as a rookie, he got lost in the shuffle this past season and did little of note with the reps he was afforded. Loudermilk was inactive the first five weeks, then averaged 22 reps per game in weeks 6-8, where he was largely ineffective. He received just 35 total snaps over the next eight games before tallying 17 in the season finale against the Browns.
The big issue with Loudermilk is his leverage. He’s 6’7 and he plays every bit that tall. Until Loudermilk learns to get under the pads of blockers, he will continue to struggle. He was a project when the Steelers drafted him out of Wisconsin. Two years into his career, he remains one.
The Steelers are extremely thin behind Watt and Highsmith. Malik Reed is an unrestricted free agent who did little to distinguish himself and seems unlikely to return. Jamir Jones is a journeyman who has bounced around the league. Leal can take reps at edge but shouldn’t be seen as a solution should Watt or Highsmith go down.
One name that has raised some intrigue is Quincy Roche, whom the Steelers resigned recently. Roche was Pittsburgh’s 6th Round pick in 2021 but was cut surprisingly after a solid pre-season. He was picked up by the Giants, where he played in 14 games, registering 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Roche preserved a Giants victory over Las Vegas that year with this strip-sack of Derek Carr. Coming off of the far edge, you can see how well he dips and bends on his pass rush:
I like this next rep a lot, where Roche (indicated by the arrow to the left of the screen) again uses good leverage to get skinny on an inside rip move and create penetration:
Roche was up-and-down between the practice squad and active roster in New York in 2022. He lacks power and can be a liability against physical run teams. Still, he could find a role in Pittsburgh as a situational player.
While one of Jones or Roche should make the roster next season, expect Pittsburgh to acquire either a more seasoned edge player in free agency or a prospect with better pedigree in the draft.
In Watt, Heyward and Highsmith, the Steelers clearly have star power up front. Leal adds promise to that picture. From there, things get cloudy. Ogunjobi’s return would be tremendous but will likely come down to money. Same for Adams, albeit on a smaller financial scale. A decision on Wormley will depend on the health of his knee and whether the Steelers think he can still play. Loudermilk must show growth to make an impact. On the edge, a solid number three should be a high priority. There is work to do this off-season, for sure. But, with a decent amount of cap space and four of the top 80 picks in the draft, the Steelers should be able to make the necessary moves to keep the unit a strength.