Today's focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart is along the defensive front seven. This edition may not have the optimistic outlook that I had when I took a look at the offensive line, but I'm basing this on the premise that the Steelers run a traditional 3-4 defense.
That being said, the Steelers rarely lined up in their base defense in 2015, and instead ran all kinds of sub packages to get the right personnel on the field based on the offensive matchups on the field. This is not news to most Steelers fans as Coach Dad (Dick LeBeau) did many of the same of things with on the field personnel that Keith Butler does today.
Time to break down the depth chart.
This is such an interesting position to look at this year. Going into the 2016 season there is no guaranteed starter at Nose Tackle. The obvious nod should go to Daniel McCullers, by virtue of experience and comfort level with the defensive playbook. I (boldly) went on record a short time ago with the prediction that rookie Javon Hargrave would supplant McCullers as the starter by week one of the regular season. That being said, the Shade Tree is coming into his third year with the team, and if he's going to have his breakout season and solidify his spot as the starter, it has to come this year. However, I firmly believe that Hargrave has a higher ceiling and higher floor than McCullers and will take the job. But regardless which happens, I'm not sold on the depth at this position.
There are a couple of other guys on the current roster with DT next to their names who may or may not make the practice squad, and I won't list them here as potential backups. McCullers showed some progress last year in run support and is fairly nimble for such a large man. Hargrave has great college film. Neither one makes gives me great confidence yet. Without the presence of Steve McClendon, this position is very much in flux and there are too many questions with too few answers to feel good about either as a full time starter or next man up.
At least here the starters are set and if they stay healthy, are both forces to be reckoned with. The backups, however, give me pause. The top backups are former San Diego Chargers Ricardo Mathews and second year man L.T. Walton. A six year veteran, Mathews played in every game last season for the Chargers and had 21 tackles and a sack. He has some game experience, but rather pedestrian numbers. That is pretty much what you'd expect from a backup. There was some excitement surrounding Walton last year at training camp, but that didn't translate to success on the field. For that matter it only translated to getting a helmet once, against Cleveland in November, but he did not get onto the field. I'll chalk that up to the rookie learning curve. I'd like to see what Walton is capable of, but not because he gets into a starting role due to an injury to Heyward or Tuitt. There are a few other names on the roster, but I don't expect most to make the 53 man roster so they will not be mentioned here. One may get a shot to provide deep bench depth but I couldn't tell you who that might be. To say the drop off in production from starter to next man up would be enormous is an understatement.
I'm going out on a fairly sturdy limb saying that Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree should be your week one starters. If either struggles then opposing offenses will see more of James Harrison and Arthur Moats. Is this Anthony Chickillo's year to get a helmet every week? There has been a lot of buzz about Chickillo since arriving to Latrobe as a rookie in 2015. We can also add rookie Travis Feeney to the list of guys trying to make the 53 man roster. If this is to be the current group rotating at OLB, I feel pretty good about the depth at this position.
The biggest question for this group is the health of Ryan Shazier. If he goes down at all, Vince Williams has played very well in a rotation next to Lawrence Timmons. I won't lie; I was really hoping the Steelers found a way to keep Sean Spence. His comeback from the series of injuries that stole two years from him is nothing short of miraculous and he was my vote for comeback player of the year two seasons ago. The kid has grit and no small amount of skill. He will be missed, but I digress. Who else besides Williams is ready to step up and make a difference if Timmons or Shazier gets hurt? L.J. Fort has bounced around a bit and could get some snaps. He played in all 16 games for the Browns in 2012, recording 20 tackles and a sack. The name Stephen Johnson doesn't exactly make Steelers' fans jump up with excitement. Beyond Timmons, Shazier and Williams, the depth at ILB is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Pittsburgh has some great play-makers at most of the front seven starting positions and there is depth among the pass rushers. The first next man up at ILB is also solid. Beyond those there are some glaring weaknesses to watch for in the coming season. Not every team has the luxury of great depth. In fact, most probably don't and the Steelers may have it better than some, but I'm focused only on what I see right now from the current batch of men who wear the black and gold.