As Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is set to begin, Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look at each position battle and how players at those positions are expected to perform.
PITTSBURGH -- Dominant defenses usually are built from the front first, and this year's Steelers three-man defensive line could be its best in several years.
The emergence of end Cameron Heyward, who has moved to the right side, propelled the now fourth-year player among the NFL's best late last season. A first-year starter in 2013, Heyward played the left side much better than former starter and first-round pick Ziggy Hood ever did. Hood was a bust for the Steelers, but Heyward is a budding superstar.
Heyward tallied five sacks and seven pass breakups, to go with 35 solo tackles (59 total), so he makes plays no matter if the opponent runs the ball or throws it. That's been a sore spot for the Steelers front for several years now, as Aaron Smith suffered through several injured seasons and Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel aged. The Steelers attempted to replace the terrific trio, but were unsuccessful until they took Heyward in the first round in 2011.
Fifth-year player Steve McLendon is ready for a breakout season in his second year as a starter at nose tackle, but he's not there yet despite a strong work ethic. McLendon hasn't been Ziggy-like in his play, but he hasn't been close to Hampton, either, which hasn't helped the Steelers stop the run. McLendon must step up his game this season or he'll be replaced.
The Steelers beefed up their D-line through the draft and free agency this year, with beef being the operative word, as Camaron Thomas was signed after four seasons with San Diego. The 6-foot-4, 330-pound run-stopper primarily played nose tackle for the Chargers, but he is slated to play left end for the Steelers.
In this year's NFL Draft, the Steelers also selected end Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Daniel McCullers in the second and sixth rounds, respectively. Tuitt is 6-5 and 303 pounds, while McCullers is 6-7 and 352 pounds. Both are space-eaters and run-stoppers that the Steelers have lacked in the past few years.
Second-year player Nick Williams was a project when he was taken in the seventh round in 2013, and he's still at that level after missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury. Still, he could move into a backup end role with just a little work. He has tremendous athleticism, and Steelers D-line coach John Mitchell likes his potential.
Other defensive linemen on the roster are Josh Mauro, Ethan Hemer, Hebron "Loni'' Fangupo, Al Lapuaho, Brian Arnfelt and Roy Philon. Fangupo played in four games at nose tackle last year, but did not make a play. Arnfelt, a second-year end, played in two games after finally being activated and also did not make a play. However, the two have a year in the system, and that could help them maintain their roster spots. But it's not a given due to the three new defensive linemen secured in the draft and free agency.
Mauro is a rookie from Stanford, while Lapuaho is a first-year player from Utah State. Hemer is a rookie from Wisconsin, while Philon is a rookie from Louisville.