The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line situation is one of the many question marks going into the 2021-22 season. With changes to the quarterback, offensive line and linebacker positions (just to name a few) the defensive line is also going through some change.
The retirement of Stephon Tuitt is the biggest shakeup and piece of news when it comes to this group. Tuitt did not play in the 2020-21 season due to a knee injury/personal reasons. His retirement did not come as a surprise after the tragedy his family suffered last year when his brother was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
A quick aside – if you are upset with Tuitt about retiring, or the timing of his retirement, get over yourself. There’s no timetable for grief. Tuitt probably did everything he could to be physically and mentally ready to play this year, and it just didn’t happen. If you put the team making a roster decision a few more weeks in advance over a person’s life, you’re what’s wrong with sports.
Moving on! The Steelers are still in a good position from a roster standpoint on the defensive line. They made a Day 2 draft pick, are getting a reliable starter back healthy and provided good reps for some other players last year.
With that let’s take a look at who is on this team as of today!
The Steelers are still strong at the top at defensive end. Leading the group is Cameron Heyward who came off one of his best professional season last year. He had a career high 89 combined tackles in addition to 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
On the other side is Chris Wormley who had a breakout year last year. Starting 14 games in place of Tuitt, Wormley had seven sacks, six tackles for loss, and 51 combined tackles. He was a pleasant surprise last year among all the injuries, which the Steelers needed. With Tuitt and Tyson Alualu hurt and a lack of depth behind Heyward, Wormley stepping up gave this team a consistent player opposite Heyward.
The team was very thin behind those two last year. Isaiahh Loudermilk had the third most snaps on the defensive line and he was just a fifth round pick. Second-year player Henry Mondeaux (undrafted) was fourth on the team, and third-year player Isaiah Buggs (sixth round) was fifth. Buggs was cut from the team during the season and Mondeaux started the year on the practice squad.
This year the group should be stronger. Loudermilk got better every week last season, and has reportedly gotten to the ideal weight for a Pittsburgh 4i/5T. Loudermilk was already strong against the run and this should only help.
They also drafted DeMarvin Leal in the third round of this year’s draft. Leal is supposed to be a Day 1 ready pass rusher. So while he might not provide a lot as a base defensive end when it comes to stopping the run, when Pittsburgh goes to sub packages he should pop. Steelers defensive ends becoming more interior pass rushers in sub packages, and that’s where Leal should thrive as a rookie.
Here is where the biggest difference on this unit will come from. The nose tackle position was the thorn in Pittsburgh’s side last year. Add in poor linebacker play behind them and you get the worst run defense in Steelers history.
That should all be put to bed this year with the return of Alualu. Since taking over the position in 2020 there is a very clear difference in Pittsburgh’s run defense with him versus without him, or with him hobbled.
In 2020 Alualu was healthy for the first six games of the season and the Steelers allowed less than 70 yards per game on the ground. In Week 8 against the Ravens Alualu went out early with a sprained MCL. Baltimore went on to run for 265 yards. After missing the following game, Alualu was clearly not himself the rest of the season. Pittsburgh gave up over 120 yards on the ground per game after that.
And last year, when Alualu played just one full game, Pittsburgh gave up a league-high 146 yards per game on the ground.
Alualu is now back, and backed up by Montravius Adams. Adams was a late-season pickup for the Steelers last year and was a sight for sore eyes. He was able to catch the moving train and play nearly half the snaps in the Week 12 win over the Baltimore Ravens. In five games with Pittsburgh he had eight tackles, three QB hits, and one pass deflection. His speed and strength allow him to shoot the gap in the run game to alter plays behind the line of scrimmage. That same athleticism allows him to be a factor as a pass rusher.
On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line situation looks strong. Of course, it looked strong at this time last year as well. The final roster should include Heyward, Wormley and Alualu as starters. And rotating in should be Adams, Loudermilk and Leal. Each of these players has a role or trait that makes them a good fit for the roster. Their ability to stay healthy and play to their potential, will determine how much better they will be than last year.
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