By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line is strong. Truthfully, there may not be a better front in the NFL. Not only that, after numerous seasons together, the rapport between the defensive linemen is invaluable, and a big reason why there is so much cohesion between the group. While the available DL depth is not extremely talented, it is experienced and knowledgeable of the defensive system, and barring injury, 2021 should be a successful year for the DL.
The glue of this unit is DE Cameron Heyward. Truthfully, he is a leader for the entire team. In some circles, he is rated as the 2nd best defensive linemen behind Aaron Donald, which in itself is a compliment, considering Donald’s otherworldly talent. Heyward just turned 32 in May, and has been with the team since 2011, seeing many players come and go. Through it all, he has been the model of consistency. Heyward game is characterized by balance, both in stopping the run and rushing the passer where necessary. This effective skill blend make him integral to the functioning of the defense, and his contributions will be essential if the Steelers are going to make a run in 2021.
Rounding out the starters are Stephon Tuitt at DE and Tyson Alualu at NT. Tuitt has proven to be equally as effective as Heyward when healthy, and maybe a bit more explosive, though he has been susceptible to injuries over the years. Alualu, a free agent signing a few years ago from Jacksonville, is a steady presence in the middle of the defensive line, able to control the line of scrimmage to allow for a clear path for linebackers to tackle ball carriers prohibiting their access to the second level.
All in all, this trio of starters makes the defensive line one of the best, if not the best, defensive lines in the NFL.
Depth on the DL
When analyzing the depth at this position, there are some options, and how this will all sort out during training camp will be exciting to watch.
Chris Wormley signed a two year deal, and he has experience at both DE and NT, so his versatility and position flexibility gives options to the Steelers. A third round draft pick in 2017 of the Baltimore Ravens, Wormley is an intriguing prospect in terms of depth, and having nearly a full year of experience with the system should be beneficial to his growth and development in the Steelers defense.
Isaiahh Loudermilk is another lock to make the roster, as I can’t envision a scenario where the Steelers would cut him after they gave up draft collateral to move up and select him in the 5th round. Unless his play is ungodly awful in training camp and the preseason, Loudermilk will stick. While he is a developmental player, he played in a 3-4 defense in Wisconsin, so his transition to the Steelers will not be as steep as it is for some rookies on the defensive line. He will watch from the sidelines at the DE position and not be forced into action should Wormley get injured.
The 6th defensive lineman, and possible the last on the 53-man roster will either be Carlos Davis or Isaiah Buggs, both of whom were former draft selections of the Steelers. Curiously enough, you may remember these two barking at each other last season in the sidelines in the game against the Browns in week 17. Buggs has some position versatility with experience at both nose tackle and defensive end, but he lost snaps last year to the rookie Davis. Davis possesses the same position flexibility, but is probably viewed more as a NT than a DE, and based on the favor coaches showed him last season, he may be in line to snag the 6th d-line spot.
Beyond Buggs and Davis
Beyond Buggs and Davis, there are numerous other prospects who will be in camp with the Steelers, including Henry Mondeaux, Abdullah Anderson, TJ Carter, and Calvin Taylor. Mondeaux had some snaps in 2020, so he would be next man up should an injury occur in terms of roster moves, but Abdullah has enough experience that he could be in the competition as well.
Like most of the defense, the Steelers are strong at the starting positions, but have young, unproven depth. Will they keep more than 6 defensive lineman? Will Davis outplay Buggs? These are all stories watching play out over training camp at Heinz Field.