By Jeremy Hritz
Like the offensive line, the Steelers defensive line was flat-out bad in 2021. Honestly, it was worse than the OL, finishing as the worst rushing defense in the NFL. Injuries played a big role in performance of this group, and if they can stay healthy next season, things should improve. Regardless, key players on the DL are aging, and the team has to look to the future to begin replenishing the unit with talent to remain competitive in future seasons.
The defensive line begins and ends with Cameron Heyward who probably had his best season with the team, with 89 total tackles, 10 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception, and 9 passes defended. Yes, you read that correctly: 9 passes defended. In any other year, Heyward would have been team MVP, he just happens to play alongside the alien known as TJ Watt. Heyward, who will turn 33 in May, cannot be expected to maintain such a high-level of play, and Steelers fans should begin preparing themselves for his decline, as no defensive lineman escapes father time. At best, Heyward has two more All-Pro/Pro-Bowl caliber seasons left in him, but the Steelers have to begin succession planning now, as injuries as a player ages become unavoidable. If the Steelers are able to bring in a quality defensive linemen in the draft, Heyward can help mentor and develop the player into having a meaningful role on the DL.
No player was missed more in 2021 than Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt and his family experienced a tragic loss, and it impacted his availability during the season, forcing the team to rely on untested depth to anchor the defensive line which repeatedly was abused by opposing rushing attacks for oodles and oodles of yards. Tuitt, who is still under contract in 2022, is expected to return next season, and if he does, it will be a breath of fresh air to this defense. He will be 29 at the start of next season, but he has plenty of quality football to offer this team, and he is desperately needed. If he in fact does return, that will be an immediate win for the defensive line, though it does not eliminate the need to acquire talent at the position in this year’s draft.
Tyson Alualu, the 34-year old nose tackle, soon-to-be-35, missed the season due to injury, but he is expected to return to the team next season. Alualu is physical and dominant at the nose position, and if he can provide anything close to what he did in previous years, it’d be a welcome addition to the defense. However, as a result of his age, the Steelers need to be open to alternatives at nose for the 2022.
One of those alternatives may be Montravious Adams, who was signed off of the New Orleans Saints practice squad. Adams will be 27 during the season, and though he is a free agent, his play, especially his burst off of the football, makes him a player worth re-signing for 2022. If Alualu returns healthy, Adams can be an effective spell and rotational player for the team.
Isaiah Loudermilk showed promise in year #1, and development at the position should be expected from him this offseason. Loudermilk was solid in his rookie season in limited action, and he demonstrated that he has a place in the NFL. Loudermilk must get bigger and stronger this offseason to be more effective in 2022.
Chris Wormley quietly had a nice season, accumulating 51 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 3 passes defended. He is signed through the 2022 season, so he can be counted upon again next season. He is not a player geared to be a starter, rather a complimentary piece to spell the #1s and produce in such instances. This season, he was called upon to take on a starting-type role and he performed admirably; however, the greatest value he can provide to this team is as a rotational player.
Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis are purely depth pieces, and considering what they were called upon to do in the 2021 season, many props to them. Very little was expected from both players, but based on circumstances, they were thrust into the rotation and gained a wealth of experience.
There are several questions surrounding the defensive line heading into the 2022 season, and many of them depend upon health, availability, and development/growth over the offseason. Unquestionably, there is plentiful depth at the position, but due to the uncertainty, the Steelers have to prioritize defensive line in the draft in the first three rounds, and/or through free agency. Tuitt and Alualu’s health are big stories heading into the offseason, and how those stories end will go a long way in determining what the defensive line will look like in 2022.