By Jeremy Hritz
If there was one position that left much to be desired outside of the offensive line in 2021, it was the defensive line. The absence of Stephon Tuitt and the injury to Tyson Alualu stifled the performance of the unit, and the coaching staff had to rely on an amalgamation of inexperienced, limited ability, and late season additions to make things work (sometimes). The result was a porous run defense that was consistently gashed by even average to below average running teams, which forced the defense to play on their heels, and eventually contributed to their demise as a legitimate playoff contender.
While Tuitt has retired, the Steelers have made some additions that should improve the performance of the DL, and there is hope for 2022 that stopping the run will be an achievable task. It’s a crowded room, and camp will be competitive. Here’s how I see things playing out.
|Cameron Heyward||97||DT||6-5||295||33||12||Ohio State|
|DeMarvin Leal||98||DE||6-4||290||22||R||Texas A&M|
Let’s begin by taking a look at the starting lineup. At right defensive end, it’s All-World Cameron Heyward who will lead this unit again, and there is no reason not to expect another All-Pro season from him. He is the emotional leader of the defense and will be the primary factor, alongside TJ Watt, in bringing this team together. Heyward had his best season as a pro in 2021 and seems to get better with age, and the prospect of what he will produce in 2022 is just as exciting.
At nose tackle, the Steelers gladly welcome Tyson Alualu back from injury, and they are counting on his health and availability to improve the line’s ability to stop the run. At 35 years of age, there are concerns about durability and whether or not he can hold up. Thankfully, the Steelers signed Larry Ogunjobi who can play both nose and defensive end, giving the Steelers versatility in which players are on the field at any given time. As of now, I see Ogunjobi starting opposite Heyward at LDE, but moving back and forth between that spot and nose.
The Bright Side of 2021
If there was one bright spot during last year’s debacle, it was the experience that the Steelers depth on the defensive line gained. This makes for a good problem, as there are several defensive linemen who will be competing for a roster spot in training camp come July.
Chris Wormley played serviceably as a replacement to Tuitt last season, registering 7 sacks, but not playing up to par against the run. Isaiah Loudermilk will enter his second season with momentum as he gained valuable experience through being forced into the lineup because of the slew of injuries last season. He is being counted on for the rotation on the DL this season, and he is a lock to make the roster. Montravius Adams was signed near the end of the season off of the New Orleans Saints practice squad, and he performed well in spot duty. He was re-signed this offseason, and with his burst off of the line of scrimmage, he is valuable enough to stick. Round out the seven players I see making the roster at DL is rookie DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M, who as a third round pick will not be cut, and will be given every opportunity to contribute in a rotation right away.
The Best of the Rest
Unfortunately, despite the reps gained by Henry Mondeaux, he will not make the 53-man roster and more than likely will end up on the practice squad. This is also possible for the likes of Carlos Davis, who also got reps last season, and potentially UDRFA Donovan Jeter. The rest of the players at the back end of the roster have an extremely steep, uphill battle ahead of them, and their prospects of even making the practice squad are thin.
Things Are Looking Up
The skies have cleared a bit on the defensive line, and what was a major deficiency last season is now a modest position of strength. If this unit can stay healthy, and if the younger players can continue to develop, the Steelers defense can return to playing up to the standard.