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PRE-CAMP ANALYSIS: Defensive line


This is another in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.

For months of the offseason, it was an unanswered question. And even though it officially was posed to Keith Butler on June 11, it remains an unanswered question. How will the Steelers defense be different now that he's the coordinator?

"There will be some things that are different, yes," said Butler. "There are some things we did well last year. We have to try to marry two things, the things that we did well last year and maybe some things we haven't done here before. We are going to try to do those. I think we're getting better at it right now. We still have a long ways to go, but I like what I'm seeing right now. Hopefully it will be even better in pads."

See? Still unanswered. But if guesswork will suffice, look for the Steelers defensive linemen to do more than just occupy blockers and clog lanes starting in 2015. Look for them to penetrate and make plays that way. Which only makes sense, because that tactic would suit this personnel.

This group is younger and more athletic than recent incarnations of the defensive line, and it only would make sense to marry the scheme with the talent. Twelve candidates will report to training camp, with the likelihood being that half of them will get cut.

It's not correct to call Cam Heyward a finished product, but he is a known commodity. Based on his play and his presence, it's fair to see Heyward as part of the foundation for this new-look defense. Once a unit riddled with thirtysomethings, the 11 starting players on defense during OTAs and minicamp had an average age of 26.1. The only 30-year-old was William Gay.

"We've got to find some guys, but we're not just looking to plug holes," Heyward said. "As much as we've had guys here, we're looking for guys to be mainstays and looking for guys to produce every day. We're not just looking for someone to stick in there and say, 'Hey, just go out and play.' We're looking for guys to be successful. That's the way we have to look at it. You see the history and traditions around here, we're not going to settle for anything less."

With regards to Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Steve McLendon, it's not an issue of making the roster as much as it is having a positive impact on the team. And that means as individuals as well as parts of the unit.

Tuitt came to the Steelers as a 20-year-old second-round draft pick on May 9, 2014, and by the end of his rookie season he was looking like a playmaking defensive end. Big guys who can run are valuable components of a defensive unit, and Tuitt's blend of size and relentlessness make him a potential factor every time the ball is snapped.

"We have a lot of draft choices in the front seven," said Butler. "We've got to use those draft choices in the front seven, not only the linebackers but Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Those guys are talented. We will use them, too. We can't let them always take up for the linebackers, or try to take people on for the linebackers. We have to let them play football, too."

McLendon, 29, is going into the final year of his current contract, and this follows a 2014 season in which a shoulder injury forced him to miss four games in October and November. He returned to play in the final four games of the regular season, all of which the Steelers won to claim the AFC North Division title. McLendon had surgery this offseason to repair the damaged shoulder.

"I went ahead and got it fixed," McLendon said. "Now I'm back healthy, and I can use it. I regained all my strength and range of motion. I can help my team out now. I don't have to worry about any more setbacks or time off. I don't have any worries. I took the necessary steps to get ready for this year."

The rest of it, once you get beyond the starting three, figures to turn into a wide open competition. Daniel McCullers will be interesting to watch as one of those players who's expected to make a significant improvement as a player heading into his second NFL season. Other guys with some NFL experience are veteran Cam Thomas, who fell short of expectations as a free agent signing last year, and 6-foot-9 Clifton Geathers, whose non-stop motor during practice has rubbed some of the offensive linemen the wrong way and led to scuffles.

L.T. Walton was the team's first pick in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. Joe Kruger and Ethan Hemer spent time on the Steelers' practice squad last year. Matt Conrath first signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2012 as an undrafted rookie from Virginia, where he was forced to switch from a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle after Coach Al Groh was fired. In eight games as an NFL rookie, Conrath recorded one sack. Mike Thornton and Niko Davis were signed as undrafted rookies by the Steelers after the 2015 draft.

The Steelers opened the 2014 season with six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster, and so the story in August will be about the competition that separated the players the team kept from the ones cut. But the story from that point on – and the more important story in the long run – will be about the kind of impact these linemen have on this defense in 2015.

TOMORROW: Linebackers

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