Steelers-by-position: Defensive line

Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2022 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 15.

Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams, Tyson Alualu, DeMarvin Leal, Isaiah Loudermilk, Jonathan Marshall, Chris Wormley
(Free agent scorecard: 3 unrestricted, Larry Ogunjobi, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley)

This group is an interesting one, as All-Pro Cam Heyward played 801 snaps, meaning he was on the field for 75.3 percent of the Steelers' defensive snaps in 2022. Larry Ogunjobi played 636 snaps (59.8 percent), and then no other defensive lineman played more than 27.4 percent of the defensive snaps.

Heyward finished the season with 74 tackles, 10.5 sacks, a team-best 14 tackles for a loss and 22 quarterback hits.

Heyward had his third season with double digits in sacks, fifth-most among defensive tackles, while his tackle totals were third-most at the position. He doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Heyward now has 78.5 career sacks, giving him one more than teammate T.J. Watt (77.5) and bringing him within two of James Harrison's team record of 80.5. He's also the first defensive lineman in Steelers' history to reach double digits in sacks in three different seasons.

But Heyward's production proved to be more sacks (3.5), quarterback hits (14) and tackles for a loss (13) than the rest of the team's defensive linemen had combined.

Ogunjobi had 48 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and seven tackles for a loss to account for more than half of the production from the rest of the linemen. He was signed to a one-year deal before the season began and proved to be worth it, particularly as a run defender. And at 28, he's still young enough that the Steelers could be interested in bringing him back again.

Montravius Adams, 27, moved past veteran Tyson Alualu, 35, in the lineup as the starting nose tackle, but still wound up playing just 281 snaps compared to 291 by Alualu.

Alualu wrapped up the final season of his contract and the distinguished veteran could retire after 13 NFL seasons, six that were spent with the Steelers and seven with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Chris Wormley also enters free agency, but in a different spot. Wormley suffered a knee injury late in the year that will take some time to heal after surgery that landed him on the Reserve/Injured List.

The 29-year-old was having another solid season prior to his injury. Though his sacks were down to just one-half sack after he set a career high with 7.0 in 2021, Wormley played 31.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps before his injury and had 29 tackles, including three for a loss, and a quarterback hit.

Rookie DeMarvin Leal, 22, played 175 defensive snaps despite missing six games in the middle of the season because of injury. Leal played early when Watt was on the Reserve/Injured List, lining up at outside linebacker/rush end. He continued in that role at times when he returned in Week 13, and also lined up on the edge in the team's four-man defensive lines used late in the season against run-heavy teams.

Leal, a third-round draft pick, had 14 tackles in his limited duty. More will be counted on from him moving forward.

The same goes for former fifth-round pick Isaiahh Loudermilk. The 25-year-old was passed by Leal for playing time in 2022, seeing 116 snaps, most of which came while Leal was out with injury.

Heading into his third season, he'll be expected to make a big jump forward to earn more playing time.

The Steelers also signed former Arkansas star Jonathan Marshall off the practice squad of the Jets late in the season when Wormley was injured, but was not active at all in the final four games he was on the active roster, with the team elevating practice squad defensive lineman Renell Wren for each of the final two games instead.

After combining for 20 sacks in 2021, the defensive line combined for just 14 in 2022. But the team's run defense went from a league-worst 146.1 yards per game allowed to 108.1, which was ninth-best. More importantly, the Steelers went from giving up 5.0 yards per carry in 2021 to just 4.2 this season.

This group could have a much different look to it in 2023 with Ogunjobi, Alualu and Wormley all headed toward free agency.

But Heyward has remained the one constant. At 33, the veteran continues to get better with age, but even he knows he's closer to the end than he is the beginning. He does not, however, look close to the end as of yet, even though he was passed over for both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 2022. He's as good as ever.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Leal was the highest-drafted defensive lineman by the Steelers since they took Stephon Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Could they add another high draft pick to the equation this year? Most certainly.

After cycling through a number of defensive linemen in 2021 because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Steelers realize they don't want to get caught short at the position again. There's also always an eye to the future and the realization that, despite his seemingly ageless play, Heyward won't be around forever.

But Leal should take a big step forward, while Adams and Loudermilk should be coming into their own, as well.

The Steelers could definitely add some additional young talent at this position, especially if Ogunjobi and/or Wormley are not re-signed.