Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.
DEFENSIVE LINE (11)
Montravius Adams, Tyson Alualu, Daniel Archibong, DeMarcus Christmas, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Cam Heyward, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 exclusive rights – DeMarcus Christmas)
A LAST LOOK AT 2021
It was shortly after the Steelers completed the trade with Jacksonville in mid-August that added inside linebacker Joe Schobert to the team. During a media session, Schobert was explaining his excitement over joining the Steelers when he said something to the effect of, "I can't wait to play behind this defensive line." Once Tyson Alualu injured an ankle in the first half of the season's second game and ended up on injured reserve for the rest of 2021 and Stephon Tuitt went from the physically unable to perform list to injured reserve and ended up not playing a single snap, the unit playing in front of Schobert looked vastly different from the one he expected when he originally made the comment.
Cam Heyward continues to build his case as the second-best defensive lineman in franchise history, and the things he added to his resume in 2021 were his third first-team All-Pro recognition plus a second double-digit sack season. Heyward's 10 sacks in 2021 gave him 68 for his career and placed him behind only L.C. Greenwood (73.5) in franchise history among defensive linemen in that category. But as the season progressed, as much as the Steelers moved Heyward around to try to keep him in the thick of the action, opposing offenses worked just as hard doing whatever was possible to avoid him. The team's defensive captain finished the season with 89 tackles, including 15 for loss, plus 10 sacks, 17 hits on the quarterback, an interception, nine passes batted at the line of scrimmage, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Chris Wormley, acquired in a 2020 trade with the Baltimore Ravens, emerged as a reliable running mate for Heyward because he played 71 percent of the defensive snaps (729) and contributed 51 tackles, including six for loss, seven sacks, and 10 hits on the quarterback.
Stepping into the void left by the absences of Alualu and Tuitt were Isaiahh Loudermilk and Henry Mondeaux, and the Steelers signed Montravius Adams off the waiver wire on Nov. 30 during a period when the Saints were moving him back-and-forth from their active roster to the practice squad.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since sacks became a recognized NFL statistic in 1982, the only Steelers defensive linemen to record a double-digit sack season are: Keith Willis, with 14 in 1983 and 12 in 1986; Cam Heyward, with 12 in 2017 and 10 in 2021; and Stephon Tuitt, with 11 in 2020.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2022
In terms of the injured, Alualu has a year remaining on the two-year contract he signed before the start of training camp in 2021 and based on his recent Instagram post he is planning to fulfill that contract. "I definitely don't plan to go out this way," read Alualu's post. "So, I'm working harder and smarter for a great comeback … I understand that God's plan is always best, so I know without a doubt that I'm coming back better & stronger. Truly appreciative of my family, teammates, coaches, the fans, and this city for the love and support they show on and off the field. Blessed to be a part of this brotherhood and do what I love for a living. God is good, God is great … Looking forward to the grind back #timetowork."
As for Tuitt, when Steelers President Art Rooney II was asked during his season-ending media availability on Jan. 28 whether he thought Tuitt would be playing for the team in 2022, he said, "I wish I had an answer for you there. All I can say is we'll be evaluating that situation and having a discussion with Stephon here in the next few weeks and hopefully be able to say something more definitively in the near future."
Of the three young/new players called upon in the aftermath of Alualu's injury and Tuitt's stint on the injured reserve list, Loudermilk rather quickly into the regular season transformed himself from a guy on draft day perceived to be a developmental prospect into an up-and-comer. Participating in 288 defensive snaps (29 percent), Loudermilk, who played most of the season as a 24-year-old, finished with 23 tackles, one sack, and three passes batted at the line of scrimmage. Adams, who will be 27 in September, turned out to be a nice in-season find, because in five games he played 171 defensive snaps and finished with eight tackles and three hits on the quarterback. Mondeaux, 27 years old in September, opened training camp as a longshot to make the 53-man roster and became a regular part of the defensive line rotation who played 244 defensive snaps and finished with 16 tackles, two sacks, and a fumble recovery.
Despite the contributions of the young players, the Steelers very well could look to spend a premium draft pick in April to inject talent along the defensive line, because Alualu will be 35 before the start of the 2022 season, Tuitt's situation at this stage is a question mark involving a quality starting interior defensive lineman, and despite performing at an All-Pro level, Heyward will be 33 in May and has played an average of 851 snaps per season since 2017. Another possibility could have the team adding to the depth chart here with a veteran free agent provided someone suitable comes available.
The Steelers finished last in the NFL in run defense in 2021, and any return to contender status will have to include a significant improvement in that department.
NEXT: Tight ends