Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN – (8)
Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Lavon Hooks, Darnell Leslie, Dan McCullers, L.T. Walton, Stephon Tuitt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – Dan McCullers)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
There was so much good that happened in the regular season with this unit, but then there also was that loss in the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The 2017 Steelers led the NFL in sacks and set a single-season franchise record along the way to totaling 56, and the defensive linemen contributed 23 of those. Cam Heyward led the team with 12, and it marked the second time over a three-season span in which he finished a season leading the team in sacks. It was Heyward’s best season as a pro, and he was duly rewarded by being voted first-team All-Pro while also making his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
As the Steelers have re-made their defense from one where the linemen were asked to occupy blocker to free-up linebackers to make plays to a system where linemen are asked to defeat blockers and make plays on their own, the sack totals have increased for the guys up front. And in 2017, the defensive linemen accounted for 23 of the team’s 56 sacks, with linebackers adding 27, and the defensive backs chipping in with the other six.
The season began with the excitement of having Heyward healthy, because he had missed the final seven weeks of the regular season and the playoffs with a pectoral injury, but two plays into the 2017 regular season, Stephon Tuitt appeared to sustain a serious injury to his biceps while making a play for a 9-yard loss in Cleveland against the Browns. Tuitt’s injury wasn’t season-ending, which was a giant relief, but it would be difficult to believe that it didn’t have some adverse impact on his ability to take on and shed blockers while working his way to the football. As it was, Tuitt missed four regular season games – two in the immediate aftermath of the biceps injury and two more later on with a back injury.
It was the second straight season in which the Steelers had one of their top two defensive linemen either unavailable or at less than 100 percent because of injury, but in 2017 they had Tyson Alualu in reserve. Signed as an unrestricted free agent, the former No. 1 pick by Jacksonville contributed 39 tackles and four sacks, which in the past would’ve been numbers even the starters couldn’t match. Rounding out the typical game day rotation was L.T. Walton, who has developed from a sixth-round draft pick into someone who can contribute either inside or outside on the defensive line.
ONE LAST STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Some perspective on the season Heyward put together in 2017: His 12 sacks were the most by a Steelers defensive lineman since Keith Willis’ 12 in 1986, and the total was tied for third among AFC defensive linemen and sixth among all NFL defensive linemen.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
Things are going to be somewhat different moving forward, because Karl Dunbar was hired to be the defensive line coach, and so the players will be working on a daily basis with a man who isn’t John Mitchell for the first time in 25 years. While Dunbar played for Mitchell at LSU, he isn’t Mitchell, and while there aren’t expected to be any drastic changes in terms of approach, it has to be acknowledged that there are bound to be some differences in approach.
That said, the Steelers seem to be in a good place at this position from a personnel standpoint, with Heyward being a difference-maker already and Tuitt having the potential to join him in that category provided he can avoid the injuries that slowed him in 2017. Javon Hargrave is a nose tackle with some interior pass rush capability, but he wasn’t as visible in games as he was as a rookie in 2016, possibly because of a back injury that hampered him off and on all year. Alualu gives the Steelers a third player along the defensive line who entered the NFL as a No. 1 or a No. 2 draft pick.
All of that is true, but so is this: in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers defensive line was handled physically by the Jacksonville offensive line. Sacks are fine, necessary in fact, but the run defense has to be tightened. Further development is necessary, but the front-line personnel already in place is sufficient to get the job done.