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Steelers-By-Position: Defensive Linemen

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.

Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Henry Mondeaux, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Javon Hargrave, L.T. Walton)

The injury that cost the team the services of Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the 2019 regular season gets most of the attention, and deservedly so, but it wasn't the only significant injury the Steelers were forced to try to overcome. The other was to Stephon Tuitt.

Through the first five games of the regular season, Tuitt played 59.4 percent of the defensive snaps, and he and Cam Heyward were on the way to posing the kind of problems to opponents on the interior of the line of scrimmage that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree would end up posing to those same opponents from the edges.

Tuitt tore a pectoral muscle five defensive snaps into the sixth game of the regular season, which was against the Chargers in Los Angeles, and to that point he had 22 tackles, including six for loss, 3.5 sacks, and seven hits on the quarterback. Since Tuitt had no tackles or sacks in the game against the Chargers before being injured, his stat line could have projected to 70 tackles and 11 sacks. That would have gone nicely with Heyward's 83 tackles and nine sacks, even though projected totals often fall short of the actual numbers.

But anyway, the Steelers defensive line in particular and the defense as a whole suffered in some significant ways by having to play without Tuitt for more than half of the regular season, even if it did provide Javon Hargrave with the opportunity he almost assuredly will cash in, quite literally, during this upcoming free agency period.

As a nose tackle in the Steelers base 3-4 alignment, Hargrave often came off the field on passing downs, which meant he played maybe 30 percent of the plays during a given game. But without Tuitt there to take his typical number of snaps at defensive end, and with Heyward already on schedule to play 81 percent of the defensive snaps, Hargrave was the one who saw the increased playing time with 680 snaps in 2019, up from 455 in 2018.

Hargrave took advantage with a career-high 60 tackles, including seven for loss, plus 3.5 sacks, and seven hits on the quarterback. Tyson Alualu also saw more playing time (432 snaps in 2019, up from 311 in 2018) and he finished with 41 tackles, his most with the Steelers, plus one sack, three hits on the quarterback, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble.

While it's true that both Alualu (four sacks in 2017) and Hargrave (6.5 sacks in 2018) have had better sack totals in seasons in which they played fewer snaps, they also were part of a defensive interior that rightfully played a supporting role to the outside pressure generated by Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, who combined for 26 sacks and 53 hits on the quarterback.

The overall defense against the run could be viewed as in decline based on the fact opponents rushed for 1,753 yards and 110 first downs in 2019 as opposed to 1,538 yards and 84 first downs in 2018. But in fact the 2019 opponents finished with fewer yards per attempt (3.8 vs. 4.2) and fewer rushing touchdowns (seven vs. 13) than did the 2018 opponents. Clearly, this was another area of the team impacted by the deficiencies on offense that were exacerbated by the elbow injury to Roethlisberger, because opponents felt comfortable in attempting 93 more running plays during the regular season than they did in 2018 because of a decreased urgency to match the Steelers point-for-point.

Cam Heyward was voted first-team Associated Press All-Pro for the second time in his career following the 2019 season. The only other interior defensive lineman in Steelers history to have multiple Associated Press first-team All-Pro designations on his resume is Joe Greene, who was recognized in this way four times.

This is a classic good-news, bad-news situation, with the good news being the return of Stephon Tuitt from the pectoral injury that cut short his 2019 season, and the bad news being the likely departure of Javon Hargrave as an unrestricted free agent.

Hargrave came to the Steelers as a third-round draft pick in 2016, and over the course of his four seasons here he developed into a reliable defensive lineman who proved to be a better interior pass rusher than a pure run-stuffing nose tackle, despite his 6-foot-2, 305-pound body type. But it's precisely Hargrave's ability to be a factor in the pass rush – 14.5 sacks, 22 hits on the quarterback during his career so far – that should make him a hot commodity on the open market.

Based on predictions of the kind of contract Hargrave could be offered once unrestricted free agency begins, the practical assumption would be to see him in another team's uniform for the 2020 regular season opener. Should that assumption come true, the Steelers most likely would try to fill his spot with what they already have on their depth chart while keeping an eye out for a chance to reinforce themselves here should the opportunity present itself.

Maybe the opportunity comes during free agency, as it did with Alualu, and long before him, with Kimo von Oelhoffen, but the more likely method would be via the draft, because with the announcement of the compensatory picks, the Steelers have six selections overall in the draft.

But based on the learning curve that's typical of college defensive linemen adapting to the Steelers system, the answers for the 2020 season will have to be provided by Alualu, maybe Dan McCullers, who will be entering his seventh NFL season, and Isaiah Buggs, a second-year pro who was a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar is known for employing a rotation system during games in an effort to keep players fresh for the fourth quarter, as well as for the latter parts of the season, and so he's not going to run the wheels off Heyward and Tuitt. There must be contributions from the other guys on the depth chart for this rotation system to work, but the other reality is that this unit, and the whole defense, will be depending on Heyward and Tuitt to play a lot of football this upcoming season.
NEXT: Specialists