Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Lavon Hooks, Dan McCullers, Conor Sheehy, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 2 unrestricted – Dan McCullers, L.T. Walton)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
If someone was pleased with the way this unit performed in 2017, the production in 2018 would be viewed as consistent, a positive. But for those who might have looked at 2017 as a jumping off point toward even greater things, then what the defensive line did in 2018 would be seen as stagnant, as treading water.
With the Steelers allowing fewer rushing yards over the course of 2018 compared to 2017 (1,538 to 1,639), and because the per-carry average fell from 4.4 yards in 2017 to 4.2 yards in 2018, and because the defensive line accounted for 41.2 percent of the team's sacks in 2018 compared to 41.1 percent in 2017, count me among those seeing the unit's contributions as consistent. Not that there isn't room for improvement, but it's not a difficult argument to make that the linemen made up the best unit on the team's defense last season.
Looking at some individual differences, Cam Heyward's sack total dropped from 12 to eight, but Javon Hargrave's jumped from two to 6.5. Stephon Tuitt went from three sacks in 2017 to 5.5 in 2018, and Tyson Alualu went from four in 2017 to none in 2018. Even with these variances, the defense did a decently consistent job of pressuring the opposing quarterback, and the linemen as a whole contributed their fare share.
Based on playing time and production, the Steelers had a solid four-man rotation here, with Alualu as the fourth behind Heyward, Hargrave, and Tuitt. The bottom of the depth chart – Dan McCullers and L.T. Walton – didn't play much and weren't productive, and it's likely those things went hand-in-hand. Both McCullers and Walton can become unrestricted free agents, and it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to them.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In 2017, the Steelers led the NFL in sacks and one year later they tied with Kansas City for the league lead with 52. In 2018, three of the top four sack producers were defensive linemen, with Heyward (eight), Hargrave (6.5), and Tuitt (5.5) falling behind team leader T.J. Watt (13). That marked the first time three defensive linemen have been among the team's top four sack producers since 1990 when Gerald Williams (six), Keith Willis (five), and Kenny Davidson (four) joined Greg Lloyd (4.5) at the top of the list.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
While Heyward is under contract through the 2020 NFL season and Tuitt through the 2022 season, Hargrave is entering the final season of the deal he signed as a rookie in 2016. Based on his career track through his first three NFL seasons and depending upon the team's cap situation as this offseason progresses, it's possible the sides could talk about an extension before the start of the upcoming season because Hargrave is that rare nose tackle with legitimate pass-rush ability.
Beyond the three starters, the Steelers solidified their depth already this offseason by re-signing Alualu to a two-year deal worth a reported $5.75 million, and this move should remove any urgency the team might have felt to spend one of its Thursday or Friday draft picks here.
"It feels great," Alualu told Teresa Varley. "I am blessed to be able to come back and play for an organization that I love being around, from the top to the bottom. From management to my teammates. I am thankful to get something done and be with the group of guys who are chasing that trophy. I was just excited to get something done as soon as possible."
A former first-round pick of the Jaguars – No. 10 overall in 2010 – Alualu has established himself as a solid part of a solid unit on this Steelers defense.
"I don't know if I can say enough about the guys that we have," said Alualu. "The relationships that you build on and off the field. You get to know people on a personal level, see how they live every day, how they interact with each other, with myself. It is a testament to the organization and the family atmosphere they build there. I am just happy and excited to continue to be a part of that.
"I think we will be motivated to take care of business on the field. The leaders, the core group of guys, do a great job of getting everyone prepared. That is exciting for the upcoming year."
Karl Dunbar was hired to coach the defensive line last year around this time, and now that he's had a year-long look at the depth chart here, he figures to be able to make a more thorough assessment of the players, and being that he's only one year removed from coaching the position in college, he also should have a decent sense of the talent level available in the upcoming draft. It should be interesting to see how all of that comes together to chart the course for this position in 2019, because quality depth is critical for the Steelers to be able to rotate players to keep them fresh within games and over the course of a whole season.
NEXT: Outside linebackers