Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Demarcus Christmas, Carlos Davis, Cam Heyward, Henry Mondeaux, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley)
Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers defensive line during the 2020 season
A FINAL LOOK AT 2020
Most NFL teams are looking for their defensive linemen to provide more oomph to their pass rush. The Steelers don't have that problem.
Employing a defense that lines up in a 3-4 as its base alignment and never has more than two defensive linemen on the field in sub-packages, the Steelers defensive linemen accounted for 32.1 percent of the team's NFL leading 56 sacks in 2019, with Stephon Tuitt leading the way with 11, followed by Cam Heyward with four, Tyson Alualu with two, and Chris Wormley with one.
In the four seasons since 2017, Heyward has 33 sacks, Tuitt has 23 even though he missed 10 games in 2019 with a torn pectoral, Javon Hargrave contributed 13.5 in three of those seasons before leaving for Philadelphia as an unrestricted free agent, and Alualu had seven as a rotational player until taking over for Hargrave in 2020 as the full-time nose tackle.
If anything is true over the previous few seasons, the Steelers defense has been lacking more often in stopping the run than it has had trouble getting pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. In 2020 as an example, the Steelers defense finished in the top 10 in the NFL in every significant defensive category except two – rushing yards per game, and average gain per rushing attempt.
In rushing yards per game, the defense finished 11th in the NFL with 111.4 yards per game, and in average yards per rushing attempt the unit finished 13th at 4.3 yards per carry. What's less certain, however, is how much of that can be traced back directly to the play of the defensive line vs. how much of it can be traced back to the injury situation at inside linebacker, for example.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt from the 2020 season
What's not debatable is that in Heyward and Tuitt, the Steelers have two of the best playmaking 3-4 defensive linemen in the NFL, and what's also clear is that the depth behind those two players plus Alualu is far less impressive than the top of the depth chart. In fact, it's even arguable which player would be identified as No. 4 on the list of the team's current defensive linemen.
Wormley, the most experienced of the bottom five on the depth chart, was acquired from the Ravens in a trade in which Baltimore sent its former No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft plus a seventh-round pick in 2021 to the Steelers for a fifth-round pick in 2021. It sounded good on paper at the time, but Wormley was injured and fell behind early, and then by the time he could get himself onto the field he played 100 snaps over 13 games (7.7 snaps per game) and contributed eight tackles and one sack.
Two other guys – Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis – were late-round draft picks by the Steelers. Buggs, a sixth-round pick in 2019, is entering his third NFL season after playing his college football at Alabama, and in 19 NFL games he has played 197 defensive snaps and totaled 14 tackles and no sacks. Davis was the team's seventh-round pick in 2020, and he was inactive for nine of the 16 games and finished the season with six tackles in 47 defensive snaps on the season.
Of those two, Davis might have more upside than Buggs, but that perception could be derived from having seen less of Davis than Buggs so far, and therefore not identifying as many holes in his game. And as far as total playing time in 2020, both Buggs and Davis came in behind Henry Mondeaux, 25, 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, who showed he can run well enough to be an asset on special teams. A part of three different NFL teams before landing with the Steelers, Mondeaux played 216 snaps, 154 on special teams, and finished with five total tackles.
The eighth guy on the current depth chart – Demarcus Christmas – was a sixth-round pick by Seattle in 2019 and signed a futures contract with the Steelers on Jan. 14.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In Steelers history, only two interior defensive linemen have been voted to the Associated Press first-team All-Pro team more than once. One of those was Joe Greene, and the other is Cam Heyward.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers DE Tyson Alualu from the 2020 season
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
There is decent stability here, with Heyward set to turn 32 on May 6 and under contract to the Steelers through the 2024 season; and Tuitt will be 28 on May 23 and is under contract to the team through the 2022 season. The only pressing issue for this offseason is dealing with Alualu, who can become an unrestricted free agent on March 17, a couple of months before turning 34.
Losing Alualu would not be good, because he clearly is the team's best option at nose tackle, and even though the Steelers are going to be cap-strapped throughout this offseason, they could be helped by the fact 34-year-old defensive linemen whose forte is stopping the run aren't typically in high demand across the league. Still, securing his services through another contract is important.
After that, it comes down to depth, and the Steelers could use some more of that. Wormley is an unrestricted-free-agent-to-be, and based on his 2020 production there would seem to be little reason to bring him back. Maybe the determination is made that his early injury set him back and ruined his season, but for a guy who was a No. 3 draft pick, came from a big-time program (Michigan), and was in his third NFL season, he didn't show a lot during his time on the field.
Buggs or Davis. This would seem to be a make-or-break year for Buggs, while Davis will be expected to show significant improvement being that he's heading into his second NFL season. The Steelers like to rotate defensive linemen over the course of each game to try to keep everyone fresh for the long haul of a regular season, and occasional in-game rest could help keep Heyward and Tuitt healthy.
But what 2020 showed was that the Steelers only have three defensive linemen worth putting onto the field. They need at least one more than that.
NEXT: Wide Receivers