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Steelers-by-position: OLBs

The last in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Taco Charlton, Alex Highsmith, Tegray Scales, Delontae Scott, John Simon, Derrek Tuszka, T.J. Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Taco Charlton)

After knocking on the door a couple of times, T.J. Watt broke Aaron Donald's hold on the Defensive Player of the Year Award with a season that had him tie Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5 while also leading the NFL in sacks for the second straight year. It was a banner calendar year for Watt in that 2021 also began with him signing a contract worth a reported $112 million that binds him to the team through the 2025 season and made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

In addition, Watt became the second player since 1982 (when sacks became a recognized statistic in the NFL) with at least 13 sacks in four consecutive seasons. Watt joined Reggie White, who did it twice – 1985-88 and 1990-93 – in that category. Watt's 72 career sacks are now the third-most by a player in his first five NFL seasons since 1982, with only White (81) and brother J.J. Watt (74.5) having more.

Over the course of the 2021 season, it also became apparent that Watt is more than an accumulator of statistics but also a critical element to the team's ability to win games. Because of injury, Watt was inactive for two regular season games (vs. Cincinnati and at the Chargers), and he played less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in three others (vs. Las Vegas, vs. Detroit, at Minnesota). The Steelers were 0-4-1 in those five games, which means the team was 9-3 when Watt was able to approach his normal workload within the defense.

Second-year pro Alex Highsmith started 16 of the 17 regular season games opposite Watt and finished fifth on the team with 74 tackles, to go along with six sacks and 15 pressures. He played 851 defensive snaps (76 percent of the total).

After trading Melvin Ingram, the Steelers added former No. 1 pick Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka to the roster, and the two played 216 and 247 defensive snaps, respectively. Tuszka, who will be 26 in July, is a former seventh-round pick of the Broncos, and he finished with 18 tackles and two sacks, plus two tackles on special teams. Charlton will be 28 in November, and he finished with 18 tackles, a half-sack, two hits on the quarterback, and a pass defensed.

T.J. Watt has 72 sacks in 77 games played with the Steelers, which means he is recording .94 sacks per game. Watt's 72 sacks mean he needs nine to pass James Harrison (80.5) as the franchise's all-time leader in that category. At his current pace, Watt would replace Harrison atop the franchise's sack list by the 10th game of the 2022 season.

An ongoing issue, one that began in the 2021 offseason and carried through the season, was depth at the position. Watt is a high-energy player who is most effective when he gets occasional in-game rest, and so the Steelers defense needs at least a third competent outside linebacker to contribute while Watt is on the sideline and to give Highsmith an occasional in-game rest as well.

Late last offseason, the team took a chance on adding a veteran, but that had to be scrapped when Melvin Ingram chafed at his amount of playing time. The Steelers traded him and then added Charlton and Tuszka, and those two players took turns giving Watt and Highsmith occasional in-game breaks.

Charlton now is an unrestricted free agent, but since he was available last season to be signed by any team in the league, he shouldn't be expected to command big money on the open market. As for Tuszka, the Steelers did their due diligence on him when he was coming out for the draft in 2020, and he adds value on special teams.

Watt is a three-time first-team All-Pro, and Highsmith is a still-developing sidekick, which means the Steelers are set at the top of the depth chart at this position. Depth is all the team would need, and the decision has to be made on how to add that. Given the time required to learn this position within the Steelers scheme tends to point to looking for it somewhere besides the draft, but care will have to be taken to make sure the person added is, to use Coach Mike Tomlin's phrase, a volunteer and not a hostage.
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