Steelers young line has shown growth

The Steelers defensive line finds itself much more capable to deal with the loss of Brett Keisel than it was, say, eight months ago. Back then, in mid-August, the Steelers weren't sure rookies Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers would be ready for NFL football when the regular season opened, and veteran Cam Thomas wasn't anything more than just a guy after being signed during free agency.

The Steelers are in a better place along the defensive line now than they were when they signed Keisel last August, what with Cam Heyward taking another step along the path toward becoming the next great Steelers defensive player and with Tuitt making considerable progress down the stretch in 2014.

Heyward and Tuitt are locks to open 2015 as the starting defensive ends based on how last season ended, and the Steelers also have Steve McLendon and McCullers as their top two nose tackles.

In Heyward, the Steelers have a defensive lineman who's a true playmaker. Since 1992 when this version of the Steelers 3-4 was born, only twice have defensive linemen led the team in sacks – Kimo von Oelhoffen with eight in 2003, and Aaron Smith with eight in 2004. Heyward tied Jason Worilds for the lead this past season with 7.5, and he added 54 tackles, a team-best 21 pressures, and four passes batted at the line of scrimmage.

Tuitt ended up starting the final four games of the regular season plus the Wild Card Game vs. the Ravens. In those five appearances, Tuitt had 13 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.

Considering the presence of McLendon and McCullers, the Steelers will enter free agency with a five-man group of linemen, all of whom are in their 20s, and all of whom are at least somewhat experienced in the ways of the NFL.

But that wasn't the case last season, and so on Aug. 20, 2014 the Steelers and Brett Keisel agreed on a contract, and then the veteran turned in a 13th season in which he finished with 22 tackles, a sack, one interception, six passes batted at the line of scrimmage, and 12 pressures. Keisel also mentored his younger teammates simply by being an example for them to follow. All in all, he was an important piece of the team that finished 11-5 and won the AFC North Division title.

The Steelers released Keisel Monday, and the move had an inevitability about it, even more so than the average roster move involving a player who will turn 37 in six months. That's because Keisel's 2014 season ended on Nov. 30 with a torn triceps, and those kinds of injuries in guys his age often signal a body that's breaking down.

Keisel's injury required surgery, and that could make it a 12-month time frame before full strength and range of motion is restored. When Keisel was put on injured reserve last Dec. 1, the move had a finality about it, just as it did with Aaron Smith when a similar move was made with him in October 2011.

Moving forward, the team will be deciding on whether to keep Cam Thomas or possibly shop for a different veteran free agent, and then it will remain to be seen how the draft unfolds starting on April 30 in terms of how the depth chart along the defensive line shapes up come the start of training camp in late July.

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