If there is any unit that could make or break the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers it would be this one. The defensive line will feature one player on the rise, a promising rookie, a guy still looking for his place and a guy looking for a second chance.
Those descriptions don’t leave Steelers’ fans loaded with confidence and I can hardly blame them.
The guy on the rise is Cameron Heyward who showed more consistent brilliance last year than ever before. It was exactly the type of play that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau expected when they drafted him in the first round.
The promising rookie is Stehpon Tuitt who was the team’s second round pick. Because he graded a first round pick on many boards he was seen as a steal.
The former Notre Damer needs to live up to the hype now and with his skill set and strength he could break into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
The guy he could start over is the man looking for a second chance and that’s Cam Thomas. Nicknamed ‘Baby Zilla,’ Thomas had a very up and down career at San Diego where he saw time at both defensive end and nose tackle.
Thomas didn’t always play every down and many felt that was due to poor conditioning. He will more than likely get the start at end unless Tuitt can take the job from him which the coaches would like to see.
The man looking for his place is Steve McLendon who had the unenviable job of replacing legend Casey Hampton at the nose tackle. McLendon is taller than traditional 3-4 nose tackles and that may have played a part in his inability to find consistency in stopping the run.
McLendon has reportedly packed on more weight for this season in hopes of being more difficult to move. More importantly is that he now has another year of experience under his belt and should be better this year.
In terms of guys who will challenge for roster spots at defensive end are Nick Williams who enters his second year, Brian Arnfelt who is in year two and rookie Josh Mauro. Of those three, it’s expected that Williams and Arnfelt are the biggest challengers.
As for who backs up Steve McClendon, Hebron Fangupo is the odds on favorite guy or that spot. Perhaps the biggest and I mean ‘biggest,’ wild-card on the defensive line is rookie Daniel McCullers. At 6’7″ 352lbs, McCullers could be a steal if he lives up to his potential and is able to manage his weight.
When you look at McCullers, he strikes you with his size obviously, but what also hits you is that he is not what you’d call fat. He is a solidly built young man who will have lots of people rooting for him.
If Tomlin goes with his usual four defensive ends on the game day roster then we’d have to go with Heyward, Thomas, Tuitt and a bit of a surprise in Brian Arnfelt. More than likely, Tomlin will go with just one nose tackle and that will be Steve McClendon. Fangupo will more than likely be inactive on game day depending upon the week to week situation.
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard weekly on Trib-Live Radio talking Steelers and is a blogger for ESPN 970 in Pittsburgh.