The Pittsburgh Steelers have arrived this week in Latrobe to begin their work towards a seventh Super Bowl title. Today, we’re previewing the Defensive Line. This is one of the best units on the team and the strength of the defense. The top three players could start for almost any team in the NFL.
By The Numbers
2018 Opponent Passing Yards: 3,697 (10th best)
2018 Opponent Passing Yards Per Attempt: 7.114 (11th)
2018 Pass Rush: 52 sacks (tied for 1st) (*2nd year in a row leading the league)
2018 Opponent Pass Success Rates:
1st Down: (Does the receiver gain 50% of needed yards?)(1st and 10, gains 5 yards, successful attempt): 59.49%
2nd Down: (60% of needed yards): 55.31%
3rd Down: (100% of needed yards): 43.22%
4th Down: (100% of needed yards): 50.00%
2018 Opponent Rushing Yards: 1,538 (6th best)
2018 Opponent Rushing Yards Per Carry: 4.17 (9th)
2018 Defensive Tackles For Loss: 43 (23rd) (*Buffalo #1 with 78)
Opponent Rush Success Rates:
1st Down: (Does the ball carrier gain 50% of needed yards?)(1st and 10, gains 5 yards, successful carry): 33.64%
2nd Down: (60% of needed yards): 42.48%
3rd Down: (100% of needed yards): 53.85%
4th Down: (100% of needed yards): 100%
Notable: The Steelers Defense was awful on 4th down last year, allowing the opponent to convert a new set of downs on 7 of 11 tries. (*This does not include the two 4th down conversions allowed by penalty, specifically the two phantom pass interference penalties on Joe Haden in New Orleans. Technically, the defense allowed conversions on 9 of 13 4th down plays. I did not count the penalty conversions.)
Takeaways: 15 total (tie for 29th)
Fumbles recovered: 7 (tied for 19th)
Interceptions: 8 (tied for 28th)
Cameron Heyward, Defensive End (9th year)
Heyward continues to be the solid, reliable, very good if not outstanding leader of this unit. Cam provides both a steadying presence as a leader in the Steelers locker room and consistently good play from his spot at Right Defensive End. In my opinion, Cam is not as physically gifted as his linemate Stephon Tuitt, yet he can be counted on to produce at a higher level virtually weekly. He’s the rare combination of talent, leadership and good work ethic that you want in a prototypical player and makes me believe he retires a Steeler.
Javon Hargrave, Nose Tackle/Defensive Tackle (4th year)
Hargrave really came into his own last season. After seeing a more extensive snap count in sub packages than in the two years prior, he produced at a level on par with Bud Dupree in terms of production despite playing 413 fewer snaps than Bud.
Hargrave: 49 Tackles, 7.5 TFL, 6.5 Sacks, 0 FF, 1 PD on 455 defensive snaps
Dupree: 42 Tackles, 11 TFL, 5.5 Sacks, 1 FF, 3 PD, 1 INT on 868 defensive snaps
Hargrave playing approximately 40% of the total defensive snap count has to change. This man is far too productive to be a role player.
Stephon Tuitt, DE (6th year)
Tuitt is the most physically gifted, highest paid member of the Defensive Line unit. Yet he remains an enigma. On some plays Tuitt is a monster and is unblockable ala Aaron Smith. On others he seems to disappear. It’s hard to get a bead on exactly what to expect of him. He’s the polar opposite of the very consistent Cam Heyward.
Tyson Alualu, DE (10th year)
Alualu has fit in nicely with the Steelers the past two seasons, even while not playing quite as well in 2018 and he did during the 2017 campaign. Still, he makes for a very nice 4th rotational lineman and can play all three positions if needed. That’s a nice option to have in your tool box. He makes the roster again this year, in my opinion.
Dan McCullers, NT (6th year)
McCullers has never reached the potential the Steelers thought he might have to play nose tackle in the NFL. He’s a very large man, very difficult to move and has had his moments when he looked unstoppable. Alas, he’s had many more where he was just a guy in the middle who was difficult to move and ate up space but was no threat to make a play on a ball carrier. Dan is the most vulnerable of the Steelers’ returning players.
Isaiah Buggs DE, Greg Gilmore DE, Henry Mondeaux DE, Conor Sheehy DE, Winston Craig DT
Back for Another Go
Lavon Hooks DE, Casey Sayles DT
The Steelers first three defensive line spots are easy to predict: Heyward, Hargarve and Tuitt. Alualu is also a near lock to make this team. After that it’s a bit murkier. Dan McCullers certainly has the upper hand in gaining a roster spot when compared to the younger players who might replace him because of his familiarity with the scheme, but he’s not irreplaceable based on the standard of play he’s produced to this point in his career.
Those of us at SCB thought that Lavon Hooks outplayed McCullers last year during the preseason and that McCullers might be released. Instead it was Hooks who was sent to the practice squad. Casey Sayles was with the Steelers last year and played for the AAF’s Birmingham Iron. He may be a guy who can come in and compete for one of the last couple of spots in the defensive line meeting room. Isaiah Buggs is a guy who Karl Dunbar has some familiarity with from his time at Alabama and who also looks like he could compete to be a developmental prospect even if he doesn’t make the 2019 roster.
My Prediction: The Steelers typically keep 6 D linemen. I see nothing changing this year.
Ends: Heyward, Tuitt, Alualu, Hooks
Nose Tackles: Hargrave, McCullers