The Steelers enter the 2015 season with a wide range of questions about the defensive front. One thing that’s for certain is that Cam Heyward is very close to becoming to one of the top defensive ends in the league. Another good season will make that all but a certainty.
After that, there’s potential, some promise and some serious concerns for this unit of the Steelers.
Starters: Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt
Although the Steelers spend less than 50% of the time in the base 3-4, the front three still remains important. Heyward has blossomed significantly in the last two seasons and is one of the top defensive linemen in the AFC now.
McLendon has unfairly been criticized because he isn’t Casey Hampton. Any time you take over for a guy who was so crucial for so long on this defense, comparison will be made. McLendon isn’t the same type of player ‘Big Snack’ was and he’s battled injuries as well. He’ll get the nod at nose but I expect him to be challenged.
Tuitt admitted in the offseason that he struggled to pick up the defense and things were difficult for him at first. Once he got comfortable though his play immediately trended upward and I think that’s where he’s headed for 2015. Don’t be surprised to see Tuitt used by Keith Butler in variety of ways this coming season.
Reserves: Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton, Cam Thomas, Clifton Geathers
Of those four guys, I see only McCullers as a sure thing. He’s reportedly in great shape and is ready to build upon last season’s growth. Thomas has apparently put in a lot of work this offseason but it’s also been reported his weight isn’t ideal either. To be nice, he just wasn’t that good last year.
Geathers is a large man who stands 6’8″ tall and weighs over 325 lbs. In six seasons, he’s already been around the league quite a bit but his size and aggressiveness may be too much to pass on if the younger talent doesn’t step up.
The news on Steelers’ late-round pick Walton has been positive to this point. He’s doing everything he needs to be doing in order to make this roster. Whether he can or not is uncertain but I like his chances especially if Butler plans to rotate his defensive linemen more often than his predecessor did.
Challengers: Matt Conrath, Niko Davis, Joe Kruger, Ethan Hemer, Mike Thornton
Combined, these five players have a grand total of six seasons under their belts which means there’s a lot of inexperience. In a perfect world, one or two of these guys will really show something and make a push for a roster spot but there’s little confidence in any of them. Odds would have to be on Conrath who has three seasons in the NFL to his credit.
The Steelers must find substantial depth behind the starting three players. If Cam Thomas is again one of the top reserves then this defense could be in some trouble. If the one or more of the young guys really step up for the Steelers then the sky cold be the limit.