Defensive line still thin
By Justin McGonigle
With training camp just over a month away the Steelers will be entering a crucial training camp when they reconvene at St Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. The Steelers fell one game short of a trip to their ninth super bowl but they have enough pieces to make the next step. It was a familiar face that stood in their way and an all too familiar result.
Defense was the word after the Steelers exit from the playoffs. GM Kevin Colbert turned to the draft to help fill the void by selecting edge rushers TJ Watt, and Keion Adams, and cornerbacks Cam Sutton, and Brian Allen. Watt and Sutton could find themselves playing a significant amount of time this season. On the defensive line they signed former Jaguar Tyson Aluala to help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward on the ends. He will fill the gap vacated by Ricardo Mathews who wasn’t re-signed after his one year contract expired.
Last season the defensive line was ravished by injuries that included Heyward being placed on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral muscle against the Cowboys. Tuitt missed the last two games of the regular season with a sprained knee, and Mathews missed the Steelers wild card game against the Dolphins. Rookie Johnny Maxey and LT Walton picked up the slack with nose tackle Javon Hargrave. While Hargrave has entrenched himself into the Steelers defense after a solid rookie season there isn’t much behind him as far as depth. Fourth year player Daniel McCullers was supposed to be the heir apparent to Steve McLendon when he left for New York, but McCullers was never able to capitalize on the opportunity that the Steelers gave him. He has been mostly disappointing even though his size suggested that he could plug the middle of the Steelers defense like former nose tackle Casey Hampton did for many seasons.
The Steelers only carried six defensive linemen last season, but they could be forced to keep seven if Johnny Maxey continues to develop. He wasn’t a liability at the end of the season when he stepped in for Tuitt and Mathews. Tomlin and Colbert obviously feel comfortable with what they have as starters but the back-up nose tackle spot should have been addressed. Tuitt, Heyward, Hargrave, and Aluala are guaranteed to make the roster. Walton would have to be widely unimpressive in training camp to lose his spot, but he will be in a competition with Maxey should the Steelers elect to go with six linemen again this season.
McCullers likely will keep the back-up nose position only because of the lack of competition. The Steelers brought back Lavon Hooks, and Roy Philon on futures contracts following the 2016 season. Both of whom spent time in training camp last season. Philon was with the Steelers during the 2014 preseason before being released prior to the regular season. He bounced around with Chicago and Detroit before coming back to Pittsburgh. Hargrave should be ready for training camp but he injured himself during OTA’s and missed time. Should this happen during the regular season the Steelers would most be forced to use McCullers more but they could opt to use a two linemen look with only Tuitt and Heyward. It is a look that the Steelers have used quite a bit in the past.