The Pittsburgh Steelers have the best pass rusher in the NFL with TJ Watt. Opposite of him is Alex Highsmith who is a step away from developing into a Pro Bowler. But behind Watt and Highsmith, there is very little in terms of pass rush capability. And that could be a problem for Pittsburgh if an injury occurs.
The Steelers failed to find a pass rusher during the 2022 NFL Draft instead choosing to focus mainly on re-tooling their offensive unit. They selected defensive end DeMarvin Leal in the third round to sure up depth on that unit, but their only other defensive selection was inside linebacker Mark Robinson in the seventh round.
Last season, Pittsburgh signed veteran Melvin Ingram to provide depth and insurance in case Watt’s contract holdout continued into the regular season. Watt was eventually signed to a new contract days before the season opener in Buffalo and played Week 1. But Watt and Highsmith were both injured early in the season and missed games. That allowed Ingram to step into a starting role; which turned into a role he didn’t want to give back up to Highsmith. Ingram eventually demanded a release or trade, and the Steelers were forced to send him to AFC rival Kansas City in exchange for a sixth round pick.
Once Ingram was sent packing, the Steelers elevated former Dallas Cowboys first round pick, Taco Charlton from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. He and Derrek Tuszka would remain the back ups at outside linebacker for the rest of the season. Charlton signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent this off-season. And the Steelers went out and signed veteran Genard Avery.
Avery hasn’t been much of a pass rusher in his career, instead being used more in coverage than anything. He had one sack last season for the Philadelphia Eagles and should play a pivotal part on special teams.
Marc Sessler from NFL.com recently listed the main problems in his eyes for each NFL team. This is what he had to say about the Steelers:
Top priority: Pinpoint pass-rushing help
The Steelers spent their draft reloading on offense, grabbing quarterback Kenny Pickett at No. 20 overall before selecting a pair of wideouts in Georgia’s George Pickens and Calvin Austin III out of Memphis. The overhaul of Pittsburgh’s attack is underway, but roster holes remain on the other side of the ball. The Steelers are paper thin at outside linebacker beyond T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Were either to miss time, the Steelers can’t count on Genard Avery or Derrek Tuszka to fill the gap. It’s a tough time of year to find help, but camp cuts could bring an answer. The Steelers specialize at filling gaps with chip-on-their-shoulder veterans.
Pittsburgh added two undrafted free agent outside linebackers with T.D. Moultry from Auburn, and Tyree Johnson from Texas A&M. Last week during rookie minicamp, head coach Mike Tomlin was speaking briefly to reporters before he excused himself to watch a prospect.
“I need to go see this guy,” an intrigued Tomlin said.
That player was Johnson. Johnson had potential to be drafted, but a calf injury during the East-West shrine game ended his pre-draft availability.
“Life doesn’t always go as you expect when you get older,” Johnson told The Athletic. “It is just about taking every opportunity that you get. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get drafted, but I am coming here and going to show them what we got. I was kind of willing to accept anything, any opportunity that came my way.
The Steelers have had some luck with an undrafted free agent linebacker in the past before — but those can’t be counted on. It’s unlikely Pittsburgh will add an outside option at outside linebacker, but it should be something they should consider. If Watt or Highsmith are forced to miss significant time in 2022, there is going to be a problem for that defense. And it’s a defense that is going to have to carry the offense at times in 2022.