Defensive Line Picture Coming Into Focus

After two preseason games, it would seem that we are beginning to see certain positions stabilize in terms of the depth chart for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defensive line in particular was an area of confusion, but clarity is slowly emerging.

The second-team defensive line last night, for example, saw the combination of second-round pick Stephon Tuitt at left defensive end, sixth-rounder Daniel McCullers at nose tackle, and undrafted free agent Josh Mauro at right defensive end.

In addition to the starters, this group may be the six-man stable that the Steelers enter the season with.

That’s not set in stone, of course, as players such as Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt, who were both on the 53-man roster a year ago, are still in the picture. Ethan Hemer and Nick Williams also still hope to make a last-minute push.

Unfortunately for those players, there weren’t many snaps to go around, as the second-team line played more than a full quarter. It wasn’t until there were 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter that the line of Hemer, Fangupo, and Arnfelt entered the game.

Even Roy Philon received some reps, along with Mauro, as the third-team defensive tackles in the nickel defense. McCullers and Cam Thomas, by the way, played on the second-team sub-package unit, with Tuitt and Cameron Heyward playing the first-team snaps.

It wasn’t until late in the game with 3:15 to play, however, that Williams entered the game, during the middle of a drive on second and 12. He and Mauro were playing as the two down linemen in the nickel, with Williams presumably taking Philon’s place. He played a total of six snaps during the game in those last few minutes.

This was a week after playing significantly, and seemingly very well, against the New York Giants. But in that first preseason game, the starters didn’t play as long, and Williams moved up in the pecking order because Thomas was playing nose tackle.

Through two weeks, Williams, the second-year former seventh-round draft pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, remains behind the rookie undrafted free agent Hemer, who is the third-string left defensive end.

It’s important to remember just how little experience Williams has. He didn’t even take up football all that long ago, and he had a knee injury that he is still only a few months recovered from. He only played in one preseason game a year ago.

The Steelers are enamored with his physical potential, and early signs from the first game were positive, so why did he receive such little playing time in week two? He was nearly a healthy scratch, and healthy players who don’t play in the second game almost always get cut.

It’s possible that the team is planning on putting him on the practice squad this year, which could be, but is not necessarily, tied to how little he was used last night, especially considering how little playing time reserves typically receive in the third game.

Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered is whether the Steelers intend to carry six or seven defensive linemen this year. In his time with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin has done both, but has more frequently kept seven.

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