Few people had much positive to say when the Pittsburgh Steelers signed free agent Cam Thomas, even back when the assumption was that he would inherit Al Woods’ role as a swing backup defensive end and nose tackle.
It was believed at the time that the Steelers would pursue a starting alternative in free agency. They eventually re-signed veteran Brett Keisel, but, of course, he is still playing himself into football shape, even if he is logging a significant amount of snaps.
The Steelers also drafted Stephon Tuitt in the second round, but it’s surprising enough that they already have one rookie on defense in the starting lineup in first round inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
With neither candidate ready to go for the opening game, it turned out that Thomas was, indeed, the starting left defensive end against the Cleveland Browns a week from yesterday.
During the preseason, the free agent signing did show well overall, particularly in the first and final games, during which his playing time was more sporadic.
During some of his more extensive stretches of playing time, however, it began to become obvious that he would struggle on a play-to-play basis.
Because the coaching staff was pleased with his progress in understanding the defense and in his playing time during the preseason, however—and considering the lack of conditioning and/or experience of the other candidates—he was on the field for the first snap of the season opener.
But as we’ve seen through the first two games, Thomas has struggled as a full-time starter, getting exposed upon the scrutiny of increased responsibility and playing time.
Opposing offenses have been taking advantage, and have found particular success running off right tackle. Even a significant minority of successful stops in that direction have come as a result of backside pursuit.
Exacerbating the problem has been the play of outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who has quite frankly not picked up his run defense as I’d expected him to after watching his steady improvement in that area.
While Worilds will on occasion make a strong individual play, he has had issues holding the point, particularly on stretch plays, allowing the runner to either get to the outside or to cut inside of him when playing too wide.
Having Worilds and Thomas together on the same side in the running game, playing as they have, has been an issue early in this season for the defense. Worilds may not be going anywhere, and has a reasonable expectation of improvement, but after this long break, perhaps it’s time to start considering a lineup change at left defensive end.