In the last game, the Pittsburgh Steelers not only got back nose tackle Steve McLendon, but gave rookie second-round defensive end Stephon Tuitt his first career start, in which he logged a team-high in defensive snaps among defensive linemen.
The hope here is that, on Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals, we got a glimpse, a prelude, of the defensive line of the future.
That is, of course, the idea, after all. The Steelers drafted Tuitt with the idea that he would likely start by year two, if not by the end of his rookie season. The play of free agent signing Cam Thomas and the injury to Brett Keisel has perhaps accelerated the team’s desired developmental projections, but with him presumably now in the starting lineup, the future may well be here.
The other starting defensive end, of course, would be Cameron Heyward, the fourth-year former first-round draft pick whose fifth-year option has already been picked up. Heyward has been one of the few defensive players this year approximating any sort of consistency, and leads the team with five sacks.
Much to his credit, Heyward has transitioned seamlessly from college to the professional level in terms of learning how to take care of his body. He has participated in all 61 games in which he has been a part of the team, and since entering the starting lineup early last season, rarely leaves the field.
Tuitt’s team-high snap count among defensive linemen, without actually verifying, is probably the first time in his career in which Heyward has started a game and not logged at least as many snaps as any other defensive lineman.
In other words, the Steelers have in Heyward a fine tutor for their new book end along the defensive line, the rookie Tuitt. His work ethic, motor, and discipline will not be lost on the impressionable young talent.
In the middle of these two is the nose tackle McLendon, whose main criticism since entering the starting lineup could only be staying on the field. A year ago, he missed two games due to injury.
He already missed four in 2014 due to a lingering shoulder injury that sapped his strength, but he was able to return on Sunday and immediately provided a lift to the run defense. Thomas had taken the majority of nose tackle snaps in his absence.
But Thomas now appears to be in the background as the rotational player he is best suited to be now with McLendon back and Tuitt in the starting lineup. He logged only 13 snaps in the last game, much of it coming in mop up duty in a blowout victory.
The final four games of this regular season, and whatever postseason games the Steelers may be afforded, should help provide some insight into determining what kind of defense Pittsburgh will have in the trenches over the next few years, assuming the organization manages to keep these three pieces around.