There’s a desire to be tall. Better on a basketball court, never turned away from a roller coaster ride. But for the last few years, Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end Matt Conrath probably wishes he was a little shorter.
The height came before his weight. By his senior year of high school, it had already peaked. At over 6’7, maybe towered is the better word. Listings of his weight ranged from 235 to 245 pounds. Either way, a lanky body.
He was dominant at St. Rita’s high school in Chicago. Eight sacks and 87 tackles his senior year. Just as good in the classroom, he pulled down a 4.3 GPA and scored 29 on his ACT. It brought top-academic schools like Stanford to his doorstep.
Virginia was ultimately his decision. Redshirted in 2007, no doubt in an effort to put on weight before stepping onto the field, Conrath burst onto the landscape in 2008 with seven tackles for loss and three sacks. Those numbers slightly dipped in 2009, but he played in only 10 games and still found a way to record 45 tackles, ten more than the previous year. He was named the Cavaliers’ most outstanding defensive lineman, flourishing in head coach Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme.
The team’s record, however, didn’t flourish and after a 3-9 result in 2009, Groh was fired.
Mike London became the new head coach, changing the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Conrath was forced to kick inside to defensive tackle.
Even teammates would basically admit how the switch hurt his progress.
“He was dominant. He was probably going to end up being the next Chris Long because he had such long arms. He was a great 3-4 [defensive] end,” teammate Billy Schautz told The Washington Post in 2011.
His high school coach echoed similar concerns. At 6’7, winning the battle of leverage took quite the adjustment.
Predictably, his stats were unimpressive in 2010. They picked back up his senior season, recording 66 tackles, 12 of them for a loss. But the damage was done and though some had given him a draftable grade, he was not selected in the 2012 NFL Draft, signing with the St. Louis Rams as a UDFA.
2013 let him grab a cup of coffee in an NFL environment, appearing in eight games and notching his first career sack. But he was still cast in the Rams’ 4-3 defense, one he might have become more used to, but still not ideal for.
That’s what makes Conrath in Pittsburgh appealing. Playing in a 3-4, his height and length are now working for him, not against. With the team’s lack of depth, there isn’t a backup guaranteed a roster spot, the conditions are right – for maybe the first time since 2009 – for him to succeed.
Right now, a tall, long end with NFL experience is the best thing the Steelers can hope for.