The Pittsburgh Steelers knew that they would be without second-year starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt for this game after he suffered an ankle injury during the previous preseason game in a friendly fire collision with a teammate.
It’s unlikely that the line defensive lineman sees time before the regular season begins in less than two weeks at this point, in fact. Which will give the Steelers, evidently, an extended opportunity to get a look at L.T. Walton.
The rookie sixth-round draft pick got the surprise start in Tuitt’s place, ahead of veteran Cam Thomas, who started the majority of the previous season at left defensive end, and who also was Tuitt’s immediate replacement in the last game following his injury.
Not that the game got off to a very good start for him or any of the starting defensive unit. Walton was among those to blame for the 41-yard run to start the game, as he was able to be sealed inside on the long Bills gain, providing a cutback lane.
But the rookie responded well on the two succeeding rushes near the goal line for the Bills, standing up and holding the point, even though Buffalo succeeded in scoring on the second attempt.
Walton stayed in with the starting defense, although it is notable that Steve McLendon, the nose tackle, remained in the game on sub-packages rather than the rookie defensive end.
While he made no exceptional plays, the key to his performance is that he made few obvious errors beyond that first play of the game. He lost leverage and ended up to the ground a time or two, but that is a process that he is still working through in his game.
He also stayed in the game with the second-team unit to begin the second quarter, but he was, again, removed in the nickel and replaced with another defensive end. Twice on that first drive with the second-team unit he nearly got a hand on a pass at the line of scrimmage—in fact, the replay shows that he did indeed tip the second pass, though it was caught anyway.
It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that Thomas finally entered the game, though when he did, the second-team defensive line was still in the game, as were the starting linebackers, among others.
Thomas played well in his time, but, like Walton, was taken off the field during nickel situations. This was likely a designed move to get looks at as many defensive linemen as possible. Both were on the field together to close out that drive on a goal line play in a four-man front.
Did the Steelers give Walton the start—and the first 25 or so minutes of the game—just because they wanted to get a long look at him before deciding whether or not he deserved a spot on the 53-man roster? Should there be something read into the fact that Thomas received such little playing time, even as the Steelers were down a starter?
The two did play together later in the third quarter as opposite ends, with Thomas on the right. The veteran did not perform below the line by any means, so I would not think his spot is in jeopardy, leaving me to chalk this up to wanting to get a long look at Walton.