When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected defensive end L.T. Walton with their first selection in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, it was certainly a move that flew under the radar, figuring that he would likely be a practice squad candidate at best, as has been the case with most of the team’s late-round defensive line selections.
But this season, there is a spot available along the line at defensive end, a spot partially opened by the absence of Clifton Geathers after he was played on injured reserve. Even before that, however, he had been reported as consistently running with the second-team defense.
That may no longer be the case, as evidenced in this last game, as when Stephon Tuitt went down, he was replaced by Cam Thomas. And when the second-team unit entered, it consisted of Daniel McCullers at nose tackle and Ethan Hemer at the other end.
In fact, Matt Conrath and Joe Kruger entered the game in the second quarter for a spell before Walton got his snaps, which began in the second half. But that should not be interpreted as him losing ground. That is simply how the game worked, and may have been by design to get a look at those players earlier in the game.
For his part, Walton had his share of rookie plays and inconsistencies, but there is one element in his game in particular that I prefer to look at at this time, acknowledging that it does not give a full representation of his performance in this most recent preseason game.
In particular, I would like to examine a few instances of Walton on the pass rush, and how he has progressed a bit since the first two games, as well as from training camp.
Walton managed to get into the backfield a few times on the pass rush to generate pressure, suggesting that his process is speeding up, and he is able to work faster and better utilize his athleticism to his advantage.
The first instance came early in the second half, on a third and 10 opportunity for the Packers. Lined up as the left defensive tackle in the nickel defense, shaded over the center’s right shoulder, Walton rushed the right guard, who was hardly out of his stance by the time the rookie was working inside of him with active hands. As the guard recovered, Walton countered with another high body punch to finally win the inside. While the pass was competed—for six yards—it shows a positive trend in his pass rush.
While the Packers’ terrible preseason camerawork and interview timing makes it difficult to see on this play later in the third quarter, Walton executed a very similar rush against the right guard yet again on a third and long opportunity, again showing a strong punch to win the inside, and this time he actually got to the quarterback. Still, you want to see the entire process sped up in time, winning earlier in the rush.
Still later in the third quarter, Walton showed well again on the pass rush, but was overshadowed by his teammates, with Bud Dupree chasing down the quarterback from behind and Ian Wild ultimately recording the sack on third and 10. The lineman, lined up in the same position as the prior examples, was this time passed along to the center, whom he pushed back and then leveraged off of in order to bottle in the quarterback pushing up the pocket, where he was met by a pair of defenders and dropped for a loss.
While not an example of his pass rushing, this fourth quarter play serves to epitomize some of Walton’s best traits, namely his motor and his athleticism. On third and 27, the Packers dumped of a running back screen. Walton chased down the play from behind, outrunning the right guard and wrapping the back up from the waist.
I should reiterate that these are specifically isolated examples during the game to emphasize progress that Walton has made over the course of the preseason, and is thus not a full and accurate representation of his performance, nor is it intended to be. But I would say that it is safe to assume the rookie has exhibited more than many anticipated at this early stage.