The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem along their defensive line, but the problem doesn’t come from the front line; rather, the issue is that the team has nobody to play behind their two starting defensive ends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Of course, it needs to be noted that starting nose tackle Steve McLendon is a pending free agent, but the term ‘starting nose tackle’ is losing less and less of its value, considering the Steelers played about two-third of its snaps with only two down linemen.
Because the defensive line depth behind Heyward and Tuitt is so thin, however, the coaching staff has asked of these two to log an incredible amount of reps for a position that takes a ton of beatings from offensive linemen on nearly every play of every game. Heyward played 88 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, while Tuitt played nearly 80 percent despite missing two games.
In one of those games, the Steelers turned to McLendon to play defensive end, such was the rapidity with which they lost confidence with Cam Thomas, who started most of last season ahead of Tuitt after signing a two-year contract worth $4 million.
Even that contract, however, is now expired, making the depth along the defensive line that much thinner. The Steelers are hoping that one answer to the depth problem will come from within, with the growth of rookie defensive end L.T. Walton, drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft and logging about 30 snaps during the season.
To be sure, Walton is very much an unknown, particularly for those who do not see him in practice day in and day out, but it is notable that they kept him on the 53-man roster for the entire season, while he was active for six games in what was a clear redshirt year situation.
He remained on the 53-man roster all while the Steelers released two other defensive draft picks in fourth-round cornerback Doran Grant and sixth-round linebacker Anthony Chickillo, exposing them to waivers before signing them to the practice squad, though both eventually found their way back up to the 53-man roster.
The most interesting facet of Walton’s relation to his two fellow late-round defensive draft classmates? One of them was cut so that they could claim defensive end Caushaud Lyons off waivers. Lyons spent the first month on the 53-man roster before being released and re-signed to the practice squad, where he remained all season.
Lyons was a rookie undrafted defensive end who played for the Buccaneers during the preseason while finding some success as a 4-3 defensive lineman, but the Steelers believe that his raw physical attributes make him malleable between fronts.
Finding a capable reserve in at least one of Walton and Lyons next year would go a long way toward alleviating some of the burden being placed on Heyward and Tuitt upfront. Of course, it’s asking a lot to find a reliable player in a second-year late-round or undrafted player, but it would ease the urgency, even if it should not impact their offseason process by projecting significant internal growth.