The Pittsburgh Steelers need to bolster their defensive line depth this offseason. They needed to do so last offseason when their starting defensive ends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, were logging over 90 percent of the team’s snaps toward the end of the season.
Everybody knows it. The Steelers know it, which is why they recently signed Ricardo Mathews to help address the situation, although their work is not yet complete. Who else knows? Heyward himself knows, and according to the sixth-year veteran, it’s something that they have discussed quite a bit.
In a one-on-one sit-down interview with Missi Matthews for the team’s website, the former first-round draft pick was asked about whether or not he was following the team’s plans in the draft. As the leader and elder statesman of the defensive line meeting room, he certainly was, and for good reason, which he told Matthews.
“We talked a lot about having depth at that position because we don’t want to get to a point in the playoffs where we’re gassed”, he said, hitting the nail about as squarely on the head as one possibly can.
To put some numbers next to what I’m talking about, let’s just take a look at the Steelers’ postseason run. In the Wildcard game, Heyward logged 66 snaps on defense, and Tuitt logged 69, those numbers representing 89 and 93 percent of the team’s 74 snaps in the game. The rest of the unit combined for 28 snaps, with Steve McLendon seeing 17 of them.
The following week in the Divisional Round against the Broncos, Heyward logged 67 snaps and Tuitt 66, those figures accounting for 91 and 89 percent of the Steelers’ 74 snaps. The rest of the defensive line combined for 24 snaps, with McLendon again accounting for 17 snaps.
Thus, over a span of two games, Heyward logged 133 of a possible 148 snaps, while Tuitt accounted for 135 of 148 possible snaps. I don’t care how young and in-shape you are, with that percentage of a workload on that consistent basis, you are risking the exact scenario Heyward referenced, reaching a point where some of your most important players are too fatigued to be properly effective.
Where will the help come from? Matthews’ interview with Heyward took place prior to the Steelers bringing in and signing Ricardo Mathews, but he talked about the team’s young linemen, 2015 sixth-round draft pick L.T. Walton and 2014 sixth-round draft pick Daniel McCullers.
“I think we have to add depth, but we need other guys to step up. L.T. Walton, and also Dan”, he said, before going on to talk about McCullers’ ability to “create matchups where they have to double him” in the Steelers’ sub-package. “If we can get those two guys to step up, I think we’ll be headed in the right direction”.
Indeed, they would be headed in the right direction if they can turn McCullers and Walton into reliable contributors. But that could be a lot to ask from two young players without a lot of experience of pedigree.