The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Do the Steelers have enough ammunition among 3-4 defensive ends to ignore the position in the draft?
The Steelers have a seemingly obvious dearth of talent along their defensive line, which was already regarded as fairly thin last season, and which has withstood the departure of Steve McLendon and the likely termination of relations with Cam Thomas.
But McLendon logged few snaps in a defensive end role, and Thomas simply did not play much after starting 12 games in 2014, primarily at defensive end. Thomas’ roster spot has been potentially filled by the bargain-bin signing of Ricardo Mathews, who, ironically, was signed by the Chargers in response to the loss of Thomas two years earlier.
While Mathews played primarily in the Chargers’ nickel defense, that will not be a hindrance to a role with the Steelers, since that is what Pittsburgh primarily employs now, in excess of about 70 percent of the time last season. Equally important is the fact that Pittsburgh was willing to play Thomas as a 3-4 defensive end in spite of the fact that he was primarily a nose tackle in San Diego. Mathews’ tenure in Pittsburgh could be similar.
Also in the picture are two second-year players in L.T. Walton and Caushaud Lyons, the former a sixth-round draft pick, the latter an undrafted free agent claimed off waivers. Walton is a player that Cameron Heyward named as one the team is expecting to take a step forward and play a bigger role in year two.
Lyons, in the meantime, is somebody we know little about, given that he has never played a down for the Steelers, but his preseason work with the Buccaneers, his raw physical traits, and the fact that the team signed him to the 53-man roster initially and carried him on the practice squad for the rest of the season in favor of Ethan Hemer, whom they released from the practice squad, at least offers intrigue.
If the team manages to acquire a base 3-4 interior defender who can also log significant time as a defensive tackle in their nickel defense, then I believe that the team may potentially have enough at defensive end—true 3-4 defensive end—to get by without further tweaks if the draft develops in such a way as to preclude them from addressing the position in a significant way.
Walton was already the team’s sixth lineman last season, and should only improve from there, possibly into a role that actually sees some meaningful playing time. Mathews has the potential to log some portion of snaps as well, but the ability to add a nose tackle that can log significant nickel snaps would greatly reduce the need for another player who can fill the role of a 3-4 defensive end, so the answer to the question really hinges on the ability to find that player.