With spring drills officially over, I think we all understand that we’re all in for a long haul, six weeks in total, between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp. You know the drill. There’s little new information coming out during this period, so it serves as the perfect time both to look back, and to look ahead.
We’re going to be focusing mostly on the latter as we prepare—ever so patiently, of course—for training camp. The Pittsburgh Steelers right now have a fairly young roster with inexperienced players that they are hoping to take on a bigger role. The problem is that in many cases, they are still waiting on those players to show them something, and that is the focus of that series—as well as the occasional veteran with lingering questions.
Show me something, L.T. Walton.
If there is one particular reserve area of critical importance this season facing major questions, I would have to say above all that that position would be defensive end. Behind stars Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers quite simply really don’t even know what they have, and they didn’t last year either, which is why they were unable to get their starters off the field.
The team obviously realized that Cam Thomas was not an adequate answer, especially not after they increasingly relied upon a two-down-linemen front in the nickel package, which was far from Thomas’ wheelhouse, and so he was not re-signed. Instead, they brought in Ricardo Mathews on a veteran-minimum deal with no guaranteed money.
In the interim, John Mitchell and the defensive coaching staff is crossing their fingers regarding the development of second-year defensive end L.T. Walton, who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but who only logged a few dozen snaps in his rookie season with very little impact.
Walton was only active in games in which there was an injury along the defensive line, so he spent most of his year inactive. Along with Thomas, starting nose tackle Steve McLendon logged some snaps as a defensive end or defensive tackle, but for the most part, Heyward and Tuitt were forced to carry the load.
The Steelers need Walton to be able to log some quality snaps this year in order for their thoroughbreds to get a rest and not burn themselves out by the end of the season or in late-game scenarios where the stakes are at their highest.
There was not a lot of tape on the second-year player last year, obviously, because he wasn’t on the field a great deal, but the positive is, at least, that he didn’t always seem to be entirely lost—though there were a few plays where he seemed to lack positional awareness.
What is paramount above all else for defensive linemen is to maintain their assignment, which is often a particular gap or gaps, because blowing your assignment often means an explosive play. That is the paramount skill that Walton will have to show, that he can be trusted.
But he also has to show in particular that he can offer something in terms of the pass rush, given how often the Steelers rely on their four-man sub-package front to get home. If Walton is one of those four guys as an interior rusher, then he needs to get some pressure from time to time, which was not his forte in college.