During the offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers made it a point to address their defensive line and that undertaking included them signing unrestricted free agent defensive end Ricardo Mathews and drafting defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in the third-round. Those two players, along with the return of defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and defense end L.T. Walton, will hopefully allow the team’s two starting defensive ends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the opportunity to play less total snaps in 2016.
During a recent interview with the media, Tuitt, who is entering his third year with the Steelers, talked briefly about how a few of the teams’ aforementioned backups and new undrafted rookies are progressing as the team starts winding down their annual mandatory minicamp.
“Ricardo (Matthews), L.T. (Walton), ‘Big Dan’ (McCullers), (Lavon) Hooks, all the other guys that came into OTAs have been doing a great job, day in and day out, practicing hard, running to the ball, doing everything that we need,” Tuitt said, according to Mike Prisuta of steelers.com.
Later in the interview, Tuitt was asked specifically about the progress that Hargrave has made during the the offseason practices.
“He’s doing an awesome job,” Tuitt said. “He’s studying, he’s smart. He’ll do something once or twice in practice and you’re like, ‘Wow, that was a great move. He’s going to be on his way.”
While Hargrave might not crack the starting lineup as the team’s base nose tackle by the start of the regular season, there’s a good bet he’ll see some limited playing time sooner rather than later in the team’s nickel sub package front in order to give Heyward and Tuiit occasional breathers.
As for McCullers’ expected progress in 2016, which will be his third season in the league, one can only hope that he’ll have somewhat of an expanded role in sub packages during games in addition to the snaps he’s expected to receive at nose tackle.
The two big unknown commodities for the Steelers on their defensive line heading into 2016 will be Mathews and Walton. The former, Mathews, has been in the league since 2010 with his last two seasons being spent as a rotational player with the San Diego Chargers. While he has only managed to register 4 total sacks during his NFL career, 38 of his 45 career combined tackles against the run resulting in gains of 3 yards or less qualified as successful stops. In other words, he should be better to some degree against the run than Cam Thomas was for the Steelers over the course of the last two seasons.
As for Walton, who is entering his second year with the Steelers after being drafted in the sixth-round in 2015, he barely played any defensive snaps during his rookie season.
Regardless of the combinations used by the Steelers this season on their defensive line, Tuitt knows that each and every player needs to play above-the-line.
“Me, Cam, Dan, Ricardo, L.T., anybody who comes in the game, we gotta dominate,” Tuitt said.
Last season, Tuitt and Heyward combined to have 13.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss during the regular season. The other Steelers defensive linemen who saw playing time last year all combined to have 1.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss. One of those sacks and all 4 tackles for loss were registered by nose tackle Steve McLendon, who signed with the New York Jets during the offseason.
“Steve, he played a lot of years here so he understood what everyone wanted so he was a good veteran guy,” said Tuiit. “But we’ll be able to make up for it with Big Dan in the middle and Hargrave, and just going to move on from there.”