Although the lack of depth in the secondary has been the annual thorn in the paw among many observers, the defensive line depth in the past two years has left much to be desired, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been actively working on repairing that aspect of the defense.
After they failed to find their mark looking for depth in free agency with Cam Thomas in 2014, the Steelers this year dipped back in to the Chargers pool and signed Ricardo Mathews to a one-year, veteran-minimum deal, with no signing bonus to boot the sort of no-risk deal that makes it a no-brainer.
The very preliminary results, however, reveal a player who is much different from Thomas, though that should have never been the assumption simply because they were both free agent pickups having most recently played for the Chargers.
While Thomas was more of a defensive tackle in a 4-3, or a nose tackle in a 3-4, in this era, Mathews is built differently, and plays that way. He has a slimmer build, to be sure, but he is surprisingly quick, and even explosive at times, gaining penetration a couple of times against the Lions and causing chaos.
That first bit of chaos occurred early in the second quarter when his admittedly nearly free rush coerced the quarterback into throwing a duck of a pass that was easily plucked out of the air and returned for an interception. Granted, he would have liked to have finished the sack, and the left guard erred on the play, but the end result was for the better—and his speed helped get him past the guard in the first place.
He showed some power and explosiveness in his rush on the Lions’ next offensive possession, as you can see on his first step and punch that he was able to force the left guard to stagger backward and become unbalanced. While he ultimately did not penetrate the pocket, he showed continued drive in his footwork on the completed pass.
Mathews was able to end that drive in nearly the same way that he ended the previous, by gaining penetration and causing chaos. This time he was able to get a hand on the pass, and had the ball not been tipped down by the linebacker, this could have been a second interception. His first rip move to get across the far side of the center should not be overlooked, either.
The free agent’s playing time was sporadic in the game, and the bulk of it came in sub-packages, with most of his playing time coming in the second and third quarter. He recorded his lone tackle of the game early in the third, showing quickness to get under the shoulder of the left guard and leverage his way into the backfield to make the tackle.
It shouldn’t be ignored, however, that just the play before that he showed a distinct lack of hustle on a quarterback scramble that gained 17 yards when defenders gave up the play assuming he would go out of bounds. But that is not a major concern. Overall, one has to be optimistic about Mathews being able to contribute effectively for the Steelers this year based upon this game.