One of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest priorities heading into this season was the ability to cultivate some quality depth along the defensive line, a cast of players that would be suitable to work in a rotation with the team’s two stud defensive end starters, sixth-year Cameron Heyward and third-year Stephon Tuitt.
I’m not exactly sure if they have managed to succeed on that front, although it is probably true that the group overall is ahead of where they found themselves last year, and it is no doubt the case that the team’s struggles against the run in particular over the course of the past two weeks goes well beyond the front line.
One person who is not particularly worried right now about what the Steelers’ defensive line depth looks like is defensive line coach John Mitchell, who sees good things in his new players that they have added this year, and in whom he sees better things in the future.
Over the course of the offseason, during the free agency period, the Steelers signed veteran Ricardo Mathews to a one-year, veteran-minimum qualifying contract. In doing so, they made it clear they were moving on from Cam Thomas, whose two years in Pittsburgh were pretty unimpressive.
With the loss of starting nose tackle Steve McLendon, the front office turned to the draft in order to add Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 edition. Hargrave immediately stepped into the starting lineup, such that nose tackle is a starting position any longer, but he has also played extensively the past two weeks with Heyward out with a hamstring injury.
Mitchell spoke positively of both additions to the depth chart, saying that Hargrave, “for a rookie, has come in here and played well”. He has recorded 10 tackles through the team’s first seven games, logging 187 snaps, much of which, as mentioned, has come in the past two weeks.
As for Mathews, who has seen 121 snaps, and also has had an increased role in Heyward’s absence, Mitchell described him as “a good football player” and said that while “he’s limited size-wise”, he still “gives a great effort” and “he runs to the ball”.
While he didn’t mention him, third-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers has also played fairly well in spite of the fact that he has only seen 59 snaps so far. He has three tackles on the season, while second-year L.T. Walton, in 24 snaps, managed to register a batted pass last week.
That is certainly not to say that the group has been free of struggles this season. While the perimeter run defense has struggled, the line has played its role in the issues as well. Still, Mitchell is confident in his group’s ability to step up.
“We just have to go out there and play the way we’re capable of playing, execute the technique, execute the call and we’re going to be alright”, he said. The coaching staff isn’t panicked, he went on to say. “We know who we are. We know what we have to do”.