The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the season with six defensive linemen. They lost their best one along the way, and by Sunday, they were down their other veteran starter, counting upon the services of two rookies—one undrafted—a banged up journeyman free agent, and two late-round picks from 2014 and 2015 in order to cobble together a coherent defensive front line in the pass rush and the running game.
And all things considered, this suddenly young and ragtag unit, it must be said, held up about as well as could be expected of them, given the circumstances that were placed in, so for that they should be commended.
With players such as L.T. Walton suddenly in the starting lineup and a rookie undrafted free agent fresh up from the practice squad in Johnny Maxey serving as a key rotational player as the banged up Ricardo Mathews played less and less, it would be fair to say that the Steelers were not fielding their best possible unit.
Of course, they will not do so again this year with Cameron Heyward on injured reserve for the past six games, and with no chance, obviously, it him returning this season. But the hope is that their other stalwart defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, should be back in time for the playoffs, with two weeks off, after he tweaked his knee attempting to record a sack on the third play of the game against the Bengals.
The leader of that defensive line, for the moment, is rookie third-round defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who has had to step in and play a major role already in Heyward’s absence, and who now has become the focal point of sorts since Tuitt has been sidelined for the past two games. He recorded four tackles for the Steelers on Sunday against the Ravens and was a consistent pass-rushing presence as well.
Walton also chipped in three tackles himself a week after he was officially not credited with any—although he deserved at least one, as I showed in my film study last week. Nose tackle Daniel McCullers, who played 10 snaps against the Ravens, added a tackle as well.
Although Maxey did not officially record any statistics in the game, his body of work—not without its blemishes, of course—earned praise both after the game and during this week’s pre-game press conference from his head coach.
Even if it may have been a good turnout given the circumstances, however, it still left the Steelers vulnerable, and the Ravens were able to take advantage of the fatigue and inexperience of the young defensive line late in the game, particularly on their go-ahead touchdown drive.
Baltimore ran the ball relatively well, especially in comparison to the first game, for which the Steelers had a healthy Heyward and Tuitt. But everybody knew going in that they were not in an ideal situation and that it would be an accomplishment just to hold up, which they did. And it was tremendously valuable experience for this young depth, especially for Walton, heading into the playoffs.