In the early stages of Cameron Heyward’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team had quality depth along the defensive line. In fact, for the first two-plus years, he was the quality depth. Back in 2013, the year he entered the starting lineup, they had himself, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Al Woods handling the defensive end position.
After that season, both Hood and Woods left in free agency and Keisel became a rotational player in his final season, suffering an injury 12 games into the year that would have likely ended his career had the Steelers even wanted to continue to bring him back.
Since then, the top backup role has been filled by the likes of Cam Thomas, Ricardo Mathews, and L.T. Walton. This was not what Heyward had in mind when he said last season that “we have to add depth” because “we don’t want to get to a point in the playoffs where we’re gassed”.
The former first-round pick made those comments around this time a year ago, so it was well before his own injury vastly complicated the depth issue, but it seems that the Steelers have taken the comment more seriously a year on than they did at the time.
The addition of Tyson Alualu is the most significant outside free agent acquisition that the Steelers have made for the defensive line in terms of the impact that he should have since at least Travis Kirschke, and if the team can get that sort of rotational value out of him, then the entire defensive line will profit from it.
That has been the idea, at least in the minds of the players, for seemingly a while now, and I was glad that Heyward spoke about the need to get others involved last season. I mentioned Walton earlier and in what may have seemed like a disparaging manner, but he does deserve to be included here positively.
The defensive captain in the same breath talked about adding depth as well as challenging others to step up, and Walton was the first player he named. The second-year player did step up, becoming arguably the most-improved on the roster.
The pairing of Alualu and a third-year Walton now with some quality playing time under his belt should represent the healthiest and most prepared group of defensive linemen that the Steelers have had since 2013, when they had a spoil of riches.
That isn’t even factoring in nose tackle Javon Hargrave, whose primary—or at least co-primary—function is likely going to be functioning as a nickel rushing defensive tackle, since the defense doesn’t require much of a nose tackle by percentage any longer.
All of this will hopefully translate into more time off for Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, which is frankly a drum that we have been beating here for two years already.