Devil’s Advocate: Current D-Line Rivaling LeBeau’s Champions

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Does this defensive line have the capability of rivaling its contemporaries of their most recent Super Bowl era?

Right now, the Steelers feel as though they have the most talented defensive linemen that they have in years. But one wonders, when contemplating their potential, how good can they be as a group? How many years would one have to go back when defining them as the best group they’ve had in ‘x’ years? All the way back to the Steel Curtain of the mid-70s?

Certainly, right now, the trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave is still walking in shadows of their most recent contemporaries of the 2000s, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel, under Dick LeBeau, with a couple of rings to show for their efforts. All three of them made at least one Pro Bowl over the course of their careers, while none of the current group have.

Heyward is obviously the furthest along not just in his career, but in his game, and he recorded 14.5 sacks over the course of the 2014-2015 seasons before injuries sidetracked him a year ago. And Tuitt managed to put up 6.5 in 2015. Hargrave at the nose tackle managed three sacks as a rookie, including the playoffs. As a pass-rushing group, this one has the potential to be better, even factoring in the reality that they get to rush more urgently.

But I think there can be no comparison when it comes to run defense, going from Hampton, one of the great run-stuffing nose tackles in history, to Hargrave, who is undersized for the traditional nose guard. His game in this area will continue to develop, but he will never go to a Pro Bowl for his run defense.

Tuitt has shown flashes of dominance, but his inconsistency is holding him back at the moment. He missed a significant number of tackles last year, as well as opportunities to close the deal on the quarterback.

Do they have the potential to rival the trio of Smith, Hampton, and Keisel? Perhaps. How likely is it that they are able to reach that potential? That is a harder question to answer.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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