The Pittsburgh Steelers have been talking about rotating their defensive linemen more than they have been pretty much since the game of football was invented, but under their second season with Karl Dunbar in charge of the defensive linemen, he seems pretty confident that they will be able to do that in 2019.
“The whole thing is about getting guys to the finish line”, the veteran position coach told Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday. “And the fresher guys are, the better they play at the end. Sometimes I’ve been on teams where you wear your guys down, and then when you need them in the fourth quarter or the second half of the season, they’re not there”.
For most of the past five-plus years, the Steelers have been stuck giving heavy volumes of snaps to Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, at least while they’ve been healthy. while I believe it would be inaccurate to attribute the lack of breathers to the injuries (mainly to Tuitt), these have been the main opportunities for others such as Tyson Alualu to see time.
Increasingly though, admittedly, others have been getting in on more of the action. With the defense shifting more and more to a base nickel defense with two down linemen, it had been harder to get Javon Hargrave, the nose tackle, on the field, but he did see a good amount of time there last year, and should see even more in 2019.
“He doesn’t have to prove anything to me”, Dunbar said of Hargrave, who is coming off a 6.5-sack season as he enters his fourth year. “He’s shown that he can play against the run. He can sack the quarterback. He does a great job. He can get up the field. He causes trouble”.
He insisted that “we have the talent” to rotate linemen in and give Heyward and Tuitt more time off, citing the aforementioned. Daniel McCullers and rookie Isaiah Buggs will also be a part of the conversation at times, though on your average week, one of those two will be a gameday inactive.
The defensive line produced about 20 sacks on their own last season, with Heyward’s eight being the second-most on the team. He had 12 the year before, and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two years. But he would rather be fresh in the Super Bowl with lesser numbers than to play in another Pro Bowl game after a long but individually productive season.
The real question for the defensive line is this: will this be the last year the group is together? Hargrave will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, the franchise tag is prohibitively expensive for a defensive tackle, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the two sides will work out a contract extension before then