Pro Football Focus may not have been overly impressed with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receivers, and were a bit lukewarm on their tight ends, but boy do they love what the team has up front on the defensive side of the ball.
In the site’s latest ranking article, focusing on the defensive line, Sam Monson rates the Steelers’ front as the best in the NFL. It should be noted that in their definition of a front, that includes all edge defenders, to that means the outside linebackers in a 3-4—in other words, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. He writes:
T.J. Watt took another step forward in 2019, playing at a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year level. Watt ended the season with the highest pass-rushing grade (91.7) of any edge rusher in the league in addition to racking up 81 total pressures. Both figures were new career highs for a player whose progression has been steady and inexorable in the NFL. He also forced eight fumbles and had two interceptions.
The Steelers’ defensive front featured career years out of multiple players in 2019. Cameron Heyward was the best interior defender in the league outside of Aaron Donald; Javon Hargrave had a big season after taking over for the injured Stephon Tuitt; and Bud Dupree had career-highs in pressures, overall grade, run-defense grade and pass-rush grade. Hargrave departed in free agency, but the other main figures all return — including Tuitt, who will look to continue his impressive form before injury.
That group will earn the bulk of playing time, with Chris Wormley likely to see the majority of snaps at nose tackle in base defense, but replicating the level of play they all reached last season will be tough to do in 2020. Alex Highsmith was the only significant addition to the defensive front in the draft, and the third-round pick will look to carve out a role for himself as a situational pass-rusher in his first NFL season.
The Steelers have some of the most proven quality in the league up front, but almost all of those players are coming off the best seasons they have produced to date, so there’s reason to expect some form of regression heading into 2020.
Monson evidently has not been paying close attention to Mike Tomlin this offseason, who has already said that Tyson Alualu will take the first snaps at nose tackle. In fact, it’s likely that the Steelers will not be considering Chris Wormley at nose tackle at all.
He does raise the fair point about trying to replicate a very high level of play. When you have multiple players have career years, you can’t expect them to equal or better that. But they’re sure going to make a good run at it, nevertheless.