With the 156th in the 5th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Isaiahh Loudermilk out of the University of Wisconsin. The Steelers traded a 2022 4th round selection to the Miami Dolphins to acquire the pick to select Loudermilk, meaning that the team was seriously interested in adding him to the team. After the selection, GM Kevin Colbert and DL Coach Karl Dunbar acknowledged that they were afraid that Loudermilk wouldn’t make it to their next selection and given the positional fit he presented to their defense, they justified the trade to go get him. Coach Dunbar pointed to Loudermilk’s size and measurables as a clear fit for the 3-4 defensive end position in Pittsburgh’s defense, saying that there weren’t a lot of guys with his height and size in this year’s draft that matched the fit. Loudermilk played all over the defensive line for the Badgers but should figure to slide in to that 4i role while playing some 3 and 5-tech on defense.
The selection proved to be puzzling to some in the draft community, as Loudermilk was dubbed a late Day Three-UDFA player. He has been primarily known for his ability to play against the run, and his age, injury history, and lack of production over his time in Madison made the trade up even more head scratching. However, after diving into the tape and examining Loudermilk both as a run defender and pass rusher, you can see the desire Pittsburgh would have had in selecting him, being a natural fit in their system like Alex Kozora mentioned in his article.
Let’s dive into the film to examine Loudermilk as a pass rusher. To be completely honest, a lot of Loudermilk’s pressures and sacks complied during his time in college weren’t of the greatest quality. Wisconsin ran a lot of twits and stunts with their defensive front, having their defenders loop around and cause confusion along the offensive line to get advantageous matchups. That can be said for Loudermilk, who often would loop around to the outside and get a matchup with the TE or the RB who is tasked with pass protection, being a matchup he should win every time.
Loudermilk loves to sit near the LOS if he doesn’t think he can get home and try to bat down passes at the line. We see that here against the Hawkeyes as he pauses a second on his rush looking for the QB to throw the football but recognizes that he is still holding onto the ball and loops around after his teammate stunts into his blocker, freeing up to be unblocked on his way to take #7 Spencer Petras to the ground.
While you may like to see more urgency on a consistent basis on Loudermilk’s pass rush, he does a pretty good job getting his arms up in passing lanes and knocking down balls at the line. His height aids in his ability to look into the backfield and see when the QB let’s go of the football, allowing him to react and swat at passes coming his way. Loudermilk can affect the passing game when not getting home as a pass rusher in this facet as seen below.
While Loudermilk benefitted from scheme a lot in Wisconsin’s system, he did get production based on his own play as well. One of his greatest traits is his ability to extend his arms and lock out blockers with the long arm, having the size and strength to walk back interior blockers into the backfield and into the lap of the QB. You do see a similar move used often by Cam Heyward, hence the poor man’s comparison made by Coach Dunbar, but that will be discussed later. On this first play, Loudermilk uses his right arm to extend the guard and then shoots inside across his face into the lap of the QB to get in on the sack.
This next clip shows Loudermilk walk back the Michigan State blocker right into the passer, going over top of him when he gets to the QB and wraps him up for the sack in the backfield.
You do occasionally see some hand usage in Loudermilk’s pass rush. When he shoots inside or is asked to twist/stunt, he has a good arm over/swim move to get skinny through the block of the offensive lineman and sneak through the gap and into the backfield. We see that on this play against Ohio State where Loudermilk crosses the face of #71 Josh Myers who gets caught lunging forward on his block, getting the swim move and manages to wrap up #1 Justin Fields in the backfield and bring him down for the big sack.
When watching Loudermilk, you do see similarities in play to Cam Heyward. They have similar size, are used in nearly identical systems, and are dangerous at knocking down balls near the LOS. They both like to use the bull rush and can win on twists and stunts along the defensive line, and both use the arm over/swim move on interior blockers. That being said, Loudermilk is not near the skill level as Heyward, as Heyward is far stronger and explosive on his pass rush. He imposes his will on blockers on a consistent basis, whereas Loudermilk can struggle to maintain consistent play strength and gat a good push on the pocket with regularity. He can struggle with base and balance issues, occasionally not getting any push of the pocket and will even get knocked off his spot on occasion. Loudermilk will run himself out of the play at times, looking to win with finesse when he should take his man into the lap of the QB. We see that here as Loudermilk rips through the outside shoulder of the guard but is unable to turn the corner and runs himself up the arc out of the play instead of taking the guard into the lap of the QB to collapse the pocket.
I do understand the Heyward comparisons, but in no way should Loudermilk ever be considered the next Cam Heyward. His age and injury history limit his upside, as he is probably close to being maxed out athletically with only room to improve on technique. Another comparison I thought of was Dean Lowry of the Packers who came out of Northwestern several years ago. Both players are natural fits as 3-4 DEs that stand over 6’6, have shorter arm length than desired, were projected to be late draftees but were taken earlier on Day Three (Lowry was a 4th round pick), and are used in similar defensive systems. Lowry has recorded ten sacks in five seasons as a part-time starter/rotational piece for the Packers defense, and I can see Loudermilk having the same impact should he develop more under Coach Dunbar. Lowry has better athletic testing numbers, but their production comes in the same way.
Time will tell if Loudermilk makes good on giving up the future 2022 selection to add to the defense. However, Pittsburgh has usually been a team focused on positional fit and have prototypes they like at certain positions, and he fits the bill as a 3-4 DE. Should he learn to play with more consistent play strength and use his hands better, Loudermilk should be able to progress into a capable depth piece that can push the pocket and be used in exotic blitz packages like he was at Wisconsin. While he may never be a high sack guy at the next level due to his limitations, his ability to get hands up in passing lanes and rotate in with the starters will get him snaps and likely take over Chris Wormely’s role as a top reserve down the road.