Pro Football Focus has been releasing its top 32 players in the NFL at every position, and the Pittsburgh Steelers recently peaked this morning when T.J. Watt ranked second among all edge rushers in the league. But even Watt’s honor doesn’t top how the Steelers did on PFF’s interior defenders list, also released this morning.
The Steelers’ entire starting defensive line was ranked by PFF among the league’s best, one of only two teams to have three or more players appear on the site’s list. The leader of that group, Cameron Heyward, ranked highest at third overall in the league, challenging Watt for the highest ranking across all positions. Just outside the top 10, Stephon Tuitt placed 11th for the Steelers. And keeping the line intact and giving Pittsburgh a third player ranked was Tyson Alualu, placing 29th after resigning with the team this offseason.
Here is what article author Ben Linsey said about Heyward, in giving him such a prestigious ranking.
“Heyward’s play has only improved with age. He has logged 3,416 defensive snaps over the last four seasons (fourth at the position), and his 91.9 PFF grade falls short of just Aaron Donald, Chris Jones and Fletcher Cox over that span. It’s difficult to find many faults in his overall game, with him posting both run-defense and pass-rush grades above 89.0 since 2017. Heyward, along with two other Steelers on this list, gives Pittsburgh one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the NFL.”
Pittsburgh’s line is among the NFL’s best as a group, if not the absolute best. And the drive that makes them so good begins with Heyward, a 10-season veteran of the black and gold. The two-time All-Pro posted the third-most tackles of his career last season and remained a tremendous problem for offensive linemen despite recording just four sacks. Heyward trailed only Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald, considered one of the best few players overall in the NFL, and Kansas City’s Chris Jones.
Heyward’s sack numbers didn’t drop because of a dip in ability. They were just being picked up elsewhere along the line. Specifically, Tuitt, who set a big career-high with 11 sacks, and another with 10 tackles for loss in 2020. Here is Linsey’s write-up of Tuitt:
“Tuitt is the second Steelers player to find his way into the top 12, coming off another strong showing in 2020. His 71 pressures last season ranked second at the position, behind only Aaron Donald. It was a continuation of the hot start he got off to in 2019 before an injury prematurely ended his season. He should continue to be a disruptive force for the Steelers in 2021 as offensive lines try to contend with Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt.”
Only turning 28 two days ago, Tuitt has already spent seven seasons in the NFL with Pittsburgh. Like Heyward, his performance has steadily improved season by season.
Ranking 29th, Alualu had a career resurgence after leaving the Jacksonville Jaguars to sign with the Steelers in 2017. Over the last four seasons, he ascended from bust to one of the better defensive tackles in the game, and still fills that role despite reaching his mid-30s. Here are Linsey’s thoughts on the central member of the team’s line:
“Alualu has solidified his position as Pittsburgh’s nose tackle these past two seasons after stepping into that role when Javon Hargrave left the team. From 2010 through 2016, Alualu never recorded a PFF grade higher than 62.0 with Jacksonville. He has graded higher than that in each of the past four seasons with the Steelers, including overall grades of at least 80.0 in each of 2019 and 2020. Despite turning 34 in May, Alualu is on the upswing.”
Alualu is the perfect complement to Heyward and Tuitt on the line, and the play of each helps the others to succeed. As it does with edge rushers like Watt and Bud Dupree, and starting this season, Alex Highsmith.
The man Alualu replaced, Javon Hargrave, didn’t rank much higher, coming in at 20th with the Philadelphia Eagles. One spot below him was D.J. Reader of Cincinnati, a free agent signing of the team last offseason. The Steelers actually had more players ranked than the rest of the AFC North combined. Cincinnati had Reader, and Baltimore had Calais Campbell retain his usual lofty spot, placing 10th overall. Cleveland did not appear on the list.
Only the New York Jets had more players named than Pittsburgh. Quinnen Williams ranked 14th, Folorunso Fatukasi 27th, Sheldon Rankings 28th, and John Franklin-Myers 30th.