The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line was one of the best of its kind in the 2020 NFL season. This offseason, with the exception of Bud Dupree’s anticipated departure (and a near-loss of Tyson Alualu), that line was retained in its entirety. And that is a main reason why, after dominating individual position rankings there over the last month, the Pittsburgh Steelers as a group were named the NFL’s best defensive line entering the 2021 season by Pro Football Focus Monday.
Article author Ben Linsey awarded the Steelers the top position, explaining his decision like this:
“One would think that Pittsburgh’s defensive line is slated to take a step back after replacing Bud Dupree with Alex Highsmith. But that step might not be as large as many expect. Highsmith finished his rookie season with a higher pass-rush win rate (16.5%) than Dupree (13.7%) last year. He joins a group that already features T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, all of whom made PFF’s list of the top 32 players at their respective positions entering the 2021 NFL season. That group will look to match a league-leading 45.1% pressure rate in 2020.”
Rounding out the rest of the top five, in order, were the Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles. All are quality D-Lines, but none match the talent, production, and depth the Steelers have assembled over the last few years. Pittsburgh starts All-Pro Cameron Heyward, a borderline Pro Bowler in Stephon Tuitt, and Alualu across its interior line. On the outside, All-Pro T.J. Watt stars off one edge, and Alex Highsmith steps up as a strong replacement for Dupree, now in Tennessee.
It’s the strongest and deepest position group on the team’s defense. You could even consider it the strongest group overall, topping the wide receiver room on offense. Top billing is less surprising when you look at how the Steelers cleaned up in PFF’s rankings of the top 32 edge rushers and interior defender rankings.
On the edge, Watt ranked second in the NFL behind only Khalil Mack. And on the interior, Pittsburgh’s entire line made the top 32. Heyward ranked third behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. Tuitt ranked 11th, and Alualu ranked 29th.
Other teams had as many players ranked across the two lists, but none had as many players rated so highly. Only Tampa Bay had a top 10 player on both lists (Vita Vea seventh for IDL, Shaq Barrett ninth for EDGE). Just Washington and Philadelphia had three top-20 players. And those ranks (6-14-20 for Philly, 8-12-17 for Washington) don’t come close to matching Pittsburgh’s 2-3-11 rankings.
Pittsburgh earned the honor of first place after shrewd draft decisions and free agency signings. Watt and Heyward came as late first-round picks. Tuitt and Highsmith arrived as Day 2 draft selections, and Alualu was a low-risk free agency signing.
The remainder of the AFC North took awhile to arrive on PFF’s list. The Cleveland Browns, led by Myles Garrett and free agency signing Jadeveon Clowney, came in 11th. The Baltimore Ravens, after losing Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon as free agents, placed 21st. And the Cincinnati Bengals, adding Trey Hendrickson to replace Carl Lawson on the edge, ranked 25th.
The Houston Texans finished in last on PFF’s list.