If the Pittsburgh Steelers have one clear and obvious strength, then it has to be their defensive line. Even though one of their starters has actually been recognized through post-season honorifics, all three of them, particularly during the 2021 season, represented some of the highest-level performers at their position in the game.
We see it every week out of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu when we watch them play. Pro Football Focus also sees it. They’ve pretty regularly been high on these guys, especially Heyward, so it’s not surprising that they all wound up in their list of the top 32 interior defenders, placing third, 11th, and 29th, respectively.
Heyward, of course, is the one that has gotten the attention. He’s made the Pro Bowl four years in a row, and the All-Pro team now three times, though he was on the second-team unit this past year. Though he only had four sacks, it doesn’t register his impact. Ben Linsey wrote on the defensive captain:
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.
Tuitt, meanwhile, is coming off of his best, or perhaps should I say most complete season, and that factors in health. Though he did miss one game due to COVID-19, this is the healthiest he has been from start to finish since his rookie year, and it showed in his numbers, with were Pro Bowl-worthy. Linsey:
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.
At 33 years old, Alualu embraced a move to defensive tackle last season, and he was rewarded—or rather, rewarded the Steelers—with arguably the best year of his career. It was only marred by a late-season injury that hampered him for the rest of the year, but he, too deserves entry, according to Linsey and PFF:
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.
Truthfully, the only real question about the Steelers’ defensive line is just how much time they have left. Both Alualu and Heyward are well into their 30s. Tuitt won’t turn 29 until May, but it certainly won’t get any easier from here on out to stay healthy. But that’s a problem for the future. For 2021, it should be more of the same: dominant play.