The Pittsburgh Steelers are synonymous for having an aggressive, punch-you-in-the-mouth defense, and that’s the way it’s always been. From the Steel Curtain dynasties of the 70s to the most recent Super Bowl teams, each teams’ identity has been highlighted by punishing, bone-jarring hits, whether it be Jack Lambert or James Harrison. However, last year was anything but that, even with newly crowned NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt tying the single-season sack record. Ranking last in the league in run defense, the time of possession game was often not in their favor, thus forcing an almost anemic offense to play catch up.
Reinforcements could, and should, be on the way, and the front office should be paying very close attention to several team’s players at next week’s NFL Scouting Combine.
The SEC Conference annually boasts some of the upper echelon talent across the college football world and last season was no different. Georgia had one of the most ferocious defenses ever this past season, and the proof was in their National Championship victory over mighty Alabama.
Not to be outdone, Alabama’s defense was elite in it’s own right, and features arguably the #1 overall pick in the 2023 Draft in pass rusher extraordinaire, Will Anderson Jr. However, the ‘Dawgs held Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and a high-powered offense to a mere 18 points, their fewest in three years. Alabama was actually the only team to put up more than 17 points against the Bulldogs, who also shut out three Power 5 opponents, and held five others to fewer than ten.
The dots between Pittsburgh and these dominant-type defenses shouldn’t be hard to connect, since the team has selected a defensive player in the first round in seven of the past nine years. Odds are, if the team stays to this tried-and-true method, it’s along their defensive front, where two of their three starters are in their 30s, with that lone member being a total question mark in Stephon Tuitt. Nose tackle Tyson Alualu also will be 35 later this year. Luckily for them, these teams have several high profile defensive linemen in attendance for next week’s combine.
Jordan Davis is the headliner, and he shouldn’t be very hard to find next week for defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, Mike Tomlin and company. An absolute mammoth at 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds, his presence in the middle of the Steelers’ front would pay dividends immediately. He’s not your average run-stuffing nose tackle either, also possessing the ability to collapse the pocket and pressure QB’s. Davis surprisingly doesn’t look to have all that excess body fat like a lot of other nose tackles seem to, so the Alabama/Terrence Cody comparisons aren’t there.
The last nose tackle the Steelers selected in round one was Casey Hampton back in 2001, so with this past season’s historically bad run defense, Davis is a name that should be in consideration for the team’s draft card. NFL Network’s draft analyst recently labeled Davis as a “polarizing” player. “He’s enormous. I’ve always said with defensive tackles, even if you’re not a productive pass rusher, there is value in being a pocket-pusher because it allows your edge rushers to get home. This guy can do a little more than that, I think,” Jeremiah said.
The Crimson Tide’s Phidarian Mathis is another standout SEC defender who had to bide his time to see the field behind Alabama’s seemingly annual wealth of talent(Jonathan Allen, DaRon Payne, Quinnen Williams, Christian Barmore), however he made the most of his opportunity in his redshirt senior season in 2021, racking up 7 sacks. He’s your typical Nick Saban run plugger, with a dense lower half and powerful hands. He also has the build that Pittsburgh seems to covet from their 5-technique ends, standing 6-foot-4 and 312 pounds, while flashing pass rush versatility as evidenced by his sack numbers this season.
Via Yahoo, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy had this to say about Mathis:
“Great technician like all those Bama guys are. Falls in line with that group. He’s big, he’s long, he’s got prototype size. He’s got upfield explosion. He can really collapse the pocket.” Mathis is expected to test very well at the Combine, so the possibility exists he may not even be available at pick #20.”
Georgia’s Travon Walker is another Bulldog, and NFL.com draft analyst Bucky Brooks already mocked Walker to the Steelers back in late January. Standing 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Walker has an eerily similar build to that of former Broncos’ All-Pro defensive end Trevor Pryce. He projects as a tweener in the NFL, but his freshman and sophomore seasons he actually played at 290 pounds, so this is something to keep in mind. “He’s going to have 35-inch arms, and he’s going to run in the low 4.6s,” Jeremiah said of Walker via the PPG. “He is a special athlete. There is a lot of love for him around the league.”
Look for the Steelers’ brass to be paying special attention to these three at next week’s combine. Hailing from an elite Power 5 program and starring on a dominant and historic defense, they all check boxes that the team usually gravitates to. Odds are out-of-this-world that Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Teryl Austin and maybe even Brian Flores are in attendance for the UGA Pro Day March 16 and the Alabama Pro Day on March 30.