Once the offseason got underway, many wondered what the future of the defensive line room for Pittsburgh Steelers would look like in 2022. The thought was that Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt would be back with the team after missing the 2021 season with their own injuries, as well as the tragic loss of Tuitt’s brother. Still, there was skepticism as to whether Alualu would make a return after fracturing his ankle for his age 35 season and if Tuitt would be able to battle back to make it back on the field after dealing with his own knee injury and the loss of a family member.
We now know that Alualu has committed to playing for Pittsburgh in 2022 and have received the news that Tuitt will indeed retire and go on to do life’s work. The addition of Alualu back to the lineup will be huge for a Steelers defense that got gashed by the running game last season, ranking dead-last in the league in yards allowed (2,483) and yards per carry (5.0). The loss of Tuitt leaves a notable hole upfront from when he was in the lineup, but Pittsburgh went on to re-sign Montravius Adams and drafted DeMarvin Leal in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft to keep needed depth along the DL, regardless of if Tuitt made a return.
However, Pittsburgh wasn’t done adding contributors to the DL room as they just recently signed Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million based on incentives. The Cleveland Browns selected Ogunjobi in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft and started three seasons with the team. Ogunjobi recorded 11 sacks across 2018-2019 before seeing his numbers dip in 2020 to just 2.5 sacks. However, Ogunjobi bounced back in a big way on a one-year deal with the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals in 2021, posting 49 total stops (29 solo), 12 TFLs, 16 QB hits, and seven sacks. Ogunjobi initially signed a three-year $40.5 million deal with the Chicago Bears, but the deal fell through due a failed physical with a foot injury.
So, now the defensive line room for the Steelers contains Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk, DeMarvin Leal, Carlos and Khalil Davis, and Henry Mondeaux. That is a much better room in terms of depth and talented than the one that took the field for Pittsburgh for a majority of the 2021 season.
The question remains, however, how will be Pittsburgh’s three starting DL in their 3-4 base defense in 2022? According to the fantastic defensive charting done by Alex Kozora, Pittsburgh was in their base defense for 35.6% of the time (393 snaps) in 2021. For comparison, Pittsburgh run their base defense 39.9% of the time in 2020 and 31.1% of the time in 2019. While Alualu acknowledged that versatility is key for Pittsburgh’s DL, being able to play multiple spots since Pittsburgh is in their sub package defense most of the time (64.4% in 2021). Alualu is correct by saying this and has been a versatile defender himself, playing as a base nose tackle but being able to kick out in nickel/dime.
Still, Larry Ogunjobi has shown that he is quite capable of playing both as a nose tackle as well as a 3-tech/4i during his time with the Bengals and Browns. In 2021 alone, Ogunjobi started 16 games for the Bengals and played 68% of the defensive snaps (724 snaps) for Cincinnati according to Pro Football Reference. To compare that to Alualu and his last full season in 2020 where he played in 15 games, Alualu started ten of those contests and played on 47% of the defensive snaps (448 snaps) for Pittsburgh.
With both defenders capable of playing inside and outside, is Alualu guaranteed to be the starter over Ogunjobi at NT in base? The big question will come down to whether Ogunjobi is ready to go after rehabbing from the foot injury most of the offseason as Alualu has the upper hand of being in the system here in Pittsburgh longer than Ogunjobi.
On the other hand, Alualu is coming off an ankle injury of his own and isn’t the spry chicken he used to be in his mid-30s. Pittsburgh has done well conserving his snaps in recent seasons to keep him fresh. So, while he could be the starter at NT for the first snap of base, it’s plausible that Ogunjobi (who is listed as a DT on the team’s website) could see substantial time at nose in Pittsburgh’s base defense.
Currently, Chris Wormley projects to be the starting base DE opposite Cam Heyward whose starting spot isn’t up for debate. Wormley played 71% of the defensive snaps (729 snaps) in 2021, starting 14 of 15 games played for Pittsburgh. Statically, Wormley enjoyed his best season to date, as he recorded 51 total stops (29 solo), six TFLs, seven sacks, three PBUs, and one forced fumble. Ogunjobi figuratively could push Wormley for snaps at DE as well in Pittsburgh’s base defense given the fact he often aligned in the same spot when Cincinnati would go with a base 3-4. Wormley is the incumbent, however, having multiple seasons under his belt in Pittsburgh and has the prototypical size and frame for a base end.
What say yinz? Who do you think will be the three DL starting in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 base defense? Do you think that Ogunjobi has a shot to crack the lineup, or do you think that his rehab with his foot and the fact he is new to the team will hurt his chances? Could Pittsburgh look to play Ogunjobi more for Alualu this season to conserve his snaps, or that Ogunjobi will be a base end/sub package DT only? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!