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Merril Hoge On The LB Core: ‘Probably About The Worst In Football’

While featured in a Friday interview with 93.7 The Fan with Andrew Fillipponi and Chris Mueller, Merril Hoge was not afraid to speak his mind in regard to several topics regarding his former team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hoge spoke about the retirement of Stephon Tuitt and the fact the Pittsburgh had to play a fair amount without him in the past due to the numerous injuries he had sustained throughout his NFL career.

When asked about how the Steelers effectively go about replacing Tuitt while on the The PM Team w/Poni & Mueller Podcast, Hoge provided the following analysis regarding the defensive line in Pittsburgh after the retirement of Tuitt:

“They’ve got some kids that can do some stuff inside down in the trenches too, that could help ’em out,” Hoge responded. “I know that having Stephon would’ve been a plus, but you know, I think they filled in some with some guys that could shoulder the load there, because that’s what they’re going to have to play better.”

Expert analysis right there by Hoge (if you can sense the sarcasm). Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have gone about adding young bodies to the defensive line room the last couple years, whether it be via the NFL Draft with Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal or via free agency with Montravius Adams that may not be ready for a full-time role as a starter, but should be able to rotate in along the defensive line and provide meaningful snaps for a defense that will be without Tuitt going forward.

These guys, along with names including the Davis twins and possibly Henry Mondeaux, will be the key depth/rotational players for Pittsburgh behind Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and now projected starter at DE Chris Wormley who filled in admirably in place of Tuitt in 2021, starting 14 of 15 games played and tallied 51 total stops, six TFLs, seven sacks, three PBUs, and a forced fumble with an increased role last season in Pittsburgh.

Hoge did mention the addition of Alualu back to the lineup should be able to help fortify the defensive line play upfront in 2022 as well as the notable backups giving Pittsburgh more depth than they had last season in 2021.

Pittsburgh’s Run Defense Is Missing Plenty – They’re Missing Tyson Alualu The Most

“When he got hurt,” said Hoge regarding Alualu, “honestly their defensive line wasn’t the same. Yeah, but he’s back and healthy. You got some guys too that can some depth there that hopefully will make it better than what they had last year because you know, they did struggle.”

Again, Hoge really isn’t sharing information that we don’t know having watched the implosion to the defensive line and the defense overall last season. Pittsburgh finished historically bad against the run last year, finishing last in the league in rushing yards allowed and YPC according to Pro Football Reference. The losses of Tuitt and Alualu clearly led to a drop in play and execution against the run for Pittsburgh, but Hoge believes that it was the linebacker play specifically that sunk the Steelers in 2021 regarding their run defense.

“They had their issues in the trenches with the injuries. They just weren’t the same there #1,” Hoge responded when asked why the run defense was so bad last season. “And then the linebacking core inside was atrocious from how they complement stopping the run. Yes, it starts with your defensive line, but those linebackers play a significant role in it, and they were just as a group, very bad. I mean probably about the worst in football, the National Football League, that’s how bad they were.”

To repeat Alex Kozora’s response to Hoge’s harsh takes on LB Devin Bush specifically immediately following this quote on the “atrocious” play from the LB core as a whole in 2021.

Ouch.  

There is no denying that Pittsburgh’s LB core was anything other than below average last season. The team didn’t feel confident in rolling out Robert Spillane as the starter next to Bush last season (who Hoge called Pittsburgh’s best LB, by the way), so they made the move to trade for Joe Schobert from the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason. Bush, who Hoge blasts in this segment, looked like a shell of his former self out there for most of the season, seeming uninterested in taking on contact, struggled to get off blocks, and was inconsistent in coverage for most of the year. This resulted in Bush losing the green dot and received a horrible 34.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.

Still, while I am not one for excuses, I would say some grace could be given when considering the circumstances Bush, as well as the other linebackers, were playing under last season. Bush was coming off a torn ACL suffered in 2020 and was still working his way back into things while also struggling with some mental issues while coming back from the injury and receiving backlash from fans and media analysts alike. The linebacking core also received no favors from the defensive line, often having blockers climb to the second level cleanly and engulf them with superior size and strength, putting the LBs in difficult situations to fight off blocks and make plays against the run.

There is no denying that Bush, and the LB core in general, need to play better in 2022 for Pittsburgh to avoid being worst in football against the run in back-to-back seasons. Still, with the return of Alualu to the lineup, the LBs should be able to stay clean more often and flow to the football better than last season. Add in the fact that Pittsburgh added Myles Jack this season via free agency and brought on Brian Flores to help coach the ILBs, one would imagine that the play at the second level of the defense will be far better than it was in 2021.

The defensive line and the LB core go together in having a good run defense. With Bush another year removed from the ACL injury, Alualu back healthy, additions along the DL like DeMarvin Leal, and the coaching of Flores to try and bring the best out of Bush, Jack, and the other guys in the room, it should be expected the Pittsburgh will be more towards the middle of the pack in run defense, if not better compared to being dead last in the league.

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