The Pittsburgh Steelers only drafted two defensive players this year, and it’s quite possible that both of them are healthy scratches in the season opener. But that it is even a discussion is a testament to how they came into training camp and did the work, putting on tape what they could offer.
Sixth-round inside linebacker Mark Robinson is a prime candidate to play on special teams, though they may have enough bodies there without him, and, of course, you have to have somebody inactive. DeMarvin Leal has displayed the talent to contribute defensively right now, particularly as a pass rusher, but he is in the deepest position on the roster—the Steelers kept seven defensive linemen.
Even though he was perceived to be slightly on the raw side coming out of Texas A&M, Leal believes that he has progressed a lot even since the Steelers got to Latrobe, when he looks back and compares where he was in rookie minicamp.
“I feel a lot more comfortable now than from when I got here”, the rookie recently told Chris Adamski for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It was a nice month (at camp) of just straight learning new technique and just the way everybody communicates because everybody communicates differently at each position”.
Indeed, he also talked about spending a good deal of time learning from the rest of the room, from the Cameron Heywards and the Tyson Alualus, as well as players like Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams. Even Isaiahh Loudermilk, who is at the most similar point of his career in the room, everyone else going into at least their sixth season.
But with all of those other names, the stark reality is that it won’t be easy for him to get on the field. The Steelers typically only carry six defensive linemen and dress only five of them, with very rare exceptions if they have somebody who can also play on coverage units on special teams. And I mean very, very rare, virtually unique.
Indeed, this is the second time I can ever recall, two years in a row, in which they have opened a season with seven defensive linemen on the opening day roster without it involving some procedural move, like last season when they had to keep Stephon Tuitt on the roster so that he would be eligible to return from the Reserve/Injured List.
Injuries quickly settled last year’s abundance of linemen, unfortunately, with Carlos Davis getting injured in the opener and Alualu being lost for the season a year later. They ended up needing to import a guy like Adams just to keep things going. Heyward had to start at nose tackle for a game.
Arguably the best-case scenario for this year is that the defensive line just plays so well and stays so healthy that the Steelers don’t even have to worry about whether or not Leal dresses, because the other guys are holding things down. Or, perhaps, Tomlin will just pull a surprise and dress him over Loudermilk and/or Wormley.