On Tuesday, HC Mike Tomlin spoke to the media in his weekly press conference where he talked about the team’s crucial victory this past weekend on New Year’s Day on the road against the Baltimore Ravens and previewed the team’s upcoming Week 18 matchup at home against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon.
When Tomlin was asked about DL DeMarvin Leal and his athleticism that allows him to play out on the edge as a pumped-up OLB, Tomlin was quick to credit Leal’s physical gifts while providing context about where the rookie defender is currently at in his first season in the NFL.
“He’s one of those guys, man,” Tomlin said to the media Tuesday on video from the team’s YouTube channel. “Elite defensive linemen… and I almost pause before I say that because I don’t want to refer to him as elite. But elite defensive linemen are usually power players who are uniquely athletic, or they are simply oversized athletes. They have hand-eye coordination of smaller people. They play catch. They punt balls with DBs and so forth. Leal is that type of guy that kind of falls into that latter category. He doesn’t realize that he is a lineman.”
Leal was seen as a tweener coming out of Texas A&M, being undersized for a traditional 3-technique/4i in Pittsburgh’s base defense, but also a lot larger than your normal outside linebacker. Leal showcased the ability to play both spots in college, moving up-and-down the LOS where he would rush outside the tackle or kick inside and use his speed and quickness against offensive guards.
It’s funny that Tomlin had to provide context when mentioning Leal as an elite defensive lineman as the rookie third-round pick still has a long way to go before becoming someone that can be called a regular starter on defense, let alone an elite defender at his position. But Tomlin is correct that the best defensive linemen in the league have the coordination and athleticism of smaller players at different positions.
We have seen J.J. Watt show off his hands numerous times with videos on the jugs machine or how the Texans used to deploy him as a TE near the goal line catching several TDs in his career. The same could be said for Lions OT Penei Sewell and his recent reception a few weeks ago to ice the game for Detroit, showing off a skill set of a player that normally would be 100lb less.
The is no doubt that DeMarvin Leal needs to continue to get stronger and maximize his size like an elite defensive lineman can. Right now, Tomlin considers him an oversized athlete, which is ok for a rookie that came out early needing time to grow into his body. Leal may never become an every down defensive end for the Steelers, but his unique build and skill set makes him an intriguing chess piece that Tomlin can move around on the defense as he looks to make an impact.
“Within the practice setting, he runs more and longer and harder and faster than most D-linemen,” Tomlin continued on Leal. “His pursuit of the ball… he likes to run. And so, those are just some of the physical things that he has brought, and we’re working to hone and develop and to shape into a game that makes him an attractive prospect to include sometimes in packages and game planning.”