Though it might not be the most important question of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason, their plans for second-year DL DeMarvin Leal is among the most interesting. A tweener out of Texas A&M, the Steelers drafted him in the third round last year, asked him to put on weight, and used him as a true defensive lineman during the summer.
Then T.J. Watt got hurt and plans changed. Leal’s role shifted into being something of a hybrid player, dropping weight, rotating at OLB in big 3-3-5 packages, while seeing some work as an interior sub-rusher on third downs.
So what direction will Pittsburgh go in the offseason? Return to their Plan A of making him a full-time defensive lineman or the Plan B and leaning on his versatility? Speaking to local media, including our own Joe Clark, Tuesday, Steelers’ GM Omar Khan said they’ll take advantage of Leal’s ability to play all over the front.
“I think the great thing about DeMarvin is his versatility,” Khan said. “We’re not gonna try to do anything that’s gonna hinder his versatility. We like that he can go inside, outside and coach can utilize him in a lot of different places and I foresee that continuing.”
Leal got up close to 300 pounds during the summer in an attempt to make him a full-time defensive lineman. But he dropped considerable weight after Watt’s injury to try and provide depth at outside linebacker. According to our charting, by year’s end, Leal played 69 defensive snaps (38.1%) with his hand up with 112 defensive snaps (61.9%) with his hand down.
It sounds like the way Leal was used as a rookie is the way he’ll be used as a sophomore. He lacks the bulk and strength to consistently hold up against the run but his frame could be an issue against smaller and lighter tight ends out on the edge. Since Pittsburgh drops their OLBs into coverage far less than they used to, his bigger size for an EDGE rusher is less of a concern.
While Leal is a good athlete and a ball of high-effort energy, he’ll have to refine his technique in 2023. Leal was largely ineffective as a pass rusher with just two pressures all season, a lowly figure. But the team put plenty on his plate and the change in plans certainly didn’t help his development. If anything, Leal did well to persevere, also battling a knee injury that caused him to miss several weeks.
Even if it’s leaning on his versatility, having that plan in place this offseason will be good for Leal. Perhaps it’ll lessen the need of depth at outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith if Leal can function as a rotational #3. But it is a reminder this team needs full-time help along the defensive line, a position group that looks among the thinnest on the roster.