The sophomore leap. The second-year jump. That’s what we hear and commonly see from that group of players. Guys who take their lumps in their rookie season, are better off for it, and hit the ground running in Year Two. But not everyone makes that mark. We’ve already discussed the disappointing 2022 safety Tre Norwood had coming off a good rookie year. Put defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk in the same camp next to Norwood. And it makes Loudermilk’s spot in 2023 anything but assured.
Despite Pittsburgh’s run defense as a whole greatly improving last year, Loudermilk didn’t. In part due to the Steelers’ line being healthier, Loudermilk saw his defensive snaps cut by more than half, 288 as a rookie down to 116 in his second year. He appeared in just 11 games and made only seven tackles, struggling to get a helmet and consistent playing time. Even after Chris Wormley’s season-ending ACL injury, Loudermilk was a rotational player picking up single-digit snaps per game until the finale when he logged 17 against the Cleveland Browns.
Though I don’t like leaning on its numbers much, PFF graded Loudermilk worse in every category last year compared to 2021: run defense, pass rush, tackling, and his overall grade fell. Not dramatically, only a handful of points, but regression all the same. To his credit, he used his length and size to block a field against the Indianapolis Colts but it was about the only highlight he had.
And there were lowlights. Like this rep against the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Eve, getting totally blown out and washed by this double team. I’m not expecting Loudermilk to be completely stout here, it’s a tough gig, but getting walked five yards off the ball isn’t the way you coach it.
Loudermilk’s issue is he’s one note. A pure run stuffer. And that note isn’t all that impressive. He’s a little too tall, arms a little too short, and he doesn’t have the athleticism to flow down the line. And as a pass rusher? Forget about it. In two years, he has just six QB pressures and one career sack. He looked a little more focused in training camp, using power and not finesses moves but getting after the quarterback isn’t his game. Not in college at Wisconsin – eight sacks in four years – and not in the NFL. To be fair, that isn’t why Pittsburgh drafted him, and the Steelers knew what they were getting, but Loudermilk hasn’t been steady against the run either.
The lack of pass rush always capped his ceiling. Run defense was supposed to raise his floor. It hasn’t worked and he enters 2023 on the roster bubble. Right now, the Steelers lack defensive line depth. Even if Wormley is re-signed, he may not be ready Week One, but Pittsburgh will be adding over the next month and perhaps throughout the summer. We’ll see what the team does with DeMarvin Leal and if he can make the second-year jump that Loudermilk couldn’t. They’re two different players but they could be fighting for one spot and hat. Don’t forget about Jonathan Marshall either, a late-season add who didn’t get a helmet but will feel more comfortable with a full offseason.
The Steelers will draft one and maybe two defensive linemen later this month. Usually carrying six on their roster and five on gameday, the room could look like Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams, a rookie, Breiden Fehoko, and one final spot. And whatever bucket you want to put Leal in. It’ll look something like that, at least.
At best, it leaves Loudermilk on the bubble. He’ll fight Marshall, a potentially rehabbing Wormley, and whatever undrafted players the team brings in. He can still make the team but he’ll have to make the jump this summer. He’s in a similar position TE Zach Gentry was his rookie year. Big-bodied but underdeveloped, Gentry found his mark at the right time and improved his blocking to hold off TE Kevin Rader in 2021. Loudermilk will need to the same on the defensive side of the ball. If not, he’ll lose his spot. Fifth-round picks don’t get much margin and two years in, he’s just about out of time.