With their second selection of the second round in the 2023 NFL Draft Friday, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided they wanted some help in the trenches on defense and selected Wisconsin defensive tackle Keeanu Benton. The Steelers improved their run defense last season but still believe it can get better.
That is a big reason for drafting Benton.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin met with the media and, via the Steelers YouTube channel, was asked if a big reason for drafting Benton, who will be playing nose tackle, is because of their AFC North opponents.
“I think that’s a part of our identity, it is important for us,” Austin said. “If you’re going to beat Cleveland you better be able to stop [Nick] Chubb. If you’re going to beat Baltimore you better be able to stop the run. If you’re going to beat Cincinnati, we know what the quarterback and those guys are going to do, but you better be able to stop Joe Mixon and those guys from running. So I think it’s important that the first thing you’ve got to do is win your division, and if you can’t beat the guys in your division then you’re going to have a hard time winning it.”
The Steelers have always been known for stopping the run. Be it the Steel Curtain defense of the ’70s or the 2000s defense, Pittsburgh has usually done a good job of stopping the run. However, after injuries in 2021, the Steelers run defense became the weakness for the team. Despite fixing it a bit in 2022 it still isn’t at the level the Steelers expect from it.
That is a big reason for the drafting of Benton, who will be playing nose tackle for at least his rookie season. With the AFC North being such a run-heavy division with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns being run first-teams, a nose tackle early in the draft makes sense for Pittsburgh.
As Austin said, to win your division you have to beat your division. There are 17 games during the regular season and six of them come against your divisional opponents. This past season a big reason the Steelers lost one game to the Ravens was because they couldn’t stop the run, giving up over 200 yards. That loss ended up keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.
While nose tackle isn’t the most glamorous position, it is an extremely important one for the Steelers. Not only is the AFC North a run-heavy division, but also their defensive line is getting older. Cameron Heyward, while still playing at a high level, is 33-years-old and behind him there isn’t too much depth. Bringing in Benton is huge for both now and the future.