Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.
rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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Are Steelers Done with Daniel McCullers? Or Will the “Shady Tree” Plant Himself in Pittsburgh Again?

Note to aspiring Steelers bloggers who wish to channel their inner fortune teller while writing the Black And Gold:

  • Don’t quit you day job if you’re planning on predicting the future of Steelers defensive lineman

In 2015, this site was sorely tempted to do an April Fools article saying the Steelers had resigned Clifton Geathers, the defensive lineman they’d brought into “replace” Brett Keisel in late 2014. And what do you know? The Steelers not only resigned Clifton Geathers, but did it on April 1st!

Last year our free agent profile of Daniel McCullers titled “Big D = Disappointment,” took the possibility of his returning to Pittsburgh so unseriously that the article began by recounting Jr. High fantasies about Andre the Giant playing football. (Sound silly? Well it was one of the best performing articles in the series!)

Daniel McCullers is of course a free agent again? Are we deceived by the situation again? Could the Shady Tree plant himself in Pittsburgh for another year? Let’s take a look.

Daniel McCullers, RGIII, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs Browns

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers was a fascinating prospect when the Steelers picked him the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Tennessee product, nicknamed “Shade Tree” for his massive size (6’7″ and 350lbs) was seen as a player with the potential to be the next great Steelers run-stopping nose tackle similar to a Joel Steed or a “Big Snack” Casey Hampton.

The short answer: No. In his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, Daniel McCullers appeared in just 42 games — starting two –while recording 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Despite the lack of progress over his first four seasons, the Steelers did re-sign McCullers to a one-year “show me” contract prior to the 2018 campaign.

And, truthfully, McCullers did make some progress last season under the watch of new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who replaced John Mitchell after he assumed the sole responsibility of assistant head coach.

Appearing in 15 games and starting one, McCullers recorded five tackles and one sack. At age 26, he’s still young enough to develop into a solid veteran (or maybe even more), and unless he’s eager to test the free agent waters, he could probably be kept around with a deal similar to the one he inked last spring (the league minimum).

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Yes, Daniel McCullers is still only 26 years old and, yes, he can likely be kept around at a very low price.

  • But how often do football players suddenly “get it” six seasons into their careers?

That was a rhetorical question because the answer is “not often.” Instead of a hole-clogging nose tackle, McCullers may actually be a roster clogger at this point and preventing younger players with more potential from making the Steelers 53-man roster.

Maybe it would be wise to allow Daniel McCullers to go out and see what kind of deal he can fetch on the open market, and if he doesn’t find something to his liking, maybe Pittsburgh can give him yet one more chance at training camp this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

While it seems highly unlikely Daniel McCullers will ever develop into much more than what he is right now–a nondescript veteran nose tackle — he does know the system and he is a “safe” backup in the event that Javon Hargrave has to miss time due to injury.

And, again, how much do you really have to pay to keep him around? Yes, another rhetorical question because the answer is “tot much.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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One Lesson From Jaguars Game? Steelers Need to Play Javon Hargrave More

We have some lessons to learn.”
Mike Tomlin following the Steelers come from behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s right. And here’s one lesson the Steelers should learn form the Jacksonville game: Javon Hargrave needs to play more.

To say the least, Over the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. Dramatic in the form of Ben Roethlisberger 4th quarter, or perhaps more accurately, two minute warning comebacks.

It took the Steelers 4 attempts from the two yard line to score the go ahead touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh never led until the final five seconds of the game arrived.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The truth is that the inability of Ben Roethlisberger to get in sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and the inability of the offensive line to get rushing lanes open for James Conner is the biggest reason why such late heroics were again needed.

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

But, and few could have imagined saying this in September, the Steelers have a good defense too, and one that could be better by finding a way to give more playing time to Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers of course drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the third defensive pick after taking Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Hargrave quickly assumed Steve McLendon’s starting role and his play in the 2nd half of 2016 was a big reason for the team’s turn around.

  • But Javon Hargrave plays nose tackle, and the Steelers play their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

So be it. In many ways sub packages define Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense and far be it for me to criticize them.

But regardless of which subpackage they deploy, the Steelers coaches need to find a way to get Javon Hargrave on the field more. During the first half it looked like Leonard Fournette was going to lead the Jaguars on steamroll the Steelers defense similar to what they had done in the playoffs.

But Javon Hargrave arguably began the defensive rally by sacking Blake Bortles on third down to force a field goal when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone. He followed it up with another sack on the next series helped get the ball back (although the Steelers would turn it over quickly.)

While snap counts by quarter are not available, it seemed like early in the game there was a lot of Daniel McCullers Number 93 on the field and a lot less of Javon Hargrave. However, in the second half Hargrave 79 was on the field a plenty, which is when the Steelers defense went into shut down mode.

  • On the day, Hargrave tackled two Jaguar ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, got two more licks in on Blake Bortles and helped force a 3 and out by deflecting a Bortles pass on third down.

Cam Heyward leads all Steelers defensive lineman having been on the field for 78% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He’s followed by Stephon Tuitt who clocks in at 68%. Javon Hargrave is next, at 38%, meaning his snap count is only 7% higher than Tyson Alualu.

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh and speculation still abounded that he might shift the Steelers to a 3-4 defense, Mike Tomlin explained that a players like Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton were going to be good whether they played in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.

Tomlin’s logic was sound, even if it trying to apply to every good player would be an oversimplification (see the Steelers moving “bust” 1st rounder James Farrior from the outside to inside linebacker.)

Well, Javon Hargrave might officially carry the title of nose tackle, but he’s shown he can be an impact player, and it would wise for Karl Dunbar, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to figure out how to get him on the field more frequently.

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Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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One Positive for Steelers 2018 Training Camp Thus Far? A Short PUP List

Steelers 2018 training camp only two days old, but already there’s a piece of positive news: Pittsburgh’s PUP list is short. That’s something that is easy to take for granted and injuries can alter an entire team’s fortune in a blink of an eye. But for now it is a good thing.

  • The only player who begins training camp on the PUP list is Eli Rogers.

Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers of course signed Eli Rogers Wednesday and will keep him on the PUP list until he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars. But other than that, there’s no injury of note.

Too often in recent past, training camp has arrived with surprise injury announcements.

In 2008, Casey Hampton began on the PUP list, although that was more tied to conditioning issues than injury. Back in 2015 the Steelers started training camp with 5 players on the PUP listMaurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, Bruce Gradkowski, Shawn Lemon and Senquez Golson.

  • To fans at least, each of these announcements was a surprise, and all of them turned out to be ominous.

Maurkice Pouncey’s stint on the PUP list was short, but he fell injured in the Steelers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Mike Adams injury hadn’t been known, and he stayed on the PUP list all season and never returned to Pittsburgh.

Bruce Gradkowski’s injury came as a total surprise, as he’d last been seen playing very well in brief relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens. Like Pouncey, Gradkowski earned his PUP activation, only to injure himself in preseason leading to Mike Vick’s signing. Shawn Lemon was of course the CFL pass rusher the Steelers signed earlier. He made it of PUP only to get cut.

  • And then of course there’s Senquez Golson, whom the coaching staff had known was nursing an injured shoulder.

Senquez Golson went on IR, then got injured in both 2016 and 2017 training camp, and the second round pick has never spent a day on an active NFL roster.

  • In 2016 the Steelers PUP list was short, but made up for “quality” for what it lacked in quantity.

Ladarius Green headlined the list, as he was both nursing an ankle injury and still fighting lingering effects of a concussion from the previous season. People will forget, but Ladarius Green actually did prove to be a fairly effective weapon in his limited action, but he suffered concussion against in December, and has never played since.

As noted at the outset, a short PUP offers no guarantee. Last year the Steelers began training camp with a relative clean bill of health, but ended up seeing Joe Haden, Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier suffer injuries at the worst possible moment.

But I’ll take the Steelers starting the summer at St. Vincents at close to full health any time I can!

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Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Is Line Deep Enough for a Super Bowl Run?

“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.

  • Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.

Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:

Yeah, believe it or not  all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….

However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.

Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.

  • Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.

Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.

  • During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.

Cam Thomas simply wasn’t good enough and while Ricardo Mathews represented a bit of an upgrade, the Steelers played the 2nd half of 2016 without Cam Heyward.

Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers  now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.

Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.

  • Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.

Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but John Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving John Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked John Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

John Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, John Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

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