The Pittsburgh Steelers defense had a historically bad year in 2021.
- To find similar examples of their futility against the run, one needs to back to the 1940s.
Counter intuitively, the tough year endured by the Steelers defense actually reinforced just how important its for the franchise to get quality play out of their outside linebackers.
Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters
To those who whine about why tanking in the name of draft position is not only necessary but good, my response is simple: T.J. Watt.
The 2016 Steelers lost in the AFC Championship to the Patriots, earning Pittsburgh the 30th pick in the draft as a consequence. Sounds almost like a death sentence. Except it wasn’t. It was with that 30th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft that the Steelers picked T.J. Watt.
T.J. Watt became an instant starter, grew into a dominant player capable of making game-changing plays and is building a Hall of Fame resume. In 2021 T.J. Watt earned Defensive Player of the Year honors, tied the NFL sack record and almost single handedly beat the Seattle Seahawks.
Playing opposite T.J. Watt is Alex Highsmith, whom the Steelers drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In his first full year as a starter, logged 6 sack and 15 QB hits. Those numbers may not seem impressive, but Highsmith improved during the year, particularly in run support.
Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups
To provide depth at outside linebacker the Steelers have signed Genard Avery in free agency. Avery isn’t well known to Steelers fans, but he is the man who forced James Conner’s fumble in the Steelers 2018 opening weekend tie against the Browns.
- Avery has 59 games of experience, including 17 starts, 12 of which came last year while with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker
How good is T.J. Watt? Well, next year it is conceivable that, in his 6th year, he’ll pass Jason Gildon, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and James Harrison for the team sack record. If the Steelers defense was bad in 2021, and it was, T.J. Watt played a critical role in it not being worse. Not bad for a 30th pick, eh?
And if Alex Highsmith is nowhere near that level, he certainly tremendous strides from year 1 to year two and his progress should continue, especially if the Steelers field quality defensive lineman not named Cam Heyward.
- The problem is their outside linebacker depth is scant.
Genard Avery has the resume of a serviceable backup, but he certainly doesn’t look like the type of player you want starting multiple games should an injury occur. John Simon has 10 years of experience but was on and off the Titans roster during 2021.
The rest of the players appear to be placeholders. Therefore the Steelers need at outside linebacker going in to the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-High.