Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Inject Youth into “The Over the Hill Gang?”

Tyson Alualu’s change of heart and decision to return to Pittsburgh was a welcome surprise.

  • It also did something that wasn’t quite as welcome.

He raised the average age of Steelers defensive line to 31.3 years. Defensive line is a young man’s game in the NFL, and while hitting the big 3-0 might not be the foreboding milestone it once was, you still don’t want too many people on the wrong side of that number.

The Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on their defensive line since 2016. Youth is clearly needed. Will Pittsburgh get it in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the NFl’s best. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP, Via Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Cart: The Starters

On the eve of the 2020 season the Steelers knew the COVID-19 salary cap crisis was looming. Yet that did not deter Art Rooney II from personally ensuring that Cam Heyward got his contract extended and would remain in Pittsburgh.

Cam Heyward was a workhorse for the Steelers and while his stats might have dipped a bit, he continued to make the kind of plays that don’t show up in Fantasy Football algorithms but that do help teams win games. Opposite Heyward was Stephon Tuitt, who played like a man on fire, logging 11 sacks, batting down 3 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and tackling 10 ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.

  • In the middle of it all was Tyson Alualu.

In his first full season as a Steelers starter, Tylson Alualu’s numbers might not impress. But he clogged up the middle and was crucial in the Steelers ability to stop the run. The chinks in the Steelers defensive armor opened not when Devin Bush went down, but when Tyson Alulau got hurt against Baltimore and then missed the game in Dallas.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Heyward, Tuitt and Alualu, the Steelers have veterans Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis and Henry Mondeaux. Wormely brings the group experience, but did little to distinguish himself in 2020 and one has to wonder if the Steelers would have resigned him had Alualu accepted their initial offer. Buggs, outside of his spectacular stop of Lamarr Jackson struggled. Mondeaux looked respectable, but saw little more than spot duty.

Carlos Davis, whom many see as a future starter at nose tackle, did little as a rookie outside of his sideline scuffle with Buggs.

Rounding out their training camp roster, the Steelers also have Abdullah Anderson, T.J. Carter and Demarcus Christmas.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers have a very strong group of starters on defensive line, but it is an aged group. They also lack a 4th lineman who can rotate in the way Alualu could when Javon Hargrave was here.

But, if their current crop of backups lacks “the wow factor,” to quote Simon Cowell, Buggs, Morndeaux and Davis all offer some legitimate “Upside.” With that said, the Steelers would do well to draft a lineman who can develop into a starter at nose tackle, if for no other reason than Alualu will be 34 on opening day.

Make no mistake about it, by giving into his change of heart Alualu greatly simplified the Steelers situation at defensive line for 2021. But Pittsburgh must also look to the future, and with that in mind, the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Reverse! Tyson Alualu Resigns with Steelers & Sometimes Its Good to Lag Behind the News Cycle

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu has reversed course and resigned with the Steelers for two years. Just 12 days ago, word broke that Tyson Alualu was returning to Jacksonville, the team that had drafted him, on a two year deal.

  • Not only was this a surprise, but it also amounted to majorish blow to the Steelers depth chart.

This was a done deal. The Steelers responded by resigning Chris Wormley to a two year deal, a move they otherwise may not have made. On “Asked and Answered,” Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola rationalized the Wormley resigning and tried to put Alualu’s departure in context.

  • But apparently a failed COVID-19 test and the quarantine that followed forced Alualu to reconsider his decision.

Teammates Cam Heyward and Joe Haden lobbied Alualu to stay and ultimately swayed the nose tackle. Thus the Steelers have their third major surprise of the off season, the first being JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return the second being Steven Nelson’s departure.

The move helps the Steelers, but it also reveals a hidden benefit to lagging a step (or several) behind the 24/7 Steelers News cycle.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

A Day Late, But This Time Not a Dollar Short

The conventional wisdom driving sports-focused sites is to publish “Content” immediately after news breaks. That wisdom isn’t lost on this site and in some form or fashion we try to do that. When possible.

  • But the realities of the digital workplace and the 12 hour plus days that come with it, are not conducive to timely blogging.

Usually this hurts the site. Being late to the punch means not getting on social media when a topic is hot and being absent on Google when search volumes spike. But sometimes there’s an upside. James Harrison’s messy divorce with the Steelers was one of them. This is another.

  • When news broke of Tyson Alualu’s departure, the mental outlines of an article titled “Soft in the Middle” immediately formed.

The argument that the strength of the Steelers defense is measured up the middle, from nose tackle, to inside linebacker, to safety came to fore. Those arguments gelled with memories of Alualu anticipating his first playoff game against the Jaguar.

  • The situation seemed too ironic to be true.

Alualu and the Steelers playoff implosion against the Jaguars came in large part because the middle of their defense was soft. Yet no one could argue that since then Tyson Alualu has strengthened the center of the Steelers defense.

The 2020 season offered no better example. The Steelers defense had started the season rock-solid against the run. It remained stout after losing Devin Bush, but faltered when Alualu went down. The question was going to be, could Alualu’s departure defy conventional wisdom and transform itself into addition by subtraction?

Woulda been an interesting article. Might have generated lots of clicks. Alas, there was no time.

  • But no fuss, no muss. That storyline is now moot.

Alualu is back, and that’s a good thing – if taken in context.

Alaualu’s Return Delivers Depth and Flexibility

In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the Steelers have two spectacular defensive ends. Tyson Alualu showed last year he’s more than capable of manning the middle. With that said, let’s keep in mind that Alualu turns 34 next month.

  • Players can quickly lose a step to Father Time at that age.

The Steelers have high hopes for Carlos Davis. Isaiah Buggs struggled more than he flashed, but he did have his moments. Lamarr Jackson concurs. Henry Mondeaux also showed some moxie in his limited work last season.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The best-case scenario for the Steelers on defensive line would be for Buggs or Davis to step forward and claim the starting nose tackle role. That would allow Alualu to become the 4th defensive lineman, the role he was brought to Pittsburgh to play. Whether that happens or not will be determined on the fields at St. Vincents (hopefully) or during preseason games.

  • Today the idea that defense line could be a position of stability, if not strength in Pittsburgh is plausible.

Two days ago, this was fantasy. The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette opined the Steelers were an injury away from ” a problem” on defensive line. He was right, and the only thing Pittsburgh could have done to change that was invest a premium pick in a nose tackle or defensive end during the 2021 NFL Draft – picks that the Steelers must use on offensive line, running back and/or cornerback.

Now they don’t need to do so. And that’s a good thing.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Will Tyson Alualu Keep Giving Steelers “Bang for their free agency buck?”

My has the importance of the defensive line changed in the National Football League. Two generations ago defensive tackle Joe Greene arrived at St. Vincents and literally began pivoting Pittsburgh towards its championship arc during his very first practice. 

In the 80’s, Chuck Noll thought he could repeat history and “start again on defense” by drafting Gabe Rivera. Sure, passing on Dan Marino was mindbogglingly boneheaded, but even if you set that aside, the mentality of favoring defense over a quarterback doesn’t make sense in 2021. In the dark days of 1998 and 1999, the late season declines of the Steelers defense were just as bad as the offense’s, and Joel Steed’s ailing knees were a big part of those drops.

  • Casey Hampton‘s arrival in 2001 provided the cornerstone of a defense that would win two championships.

Fast forward to 2019: Javon Hargrave, a rookie starter from the Steelers 2016 draft class, shows he’s budding into his prime and the Steelers don’t attempt to make a competitive offer to keep him. They made that move, in part, because they gambled that Tyson Alualu could provide more or less the same bag for far less salary cap buck.

  • The Steelers won that gamble, but now Tyson Alualu is about to become a free agent himself.

The question is, will he return to Pittsburgh?

Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Giants, Daniel Jones

Tyson Alualu is held as he closes in on Daniel Jones. Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP

Capsule Profile of Tyson Alualu’s Career with the Steelers

Tyson Alualu was a first-round pick by the Jaguars (10th, overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft. After spending seven mostly-nondescript seasons in Jacksonville, the California product became a Steeler in 2017 after signing a two-year deal.

Tyson Alualu, who signed another two-year contract prior to the 2019 season, was brought in to provide quality depth along the defensive line, and he spent his first three seasons in Pittsburgh doing just that. However, after Javon Hargrave departed as a free agent last spring, it was as a starting nose tackle in 2020 where Alualu provided the Steelers with perhaps the highest quality play of his entire career. Alualu was so strong against the run in 2020, his absence was clearly noticeable when he missed several games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

The Steelers defensive line, one that was considered a major strength for years, is starting to fray, mainly due to the departure of Hargrave and the lack of proven depth. If Alualu is brought back for 2021, if nothing else, the starters–Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Alualu — should remain an incredible asset for Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

Alualu will be 34 in May. That’s not much of a concern. What could be a concern is any higher than expected offers he receives as an unrestricted free agent. Alualu’s salary counted $3.6 million against the cap in 2020. Now that he’s a starter, he probably deserves a salary that reflects that. But it has to be within reason for the salary compromised Steelers. If not, the Steelers’ unproven depth along the defensive line may quickly become unproven potential starters.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyson Alualu in 2021

In my opinion, Tyson Alualu was quietly one of the more critical players on the Steelers defense in 2020.

Given that, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin owe it to themselves to work out a reasonable deal and keep Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Draft Carlos Davis in 7th Round to Close 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Carlos Davis in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, closing the event by added the athletic nose tackle from Nebraska.

Carlos Davis stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 313-pounds. He comes to Pittsburgh as redshirt senior who played in 46 games for the Cornhuskers over four seasons. During that time, Davis totaled 125 tackles, including 16 behind the line of scrimmage, and 9 1/2 sacks. In 2019, he recorded a career-high four sacks.

While those numbers are impressive, another number is a little more impressive. Carlos Davis was clocked at 4.79 in the 40 yard dash. To put that in perspective, Antoine Brooks, the safety the Steelers drafted in the 6th round, posted 4.64 40 time.

  • Speed isn’t the only athletic attribute that Davis brings to the Steelers. He also excelled in and discus at Nebraska.

As Kevin Colbert explained:

So Carlos at 3-plus, 305, 308, could he play inside at nose? Sure. He doesn’t have the great length to be an end in that scheme, but he also can play as a rush defensive tackle like Javon did on the inside. So I’m sure he will line up on the nose, and in the sub-packages he’ll be an inside rusher.

While reading too much into the significance of a 7th round pick is dangerous, Carlos Davis is clearly a nose tackle cut from a very different mold than say, Casey Hampton.

Carlos Davis, C.J. Beathard

Steelers 2020 7th round pick Carlos Davis sacks C.J. Bethard. Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall, AP via WKBN.com

Carlos Davis Video Highlights

Through the magic of Google, even 7th round draft picks get their highlight reels. Here is what Carlos Davis put on tape:

Normally the practices squad is a 7th round pick’s most realistic shot at making their NFL dream real. But the good news for Carlos Davis is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will give him a fair shot. That means that Carlos Davis could very well push Daniel McCullers off the roster. But rookie 7 round draft picks rarely play for the Steelers, Kelvin Beachum being the exception.

Look for Isaiah Buggs, Chris Wormley and/or Tyson Alualu to get the snaps alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. In the meantime, welcome to Steelers Nation Carlos Davis.

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Steelers Draft Isaiah Buggs, defensive tackle Alabama, setting up Crimson Tide Reunion in Pittsburgh

The Steelers stuck with defense with their 2nd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft as they took Isaiah Buggs a defensive tackle out of Alabama. The Steelers decision to draft Isaiah Buggs reunites him with defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who had coached at Alabama prior to replacing John Mitchell in Pittsburgh.

  • The situation at Steelers defensive line presents plenty of opportunities for Isaiah Buggs to show he belongs.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave remain entrenched as the starters. Tyson Alualu’s status as the “next man up” likewise remains intact. But the Steelers have very little depth behind those four. Currently the only veteran under contract is Daniel McCullers, a man who can best be described as a roster bubble player.

Isaiah Buggs, Steelers draft Isaiah Buggs

Auburn Tigers running back Kam Martin carries the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs. Photo Credit: John David Mercer, USA Today

During 2018 the Steelers also carried L.T. Walton on their roster, but thus far Pittsburgh has not opted to resign their backup defensive tackle, and the decision to draft Isaiah Buggs would seem to eliminate that possible.

Over the last two seasons Isaiah Buggs has appeared in 18 games for Alabama, amassing over 100 total tackles, 17.5 of which went for losses. He’s also shown an ability to rush the passer, having made 11 sacks during his time at Alabama, with 9.5 of those coming in 2018. He also recovered 1 fumble and deflected 3 passes.

Here is a look at Isaiah Buggs highlight reel:

Agents of course cherry pick their client’s video to compile these highlight reels, but even keeping that in mind it is a bit surprising that Isaiah Buggs last until the 6th round, although the minior injury he suffered in the Iron Bowl, could be one possible explanation.

Regardless, this young player would appear to have an excellent shot at making the Steelers 53 man roster, based on simple depth chart math.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Isaiah Buggs.

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Steelers Sign Daniel McCullers to 2 Year Contract. Why?

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Daniel McCullers to a two year contract. While the move does not come at a complete surprise, it is still a fair to ask “Why?”

Last year when doing our free agent focus profile on Daniel McCullers, the only case for resigning McCullers that could have been made was a theoretical one. Namely, that new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had seen something on film that motivated him to convince Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert to give McCullers “One more chance.”

So Daniel McCullers was back in the Black and Gold on a veteran minimum salary. That move looked to be a mistake as McCullers was completely blown off the line of scrimmage on Kareem Hunt’s 9 yard run on the Chief’s final drive in their week 2 win over the Steelers.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

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

However, McCuller’s snap count remained fairly consistent through the rest of the year, topping out at 18 snaps in the Steelers win over the Jaguars. And it should be noted that the Steelers shut down the Jaguar’s rushing attack in the 2nd half, which was a key to their comeback win.

  • Now that contract details are clear, the Steelers decision to resign Daniel McCullers are perhaps a little easier to understand.

It is a two year, 2.75 million dollar deal, but Daniel McCuller’s signing bonus is only $250,000.

While that gives Daniel McCullers a bit of a raise, he still will have to win a job in training camp. The Steelers are set with Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt as their starters with Tyson Alualu severing ably as “The next man up.”

And given that the Steelers are in their base defense less and less frequently, the value that Daniel McCullers brings from his spot on the bottom of the depth chart is proportionally less than a defensive back in a similar position.

As staff writer Tony Defeo concluded in this year’s free agent focus profile of the Shady Tree, “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.”

Once again the Defeo man is right. But if the Steelers get the chance to pick a defensive lineman with more “upside” in the 2019 NFL Draft let’s hope they take it.

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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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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Good News (and Some Bad): Steelers Resign Tyson Alualu to 2 Year Contract

NFL free agency may still be almost 3 weeks away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have already made two moves, two very different moves involving Le’Veon Bell and Tyson Alualu. A day after Kevin Colbert announced that the Steelers would not be tagging Le’Veon Bell, the franchise announced that it has signed backup defensive lineman Tyson Alualu to a two year contract.

Terms of the contact have not yet been announced, but the deal that Tyson Alualu signed with the Steelers in 2017 paid him roughly 3 million per year, so one can figure Tyson Alualu’s new contract pays him at a commiserate level.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Vital, Valuable Backup on Defensive Line

While the Steelers employee their “base” 3-4 defense less and less frequently, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and yes, Dick LeBeau, have struggled to staff adequate depth behind their starting front three. Al Woods was blossoming into a viable number 4 lineman in 2012, but the Steelers were unable to retain him, and shuttled through Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews over the next two years.

  • Tyson Alualu promised to change that he he’s delivered on that promise since arriving in Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Jaguars made Tyson Alualu the No. 10 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, which saw him go three spots behind Joe Haden and eight ahead of Maurkice Pouncey, but Alualu never lived up to his draft status.

In In 31 games for the Steelers, including 7 starts, Tyson Alualu had registered four sacks and made 61 tackles. To the naked eye, his production may have slipped bit in 2018, but that’s because his snap count declined from 44% in to 29% in 2018.

That drop in Tyson Alualu’s snap count was driven mainly by the relative state of health that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt enjoyed last season, and the coaches decision to get Javon Hargrave on the field more.

  • The Steelers have made the right move in resigning Tyson Alualu.

But this bit of “good news” must be balanced by a bit of less positive news. During the Mike Tomlin era (and arguably the trend extends back to Bill Cowher’s days as head coach), the Steelers have struggled to develop defensive line depth in house.

The fact that the Steelers have moved first to resign Tyson Alualu over extend deal to Daniel McCullers or L.T. Walton shows that Pittsburgh is still struggling in that area. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Steelers have secured a critical defensive backup before free agency has even begun.

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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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Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

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