Much like the entire Steelers’ defense, Pittsburgh’s defensive line is going through changes and a youth movement.
Gone is Dick LeBeau. Keith Butler, who learned much of his trade from LeBeau, has replaced the legendary coordinator. The “Steeler Way” and many of the defensive concepts should remain with Butler.
However, there is some speculation that Pittsburgh’s defensive line will become more of an attacking unit rather than a reactive one. The reason for doing this is to generate more pass rush from the front three rather than just occupying blockers and freeing up the second-level defenders to flow freely to the football. We also could see more slanting and stunts.
Cameron Heyward has come into his own and somewhat quietly has become one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. He should be one of the new leaders of this young, rebuilding defense on and off the field. If the Steelers attack more up front, Heyward’s sack numbers should rise. He is already a force against the run and pass and should be in the running for Pro Bowl honors this year.
Brett Keisel is gone and the Steelers are counting on Stephon Tuitt to step up in his second season. Tuitt has much better movement skills than Keisel, who was at the end of the line physically. With Heyward and Tuitt starting at end, Pittsburgh should have good overall athleticism and range from this position. These two will bump inside on throwing downs. Tuitt has upside as an interior pass-rusher.
At nose tackle, Steve McLendon has that starting spot locked up. While he lacks the beef of a pure nose tackle like Casey Hampton and can be moved by double-teams in the run game, McLendon can spell Tuitt on throwing downs as an interior pass-rusher and is a very underrated player who can also play end in this scheme in a pinch.
Pittsburgh needs one of its younger defensive linemen to step up. Cam Thomas is basically the backup for all three defensive line spots at this point, but he didn’t perform close to what the Steelers paid him after signing him last offseason. If a few of the younger guys can step up, Pittsburgh likely would release Thomas and use his money elsewhere.
Last year the Steelers used a sixth-round pick on Daniel McCullers, a simply huge human being at 6-foot-7 and 352 pounds. Word on the street is that McCullers has lost approximately 15 pounds from last year. Even though he is a pure nose tackle, losing those excess pounds could end up being beneficial for McCullers and the Steelers’ interior run defense overall. With less baggage, he should be able to play with better pad level for more snaps throughout a game. As a pass rusher, McCullers can use his rare gifts of size and power to move smaller men backwards and he can disrupt throwing lanes in the A-gaps. But his forte is occupying space inside, not rushing the passer. He should make this team and take a step forward, like Tuitt, in his second season.
Pittsburgh also used a sixth-round pick on the line this year with the selection of Leterrius Walton, who is a project and could be targeted for the practice squad. But he does fit the size requirements that the Steelers look for at defensive end and could sneak on the opening day roster with a strong preseason.
The wild-card of this group is Clifton Geathers, who is 27 years old and has really bounced from team to team since entering the league. He is very tall (6-8, 325) and long with the exact dimensions for a Steelers-type defensive end. Since joining the team, the reports have been positive and he looks to have finally found a home in Pittsburgh. Ideally, he is the rotational third end. Also, while McCullers spells McLendon, McLendon could then possibly get a few reps at end with McCullers in the middle as sort of a jumbo package. While Pittsburgh might be keeping its eyes open when final roster cuts are made in search for another defensive lineman addition, it looks to have enough on hand (barring injuries) right now to allow the Steelers to release Thomas. It is a young group overall with some upside for improvement.