Pittsburgh Steelers: Cam Thomas
The ink had barely dried on the two-year contract that Brett Keisel signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday when he vaulted to the top of the depth chart at right defensive end.
Keisel is back at the position where he has started since 2006 with Stephon Tuitt, Nick Williams and Ethan Hemer listed behind him. Cameron Heyward is the starter at left defensive end with Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt and Josh Mauro listed behind him.
Prior to the re-signing of Keisel, Heyward had been the starter at right defensive end with Thomas the starter at left defensive end and Tuitt behind Thomas.
Keisel made the trip with the Steelers Wednesday afternoon to Philadelphia, but he is not expected to suit up for the Steelers' 7:30 p.m. ET game against the Eagles Thursday night.
What is clear is the Steelers did not bring back "Da Beard" to play a limited number of snaps and mentor their young defensive linemen.
Heyward has been practicing at right defensive end but he should be fine moving back to the position where he emerged as a starter last season. The fourth-year veteran has said there is not much difference in playing right and left defensive end.
Thomas appears to lose the most with Keisel back.
He is now relegated to the Al Woods role of swing defensive end/nose tackle. Thomas, however, also provides injury insurance at nose tackle and could push Steve McLendon there if the latter struggles this season.
PITTSBURGH -- Fans all but begged the Steelers to bring back Brett Keisel during the months when it looked like the popular and hirsute defensive end would not be able to end an unlikely NFL career on his own terms.
A lot of people got their wish Tuesday. Not the least of them was Keisel.
The deal that returns him to the only organization he has known will also allow Keisel to retire as a Steeler. "Da Beard" wanted that as much as he did another season of playing in the NFL.
The Arizona Cardinals' interest in Keisel prompted the Steelers to double back on him, even though they are generally getting younger on defense.
But teams can usually find a place for players such as Keisel, and the Steelers are no exception. He is so valuable in the locker room and defensive linemen's meeting room because of his leadership.
And he showed this past season that he can still play when healthy. Keisel missed almost five games, but it’s not like his body was breaking down because he was in his 12th NFL season.
One injury, plantar fasciitis, sidelined Keisel for a mid- to late-season stretch. Even that painful foot injury did not stop Keisel from finishing third on the Steelers with 26 quarterback pressures and fourth on the team with four sacks.
He can still help the Steelers’ defense, even if he gets limited snaps while playing in a rotation. And his return won’t stunt the development of Tuitt.
On the contrary, Keisel is the perfect player to mentor the immensely talented Tuitt. He is a two-time captain who has been held as an example by Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell because he always runs to the ball.
When he is giving pointers to Tuitt, Keisel can think back to when Aaron Smith mentored him -- Tuitt actually wears the No. 91 for which Smith set the standard -- and marvel at where the time went.
It has been almost 13 years since Keisel crashed the league that didn't want him and nearly called it a career before he ever got started. Keisel lasted until the 242nd pick of the 2002 NFL draft and almost left St. Vincent College a couple months later because the seventh-round selection felt so overwhelmed at his first training camp.
But he ended up staying, and he developed into one of the unlikeliest core players of the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in a third in a six-season span.
Just when it looked like the Steelers had moved on from Keisel, who celebrates his 36th birthday next month, they bring him back for another season.
Both sides will be better for it -- and Keisel gets to author the ending he wanted all along for his improbable story.
Players on the roster: Cameron Heyward, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Josh Mauro, Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams and Ethan Hemer.
Projected starters: Heyward and Thomas. Heyward is poised to become one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL and he should again provide an inside rush on passing downs. Thomas is the left starting end but sooner rather than later he will give way to Tuitt and settle into the Steelers' preferred role for him as a swing defensive end/nose tackle.
Projected number on 53-man roster: Four. Hard to see the Steelers keeping more here though they could go with five as coach Mike Tomlin prefers to dress an extra defensive lineman for games early in the season when heat and humidity are a factor.
Rookie watch: The Steelers look like they hit big with Tuitt, their second-round draft pick. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder is already replacing Thomas in the nickel defense and he is going to play a lot of snaps this season. Mauro, an undrafted free agent, has really emerged and moved past Arnfelt at right defensive end. The Stanford product has the edge over Arnfelt for the final roster spot at this position.
What we learned in camp: Tuitt has an explosive first step and already has an NFL body. His development has made it less likely that the Steelers will bring back Brett Keisel, though they haven’t ruled out the possibility. Thomas should be fine in the role the Steelers want him to play and Mauro is an interesting developmental player. Heyward is the unquestioned leader of this group and a recent snapshot showed why. A running play during one practice went opposite Heyward but that didn’t stop him from running all of the way across the field to chase down the back who had already been touched down. And this was at the end of a camp in which the Steelers were in pads for every practice except for walk-throughs for an upcoming game. Heyward is captain material.
He said it: “Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I am surprised by his endurance and his speed and quickness. I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that. Now, does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No it doesn’t. There’s a lot of other things that come in there. But he seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills.” – Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on Tuitt.
LeBeau, in fact, couldn’t say enough good things on Wednesday about inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. LeBeau expects Shazier, a first-round pick in May, to start this season and for Tuitt, a second-round selection, to play a lot.
“I don’t want to overload their plate but I would say they’re ahead of schedule,” LeBeau said. “They’ve been very much a pleasure for the whole coaching staff mostly because of the type of people they are. They’re very open to coaching. They’re hard workers and they know they’ve got a lot to learn and that’s not always the case.”
LeBeau is enamored with the physical ability of both players as he tries return the Steelers’ defense to the NFL’s top tier after it finished 13th in total defense last season.
“Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I am surprised by his endurance and his speed and quickness,” LeBeau said of Tuitt. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that. Now does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No, it doesn’t. There’s a lot of other things that come in there. But he seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills.”
Shazier has been the starter at weakside inside linebacker since the outset of offseason practices, and he has all but won the starting job because of the speed the Ohio State product and Lawrence Timmons can provide in the middle of the defense.
“I think those two guys are going to give us a lot of speed at a position that doesn’t necessarily feature speed. We’re going to be fast at inside ‘backer.”
Shazier and Tuitt will play in their first preseason game on Saturday night when the Steelers visit the New York Giants. To say LeBeau is excited to see how each player fares in the 7:30 ET game is an understatement.
“These young guys I don’t want to overload the expectations but at this stage they’re doing a good job,” LeBeau said. “I’m glad we’re going to start playing some games. It makes the evaluation process a little easier and perhaps identify some of the areas we need to focus on.”
And away we go...
@ScottBrown_ESPN was Leveon bells weight loss team suggested? Who gets cut from wr crew also how does Ike Taylor look?— Jeremy Tunney (@jeremytunney) August 1, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN Props, Jeremy, for getting three questions in despite limited characters. I’m not sure whose idea it was for Bell to drop a little weight but I will ask him this week. He didn't strike me last season as a player who needed to shed a few pounds so my guess is that it was Bell’s decision. A couple of tough cuts will be made at wide receiver and in my latest 53-man roster projection I only have the Steelers keeping five players at the position. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Derek Moye are my odd men out but it is still so early. Taylor has looked and he said he is healthy after battling through injuries last season. I’m anxious to see him in preseason games though Taylor and the rest of the starters will probably only play a series or two Saturday night against the New York Giants.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Dangerfield making the 53-man roster. I know Adams has struggled through the first half of training camp but I can’t see the Steelers giving up on the 2012 second-round draft pick. If they cut Adams, Guy Whimper is the No. 3 offensive tackle and he is not better than Adams. As for Dangerfield he has been impressive and I think he has a chance to make the team though the Steelers probably have to keep five safeties for that to happen.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Outside linebacker Howard Jones has impressed me and one veteran told me that he “has a chance to be a player.” The Shepherd University product has obvious pass-rushing skills and last Friday night he twice beat tight end Heath Miller in the backs on ‘backers drill. My concern with Jones, aside from his having to make the jump from Division II to the NFL, is whether he is big enough. It would be ideal if he could spend a year on the practice squad and get bigger. The Steelers, however, may not be able to sneak Jones onto their practice squad if he plays well in preseason games.
@ScottBrown_ESPN No, I think Shamarko Thomas will play more than just special teams this season. Will Allen has made it tough for Thomas to get on the field as a third safety because of how well the 11th-year veteran has played since re-joining the Steeelers last October. But I think Thomas makes a big jump this season and at some point supplants Allen as the No. 3 safety. When that happens remains to be seen.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Either cornerback Cortez Allen or right tackle Marcus Gilbert. I have my doubts as to whether the Steelers get a new deal done with outside linebacker Jason Worilds, and they can use the transition tag again or franchise tag on him next year if they want to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That scenario is not ideal for either side. But it gives the Steelers protection if they don’t sign Worilds to a new deal yet don’t want to lose him after this season either. The problem with this scenario is it would leave the Steelers without a safety net in regard to Allen. They lost Keenan Lewis to free agency in 2013 and not signing him turned out to be a mistake. They certainly don’t want to lose another young cornerback, which makes me optimistic that the Steelers get something done with Allen before Sept. 7. The same goes for Gilbert, who played very well through the first half of training camp and is looking more and more like the right tackle of the present and future with Adams off to a slow start.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Nothing happening on either front and it’s looking like it’s going to take an injury for either player to return to the Steelers. I had Brett Keisel on my first projected 53-man roster but not the one that ran on Monday in large part because rookie Stephon Tuitt has looked so good in camp. He may start sooner rather than later at left defensive end and should play significant snaps this season. I still think Keisel would be a perfect addition so he could mentor Tuitt and add depth at defensive end. But right now it looks like the Steelers are committed to younger players at defensive end and outside linebacker. I don’t think the Steelers have ruled out re-signing either Keisel or James Harrison but, again, it may take an injury at their respective positions for them to pick up the phone.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Thomas has played well and he has gotten work with the first-team defense at left defensive end and nose tackle. He is the starter at left defensive end for now but Tuitt is such a talent that Thomas will only hold off the second-round draft pick for so long. The Steelers would love nothing more than for Tuitt to play his way into the starting lineup so they can use Thomas as a swing player between defensive end and nose tackle.
General manager Kevin Colbert declined to talk about specific players Monday morning when asked if Keisel is on the Steelers’ radar. But Colbert said, “We haven’t eliminated anybody from consideration because we don’t know what’s going to happen before the season. Even into the season there’s been times when we’ve brought back veteran players due to injury. If we have eliminated a player we always tell [him] don’t keep us in your thought process, if you have an opportunity don’t wait for us, something along those lines.”
It makes all the sense in the world for the Steelers to bring Keisel back.
He could play in a rotation at left defensive end – I’m not sold on Cam Thomas there – and serve as a perfect bridge between second-round pick Stephon Tuitt’s rookie and second seasons. There are a lot of people with football expertise who think Keisel can still play, even though he turns 36 in September, and he would be a great mentor for the younger defensive ends like Tuitt and Brian Arnfelt.
The Steelers don’t have to be in a hurry to bring back Keisel, who is keeping himself in shape and doesn't need training camp at this point of his career. That will give them time to take an extended look at what they have at defensive end and help them decide whether to bring back Keisel.
I like Keisel’s chances of returning to the Steelers a lot better than I do Harrison coming back for a second stint in Pittsburgh.
The five-time Pro Bowler would have to be content with a really limited role with the Steelers set with their top three at outside linebacker in Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats.
For fans who have asked about Harrison returning so he can help the younger players at outside linebacker, the Steelers added that mentor last February when they hired Joey Porter as a defensive assistant.
One injury, of course, could change everything in regard to the Steelers and Harrison. But if the Steelers stay relatively healthy at outside linebacker, I don’t see him returning to Pittsburgh.
- Martavis Bryant broke inside as a pass sailed over his head during the Steelers’ first practice of training camp. “Don’t come in that way!” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger yelled Saturday afternoon to the rookie wide receiver. Roethlisberger proceeded to gesture to Bryant how he should have retraced his steps and run back toward the quarterback instead of cutting toward the middle of the field. No other sequence better epitomized how hands-on Roethlisberger was with a young receiving corps that has to replace two of its top three wideouts from last season. Expect the on-field instruction and dialogue with his receivers to continue during camp and throughout the preseason. “He has full control over the whole team, really, and he doesn’t take that lightly,” veteran tight end Heath Miller said of Roethlisberger. “He takes a lot of pride in that. He’s the unquestionable leader of this team.”
- The wide receivers looked really good as a group during the first practice. The caveat, of course, is that the Steelers won’t hit or wear pads until Monday. But the wide receivers drew oohs and aahs from fans who watched from the hillsides or the bleachers at Chuck Noll Field. Darrius Heyward-Bey made an over-the-shoulder grab of a Roethlisberger deep ball during a seven-on-seven drill. Justin Brown made a leaping catch of a pass that Roethlisberger delivered with some serious heat. Markus Wheaton made a handful of nice catches. Wheaton and Antonio Brown were the starters at wide receiver when the Steelers went 11-on-11 and Lance Moore was the No. 3 wide receiver.
- Roethlisberger wore No. 99 for the first part of practice in honor of his former teammate and good friend Brett Keisel. Keisel, who played for Pittsburgh from 2002-13, remains unsigned and is hoping to return to the Steelers. “That’s my boy,” Roethlisberger said. “We were suitemates, he’s been one of my closest friends, been in my wedding. I miss him.” The Steelers could bring Keisel back if it is determined that the defense misses player who started the previous eight seasons at right defensive end. Cameron Heyward played mostly at right defensive end during the Steelers’ first practice. Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt and Stephon Tuitt all received repetitions with the first-team defense at left defensive end.
- Coach Mike Tomlin started to address the one injury that occurred during the Steelers’ first practice when he realized he had referred to center/guard David Snow by the wrong name. “I call him Jon Snow because I’m a ‘Game of Thrones’ guy,” Tomlin said of the popular TV series. David Snow suffered an ankle or foot injury on Saturday, though Tomlin said he did not know the extent or severity of the injury. Other than Snow’s injury, Tomlin said, “We got through [practice] pretty clean and I liked the effort.”
Returning starter: Cameron Heyward. The former first-round draft pick broke through in his third NFL season. Heyward, who took over at left defensive end in the fifth game of the season for Ziggy Hood, led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures. He also established himself as one of the young players that the Steelers will build around on defense.
New faces: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer. Thomas, who started 10 games at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers last season, signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Steelers in March. The Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round and added Mauro and Hemer as undrafted rookie free agents.
On the bubble: Brian Arnfelt. The undrafted free agent spent most of 2013 on the practice squad before receiving a late-season promotion. The Northwestern product played in two games and has a good chance of making the 53-man roster. Arnfelt, however, could become part of a numbers crunch if the Steelers bring back Brett Keisel for one more season.
By the numbers: Heyward played 800 snaps last season. Arnfelt was the only other defensive end on the roster to get any snaps for the Steelers last season, and he was in for just two plays.
Did you know: The only time Tuitt played at Heinz Field he didn’t finish the game because of an ejection. Tuitt was thrown out of Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss at Pitt last season after officials ruled he had targeted Carolina Panthers quarterback Tom Savage with an above-the-shoulder hit on the first play of the second quarter. The controversial call was later ruled a correct one by the ACC’s head of officiating.
Quotable: “Some fans in San Diego gave me that when I first had Twitter and I was playing around with them and they called me ‘Baby Zilla.’ I stuck with it ever since.” – the 6-foot=4, 330-pound Thomas on how he got his nickname.
Outlook: Heyward is one of the Steelers’ best defensive players, and he gives them a strong inside rusher when they go to their nickel defense. Thomas is more ideally suited to swing between defensive end and nose tackle, the role that Al Woods filled last season. He is a stopgap at defensive end until Tuitt is ready to start. Keisel also becomes a part of the rotation at the defensive end spot opposite Heyward if the Steelers re-sign the 12th-year veteran.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen gets a new contract and that the Steelers let Marcus Gilbert play out the final year of his rookie deal. Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now and the Steelers can't afford to lose him. I think the two sides can reach a deal that is good for both and ensures that Allen is a Steeler well beyond the 2014 season. As for Gilbert, I just haven't seen enough from the former second-round pick to warrant the Steelers locking him up with a long-term deal. Much like outside linebacker Jason Worilds, I think the Steelers want to see more from Gilbert and will take their chances on getting a deal done after the season if he fits into the team's long-term plans. If Gilbert walks after the 2014 season the Steelers have Mike Adams to plug in at right tackle.
@ScottBrown_ESPN will both allen and gilbert get extended— steelking (@steelking3) June 20, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I believe that is the case since players are allowed in the building during the span that bridges the end of a season and the start of the team's offseason program. It would make sense too for the coaches to be available to rookies or first-year players who may have questions about the playbook. That availability, however, is limited in the sense that coaches take lengthy vacations not long after the conclusion of offseason practices since it is really the only extended break from football they will get all year. The building is mostly empty too since a lot of players travel somewhere to continue working out, often ratcheting up their training regimen to get ready for camp.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Does the CBA allow players to come to the facility and interact with coaches between mini & training camp?— Rich Durbin (@Imaldris) June 20, 2014
His position coach continued the link when he compared Stephon Tuitt to a young Aaron Smith.
Pressure? Yeah, and Tuitt says bring it on.
“I love pressure,” the rookie defensive end said. “I thrive off of that.”
John Mitchell has spoken highly of Tuitt since the Steelers drafted the former Notre Dame star, calling him a steal in the second round and later comparing him to Smith, who was so good in his prime that teams could not effectively block him with just one man.
Mitchell, however, has tempered expectations during minicamp, which wraps up today, and said the Steelers won’t play Tuitt until he is ready.
“The worst thing you want to happen to a good player who is going to be good down the road, he loses confidence because he goes in the game when he’s not ready to play,” the veteran defensive line coach told Steelers.com. “We’re not going to rush this kid in there. When he’s ready to play and we feel he can help this team, that’s when we’re going to play him. As he grows he’s going to be a good football player and he’s going to play here for a long time.”
It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Tuitt, who could have returned to Notre Dame for his senior season, is able to help the Steelers right away since much at defensive end is unknown after Cameron Heyward.
Cam Thomas, who started 10 games at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers last season, will go into training camp as the starting defensive end opposite Heyward. After that the Steelers have a bunch of young, unproven players at the position, though there is a chance they bring Keisel back.
Tuitt is the most promising of the youngsters the Steelers have at defensive end.
The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder already has an NFL body, and he likely would have been a first-round pick had he not carried extra weight in 2013 after surgery compromised his offseason training.
Tuitt’s sheer size and the fact that he played some five-technique defensive end in college should help reduce his learning curve.
“I played every single position at Notre Dame,” said Tuitt, whose 21 ½ career sacks rank among the school’s all-time leaders “Coming into this defense there isn’t much change. It’s just different when everybody you’re going against is top caliber.”
Top-caliber is an apt description of the defensive end who wore No. 91 before Tuitt.
Smith established himself as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends of his generation, and he was a main reason the Steelers regularly ranked among the top rushing defenses in the NFL.
Tuitt has yet to meet Smith, but he has already heard plenty about him.
“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me, and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers,” Tuitt said. “With that comes a great opportunity to become the best, and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than.”
But the Steelers tight end may have provided a hint on Brett Keisel’s future Thursday after Miller talked about what it’s like to be one of the longest-tenured players on the team.
Miller was reflecting on when he was one of the younger players on the Steelers and looked up to veterans such as linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith, who each played long after their 30th birthday.
Then he said, “Keisel’s not here right now and he was well into his 30s last year.”
"Not here right now" implies that Keisel will be back with the Steelers at some point.
I could be reading too much into Miller’s comment, but it dovetails with the sense it makes for the Steelers to bring back Keisel for another season.
First and foremost, there is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward.
Cam Thomas has been working with the first team during OTAs, but the Steelers signed the former San Diego Charger to serve as a swing man who plays both defensive end and nose tackle.
Rookie Stephon Tuitt should figure into the mix at right defensive end but it may not be realistic to expect the second-round draft pick to develop quickly enough to start next season.
And who better to mentor Tuitt than Keisel, who also could play in some sort of rotation at right defensive end.
The timing for re-signing Keisel is right as the Steelers will receive more than $8 million in salary-cap room on Tuesday from releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in March.
Stay tuned on this front.
Also from the Steelers’ third OTA session:
- Strong safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and running back Dri Archer were among those not in attendance on Thursday. Center Maurkice Pouncey did not practice but that probably resulted from the Steelers not wanting the Pro Bowler to push himself too much in his return from a torn ACL.
- Antonio Brown said he is willing to return punts this season but it sounds like a duty the Pro Bowl wide receiver wouldn’t mind passing off to one of his teammates. The Steelers have had a handful of players fielding punts during OTAs, including Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant. When asked if that means he will be replaced in that role, Brown smiled. “They say that every year and I’m back there, so we’ll see,” the fourth-year veteran said. “I’ll let Coach [Mike Tomlin] decide.”
- Miller, who is going into his 10th NFL season, said he has not put a timetable on how much longer he wants to continue playing. The Steelers signed Miller to a three-year contract in March. “I just want to play as long as my body will allow me to,” he said, “so we’ll see where that takes me.”
With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason moves.
Riskiest move: The Steelers shopped more than usual in free agency, but they added only one player to their defensive line while losing defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Cam Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would ideally fill Woods’ role as a swing man between nose tackle and defensive end. But right now he is the Steelers’ best option at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The Steelers need second-round pick Stephon Tuitt to develop quickly and at least play in a rotation at defensive end. They would also be wise to keep Brett Keisel’s number handy.
Most surprising move: The Steelers didn’t draft a cornerback until the fifth round, and that is a position where they have only one long-term starter in Cortez Allen. The prevailing thought prior to the draft was that the Steelers would take a cornerback early and select two of them. Shaquille Richardson, their fifth-round pick, and free-agent signee Brice McCain are the only addition they have made at cornerback. That means the Steelers better be right that the answers at cornerback are already in their building,
What’s next: The Steelers appear to be done adding -- for now -- and most of the $8 million they'll receive in salary cap savings after June from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used to sign draft picks. They have a handful of players going into the final year of their contracts that they should try to sign to long-term deals. The list includes center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Allen. The Steelers could also try to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract, though nothing is imminent on that front. The Steelers may wait until after the 2014 to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal since he still has two years left on his contract.
Our fifth look is at a unit that is in transition.
Who is new: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Thomas to a two-year, $4 million contract in March, and the former Charger, also known as "Baby Zilla," can play nose tackle and defensive end. The Steelers took Tuitt, a defensive end, in the second round of the draft. They used the second of their two sixth-round selections on McCullers, a 6-7, 352-pound defensive tackle.
Who is gone: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Keisel, who has started at defensive end for the Steelers since 2006, remains unsigned. Hood and Woods signed with the Jaguars and Titans, respectively, as unrestricted free agents.
Returning starters: Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon. Heyward played sparingly his first two seasons in Pittsburgh but he showed in 2013 why the Steelers could no longer keep him off the field. Heyward supplanted Hood as a starter five games into last season, and the 2011 first-round pick led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures and tied for second on the team with five sacks. McLendon took over for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle and probably received too much blame for the Steelers yielding 4.3 yards per carry last season. McLendon has received several votes of confidence from the Steelers this offseason, and he should be better in his second season as a starter. "I'm not worried about him at this time," defensive line coach John Mitchell said.
Most significant addition: Tuitt. The former Notre Dame star already has an NFL body and the 6-5, 303-pounder should play immediately given the Steelers' need at defensive end. The Steelers were elated that Tuitt lasted until their pick in the second round of the draft. They will be even happier if he develops quickly enough to start sooner rather than later opposite Heyward.
Most significant loss: Keisel. The unquestioned leader of the defensive line and a Steelers captain, Keisel finished third on the team with 26 quarterback pressures last season and also recorded four sacks despite missing four-plus games because of a nagging foot injury. The Steelers haven't shown any inclination to bringing Keisel back for a 13th season, which is curious considering how thin they are at defensive end.
On outside looking in: McCullers. The Tennessee product is probably a project more than a player who can provide immediate help up front. McCullers will have to prove to the Steelers he can play with the necessary pad level at nose tackle, and that will be a challenge given his sheer size.
Hidden number: McLendon had nine quarterback pressures last season -- only two less than outside linebacker Jarvis Jones -- despite playing only 338 snaps and coming off the field on passing downs.
Outlook: A defensive line that had been anchored for years by Keisel, Hampton and Aaron Smith has gotten very young. Heyward is the leader of the unit, and he only turned 25 a couple of weeks ago. The biggest question is who will start opposite Heyward. Right now it looks like a rotation of Thomas, Tuitt and Brian Arnfelt or Nick Williams will be used at right defensive end. The Steelers should also keep Keisel on call -- if he doesn't sign elsewhere -- in case some of the young players at defensive end don't progress quickly enough.
OK, no news flash there.
Then Heyward added this: “I think our nose tackles have to be ready to play in sub package this year.”
If that is the case then Steve McLendon is primed for a bigger role in 2014, not a reduced one.
And he could become a three-down player, staying in the game with Heyward when the Steelers replace a lineman with an extra defensive back.
The nose tackle has traditionally come off the field when the Steelers employ a fifth defensive back in their nickel defense. But it makes sense if the Steelers are planning to keep McLendon in the game on some passing downs for several reasons.
McLendon has shown flashes as far as putting pressure on the quarterback and the Steelers want to generate more of an inside pass rush in 2014. McLendon and Heyward, who tied for second on the Steelers with five sacks last season, could make a good pairing as the inside pass-rushers in the nickel defense.
Also, the Steelers don’t have a lot of options after McLendon.
There is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Heyward and the plan – at least for now – may look something like this:
- Play Cam Thomas at end when the Steelers are in their base defense and have him and McLendon rotate at tackle when the Steelers go to the nickel.
- Find depth among second-year players Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams as well as the defensive ends that the Steelers draft next week and sign as undrafted free agents.
That, of course, is speculation at this point, and the Steelers’ plan could change depending on the players they add through the draft -- or in free agency by bringing back veteran defensive end Brett Keisel for one more season.
But one thing that seems clear is that the Steelers’ nose tackles won’t just be asked to stop the run in 2014.
“Steve can rush, Cam can rush,” Heyward said, “and we’re looking for them to add more to this defense.”
Our seventh look is at the defensive line:
Added: Cam Thomas
Lost: Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel (unsigned free agent)
Skinny: The Steelers need a starter opposite Cameron Heyward at defensive end and they also need depth up front. I could see them drafting two defensive linemen and wouldn’t be surprised if they take a pair of ends. Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt both project as defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme and they are candidates for the Steelers if they trade down in the first round. The Steelers hosted both for pre-draft visits, and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III is an option if he falls to them in the second round. Virginia’s Brent Urban looks like a classic 3-4 defensive end and he is a player to watch late in the draft's second day or early in the third day for the Steelers.
Draft likelihood: High
Last DL drafted by the Steelers: Nick Williams, seventh round in 2013
Last DL drafted by the Steelers in the first round: Heyward, 2011
Last DL taken 15th overall in the draft: Albert Haynesworth, Titans, 2002
DL drafted under Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin: Seven
DL drafted under Colbert/Tomlin still with the Steelers: Two