Thanks to some solid draft picks in recent years, the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers is once again starting to look extremely formidable.
Apparently, it comes with the territory. Fair or unfair, seemingly every time the Pittsburgh Steelers show any semblance of playing good defense over a sustained period of time, there are inevitable references to the fabled Steel Curtain. Back in the 1970s, that meant defensive tackles “Mean” Joe Greene and Ernie Holes and defensive ends L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.
Yes, those were the days of the 4-3 defense in the Steel City, something we haven’t seen from the Black and Gold in quite a spell in terms of scheme. However, that’s not to say we haven’t seen some talented three-man fronts from this squad. All told, it really wasn’t that long ago that nose tackle Casey Hampton anchored the middle and defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel flanked the run-stopping force.
However, youth is being served when it comes to the current version of the Mike Tomlin’s defense. This past season, the club’s top three draft choices from 2016 all got plenty of playing time. Cornerback Artie Burns, strong safety Sean Davis and versatile Javon Hargrave each saw considerable action as the year went on.
This fall, the latter figures to settle in at nose tackle on a full-time basis. That’s because veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward returns after missing the majority of the year with hamstring and pectoral injuries. It was the first time in six seasons that the team’s first-round pick in 2011 missed any action. Once again, he’ll be rejoined by fellow end Stephon Tuitt, who has played and started 28 regular-season games the past two seasons combined. Over that span, the former Golden Domer has responded with 10.5 sacks, one interceptions and two forced fumbles.
In May, Heyward turns 28 and Tuitt turns 24. Over the past two seasons, the duo has combined for an impressive 20.5 sacks despite each missing time. Elsewhere, the 24-year-old Hargrave played in 15 games and made 13 starts in his rookie campaign. He finished with 27 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Hargrave also added eight tackles and a sack in the team’s three postseason contests.
When it comes to the 3-4, the better units around the league have star pass-rushers at outside linebacker. They also get unsung, but significant contributions from its three-man front. Hence, it is going to be very intriguing to watch Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave work together during training camp down the road. Unfortunately, we rarely got to see the trio on the field together in 2016.
However, that figures to change in 2017. In the end, that could add up to some very big things for the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive unit. Meanwhile, the club’s linebacking corps expects to benefit greatly if the three-man front plays up to expectations.