Woods might be pressed into duty this season if injuries strike. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line Depth Huge Question Mark For Steelers

I was not surprised when I read the news that Pittsburgh’s coaching staff worked out Al Woods at all three defensive line positions during the team’s OTA sessions.  Teams can never have too much depth in the trenches, and the Steelers could very well need a “jack-of-all-trades” backup in place to assist if injuries or poor-play strike the team’s four-man rotation of Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon this fall.  I just hope that the soon-to-be fourth-year player (23 career games, 0.5 sack) can prove himself worthy of extended backup duty soon, especially because the rest of Pittsburgh’s reserves along their defensive line are so raw and inexperienced.


Defensive End

In the seventh round of this April’s draft, Pittsburgh selected the raw and untested Nick Williams out of Samford.  Williams, who was focused more on basketball in high school (he only played one year of football), has the size (6’4″ 309 lbs., 34.125″ arms, 10.25″ hands) and athletic tools to be a terrific five-technique some day.  Yet as high as the potential ceiling could be for the former Samford star, he is still only playing his fifth year of football.  Moreover, he will also have to transition to the defensive end position in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme after he played defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme at the collegiate level.

After the draft ended, Colbert & Co. also added some competition for Williams in the forms of UDFAs Brian Arnfelt of Northwestern and Cordian Hagans of Louisiana-Lafayette.  After three seasons of spot-duty, Arnfelt (6’5″ 302 lbs.) finally came on strong during his senior year when he played full-time (25 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks).  Like the other backups, the former defensive tackle has some underrated athletic ability (40-time: 4.83 seconds and 225 lbs. bench press: 38 reps), but still will require more development before he sees the field.

Hagans (6’4″ 299 lbs.) actually started his collegiate career on the offensive side of the ball at L.S.U..  In fact, he only began to play defense full time after he transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette three years ago.  Much like Arnfelt, Hagans also had a breakout season of sorts as a senior (41 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) when he was finally able to start full-time.  And much like Williams, Hagans will have to get used to a new position in Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme.

While I am definitely intrigued to see how Williams, Arnfelt and Hagans develop over the next year, all three of them will likely be fighting for practice squad spots during the preseason due to their inexperience and still-developing skill-sets.  Thankfully, the quintet Hood, Heyward, Keisel and Woods will be in front of them on the depth chart and the likelihood of them seeing the field is much less than the backups at nose tackle.


Nose Tackle

I for one am very intrigued to see how McLendon performs during his first year as a starter.  After three full seasons of learning under Casey Hampton, Hoke and his position coach Mitchell, the time will be “now” for McLendon to prove himself and become the anchor along Pittsburgh’s defensive line.

The Steelers are banking on McLendon stay injury-free this year though, because the players behind him on the depth chart possess almost zero professional experience whatsoever.  Second-year tackles Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo played zero significant snaps last fall, and neither player recorded a single statistic during their rookie campaigns.  With their futures still uncertain, the door could be open for Woods or 2013 UDFA Omar Hunter to slide in and bump them down on the depth chart very soon.

Hunter is an interesting prospect, especially because he gained a large amount of experience (31 career starts) as a gap-clogger in the S.E.C. for the Florida Gators.  The squat-framed Hunter (6′ 313 lbs.) could earn himself a practice squad spot if he plays effective during the preseason and can anchor himself well against larger and more athletic pro linemen.

Hope for Hunter aside, the lack of experienced depth behind McLendon is a major cause for concern.  It is absolutely imperative that McLendon stays on the field as often as possible, because I have little faith that Ta’amu, Fangupo, Hunter (and possibly even Woods) will be able to play effectively this fall and record a significant amount of snaps as early as this fall.


Final Thoughts

Look, I understand that the Steelers have what appears to be a serviceable “four-man rotation” in place heading into this fall.  But when the 2013 campaign ends and the spring of 2014 rolls around, the aforementioned “four-man rotation” could be cut in half.

Keisel and Hood are both entering the final years of their respective contracts this year.  If the Steelers need to save cap-space, both might even be allowed to walk next spring.  Complicating matters is the fact that Heyward will reach UFA-status in the spring of 2015 as well.  Thus, if the former Buckeye’s development stagnates or he simply does not live up to his 1st Round pick status like Hood has failed to do as well, he might not be re-signed in the spring of 2015 when his rookie deal expires.

I know that the 2014 season is still a distant thought to most people.  Moreover, I have faith that defensive line coach Mitchell can develop at least one of the young and unheralded defensive ends into an effective player down the road.  I simply hope that Pittsburgh’s defensive line can stay injury-free this fall, because the lack of experienced depth in the defensive trenches is a problem which must be addressed.



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Tags: 2013 Offseason Defensive End Nose Tackles Pittsburgh Steelers

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