Pittsburgh’s starting defensive line appears to be set in stone at the moment.
Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel will man the defensive end spots once again this fall, while Steve McLendon is set to take over for “Big Snack” at the nose. 2011 first round pick Cameron Heyward is set to be the primary backup at defensive end and should hopefully chip in here and there to keep Hood and “The Beard” fresh during the 2013 campaign.
While those particular spots are basically nailed down, the competition for spots on the 53-man roster and practice squad figures to be very heated between the rest of Pittsburgh’s backup defensive linemen over the next two and a half weeks.
Before I begin, I would like to say that Al Woods has emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises for the Steelers during this offseason. A former practice squad player who has paid his dues and climbed up Pittsburgh’s depth chart since 2011, the lineman’s hard work and tutelage under his position coach John Mitchell has definitely paid off since he began his latest stint with Pittsburgh. It also has not hurt that the former 2010 fourth round pick has put his versatility on display during this particular offseason.
A defensive end in 2011 and 2012, Woods worked extensively as the Steelers’ second-team nose tackle during OTAs. Since training camp began though, Woods has done a solid job as Hood’s backup at left defensive end. Woods then continued his solid play when he shined in last Saturday’s game against the Giants when he logged nine tackles and one sack. At this point, I see no reason why Woods will be unable to entrench himself as Hood’s primary backup on the left side.
If the Steelers elect to carry another a fifth defensive end for depth purposes though, then it will be up to 2013 seventh round pick Nick Williams and 2013 UDFA signee Brian Arnfelt to duke it out for an extended role on the team.
Arnfelt got a head start on Williams when recorded two tackles in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game, but Williams should be able to make his debut this Monday against Washington. Like the battle at the nose tackle I will discuss below, both players are promising and both have practice squad eligibility.
Thus, the Steelers’ coaching staff could be inclined to stash one or both players on the practice squad for a season to learn under Mitchell and develop. Williams in particular would benefit, especially since he is newer to the game of football but is such a physically athletic specimen (6’4″ 309 lbs.) who received high praise from Mitchell after he was drafted. Arnfelt also has the type of size and deceptive athletic ability one looks for in a 5-technique (6’4″ 298 lbs.), and I think that he could become a solid role player for Pittsburgh in the trenches if he is given a couple years to develop.
As far as the interior of Pittsburgh’s defensive line is concerned, the nose tackle battle between Hebron Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu should be very intriguing to follow as well.
While Fangupo appeared to be leading the competition before the first preseason game after Ta’amu spent much of the offseason dealing with legal issues and on the PUP list, Ta’amu has come on strong lately and did a fine job against the Giants in Pittsburgh’s first preseason contest. Luckily for the Steelers, both Ta’amu and Fangupo have practice squad eligibility.
If the Steelers are fortunate enough, then they might just be able to sneak the loser of this competition on to the practice squad if they can clear waivers. If both play well during the rest of the preseason though, then I am sure that another team with a need for depth at nose tackle will try to sign one of them on the waiver wire.
Although they do not figure to see much playing time during the 2013 regular season, these backups do not need to look any further than ahead of themselves on the depth chart to see some late-round and undrafted success stories in the forms of Keisel and McLendon. Even Woods appears primed to step into a much larger role this fall, and he was an afterthought to many before last year began.
Mitchell has worked his magic and helped to develop unheralded players before, and these backups are in a perfect situation in Pittsburgh to hone their skills and improve in time. Of course, those that are deemed worthy will stick around past the preseason. Thus, the mad scramble for spots on the practice squad and the 53-man roster should continue to heat up between the aforementioned players over the coming weeks.
Follow me on Twitter: @DominicDiTolla
Follow & Like “NPC” on Facebook: Nice Pick, Cowher