Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl: Winning the Battles in the Trenches

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AP photo: Don Wright

I recently promised to cover the defensive line “soon,” and given the plethora of plumbing problems and viral indispositions, this counts as soon.

In many ways the core of the defensive line is the most uniformly impressive group on the team. The middle is anchored by Javon Hargrave, who could have but didn’t win the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year award.

As Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette wrote last December:

The local pro football writers face a dilemma today unequaled in 33 years when they cast their ballots for the Steelers rookie of the year.

At least we have choices this time and none is a punter or a third-stringer tied strictly to special teams play. Those guys have won it in the past. At times, we had to hold our noses when we voted and would have preferred not call it the Joe Greene Great Performance Award in some years.

We have three worthy rookie candidates in Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, and there’s not a punter or third-stringer who is going to win it. They are the first trio to earn starting jobs as rookies for the Steelers defense since 1971 when Jack Ham, Dwight White and Mike Wagner started.

As it happened, Sean Davis won the award, but as Bouchette said the others were equally worthy.

On either side of Hargrave are Stephon Tuitt, a second-round draft pick a few years ago who has really come into his own, and Cameron Heyward, one of my personal favorites among the Steelers.  Of course, his season ended very early when he was injured in October and subsequently put on IR.

All three men will be back for 2017, hopefully better than ever. But as always the question is, what depth is behind the starters?

Until the recent free agent signing of Tyson Alualu, the answer was “not a whole lot.” Daniel McCullers is still available to plug up the middle, but while it’s difficult to say he has been a disappointment, since that word can scarcely be used about a sixth-round pick, he has never quite lived up to his combination of immense size and surprising athleticism. But he has improved at least a little each year, and certainly knows the scheme by now.

Other than McCullers, the sole remaining defensive linemen were 2016 UDFA Johnny Maxey, the Man from Mars (Hill University) and L. T. Walton, a sixth-round pick in 2015. The latter got his first NFL start last December, and also his first NFL stats (a couple of combined tackles.)

The Alualu signing makes a tremendous amount of sense, at least on paper. Because he has played both DE and NT in the NFL he can back up any position on the line without any difficulty, or so one would presume. This gives the Steelers a lot more flexibility in their draft choices.

And although I will cover this aspect of the D-line more thoroughly in my upcoming Momma’s Mock Drafts, I have promised to touch on the BLA issues in the position reviews. As you might suspect from the picture heading the article, Cam Heyward gets my vote although I have to say that, Javon Hargrave is making a real case for himself.And Johnny Maxey has his points. But Heyward has a firm place in Momma’s heart, and it will take some real work on the part of the other candidates to dethrone him. Feel free to try, though…

 

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