The defense has been somewhat of a weakness over the past two seasons and as a result the team finished with consecutive 8-8 records. It’s time for this side of the ball to step up and it all starts with the defensive line.
The team did a lot of overhauling with this particular unit in the offseason and some familiar faces such as Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are no longer here. The line will need to stuff the holes and prevent the run this season, something they couldn’t do in 2013 when they finished 21st in the league, allowing 1,849 yards on the ground.
The defensive ends will be led by Cam Heyward, who had a breakout 2013 and is primed to take the next step in 2014. He’s the next super star on this defense that is in need of a new, young one. Heyward, who started thirteen games last season, put up 59 tackles, five sacks and even deflected seven passes.
The other starter at defensive end will be a battle between 2nd year player Nick Williams, rookie Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas, signed in free agency.
I believe that Stephon Tuitt will eventually be the guy but the opener will see Cam Thomas play in that spot. Thomas is unique in that he can play both end and defensive tackle if necessary so he’s certainly valuable. Nick Williams will be a great reserve and can start in a pinch as well.
The team has three other ends on the roster in rookies Ethan Hemer and Josh Mauro along with second year player Brian Arnfelt. There is a very slim chance that one of these guys will make the 53 man roster but it’s more likely that none will make the team and one will be kept on the practice squad. That is really going to come down to how they play in the pre season games and who may seem to have some potential for the team to use them in practice situations.
The defensive tackle spot will be occupied by Steve McLendon again. McClendon started 10 games last year and recorded a solid 33 tackles. He’s getting better with each season and it’s going to be on him to really lead the way in stuffing the run.
Pushing McLendon for time will be rookie Daniel McCullers. The 6 7’ 352 pound tackles has a lot of upside and has been impressive in camp thus far. He will be a huge asset for the black and gold in obvious running downs and goal line situations and there is very strong chance that he takes over for McLendon somewhere in the middle of the season as the starter. At the very least, McCullers is the future starter and he’ll gain a lot of playing experience in 2014.
Hebron Fangupo will be a guy that’s kept around to play tackle as well. Fangupo can come in to provide guys a breather and is talented enough to play a series at a time, if needed.
Additionally, as mentioned, Cam Thomas could be a guy that plays the tackle spot and he may see time there on certain downs or if all goes well at the defensive end spot with Stephon Tuitt, Thomas could move into a more prevalent role at tackle.
Al Lapuaho and Roy Philon currently occupy roster spots as defensive tackles but they will not make the team when it’s all said and done.
No matter how it plays out, it’s essential that this unit improves dramatically over last years’ version. The Steelers defense has always been known for stuffing the run and it’s a must for this unit to succeed in doing their job so the guys playing behind them can succeed doing theirs.
I fully expect an improvement from that 21st ranking last season and wouldn’t be shocked to see the run defense get back into the top ten.
Cam Heyward is the leader of this crew and as he goes, they’ll go.
Mike Pelaia hosts the website Steel Nation Association www.steelnationassociation.com- Covering the Steelers and helping Children’s Hospital All Day Everyday. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.