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In some ways, 2021 was a typical season for the Steelers' defense. They led the league in sacks for the fifth consecutive season and were among the top ten against the pass in yards, completion percentage, and points. In other ways, it was a rather un-Steeler-like year. After finishing fourth versus the run in 2020, last year’s Steelers gave up a league-worst five yards per carry on the ground and ranked 22nd in rushing scores. Their struggling offense got most of the attention during the draft, so Pittsburgh used free agency to bolster the defense, adding both depth and possibly as many as four new starters.
We typically see players level off or begin to show signs of decline once they reach 30 years old. There is nothing typical about Cameron Heyward. This is a guy that has been consistently productive throughout his eleven years as a pro but like fine wine, has only gotten better with age.
Heyward has been a cornerstone for the Steelers' defense since becoming a starter in 2013 and has been a fantasy contributor since that time as well. Early in his career, he could be counted on for tackle totals in the range of 35 solo and 20, with 5-7 sacks, making him a good second starter for most IDP managers.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Heyward exploded for a dozen sacks in 2017 and made the top twelve for the first time. Since then, he has at least eight sacks in three of four seasons, with a pair of top-two finishes in the last three years. At age 32 in 2021, Heyward set new career marks in tackles at 53, assists with 36, and batted passes with 9. Add in the ten sacks and three turnovers, and he was the fantasy game’s number one defensive lineman in 2021.
When he finished second among defensive linemen in 2020, it appeared to be a career outlier. Now that Heyward has 80+ combined tackles and at least nine sacks in two of the last three seasons, I’m not betting against another top-five in 2022, even if he is 33 years old.
One additional note on Heyward, both the Steelers and many league host sites are now calling him a defensive tackle due to his off-set alignment in the team’s 3-4. That might make him even more valuable in some situations.
Pittsburgh went into last season without Stephon Tuitt, who retired this spring due to his injury. Chris Wormley took over at the position and had by far the best season of his career. With a combined 50 tackles, 7 sacks, a forced fumble, and 3 batted passes, he was the fantasy game’s 23rd-ranked defensive lineman. As a third-round pick of the Ravens in 2017, Wormley’s previous career best was 17-15-1.5. The contrasting numbers represent a great example of the difference between a 2-gap scheme like Baltimore runs and the aggressive, penetrating 1-gap style Pittsburgh plays.
Wormley will probably enter training camp as the starter, but we should not count on him being there come September. Larry Ogunjobi was signed late in the offseason and will provide a serious challenge. He has never played in a 3-4 but has been highly successful both as a run defender and pass rusher while playing the 3-technique tackle. The former Brown’s and Bengals starter has 21.5 career sacks over five seasons despite battling some nagging injuries and was 29-20-7 in 15 games with Cincinnati last year.
The Steelers are not a team that rotates a lot of players up front. Heyward saw action on 955 snaps last year and Wormley 729 despite missing two games. So whoever wins this job is likely to have value it virtually all to themselves and be at least a solid DL3. The good news for the Steelers is that whoever loses this competition is going to provide excellent depth.
The one defensive player Pittsburgh drafted in the first six rounds is defensive end DeMarvin Leal. The rookie out of Texas A&M is not likely to make a major impact right away, but as I mentioned, Heyward is 33 years old. The Steelers do a great job of developing young players for their front seven. Even Heyward did not move into the starting role until his third season. Leal has a lot of positive traits to build on and could develop into a quality starter down the road.
One factor that contributed to their struggles versus the run in 2021 was the loss of nose tackle Tyson Alualu to a fractured ankle in September. Alualu is not an IDP factor but is the anchor in the middle of Pittsburgh’s run defense. After his loss, the coaching staff gave several players a look at the position, but none was as effective. The only one to come close was late-season addition Montravius Adams, who will settle in as the backup with Alualu expected to be recovered and ready.
- DE Cameron Heyward – DL1 with top-five potential
- DE Larry Ogunjobi – Priority DL3 with low-end DL2 upside if he wins the job as expected
- DE Chris Wormley – Quality depth if he can hold off Ogunjobi for the job
- DE Isaiah Loudermilk – No impact
- DE DeMarvin Leal – Developmental rookie with long-term potential
- NT/DE Tyson Alualu – No impact
- NT Montravius Adams – No impact
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