The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been a team to pride themselves on defense. Here is how I graded their defensive line heading into 2019.
The Steelers have had a run of very good defensive lineman dating back as far as I can remember. The early to mid 2000’s front three was made up of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. They were part of some of the best defensive units in all of football.
Presently, the Steelers have a big three of their own (albeit, a slightly lesser version). Here is how I graded out Pittsburgh’s defensive line heading into the 2019 season:
Cameron Heyward is one of the better defensive lineman in all of football. I don’t love using the terminology ‘defensive end’ with him when comparing him to the rest of the league – as he would undoubtedly be an interior defensive lineman on a 4-3 front.
Regardless, Heyward is simply great at his craft. After staying somewhat in the shadows in his first 6 seasons, Heyward now has two straight Pro Bowls and an All-Pro under his belt. He is the glue that holds this front seven together, and should have a handful of quality seasons left in the tank.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding Stephon Tuitt and whether or not he is underrated of overrated. Though he probably isn’t worth the massive 5-year $61M contract extension he was given, Tuitt is a solid player for the Steelers.
Stephon Tuitt is the best run defender on the team, and there is a noticeable difference when he isn’t on the field. His sack numbers may be pedestrian, but he is underrated when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback for a man his size (though it’s not his forte). Tuitt rated out as Pro Football Focus’s 21st best defensive lineman in 2018 with a grade of 81.8.
Hargrave is quickly emerging as one of the best defensive lineman on the Steelers, and you could make the case that he is already the second best on the team. Hargrave is very different from Tuitt. While Tuitt uses his length and power to overwhelm offensive linemen, Hargrave uses a quick bust and an array of hand moves to get to the quarterback.
Javon Hargrave was lightening in the second half of the season last year – taking his overall grade from 69.1 to 86.2. He will look to build on this performance and be even better in 2019. Hargrave is the best pure pass rusher on the Steelers defensive line.
Though he was a former 1st round draft choice of the Jaguars all the way back in 2010, Alualu was never a special player. However, he has been a solid signing for the Steelers.
Surprisingly, his best season, from a statistical standpoint, came in 2017 with the Steelers – where he collected 4.0 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss despite starting just 5 games. Now 32 years old, Alualu doesn’t offer a lot of upside, but is a solid rotational piece along the defensive line.
At 6’7” and 352 pounds, McCullers is a mountain of a man. Unfortunately for the Steelers, he doesn’t provide much more than a big, unmovable presence on the field.
McCullers can plug up the run game between the tackles, but his limited athleticism makes him a liability on outside runs and passing downs. It’s impossible to call McCullers a bust, as he has stuck around on the Steelers for five years as a former 6th round draft choice. However, his job is not guaranteed in 2019.
Though he is on the bigger side (6’3 1/8” and 306 pounds) Buggs is much more in the mold of Javon Hargrave than Stephon Tuitt or Cam Heyward. Bugs didn’t test well compared to other players at his position, but was solid at Alabama.
Isaiah Buggs actually outpaced 3rd overall pick, Quinnen Williams in sacks this past season (though the latter is clearly the better player). Buggs is certainly a superior player to Joshua Frazier from Alabama last year, and it’s interesting that an SEC big guy with 9.5 sacks made it to the 6th round. He will try to make his presence felt and become part of the rotation for the Steelers.
Overall defensive line grade: A-
The Steelers don’t have superstar talent like an Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, or Fletcher Cox, but what they do have is an assortment of very good big guys that know how to get the job done.
The trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave is not one to be taken lightly. Though they may not be as dominant as the group from earlier in the 2000’s for Pittsburgh, these guys are all solid football players.
There is no weak link on the Steelers defensive line which, in my opinion, makes them one of the best units in football. I believe that trend will continue in 2019.