By Matthew Marczi
Over the past couple of seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have had no shortage of quality defensive end-capable linemen in camp, making cuts all the more difficult. Back in 2011, an undrafted rookie out of Northwestern University by the name of Corbin Bryant was able to make a name for himself on a roster that already included Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Heyward, with the end-capable Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon also on the roster.
With six defensive linemen able to play end, Bryant was not needed on the active roster; however, the Steelers liked him enough that he earned himself a spot on the practice squad. In his second year, Bryant battled third-year man Al Woods to secure the final spot along the defensive line. Though he lost, he spent much of the year again on the practice squad, and was promoted to the active roster following Alameda Ta’amu’s suspension.
While he later signed with the Buffalo Bills, however, the Steelers may have found themselves another keeper out of Northwestern: the 6’5”, 300 plus pound Brian Arnfelt. Like his former college teammate, Arnfelt also played defensive tackle in college, and transitioned to defensive end with the Steelers—although Bryant is now a defensive tackle in Buffalo’s 4-3 scheme.
Also like Bryant, Arnfelt has been impressing the coaching staff. Due to the fact that defensive line coach John Mitchell spent much of the offseason grooming Woods to be able to play nose tackle with the second-team defense, it had been Arnfelt, according to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, who had been taking the second-team reps at left defensive end during the offseason.
He stayed there throughout OTAs and the minicamp and into training camp until Ta’amu came off the PUP list, when Woods was moved back to end. And he showed why the coaching staff left him there all spring and into the summer during his performance in the preseason opener against the New York Giants.
Arnfelt opened the second half at the right defensive end opposite Woods, who was forced to log extra snaps due to the release of Cordian Hagans and rookie Nick Williams being unable to dress. On the third play of the Giants’ opening drive, Arnfelt displayed his stoutness in the run game, stalemating left guard Selvish Capers and coming off the block after Jarvis Jones closes the outside lane to force running back Da’Rel Scott right into his waiting arms for virtually no gain.
Arnfelt followed up that strong play against the run with another capable performance on the Giants’ drive midway through the third quarter. On first down, cornerback Isaiah Green made a nice play to deflect a pass on one of the few passing downs that Arnfelt was able to get any penetration. On second down, he skillfully walked guard Chris DeGeare down the line and shed him to make the tackle after a short gain.
On the following drive—after David Gilreath’s fumble—Arnfelt showed his ability to get to the edge, beating the blocks of both Capers and fullback Ryan D’Imperio in order to tackle Scott—again—after just a two-yard gain on a play that seemed poised for more.
On third down, he showed the deftness to rebound after being sucked in on a draw play, though he was unable to make the play. Luckily Brian Rolle was in position to do so to end the drive. Still, his awareness to come off the block, and to come close to making the tackle, demonstrate his instincts and understanding of the game.
Arnfelt also was able to get penetration a few times on passing downs, and generated one quarterback pressure midway through the fourth quarter. He seems to have a grasp on his role in different stunts, such as one instance in which Jones looped around him inside, leaving Arnfelt with the responsibility of holding the edge.
Still, it was by no means a flawless debut, even considering that his level of competition was rather undistinguished. There were several times in which he ended up on the ground, and as a whole, he did little on passing downs, rarely getting much of any push.
Nonetheless, Brian Arnfelt demonstrated a lot in his professional debut to encourage one about his potential. It will be interesting to see if he earns some earlier playing time going forward. Others are noticing as well; Pro Football Focus named him to the Team of the Week among undrafted rookies, earning a grade of 2.2 overall.
As it stands right now, it is unclear whether the Steelers will carry six or seven defensive linemen. It is also unclear if they would be willing to carry two defensive ends on the practice squad, as Nick Williams was drafted in the seventh round basically to be a practice squad player in his rookie year. Arnfelt seems to have a lot of potential, however, and it would be difficult to see the Steelers let him go if he continues to build on his strong performance from the opening preseason game.