Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Defensive Linemen

By Alex Kozora

A Pittsburgh Steelers player by player recap, grouped by position, reviewing the 2013 season. Now, the defensive line.

Cameron Heyward: Starting with the best. And it’s not even debatable. Arguably the defensive MVP, he finished 2013 with better numbers than in his first two seasons combined (59 tackles and 5 sacks this season compared to 31 and 2.5 prior).

He didn’t begin the season as the starter but his play in the first four weeks proved to Mike Tomlin he deserved it. Like his Week One reverse pancaking of center Rob Turner.

 

Heyward is a man child at 6’5 288 and is athletic as any five tech in the league. He possesses a fantastic motor and doesn’t quit on plays, proving to be an asset running down screens.

Against the Chicago Bears, he fights off the cut block and forces the receiver inside on this smoke screen.

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Late in the year against Miami, he chases the screen down from behind and makes a WWE style tackle.

 

Blows up this screen against the Cleveland Browns, too, forcing Jason Campbell to throw the ball into the ground.

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The former first rounder has loads of upper body strength and shows good arm extension. He can get into the pads of lineman and hold the point against the run or walk them into the pocket when pass rushing.

He showed the complete package against Cleveland, bullying backup guard Oniel Cousins.

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He played the sixth most snaps on defense at 847. Most games, he was asked to play all but a few snaps. A testament to his stamina and conditioning.

Even as he became the starting right end, he maintained his role as one of the two players forming the two man wedge on kick returns.

The good news is that he’s signed cheap next year in the last year of his rookie deal (1.3 million base). But he’ll be an expensive player to re-sign that offseason. He’s already a star and those players don’t come cheap.

Ziggy Hood: It was a quiet, albeit not a terrible, start to the season for Hood. He lost his job to Cam Heyward but it was more a result of Heyward playing really well than Hood playing poorly.

Like Heyward, Hood has a fantastic motor (he’s commented and said it comes from watching Brett Keisel hustle all the time) and will run down every play. Have to appreciate that effort from a defensive end.

Similarly, Hood can disrupt screens. Quick at recognizing them and athletic enough to get downfield and in the way.

Probably my favorite play from him all season. Against the Detroit Lions, he sees screen, gets out into the flats, forces the back inside, sheds the right tackle, and helps bring the ballcarrier down. So many elements at play and Hood checks all the boxes.

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And again against the Ravens, making the solo tackle on Ray Rice.

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Like the rest of the Steelers, late in the year, Hood came into his own. He dominated Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Andre Smith in Week 15. Consistently won the leverage battle against the run.

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He’s not a strong pass rusher but will occasionally flash a good move, tossing aside Marshal Yanda here.

 

The one element that really bugs me is his lack of versatility. Hood is only capable of playing left end. He doesn’t offer the versatility along the line that nearly every other lineman owns.

He isn’t a superstar but I view him as a starter. Hood is set to become a free agent and the team would be wise to bring him back. He should not command much money and letting him walk would create major question marks at defensive end if the assumption Brett Keisel has played his last down holds true. Not only would you need a starter, the team would be lacking depth. There’s enough of those issues at other positions.

Brett Keisel: It’s no secret Keisel might be done with the Steelers. It was a season that was derailed by the team’s losing ways when he played and a foot injury forcing him to the bench as the Steelers hit their stride.

But he actually played well at the beginning of the year. He manhandled Bears left guard Matt Slauson and disrupted the zone blocking scheme of the Minnesota Vikings even if Adrian Peterson still had a big game.

Despite missing four contests, he still finished with four sacks, the third most in his career.

His swan song came in Week 17, with three tackles, a sack and forced fumble.

The sack/FF came with Keisel showing good technique. Getting his arms extended, showing proper leg drive, and walking the left guard into the pocket. Got the Browns’ driving offense off the field and set the tone for the rest of the game.

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Keisel has had a fantastic career. From a 7th round pick, he became the defensive leader, leading by example. He’s been a fan favorite with his iconic beard and times playing Santa in downtown Pittsburgh. His beard led to the charitable “Shear Da Beard event quickly becoming popular . No, it doesn’t matter on the field, but seeing one of the true good guys in football is refreshing in a news cycle filled with muck.

Steve McLendon: McLendon has been blamed for not being the “traditional” nose tackle and a big reason why the Steelers ranked 21st in yards per game and per carry. But that isn’t an accurate or fair assertion to make.

For one, McLendon played very well. No, he isn’t a plugger in the mold of Casey Hampton. Though at 325 pounds, he isn’t tiny either. One of his best assets is his first step and ability to penetrate vs zone runs. Tough for the backside lineman to get in position to scoop him.

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He’s an athlete who can shed blocks, not just take them on and hold.

 

The stats don’t back up the idea he’s poor against the run either. As Dave Bryan pointed out a few weeks ago, opponents averaged less than 2.2 yards when running up the middle.

The third and perhaps most important reason is the fact the Steelers were in dime personnel more than they were in base. From our charting project, the team used dime on 544 snaps and base just 440. The discrepancy grew as the season went on. Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, McLendon played just 20 of 78 snaps. With him in the game at nose tackle, the team stopped the run. With him out, they got gashed.

On the season, McLendon played only 360 snaps. 318 of those at nose.

Does he have his issues? Sure. Most notably, he has to work on staying square to the line and not getting turned. Has to use his hands better when two gapping against the run.

But McLendon proved he was a starting caliber nose tackle. Just because he isn’t a carbon copy of Hampton or fails to fit the “ideal” mold of the position doesn’t mean he can’t be effective. The team could draft a nose tackle later in the draft, there are a lot to get excited about, but they won’t take one early.

McLendon is signed through 2015.

Al Woods: Woods was a pleasant surprise this season and proved capable of wearing multiple hats. He was the other man on the two man wedge on kick returns and filled in at nose tackle as well as rotating at end. He was inserted into the starting lineup when McLendon nursed an injured ankle.

His start against the Bengals was encouraging, helping to hold Cincinnati to 2.6 yards per carry in a winning effort. Stills of him working off a combo block, shedding, and making the tackle.

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One of my favorite plays of his won’t show up on the stat sheet. Against Cleveland, he exhibits awareness, getting his hand up and taking away the throwing lane to the running back directly behind. The pass ends up incomplete.

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His snaps though were inconsistent making conclusions of the type of player he is difficult.

In my gut, I don’t think he’ll ever be a starter. But he’s valuable as a strong backup. Excited to see what progress makes next season.

Hebron Fangupo: Fangupo was a little used lineman who only saw playing time in Steve McLendon’s absence. He played 13 snaps defensively – three in base, six in dime, and four in goalline. What the Steelers do in the offseason along the defensive line will obviously have a lot of influence on his outlook to earning a roster spot out of camp.

Brian Arnfelt: A fan favorite in training camp, Arnfelt spent most of the season on the practice squad until he was promoted in mid-December due to injuries to Keisel and McLendon. He saw two snaps on defense at left end and versus the Packers due to injury, participated on kick coverage.

The only thing I noticed based on the very tiny sample size was his slowness coming out of his stance.

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Arnfelt will be back in camp to compete for one of the last defensive end spots.

Nick Williams: A 7th round selection out of Samford, Williams rookie season was cut short when a knee injury forced him on injured reserve. Described as a project by defensive line coach John Mitchell, Williams does have interesting size at listed 6’4 309. If anyone can coach a player, it’s Coach Mitchell.

Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Quarterbacks
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Running Backs
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Wide Receivers
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Tight Ends
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Tackles
Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Centers/Guards

Senior in college, blogging from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • steeltown

    Im starting to think they’ll keep Hood.. and im starting to agree with that notion. He’s durable and shouldn’t break the bank. They could then truly concentrate on the secondary, linebackers and offensive weapons in the upcoming draft. We already have a couple young DL prospects being groomed to contribute in the near future.

    Of course, only if he comes at a modest price. I guess the problem arises when you look at the other guys that need to be locked up, like Worilds, Heyward and Cortez Allen.. maybe they wont have enough to keep Hood

  • Callentown

    I agree that keeping Hood this year makes sense. Although, I still think we should draft a DL in the first 3-4 rounds if the right fit is there.

    It’s funny how once we get to draft time the needs seem to pile up.

  • Milliken Steeler

    I agree Steel. People are repeating the same negative things and even adding to them. The latest was, he doesn’t play hard. lol

    I think we know better and he was fairly productive considering he had less snaps. I think he also tied his high for sacks didnt he?

    He is in his prime and has always improved even if it was baby steps. I both hope and think that we will keep him.

  • Alex Kozora

    Ha, yeah, if there’s one trait that Hood has in bunches, it’s his effort/motor. Guy seriously does not quit out there.

  • David Edward

    This evaluation of the DL might be slanted a bit too far to the positive side. Agree that Cam was impressive and he needs to be locked up before he hits FA. He can truly be a beast, but there’s still room for him to become more consistent. Also, McClendon took an unfair rap, but we know he wasn’t the main culprit in the run game.

    Where I think this is mainly off is the evaluation that Hood was a positive. I think for the most part, he’s a liability in the run D as teams have targeted him and Woodley (over the years) on the left side to run through. Yes, Ziggy can make a play or two from time to time, but he makes an equal amount of poor ones, and for the most part he’s just flat out mediocre. Considering he only started (after being benched) because Keisel was injured, I just don’t see how resigning him helps improve the DL…maybe as a backup for depth but only for a very modest deal.

    Keisel had a nice last game and that would be a nice way for him to go out. I think this was it for him, because like Ziggy, bringing him back doesn’t help improve the DL…unless there’s an injury in camp or something. On the contrary, Woods is worth resigning because of his versatility and he’s progressively improved. I think he could be a starting NT if need be and even a serviceable DE, which makes him the better choice than Ziggy.

  • Alex Kozora

    They were targeted more often because they’re on the left side of the line – the strong side for offenses. So naturally, they’re going to get run at more often.

    Like I said in the write up, Heyward was really just playing at a high level. He’s a star. Wasn’t as much about Hood playing poorly. And with his limitation to just LE, he was forced to the bench and saw his reps limited until the injury.

    I don’t see Hood/Woods as mutually exclusive. No reason you can’t sign both. Woods is great depth at all three spots. Both will be cheap. Then you really only need to add one more DE and you’ll be ok depth-wise. Someone in camp, Williams/Arnfelt/a new UDFA will probably end up making a push too.

  • steeltown

    Indeed.. the focus this year on Defense should be DB (and OLB)

  • chris ward

    Great to see Cameron Heyward have a break out year, Indeed on John Mitchell, one of the best D-line coaches in the league.

  • David Edward

    Maybe I should have said they they were oft targeted and failed to successfully stop the run more often than they succeeded at it. While running right is common (I played RT and LDE my junior year), at the NFL level a team won’t continually attack an area if they are unsuccessful at it. Both players struggled to hold point and keep contain on a regular basis. If Ziggy was anything more than mediocre at best, he would have kept his job and Keisel would’ve went to the bench, because for the most part Brett was mostly a mediocre player in 13. I think Ziggy can be a worthy backup if he can be had cheap, but DE is an area where they can use another infusion of talent. Of course I do agree that the secondary is the biggest need.

  • Rick M

    I’ve complimented you in the past Alex, which I guess is a way of apologizing for the following comment.

    It seems to me that your standards re: D-line play have become fairly low. Hood you admit won’t command much interest in free agency, but you consider him qualified to be a “starter” for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s a little sad for a team with a history of defensive brilliance. Your sole criticism is his lack of versatility, yet he is clearly pushed around on a number of plays. Woods you label as “great” depth. Has he really earned that adjective in your mind? And contrary to most experts, you feel that McLendon has already proven he is a “starting caliber nose tackle”. He’s not on his way to be “starting caliber”, he’s proven it.

    i really believe is according praise where it’s been earned, i.e. to Cam Heyward for his great improvement in 2013. But an outsider reading your article would think the Steelers are set on the defensive line for years to come. I don’t think that was displayed at all on the field in 2013. Sorry, but like Dave I find your article really slanted to the positive, and not very objective. I respect that is the way you see it though.

  • DrakePirate

    I have always been in favor of keeping Hood, I really dont know why so many steeler fans want him gone .. sure he was a late round 1st round pick and hasn’t lived up to everyone’s hopes, but he is more than solid and creates great VALUE for a starter … he is solid, dependable and fairly cheap … I’m thinking 2mil+

  • DrakePirate

    DB for sure … would like them to solve it for once and for all .. not sure if there is enough talent out there this year, but would like to see 3 DBs drafted (CB +S), but i think its likely they will Draft 2 and bring in a couple more UDFA as well … Here is to hoping some of them stick !

  • DrakePirate

    our DL play is not great by any means, but i think it is fair to say it is at least above average and with a little more experience and another player added it can rise to being a “Good” DL … another quality LB in the mix can help that issue !!!

  • steeltown

    McLendon is making around $2.4MIL per season, I see them offering atleast that much if not alittle more. I could see 3yrs $9MIL or even 4yrs $13-14MIL… still great value

  • steeltown

    I have to disagree, Keisel played well this year, even missing 4-5 games he still had 4sacks which is good for a DE in a 3-4 and he had a ton of QB hurries

  • steeltown

    As long as we get one of each (CB & S) in the early-mid part of the draft

    I still have high hopes for Antwon Blake, he’s very fast and strong, although short kinda like Shamarko, but he provides speed which we are lacking and could be a good depth guy

  • Alex Kozora

    There is no need to apologize, Rick. This place would get boring really quickly if we all just agreed and said how smart we all are.

    The thought that this was a nice review of the group wasn’t lost on me as I wrote it. It’s odd to say that on the whole, these players did well when we’re talking about as bad of a run defense (statistically) than we’ve had in quite some time.

    But I go through my game breakdowns and really didn’t see too much negatively. I truly think playing subpackages so much hurts your run defense for obvious reasons. Watching teams block us without a nose tackle, it opens up so many angles for the center and guards to seal the ends or let the center free access to the next level. Packers game sticks out the most to me.

    Hood plays a position and has a skillset that won’t command much money. He isn’t a premier pass rusher like Heyward is. He’s a high effort motor guy who is decent against the run. That’s why he’ll be cheap. No one is shelling out big money for that.

    But yeah, we could survive with him starting. Could we upgrade there? Sure. But you can’t upgrade everywhere and definitely not all at once. Not with the Steelers’ conservative mentality. Who else would start? Someone in free agency? Maybe but how much of an upgrade will it be? Obviously not going after a big name. The draft? Unlikely a rookie starts. So you’re left with a host of other positions to possibly address (CB, ILB, WR, TE) and limited chances to address them. Not going to end up with superstars everywhere. That’s really my point. Can you win with Hood? I think you can. So he can start.

    Woods is great depth for the fact he can play anywhere on the line. Seen action on all three spots. That’s valuable to have. Just in the way Beachum has that value on the o-line or in the past, Essex/Legursky (even though they were below average talents) they could wear any hat. As I said in the write up, Woods’ snaps were inconsistent so I can’t claim to have that great of a read on him. He’s an unknown still, to a degree. Which is why I said I’m excited to see him next season – I want to see him build off this. Will he? Remains to be seen.

  • DrakePirate

    yup … thinking hopefully locked up for less than 3/yr

  • DrakePirate

    ya i like the plan .. two this year .. and definitely a CB next year … are there any guys that look like star material in the 1st round … would love to go 1st next year with a lock down corner !

  • Matthew Marczi

    For what it’s worth, I’ve reached similar conclusions about this defensive line unit based on my own breakdowns.

  • Rick M

    Thanks for the excellent additional explanations and information. It makes a lot more sense to me now. Cheers.

  • Patrick Reid

    Hey Drake, I really love Christian Jones from FSU. He can play ILB or OLB. Great athelete with awesome cover skills. Been watching him at the Senior Bowl practice and I have been impressed. Would love him beside fellow Nole Timmons. Great in the 2nd even better in the 3rd.

  • Madi

    Thank you for pointing out the positives of Ziggy’s game. He gets so much hate, but I agree with your assessment.

  • steeltown

    I think there will be

  • DrakePirate

    im all for a Quality Starter potential LB in the 3rd … but want the 1st/2nd for TE,CB,S … i tend to be able to analyse skill positions better than Line and LBs .. i leave the analysis of those positions to others

  • DrakePirate

    I think you are point on on your defense & DL analysis .. realistically u can’t have stars at every position, actually what is needed is to have several solid players like Hood a few stars if you are lucky and limit the players that we have that are a liability which is i think is the most important … currently we have (ILB CB/S ) as our biggest liabilities on Defense … and the easiest holes to fill are on offense which is TE/WR … so you are spot on … realistically we can address half our needs through the draft and FA this year and hopefully pick up whats still needed next year … so i guess its down to what value at what position the FO thinks is best going forward that we can fill this year as opposed to next

  • DrakePirate

    Seems to be VERY few lock down corners in the league these days … very difficult to pick up good corners … seems like it has been easier with the Safeties the last few drafts