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