Steelers Offseason Priorities – Riding The Defensive End Carousel

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them coming off consecutive non-winning seasons. It takes elbow grease to get from 8-8 to a contender, as everybody knows, of course, but this offseason, the issue is more complicated than simply improving, due to some uncommon circumstances.

One of the big storylines that will take place for the Steelers this year is figuring out what their defensive front line is going to look like when they take the field in 2014. As of right now, I would say that the only stone cold lock to be in the starting lineup is Cameron Heyward, though obviously Steve McLendon more likely than not will remain the starting nose tackle for next season.

As Jim Wexell has speculated, however, reading the tea leaves, what team president Art Rooney II says often comes to be true, whether it is demanding a more efficient running game, getting younger players more acclimated and ready to play sooner, or doing a better job of protecting their $100 million asset under center.

This offseason, Rooney talked about the importance of fixing the running game and the desire for a run stopper, and that could theoretically mean a new, more traditional nose tackle than the somewhat undersized McLendon.

This is irrespective of the actual statistics, which support the fact that McLendon was one of the team’s better run defenders. Do I actually expect this to happen? No, I fully expect that McLendon will be the starting nose tackle, but nothing is ever guaranteed.

More immediately, the Steelers currently have three key defensive ends hitting free agency, and one would have to think that they would like to bring back, at the very least, two of those three players.

While Brett Keisel was technically a starter all season, he once again caught the injury bug late in the year, which is something that has been catching up with him almost perennially since reaching his 30s. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if this was the farewell tour for The Beard, given his approaching his late 30s.

Ziggy Hood is entering his sixth season, yet is nearly a decade younger than Keisel. While he hasn’t, and likely will never be a star, he has proven to be a tireless worker and an excellent team player with a motor and level of energy as good as anybody on the team. He puts in all the work, regardless of whether or not it always shows up on the field.

Hood is rarely one to make the splashy play, but he’s come to be a smart player, with the ability to read out running back screens and keep a quarterback in the pocket. He doesn’t offer much in the way of pass rushing—certainly nowhere near the level of Heyward—but does well to overcome his height deficiency and stay square against the run.

The last free agent on that list is Al Woods, who played a fair bit at both defensive end and nose tackle (and defensive tackle in sub-packages with just two down linemen). He started twice last year at nose tackle when McLendon battled an ankle injury late in the season and managed to hold his own. He even batted down two passes.

Woods is valuable depth with position flexibility who knows the defense, so I fully expect him to return. I wouldn’t quite say that he’s ready to be a starter, however, so I suspect that the Steelers will be looking to move on with Hood, McLendon, and Heyward as their starting line in 2014.

The depth chart will need to be recalibrated, however, and I expect Brian Arnfelt to be a part of that. The Steelers could add another nose tackle to provide competition against Hebron Fangupo, who is already approaching 30, yet still hardly sees any playing time.

Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Offseason Priorities – A Primer
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Finding An Offensive Line Coach
Steelers Offseason Priorities – What To Do With Woodley And Worilds
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Replenishing The WR Depth Chart

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Rob H

    I’m excited to see just how high Heywards ceiling is, not only as a player, but also as a new leader on this defense. That footage of him when he was “miked up” for that last game against Cleveland was pretty awesome stuff.

  • steeltown

    We’ve been spoiled since the turn of the century with the likes of A.Smith, Hampton, Keisel and Hoke.. but we are close to reassembling this DLine

  • dgh57

    I see Hood as penciled in as the starting LDE(only if resigned) for the upcoming season with the softest leaded pencil you can find with a big fat eraser at the other end! Hood is not starting material so either Arnfelt, draft pick, or moving McLendon to DE will eventually end up unseating him as a starter. We need to get better up front and not spin our wheels with Hood who IS NOT THE ANSWER!

  • Brian Miller

    True enough…we have been spoiled since the 70’s to be honest. These last few years have been more of a wakeup call as to how important those 3 positions are in our defense. It doesn’t matter how great your LBs are if the D-line can’t do it’s job.

  • Callentown

    I’m going out on a limb here:

    The Steelers will draft a true NT and work to move McClendon to DE. I see him playing both NT and DE this coming season while the new NT learns the ropes.

    Al Woods will also play a part in this transition.

    I also think Ziggy played his best ball towards the end of the season and I think they will get a reasonable price to keep him.

  • charles

    Unfortunately for Mac, our Dline got stiffer on the line of scrimmage with Woods. With Heyward we are one player away from creating serious matchup problems with LeBeau’s scheming defenses.

  • Aric Brown

    I’m glad to see Ziggy finally get a little bit of props…. he’s a workout warrior, constantly trying to make himself better… and while hes not Aaron Smith, he’s not nearly as bad as many of us pretend he is

  • SteelersDepot

    this is false

  • Douglas Andrews

    Agreed. I was one of those that criticized Hood at the start of the year for his lack of production. After watching him this season I’ve change my opinion of Hood. My opinion is that he’s a defensive Ramon Foster. He’s never gonna be flashy, probably doesn’t pick up that monster sack, or fumble, but what he will do is bring his lunch bucket and work work work. The guy does his job and I hope he can be brought back for a reasonable price.

  • charles

    When stats are all that you see…
    Let me ask you this question: who had the highest vertical leap or the longest arms, Maclendon or Woods?

  • Patrick Reid

    Im still for drafting Lou Nix III in the 1st and moving Mac to end.

  • Patrick Reid

    Ziggy is a good ball player and I think he helps us be a better ballclub. He just was not worthy of a #1 pick.

  • Callentown

    Love the Ramon Foster analogy.

  • Jollyrob68

    I see the Steelers signing Terrance Cody, he’s a traditional NT and it saves a draft pick. I also want Hood &Woods back.

  • LayDownTheHammer

    My thoughts:

    1) Ziggy Hood would be a great 3-4 DE anywhere else but Pittsburgh. We expect so much more out of them because we’re frankly spoiled with Smith and Keisel all those years. To be realistic, he still struggles at the point of attack and ideally should be replaced by McLendon…

    2) McLendon showed us last season he is not a Steelers 3-4 NT. He is good enough, however, to be a starter (at DE). We need a true NT very very badly, but in this draft I am not sure where a true NT exists that is remotely NFL ready. I personally like Daniel McCullers (he’s 6’8 350) but he is very raw in terms of technique (possibly even motor) and size does not mean everything for a NT contrary to popular belief (see Ta’amu, Alameda). I do not think it is bad that he (like Terrence Cody) is a 2-down NT at best, because Al Woods is more than capable of a 3rd down NT, moreso than Ziggy (he’s not a NT, people, no matter how much you want him to be).

    3) RE: Louis Nix – he is the closest thing to a game-ready 3-4 NT in this draft. Is he game-ready? No. ND did not run a true 3-4 and I have concerns about his durability especially with his recent knee issues, and the fact that he puts 346 pounds of pressure on his knees does not help. I would not be mad at drafting him in the first round, but we could also do better in terms of other positions/players. No matter who we draft anywhere in the draft, he will not be the starting NT for at least a couple years, which means our DL will have to settle for mediocre results again for the foreseeable future.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    Could DT be a position we get through FA im hoping it is so we can use our draft pickd for other positions of need

  • Rikki Giaro

    Poor Steve McLendon, why is everyone already doubting him? It was his first year as a starter, he did make some plays this year. Anybody remember Peyton Manning was 3-13 in his firet year as a starter.

  • LayDownTheHammer

    He knows the scheme for a while; he’s not a rookie. Strength and leverage for a natural DE like him are a lot different than for NTs. As I said, he makes a fantastic starting 3-4 DE.

  • Nolrog

    >>> but we are close to reassembling this DLineYou really think so? The only guy I’m high on is Ironhead. At the other end, I’d bring beack either Ziggy or Keisel (whoever is cheaper) for a year while we look for another DE, and the guys at nose really don’t excite me at all. I think we need serious work there.

  • Nolrog

    Anything is possible, but I don’t see them being major players in free agency this year.

  • Rikki Giaro

    Knowing the scheme and getting game experience are very different , I just think one year as a starter is not enough experience to say he can’t be a NT. How much of an impact did James Harrison make in his first few years in the NFL, he was cut how many times? I do like your idea of Daniel McCullers, picking up a development NT would be smart, but definitely not in the first round.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Being the 32nd pick of the 2009 draft has done him no justice. Probably more of a late 2nd round pick but no fault of his own. He’s not played lights out but he’s gotten better each year. He’s a proven starter and will provide depth along the line should he only become a backup this year.

  • LayDownTheHammer

    Harrison was a lot more unpolished than McLendon and is clearly an outlier. By that logic, we should give Curtis Brown another 5-year contract despite him getting routinely roasted in coverage. By strength and leverage in my last comment, I meant that McLendon does not command double teams as much as Hampton did, which is the #1 goal of a NT. Odds are that if you cannot do that your first year, you will never do it. Dontari Poe, whom I loved before the draft, did it the end of his first (and rookie) season, and so did Hampton.

  • 243546

    The question that needs to be asked is what situations were the Steelers most vulnerable to the run? The Steelers spend a lot of times in sub-packages, and it’s been going on for a while. If the problem is teams running the ball effectively when the Steelers are in one of their sub-packages, drafting a traditional NT isn’t going to solve that problem, because he’ll be on the bench.

    I don’t think the Steelers problems against the run falls primarily on the NT situation. Sure, Snack is gone, but so is James Harrison. Harrison was a monster against the run, and someone who isn’t easily replaced. Also, Snack didn’t play much in sub-packages. The Steelers also lack speed on the back end, which effects the defenses ability to stop a good run from turning in huge run.

    There’s other ways to get better against the run, besides upgrading at NT. In the second half of the year, the defense looked like they were incorporating a lot more 1-gap principles, which is something I expect to see continue into 2014. That eliminates McLendon’s perceived size issues for the position, it also fits Al Woods skill set a lot better, and would also help guys like Arnfelt and Nick Williams get on the field earlier. Also, getting faster at RILB would improve the run D. That’s an area where hopefully Spence can help provide a solution, or can be addressed through the draft with someone like CJ Mosley or Christian Jones.

  • 243546

    The Steelers don’t play a true 3-4 either.

  • LayDownTheHammer

    It’s a base 3-4.

  • James Kling

    Really? Did Cody stop being a fat POS recently? I can’t recall him ever doing anything since being in the bigs. Except get over-drafted by the Ratties. Frankly, I’d stick with Mac and the guys on the roster.

  • 243546

    That just describes the base personnel. ND uses a base 3-4 too. Personnel doesn’t determine if the defense is a “true” 3-4. Gap responsibility does.

  • walter mason

    You said it. He will provide depth.

  • walter mason

    No comparison. Harrison was always a monster. He was just considered uncoachable.

  • Steve

    What good is a workout warrior if it does not translate over to the football field?

  • Steve

    If the Steelers don’t play a true 3-4, then what do they play?

  • Steve

    The problem with the Steelers Defense was too many players were old and slow and were terrible at tackling.

  • Aric Brown

    It’s just good to know that the effort it there… It benefits other players too…. Its much easier to work hard when the guy next to you is working hard