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