Steelers Favored Experience With Cam Thomas In Case Of Need Of Interim Starter

The Pittsburgh Steelers were fortunate to have quality depth at the defensive end position last season, with all of the top four ends on the roster receiving significant playing time, even starts, at some point or another.

But such security was short-lived, as three of those four players hit unrestricted free agency this spring, with two of them signing elsewhere, and the third perceived as limited with age and injury concerns, and thus unsigned.

Many were surprised that the Steelers didn’t at least retain Al Woods, who started two games last year at nose tackle, but also received a lot of reps at defensive end. He signed a relatively modest contract generally, but perhaps a bit much given his limited overall experience.

The Steelers instead chose to use free agency and the draft to rebuild the depth chart, selecting their projected future starter in Stephon Tuitt in the second round.

But before he cracks the starting lineup, he’ll most likely have to serve an apprenticeship behind free agent signing Cam Thomas.

Thomas, who started the majority of the 2013 season at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers before being demoted to rotational duty, was signed by the Steelers to a contract comparable to the one that Woods signed earlier in the offseason.

So why, then, did they bother signing Thomas at all? Why not just re-sign Woods?

The front office knew the situation that they could potentially be facing later on in the summer—the one they’re in now—and chose to go with the more experienced player rather than the one with more time spent in the system.

Because the reality is that Tuitt is the future, but in all likelihood, not the present.

Tuitt himself described his spring thus far as “rocky”, as his work during practices has largely gone unnoticed by the various football scribes who cover them. That generally means that he’s been thoroughly unremarkable, especially for a high draft pick at a position of need.

If there is need for a bridge from the past to the present, the Steelers historically would prefer to rely on experience, and that’s one clear advantage that Thomas has over Woods.

Over the past four seasons, Thomas has nearly quadruple the amount of playing time that Woods has logged since both entered the league.

And while defensive line coach John Mitchell typically likes to strip down a player and break his learned tendencies when he first gets them on board—whether it’s through the draft or free agency—he hasn’t expressed the same concerns for Thomas.

He praised Thomas, saying that “Cam doesn’t have to learn a lot”, and citing his experience at both defensive end and nose tackle with the five technique and the three technique, as well as the one.

While Thomas may ultimately be destined to fill Woods’ old role at the top reserve at all three defensive line positions, the coaching staff feels that he is better suited than the former Steeler of being tasked with serving as an interim starter, and I see that as the main reason he is here now instead of Woods.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Paddy

    I can’t understand why it takes players on the defense so long to learn how to play their positions. Other teams don’t seem to be worried about it.
    Tuitt needs coaching and to get his head in the playbook, he has more talent than Thomas. In today’s NFL you cannot waste years getting players ready.

  • Steelers12328882

    I think losing Woods was more of a surprise to the front office and signing Cam was a reactionary move. Although, it is nice to have his experience. We were very lucky to have Tuitt fall to us as well. Very lucky, or else we’d probably have signed Keisel back already.

  • Jacque Strappe

    First, I think if it took Heyward that long, and look what he’s become, then why would we assume that Tuitt would hit the ground running? Second, I think Tuitt will be served well to be rotated more and more as the season progresses and that may not have happened as much with Woods still on the roster. Finally, can we start the season early? I’ve had enough baseball already to do me a lifetime.

  • steeltown

    Mitchell and Lebeau both have personally mentioned C.Thomas during interviews. He may not be a pro bowl DL player, but they see something in him. I’ll reserve judgment until I see him fall flat.

  • James Goins

    I agree Paddy! We can’t continue letting our high draft picks rot on the depth chart only to leave in free agency and become sold contributors on some other team.

  • Douglas Andrews

    I guess if anyone can make a player out of Cam Thomas its Coach Mitchell. I’m still hoping that Tuitt takes over that position by mid season.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    My assumption is that there is a lot to read about what the offense is doing. For instance, if they line up with one back the DE may be responsible to do push the OT back. Then the RB goes in motion…what does the DE do then….he may be responsible to drop into coverage to the TE or to a zone. Those are changes in role that affect things, but it may take a little bit till the rookie remembers all of these changes.


    I don’t think losing any FA is a surprise these days as Steeler players seem to have a 2nd home in AZ if they don’t latch on somewhere else. i agree with your point on Brett, but I also get the sense that $ is part of the reason…I don’t think Brett NEEDS to play anymore thus not willing to play for the minimum.

    If Tuitt’s development is going along to the point where coach Mitch can trust putting him in the rotation, Keisel is more of a luxury than a need.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    They signed Cam as a FA so that they didn’t have to draft Tuitt in the first round.

  • joed32

    Cam and Woods came into the league at the same time, Cam became a starter early on and Woods never has until getting 2 starts last year. Between the two of them I’d take Thomas every time. He will eventually fill the role of backup/swing NT and DE which is exactly what Woods was doing at the end of last year.

  • Crowned

    Let them play an equal number of first team snaps in the pre-season and then look at the tape and judge. Don’t prejudge Tuitt because he’s a rookie. Let the best option start.

  • Ike Evans

    How do u figure no other team (besides Seattle) is not worried about it?

  • I was actually surprised to see Al Woods go. I thought they’d work out a contract for him since Hood was more than likely gone and I wasn’t sure they’d resign Keisel immediately. My feeling on the Thomas signing (at that time) was that they were trying to cover their a$$ after losing three guys on the DL. I hope Cam Thomas can be a viable DE because early on, Tuitt will only be rotational player at best. It took Cam Heyward a few years to crack the starting lineup. I think he was actually ready to roll before he got his opportunity though. I think the earliest we see Tuitt as a starter will be 2015, barring injury of course.

  • Steve

    When you start a new job, are you able from day one to do everything? There are always differences and a BIG jump from College to the pros.

  • CW

    Personally I think it was a shock to everyone that Al Woods took off for the Titans, but the reality was very simple they offered him a better situation moving forward. Woods was always going to get replaced after the team drafted his replacement at Defensive End and being a career backup swing lineman is just not that great a deal if you believe you can start full time for another team and make better money on the next contract.

    That’s what the Titans offered that the Steelers could not match. McLendon is either going to be the starter or he will be replaced with a new rookie at some point and the Steelers were already targeting potential defensive ends in the draft. Al Woods knew the best he’d get is a season as a starter versus two full years with the Titans as a starter.

  • joed32

    They paid him more than the Steelers were willing to pay him and you’re right, he’s listed as a starter.