After two straight seasons of equivalent wins and losses, it’s certainly no surprise that the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been busier and more active than usual in their efforts to reshape a middling roster into a true competitor.
The past few months could be fairly described as a season of change amid the shifting fates of a franchise that had just been to the Super Bowl three times in the very recent past. It may well be that past success that has helped drag them down of late.
Of course, selecting late in the draft annually doesn’t help, nor do the big contracts going out to the players that helped you reach that success. But the true death knell has been an unwillingness to recognize when to let go.
The Steelers had hoped to hold together that championship core for a while longer, but the last two seasons have been the wake-up call necessary to introduce the wave of change that we’ve seen this offseason, designed to steer the organization back in the right direction.
Of the four defensive ends on the Steelers roster last season that played more than two snaps on defense, only one of them returns this season. I think that qualifies as a significant change, especially if you consider that that one returning player didn’t begin last year as a starter.
That one player, of course, is Cameron Heyward, though, and he quickly emerged as a starter and became one of the Steelers’ best players on either side of the ball, ranking second on the team with five sacks.
If you look at the rushing statistics from a year ago, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see that the Steelers have allowed so much turnover to occur at the position, even though those stats don’t come close to telling the full story.
Gone are Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, and Al Woods—at least for now. While Hood and Woods quickly signed contracts elsewhere, Keisel’s presence still looms in the background, and it’s not inconceivable that the Steelers choose to bring him back as a rotational player this season as they transition to a younger front.
To help with that transition, Pittsburgh did bring in one veteran during free agency, signing Cam Thomas, who is expected to start at left defensive end, which was primarily manned by Hood for the last few years.
Thomas, however, has been primarily a nose tackle during his career thus far, and what he can accomplish as a defensive end largely remains to be seen.
The long-term future at the position, the Steelers hope, comes from the second round of this past draft in the form of Stephon Tuitt, an underclassman who likely would have been drafted in the first round had he not labored through his junior season with an injury.
He figures to be a key part of the rotation this season, however, and may at some point emerge as the starter. Then again, it took Heyward three seasons to crack the starting lineup—but perhaps the hurdles he faced were a bit steeper than the opposition standing in Tuitt’s way.
Meanwhile, a primary trio of young defensive ends are vying to serve as the fourth in the rotation, including Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams, and Josh Mauro.
Arnfelt and Williams joined the organization last year, the latter via the seventh round and the former coming in as an UDFA, while Mauro comes to the Steelers as a priority UDFA this year.
Williams missed the vast majority of his rookie season with a knee injury, but Arnfelt stuck on the practice squad and was promoted late in the year. He figures to be in the driver’s seat for the position, having been practicing as the second-team right defensive end throughout the summer.