Defensive Line Picture Coming Into Focus

After two preseason games, it would seem that we are beginning to see certain positions stabilize in terms of the depth chart for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defensive line in particular was an area of confusion, but clarity is slowly emerging.

The second-team defensive line last night, for example, saw the combination of second-round pick Stephon Tuitt at left defensive end, sixth-rounder Daniel McCullers at nose tackle, and undrafted free agent Josh Mauro at right defensive end.

In addition to the starters, this group may be the six-man stable that the Steelers enter the season with.

That’s not set in stone, of course, as players such as Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt, who were both on the 53-man roster a year ago, are still in the picture. Ethan Hemer and Nick Williams also still hope to make a last-minute push.

Unfortunately for those players, there weren’t many snaps to go around, as the second-team line played more than a full quarter. It wasn’t until there were 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter that the line of Hemer, Fangupo, and Arnfelt entered the game.

Even Roy Philon received some reps, along with Mauro, as the third-team defensive tackles in the nickel defense. McCullers and Cam Thomas, by the way, played on the second-team sub-package unit, with Tuitt and Cameron Heyward playing the first-team snaps.

It wasn’t until late in the game with 3:15 to play, however, that Williams entered the game, during the middle of a drive on second and 12. He and Mauro were playing as the two down linemen in the nickel, with Williams presumably taking Philon’s place. He played a total of six snaps during the game in those last few minutes.

This was a week after playing significantly, and seemingly very well, against the New York Giants. But in that first preseason game, the starters didn’t play as long, and Williams moved up in the pecking order because Thomas was playing nose tackle.

Through two weeks, Williams, the second-year former seventh-round draft pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, remains behind the rookie undrafted free agent Hemer, who is the third-string left defensive end.

It’s important to remember just how little experience Williams has. He didn’t even take up football all that long ago, and he had a knee injury that he is still only a few months recovered from. He only played in one preseason game a year ago.

The Steelers are enamored with his physical potential, and early signs from the first game were positive, so why did he receive such little playing time in week two? He was nearly a healthy scratch, and healthy players who don’t play in the second game almost always get cut.

It’s possible that the team is planning on putting him on the practice squad this year, which could be, but is not necessarily, tied to how little he was used last night, especially considering how little playing time reserves typically receive in the third game.

Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered is whether the Steelers intend to carry six or seven defensive linemen this year. In his time with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin has done both, but has more frequently kept seven.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • Weiss Chad

    Those are a solid six.if they keep six those would definitely be the six.I would keep six d lineman instead of seven. Depth on this team is really starting to stand out on defense .The depth on offense across the board is becoming concerning or probably has been.Exspecially o line te and qb

  • steeltown

    Tuitt, McCullers, Mauro is a solid backup DLine. I think you may be right about N.Williams they may already be thinking squad for him

  • Ken

    Mclendon isn’t getting it done as a nose tackle. I actually thought he looked better last year. I think McCullers is closer to starting by default just by holding his ground in the middle. This is a weak spot and explains our problems stopping the run

  • frednash

    He was double teamed, triple teamed and once they had four guys on big Dan

  • toonasteel

    As far as the PS goes, I’ve been back/forth as to what D-lineman should and could be stashed there without much fear of getting plucked by another team. Although history shows that it’s very rare that one of our guys gets plucked from the PS, there is always that chance.
    So having said that, I’d put Williams on before Mauro. Williams may be more of an athlete now, but he can use another year for 1) getting 100% healthy from that late knee surgery and 2) learning some more valuable techniques that he lacks.
    Mauro, the less athletic, has the more advanced skill set and I fear that he’d be plucked of the PS before Williams.

  • Jacque Strappe

    I agree totally. I’ll admit, I was excited by the thought of Mclendon taking over at nose. He’s more athletic than Casey, but he still operates like a DE. His penetration causes running lanes. Something has to give there or it’s going to be more of the same with the run D.

  • CW

    I agree that the line is pretty much set barring an unexpected implosion.

    McLendon coming off that concussion had a couple of bad moments, but otherwise looked okay. Could improve at run stopping, but that is probably what Big Bad Dan will master shortly.

    Cam Thomas looked solid most of the time. Good cheap free agent hire there.

    Heyward’s been getting better for a while and did not disappoint last night.

    Tuitt looks like a future star at DE.

    Big Bad Dan McCullers seems to be a lock, which is probably a shock to most roster forecasters who were predicting PS at best in May.

    Mauro’s been wonderful as a UDRA. Real steal there. And probably can’t be cut and put on the practice squad. Might be one of the few guys that would get snagged off the waivers immediately. Seriously what was everyone thinking skipping him in the draft?

    I’d say Nick Williams probably ends up on the practice squad this year. He’s a raw talent and still has time to burn on PS. Could be the next man up after another year or two.

    Probably try to stash someone else on PS too, but no idea who on the current roster. I’d have said Arnfelt before training camp. Now ?.

  • sweetleb

    I think McCullers should be switch to O-tackle.

  • Douglas Andrews

    The guys that surprised me out of that second string unit are Big Mac, and Mauro. I figured both were going to be long shots as N. Williams and Arnfelt would battle for one if not two of the backup DE spots. N. Williams needs more time that knee injury didn’t help him at all and Arnfelt for as much as he worked in the offseason it seems that Mauro and Big Mac have worked twice as hard. I feel pretty good about the 2nd team D line of Tuitt McCullers, and Mauro. Would be nice to only keep six and use a roster spot at another position like OLB or DB. Maybe by limiting the playing time of N. Williams the Steelers have him pegged for the PS already.

  • pat

    My guess is we go 6 dline with the flexibility of Cam Thomas being the reason

  • Leon Mcnair

    You have to be kidding McCullers is hard to block

  • charles

    I see LeBeau acting like a child on Christmas Eve dreaming of opening the toys but still not sure what he has. The talent out there on D is wild and nonclassical. Cuts after Philly might give us a clue where the kid is taking us. We are anxiously awaiting his schemes…..

  • Eric MacLaurin

    I thought practice squad when I saw the snaps counts. I almost gave a prediction for the squad based on who looked like they were being hidden.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    The best news here was Tuitt is the starting LDE for the sub package. I think they should bite the bullet and just make him the starter and get the whole first team defense a lot of reps.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I find a couple of things interesting.

    First, I think it is obvious that Mauro has moved clearly to 2nd team DE. I LOVED the play where he dropped in coverage and then came up and made the tackle.

    Second, I find it incredible, and I mean truly incredible, that our 2nd team Dline has exactly ZERO snaps at the NFL level. Not one. We just are really young at that position.

    McCullers has to get a helmet with Mauro getting scratched….a least at this point.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Arnfeldt had a few last season Kenneth however, it looks like he has fallen out of favor despite coaches comments about his off season earlier in camp. He might go back to the PS or not at all, only time will tell.

    Mauro does look like he has some potential though.

  • Steelers12328882

    Backup OLB is definitely the hottest battle on this team, but running 2nd is for the 7th DL/practice squad spot.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I guess I should have been more clear. Fangupo has some snaps at the NFL level as well, but we are truly young at the position. To me I currently have Tuitt/McCullers/Mauro as my 2nd unit.

  • Brendon Glad

    I think I would err on sacrificing a TE or a DB for a 7th DL…especially since the younger DL have flashed better than the young TE’s or DB’s. I think TE would be my position I would be willing to be thin at. With Will Johnson a capable 3rd TE…and Dri Archer providing for quite a few exotic formations of note, then I don’t think we need 3. Especially if Adams makes the squad. That means that even if a TE goes down, then the Steelers should be able to lose zero from their game-plan for that game, then pull one up from the practice squad or the street for the next week.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Not just zero snaps, but, in fact, all rookies.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I’m a big believer in drafting “NFL bodies”. Guys with NFL size/speed/strength. Then try to teach them technique.

    Next game, look at McCullers arms. They’re not just long. They’re thick and muscular. I think he’s going to be a good one.

    Also look at Mauro’s arms. Long and strong.