A Statistical Look At Why The Steelers Should Consider A First Round Defensive Lineman

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers should spend their first round draft pick on defensive lineman this year as it relates to the number of snaps that player might wind up playing and I’m proud to say that Alex Kozora and I are mainly responsible for that. In this post, I will attempt to show why the Steelers should indeed go the route of defensive lineman in the first round and more specifically, why such a player should also be able to nose tackle in the team’s base 3-4 defense.

For starters, let’s start with the fact that Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas are both no longer in Pittsburgh. Their exits leave Daniel McCullers as the lone nose tackle who would figure to start at nose tackle in 2016 in the team’s base 3-4 defense. Now, I don’t know how comfortable you are with that, but I’ll tell you that I’m certainly worried about that.

For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that McCullers can handle that base 3-4 role in 2016 just as McLendon did. Moving forward, one would hope that McCullers would also be able to give the Steelers some level snaps in 2016 as a defensive tackle in the team’s sub packages. There is, however, no real proof that McCullers can function in such role effectively based on what we saw last year, which I must remind you was his second year in the league. To back that up, McCullers was only allowed to play 24 non-penalty snaps last season in the Steelers sub packages and as I pointed out in a previous post, most of those snaps were meaningless.

Next, let’s take a look at the workload that Steelers defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt both had last season. For starters, the two combined to play 83.3% of all possible defensive snaps during the 2015 regular season and that includes all penalty plays. To put that combined playing time into perspective, I have compiled the top two snap-getters of every team’s defensive linemen from last season and calculated the total percentages. You can see these listed in the two tables below.

As you can see, the duo of Heyward and Tuitt finished tied for 5th in the league with the New York Jets when it comes to these total snaps of team’s top two defensive linemen snap-getters. Now, keep in mind that Tuitt missed two-plus games with a knee injury last season and thus had he played in every game, the Steelers would have likely led the league in this statistical category.

Additionally, as far as the compiled data below goes, I want you to note how many of these duos include at least one defensive end that plays in a more traditional front. In other words, most of those players are essentially edge rushers much in the same way that the Steelers use their outside linebackers. This was definitely the case with Buffalo Bills top two defensive linemen, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

The preface of all of this data is to show that the Steelers need to lighten the load some in 2016 on Heyward and Tuitt and I’m willing to bet the team agrees with that assessment.

Now, when it comes to the Steelers defensive linemen last season as it relates to snaps played in their sub packages that included only two defensive linemen being on the field in those situations, Heyward played 659 of a possible 756 non-penalty snaps that match the aforementioned criteria. Tuitt, on the other hand, played 590 of a possible 756 snaps and that’s even with him missing two-plus games.

The two were on the field together for a total of 540 of a possible 756 snaps last season which equates to 71.4%. Assuming both are able to hit that same total percentage again in 2016, that leaves 28.6% of all sub package snaps that the Steelers will need to have other defensive linemen play. Remember, those 756 total sub package snaps last season do not include plays that were wiped out by penalties. So in essence, the Steelers will need to find players who can absorb roughly 30% of all sub package snaps played in 2016.

Who can play those snaps now that McLendon and Thomas are now both gone? McCullers? New free agent defensive end Ricardo Mathews? Last year’s sixth-round draft pick L.T. Walton? 2015 practice squader Caushaud Lyons? If you are comfortable with all four of those players helping out in 2016 when it comes to playing those remaining snaps, then, no, the Steelers probably shouldn’t invest a first-round draft pick in a defensive lineman this year.

If, however, you aren’t comfortable with those players, then the Steelers should seriously consider spending a first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman this year who can not only help absorb a good portion of those snaps, but also start at nose tackle in the team’s base 3-4 defense as well.

Personally, I’m not comfortable with McCullers, Mathews, Walton and Lyons playing a ton of sub package snaps in 2016. Why should I be?

Now, an argument can be made that this year’s draft class is deep when it comes to defensive linemen and thus that the Steelers can wait a few rounds before addressing the position. However, when it comes to defensive linemen in this year’s class that can not only play as a 3-4 nose tackle in addition to being able to play as a pass rusher in sub packages, that list of players figures to get real thin very quickly after the first round is completed.

Defensive linemen snaps for 2015 season

J.J. WattDEHOU161,0011,04196.20%
Jerry HughesDEBUF161,0031,08492.50%
Cameron JordanDENO169801,06392.20%
Muhammad WilkersonDENYJ169411,05289.50%
Cameron HeywardDEPIT169721,10588.00%
Khalil MackDEOAK169991,14687.20%
Connor BarwinDEPHI161,0531,21586.70%
Ndamukong SuhDTMIA169851,15485.40%
Brian RobisonDEMIN169011,07683.70%
Olivier VernonDEMIA169431,15481.70%
Michael BennettDESEA1681099581.40%
Rob NinkovichDENE168881,09281.30%
Mario WilliamsDEBUF158801,08481.20%
Carlos DunlapDECIN168781,08381.10%
Fletcher CoxDTPHI169821,21580.80%
Everson GriffenDEMIN158661,07680.50%
Aaron DonaldDTSTL169111,15478.90%
Stephon TuittDEPIT148701,10578.70%
Cliff AvrilDESEA1678099578.40%
Calais CampbellDEARI168111,03878.10%
Michael JohnsonDECIN168451,08378.00%
Jurrell CaseyDTTEN168251,05878.00%
Leonard WilliamsDENYJ168111,05277.10%
Jared OdrickDTJAX168751,16175.40%
Malik JacksonDTDEN168241,09575.30%
Jared CrickDEHOU167791,04174.80%
Kendall LangfordDEIND168471,13474.70%
Gerald McCoyDTTB158021,09873.00%
Dontari PoeDTKC157571,08669.70%
Jaye HowardDTKC167501,08669.10%
Kawann ShortDTCAR167571,09769.00%
Brandon WilliamsDTBAL167251,06368.20%
Mike DanielsDTGB167071,05067.30%
Tyrone CrawfordDTDAL167031,05666.60%
Demarcus LawrenceDEDAL167001,05666.30%
Kendall ReyesDESD166561,00165.50%
DaQuan JonesDETEN166721,05863.50%
Ezekiel AnsahDEDET166601,04962.90%
Jarvis JenkinsDECHI156341,03061.60%
William GholstonDETB166741,09861.40%
Michael BrockersDTSTL166911,15459.90%
Tyson AlualuDEJAX166881,16159.30%
Denico AutryDEOAK146801,14659.30%
Derek WolfeDEDEN126481,09559.20%
Kony EalyDECAR166461,09758.90%
Chris BakerNTWAS166181,05858.40%
Ian WilliamsNTSF166611,14157.90%
David ParryDTIND166541,13457.70%
Haloti NgataDTDET145991,04957.10%
Quinton DialDTSF156441,14156.40%
Bobby RichardsonDENO155851,06355.00%
Jonathan BabineauxDTATL165481,04952.20%
Jason HatcherDEWAS155411,05851.10%
Jabaal SheardDENE135571,09251.00%
Ricardo MathewsDESD165101,00151.00%
Desmond BryantDECLE145301,04550.70%
Timmy JerniganDTBAL155331,06350.10%
Eddie GoldmanNTCHI155151,03050.00%
Kerry WynnDENYG155791,15750.00%
Adrian ClaybornDEATL165221,04949.80%
Robert Ayers Jr.DENYG125701,15749.30%
Frostee RuckerDTARI135071,03848.80%
Danny SheltonNTCLE165061,04548.40%
Malcom BrownDTNE165081,09246.50%
B.J. RajiDTGB154441,05042.30%

  • Ray Powell

    I agree, hope Andrew Billings is available when they pick.

  • Big Joe

    I absolutely agree. If Billings or Robinson or Butler are there then I’d take one. The fresher our line is, the more pressure we can consistently generate midway thru and late in games. It also gives us far more options with the OLBs if we want to push with 3 down linemen and 1 OLB in sub-packages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard to pull the trigger if Vonn Bell or another highly regarded Safety is still there, but the ability to plug highly talented depth into the DL in a game can’t be overlooked.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Not to mention the number of times those two were facing double teams. You could see it late in games when they were gassed. After the Toussaint fumble they were too gassed to give a proper fight.

  • steeltown

    All I want for my birthday is a DL and DB in the first 2 Rds

  • Sam Clonch

    It’s a good reason to get some DE depth, but I think Dan CAN be fine at NT during run downs. So then Billings is just a backup rotational guy for maybe 20% of plays. So I’m staunchly against it.

  • falconsaftey43

    Billings would start over McCullers at NT. I think McCullers would be an ok starter at NT, but I think Billings would easily win the starting NT job over him.

    And if you aee looking at rookie year contribution, I really cant see any DB getting much, an OLB is almost certain to get zero snaps, same with ILB, WR or OL. I think NT is likely the position a rookie would see the most time.

  • Sam Clonch

    I agree he’d probably be better at NT. I think Dan could be just fine though. He played a lot at NT when Tuitt was out and run defense didn’t suffer. It would be a very small upgrade. Likewise Billings would probably only be slightly upgrade in sub packages over someone the could get in round 3. Overall very small improvement.

    Conversely, a good (not GREAT) OLB or CBA could provide a huge boost every single play.

    Bang for the buck just isn’t there for a round 1 DL when we already have 2 potential problems bowlers.

  • Ahmad

    As if a CB is gonna play more than 30% of the snaps. Even if he’s drafted in Round 1, he’s gonna be lucky to see more playing time than that barring injury. Like honestly I don’t understand why everyone keeps thinking that if we draft a CB in the first round that he is gonna start.

  • harding36

    Thanks for that. I’m gonna go take some Excedrin now.

  • falconsaftey43

    I think year 1 impact would be very significant for Billings, but agree that if they can get a stud CB or S or OLB that it would provide more long term impact. Maybe go with a guy like Sheldon Day to be that nickle DL in round 3 and keep McCullers at NT.

    My biggest thing is, I see it shaping up that there just arent any good value picks at DB or OLB at 25

  • StarSpangledSteeler


    All of the points you make are fair points. I’m not disagreeing with anything you said. But you’re leaving something out that is very important. In fact it is the ONLY real counter argument…

    What about the 40% of the snaps where that first round DL pick is sitting on the sideline doing absolutely nothing? He’s not unseating Heyward or Tuitt as the starting DT in sub package. Not this year, or next year, or any year as long as Ben is here.

    It’s kind of like like buying a convertible Mercedes sport coupe when you live in Pittsburgh. It’s great in the summer time, but what about November through March? You have to at least address that point. You can’t just say, “Maybe someone will get injured?” or “Maybe we’ll switch to a 3-3-5?”

    If we go DL in the 1st round he better be SOOOOOOOO amazing of a prospect, we would be idiots to pass him up. And I feel there’s only a couple of those guys in this draft.

  • JohnB

    Will he be able to play a lot of snaps right away as a rookie? if so, then I’m on board. that’s the only knock I have about drafting like this in the first rd. and we can say all day that a first rounder is supposed to play like one but don’t we also redshirt guys the first year? Maybe Butler can make them play sooner like last year?

  • David Paul

    Because they only have two competent ones.

  • David Paul

    I’m going to be ripshit if the Bengals take him just before us.

  • David Paul

    If they draft Billings, they’re changing the defense. They’ll be running more true 4-3 fronts. Otherwise, it’s a wasted pick.

  • David Paul

    Why does the sub package have to only play 2 DL? They did last year because they only had two good ones. You change things with a guy like Billings.

  • Steve Johnson

    Get ready, one thing I will say about Marvin Lewis, the guy knows how to draft.

  • Doug McFee

    I’m convinced. DL in the first round and Andrew Billings fits the bill.

  • harding36

    I actually think the number of snaps that Billings could play is higher than you suggest, Dave.
    Let’s start with the snaps where we use 3 lineman. As I recall, it’s around 300 or so. I think it’s fair to say that Billings would be an instant upgrade over McCullers or anyone else at nose, so he should get most of those snaps. Let’s give him 250 or so.

    Then, you referenced the 30 percent or so of sub-package snaps where both Heyward and Tuitt weren’t on the field together. But why limit Billings potential snaps to those “joint” Heyward/Tuitt snaps? If, as a team, there are around 850 sub-package snaps, and we want Tuiit and Heyward to play, at most, 80 percent of those, that equals each playing around 680 sub-package snaps, which leaves 340 snaps for someone else.

    If you take those approximately 340 sub-package snaps and add the 250 base defense snaps, that equals around 590 total snaps, or 53 percent of the team’s snaps. And that’s with Tuitt and Heyward playing 80 percent of the sub-package snaps, which I still think might be too high. If you lower each to 75 percent of subpackage snaps, Billings could then play over 60 percent of the teams total snaps.

  • Steel Your Face

    Wait…what – Cam Thomas is not on the team? When did this happen?

  • Jeff Papiernik

    Would a first round corner or safety play EVEN 50% of snaps? Doubtful

  • harding36

    Our nickel uses 2 DL’s. But you’re right. That could be a function of only having 2 good ones. With 3 good ones, we could play more 3-3-5. Also, I continue to believe that Heyward could play some snaps on the edge in the 4-2-5. Imagine a 4-2-5 that rushes Heyward, Billings, Tuitt and Dupree.

  • Sam Clonch

    Like, really? Like, there were totally like 4 CBs taken in the first round in 2015. Like Marcus Peters played like 95% of the snaps, Byron totally played 82% of snaps and Kevin Johnson played like 79% of snaps.

    2nd year UDFA Ross Cockrell played, like 67% of the snaps despite the Steelers getting him like 1 week before the season started. Bud Dupree played like 50% snaps last year too.

    So do I think a 1st round rookie can play more than 30% of snaps and you have NO IDEA what you’re talking about? Totally dude!!!

  • Ray Powell

    Yeah, depends on who else is available. I don’t think defensive tackle is their biggest need.

  • Sam Clonch

    If that’s the case, I’m fine if he’s BPA. It’s a great year to do that, nothing so good that it can’t be upgraded! Other than qb, lol!

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    True, and yet people are pencilling Golson in as some sort of miracle worker with zero pro snaps under his belt.

  • Ahmad

    You do realize that the situation is different. Gay, Cockrell, and Golson are your Week 1 starters barring injury or really poor play by Golson or Cockrell. I don’t forsee either situation happening so IMO the best a rookie could hope for is rotation snaps.

    And as far as having no idea what I’m talking about, I beg to differ. I’ve been following the team since 2004 so I know how this team operates.

  • Sam Clonch

    Lol, obviously.

  • theprideofpit

    I’m confused by the heated reply … Think Ahmed said the word like ONCE, and you went nuts with the mockery. i re-read his post three times to see what prompted such vitriol … To each their own, but take a breath my friend, be easy on yourself 🙂

  • H.K. northern cali

    Two d-lineman this draft please!

  • Mike Lloyd

    It’s a given, in my opinion, that the Steelers will do DL and CB in 2 of the 1st 4 rounds. The question I have is do they double dip at either position early? I really think we will see at least 5 or 6 of the 7 picks be defensive players.

  • Nolrog

    >>> Like honestly I don’t understand why everyone keeps thinking that if we draft a CB in the first round that he is gonna start.Because our current corners suck? Becuase we have one starter at corner? Because we play nickle and dime coverage quite a bit. Last year we were #3 in sacks and #30 in pass defense. The issue wasn’t getting to the QB, the issue is that our secondary sucks rancid monkey balls.

  • Who are the prospects who can fill both needs, i.e., nose tackle in the base and DT or DE in subs? Billings, and Butler, I think, and maybe Rankins, Washington, Hargrave, Bullard, Chris Jones…is this right? Anyone else?

  • Nolrog

    Because that’s where the league is at now. We are in nickle a lot more than base.

  • Nolrog


  • William Weaver

    You think cockrell would keep William Jackson 3 on the sideline all year? You think more of cockrell then I do I guess.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Exactly. And that’s why they are making sure they check out guys for almost any round.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    That’s pretty well it. If anyone else can do it, it’s a low rounder and very risky, as they may never get on the field.

  • Ask Questions Later

    Interesting you state this. Marvin LOVES Power 5 conference players. There is no reason to say he will not. Then again, they need wide receiving help in the worst way.

  • Ask Questions Later

    He should be. Rankins, Clark, Reed, Robinson, Buckner, Butler, and possibly even Nkemdiche, along with the usual EDGE, corner, and tackle run will give Billings a high chance to fall.

  • Ask Questions Later

    An interior lineman is not just meant to clog up the lands anymore. Interior lineman need to be able to push the pocket and maintain the POA.

    Such reasons are why Billings fits like a glove for the Steelers.

  • Hi B&G Bullion! I forgot about Reed–but he’ll probably be gone by 25. I wonder whether Dave or Alex would comment re any DT they see as filling both roles, NT and subs for Heyward and Tuitt. Btw, if you haven’t listened to their latest podcast, it’s GREAT–maybe my favorite ever!

  • Big White

    Would definitely parallel Butler’s wishes. If the idea is to get a a disruptive force onto the field 8-12 more snaps a game I think that’s a solid plan. Would love to see another guy with some explosion lined up in between or wide of Tuitt/Heyward. The dream pick would be for Shaq Lawson to fall to #25.

  • Milliken Steeler

    I agree to a point Jeff however, If we grabbed Peters last year and he sat on the bench because ” hes a rookie” it would have been a waste of a great freshman campaign so to speak.

  • Milliken Steeler

    He’s been hanging around the lunch area however, no offers have been made. lol

  • Zach

    agreed with you, but I would argue that even QBs should be looked at very hard. if a guy like paxton lynch falls to 25 and you believe he’s a franchise QB (big IF, I don’t think he is btw), you pull the trigger!

  • Zach

    I totally agree with you, and in fact there’s no way we can know the answer to your point unless you have connections with the coaching staff! I see it the other way around: if we take billings or butler at 25, it’s very likely we will play 3-3-5 in nickel i.e. 3 DL. I mean, fi billings turns out to be what we think he is and generates pressure over the middle, why would you take him off for OLB in nickel that cannot rush the passer? (we dont’ have anyone that can do that consistently other than J Harrison). any DC would be happy to generate pressure with 3 guys over the middle, so if we can create havoc there we take it. otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to pick a DT at 25 and come on, these guys that are running the steelers know what they are doing.

  • Zach

    don’t celebrate just yet — cam thomas will be back to compete in camp if he plays for the vet minimum. we have no depth at DL. I hate to say this, but I cannot believe we let josh mauro leave. Ops, I know, dri archer was taking his roster spot! smh

  • Xclewsive

    My dream first three days

    1. Andrew Billings
    2. Karl Joseph
    3. Kendall Fuller

  • Eddie Cruz

    I hear the argument for the lobbying of a defensive lineman in the first round. But I think this article is showing a need for depth rotational players versus starters. Our nose tackle is technically a starter but the use of Our nose tackles seems to be used shot it as much as our fullbacks. I think we have more of a need for a new starter in the defensive backfield

  • Ray Powell

    I’m not saying he won’t, I just think they have greater needs at other positions.

  • Ray Powell

    I’d take Butler if not Billings, I think he seems to be underrated by most of the people doing mock drafts.

  • VaDave

    They say this is a very deep draft for DL. I’m sure there will be suitable DL in later rounds. What this team needs more than anything is better defensive players than we had last year. Odds are, we will succeed in that effort be it at safety, corner or defensive line across the draft. What we pick first should be the best defensive player available, where they play should be a secondary consideration

  • PittsburghSports

    2 guys that are hurt?

  • PittsburghSports

    It makes sense, and it’s why I’ve been wanting a 1st rd DE this whole time. The problem is, the Steelers don’t seem too interested in any 1st rd defensive lineman, other than Billings and A’Shawn, and a reported invite/workout with Bronson Kaufusi. Vernon Butler is a guy that could be in the 1st rd, but I think we’ve only had a meeting with him. No word on any interest on guys like Robert Nkemdiche, Chris Jones or Jihad Ward. So, if we’re going to draft a defensive lineman in rd 1 the Steelers better start sending out some more invites.

    I posted this in another article, but it shows very clearly that the pre draft invites and dinner meetings matched up very well with the positions we drafted.

    2015 pre-draft invites and pro day dinner player totals:
    CB – 12 (selected in rd 2 and rd 4)
    OLB – 11 (selected in rd 1 and rd 6)
    TE – 7 (selected in rd 5)
    WR – 6 (selected in rd 3)

    2016 pre-draft invites and pro day dinner player totals, so far:
    S – 9
    CB – 6
    DL – 6
    OT – 2

  • Michael Walsh

    They are not taking a defensive lineman in the first round. Stop it already.

  • EL-Wayne-O

    The Steelers don’t even play a NT. This isn’t your Daddy’s Steelers. We need pass rushers and DB’s!!

  • EL-Wayne-O

    Also if someone mentions a 3-5-3 stack defense on this site again I’m going to throw up. That’s a Pop Warner defense that a few high schools and couple colleges run. They don’t run the 3-5-3
    in the NFL. LMFAO

  • Xclewsive

    Yep! I think the Steelers again get lucky. Tuitt, Heyward, Miller and Woodley all players with pre draft injuries that the Steelers drafted.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    First of all… Yes he would. In a worst case scenario, there are too many times when opposing teams play 3 WR or 4 WR or 5 WR sets, so a 1st round S or CB would start in any of those instances (even early in the season). By the end of the season that same rookie should be starting in base as well. So, yes, well over 50%.

    In a best case scenario a 1st round safety would beat out Golden as the starter from day one. And a 1st round CB could beat out the the 2nd round CB Golson from day one (who has yet to play a snap).

    Secondly… What about next year? And the next year? And the next year? A DE/DT hybrid is NEVER going to unseat Heyward or Tuitt as a 3 down starter. At least not for the next 5 years. A DB will play 80 to 90% of the snaps from 2017 forward.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Okay let’s play that game… What if we switch to a 4-3? Then a guy like Billings will only get on the field 30% of the time (subbing for BOTH of our starters).

    The fact is we KNOW we need a full time starting DB. We can’t say that about DT.

  • Pghomer

    I agree with you. I think you build with strong units. In the past that has been our OLB’s. Now building a rock solid D’line may help OLB’s with their pass rush also and free up ILB”s even more so. I know we need better CB’s but I also believe that in our defense CB is least important unit…

  • Pghomer

    What do you think of Jaylon Smith? What round would you select him? I’m leaning to take him really high if board breaks bad for us. I know the risk…but I feel the risk is less for him recovering from his injury than any of the potential 1st round CB’s…

  • Zach

    couldn’t agree more.

  • Xclewsive

    To me if he checks the boxes medically I don’t think he should slide pass the second.

  • Doug McFee

    Frankly, the only way the Steelers or any team for that matter, can beat the Patriots is to put constant pressure on Brady. All this talk about CB and SS is just that talk. Steelers must draft a premium DL and a OLB 25 and 58 respectively.