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%