In an offensive driven league like the NFL is today, defense still wins championships. With any defense, success starts up front, and the Steelers have one of the best young front lines in the NFL, with Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt. All three have proven to be adept at plugging up the running lanes and getting after the quarterback. What the Steelers need from three the most, is for them to be able to line up together for a 16 game season. Cam Heyward was lost for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle against Dallas in week 10, leaving Tuitt and Hargrave to pick up most of the slack. As well as Tuitt and the rookie played, they were given a tremendous boost when players like L.T. Walton, Daniel McCullers, and Ricardo Matthews stepped up to help fill the void.
Following the loss to Dallas, and Heyward’s injury, the Steelers were sitting at 4-5, with a defense that was looking sketchy at best. Unable to stop the run or to generate a consistent pass rush, it made life hard on a young secondary. It was pretty much looking like any postseason dreams were just about over. With little margin for error in the Steelers quest for a playoff birth, Keith Butler went to work. Through adjustments, the defensive line not only held it’s own, it helped the defense lead the league with 33 sacks over the last seven weeks of the regular season, resulting in an AFC North title for the Steelers and an appearance in the AFC Championship game.
The silver lining with Heyward’s injury is that the Steelers have developed above average depth within this unit, which heads into 2017 as one of the youngest and deepest on the team. L.T. Walton, Ricardo Matthews, and Daniel McCullers all flashed ability that made them reliable contributors in short yardage situations, especially near the endzone, where each was a part of critical goal line stands. On the season, these three backups combined for 39 tackles and a sack, which was a nice compliment to the 85 tackles and 9 sacks between Heyward, Hargrave, and Tuitt. As good as the defensive line played during the Steelers nine game winning streak, they will only be that much stronger with the return of Cam Heyward.
For the first time in recent memory, the Steelers will head into the NFL Draft without the need to find a solution along the defensive line. Having the luxury of drafting for depth here gives the Steelers more options at other positions of need, unless a player such as DeMarcus Walker out of Florida State should happen to be available to them in the bottom of the first or second round. By all accounts, Walker, who had 33.5 sacks over the last two seasons, is just as fine of a person off the field as he is a player on the field, and is just as relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback as he is the ball carrier.
This Florida State Seminole would look awfully good in a Steelers uniform, and would give them another outstanding pass rusher that is most definitely needed. Walker is versatile enough to line up at outside linebacker, but would look very good at defensive end, where he is capable of living in an offensive backfield from day one. Besides that, any 273 lb man who can cover a wide receiver 48 yards downfield and break up the pass is entering freak level territory. DeMarcus Walker is a player who would definitely be worth adding to the list of young freakish athletes on defense like Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and Hargrave, and would make the defensive line that much more of a threat.