Defensive linemen: Steelers building on a fault line

The team may have to be satisfied finding bodies to fill its depth chart along the defensive front



Two National Football League teams committed $21 million to sign a pair of defensive ends from a run defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in 2013.

And while the Steelers weren't interested in chasing Ziggy Hood in free agency -- especially at the price the Jacksonville Jaguars paid for his services (four years, $16 million) -- they would have preferred to keep backup Al Woods from signing a two-year, $5 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

But they didn't know Woods was all but sneaking out the back door on them.

The Steelers, apparently, were unaware Woods -- an unrestricted free agent -- was going to visit other NFL teams. According to a team source, they had told Woods to let them know if he were planning to shop himself around because they would have preferred to re-sign him and keep him from visiting other teams.

By the time the Steelers realized Woods was in Nashville, it was too late.

Position at a glance

Coach: John Mitchell

Strengths: The emergence of DE Cam Heyward as a disruptive, productive player gives the team a lineman around whom they can build.

Weakness: The loss of Ziggy Hood and Al Woods in free agency, coupled with the team's reluctance to re-sign Brett Keisel, will significantly cut into their depth and force them to re-stock.

Needs: More than anything else, the Steelers need to correct the problems at nose tackle and fix a run defense that ranked 21st in the NFL last season.

Overview: The unit is being overhauled with new faces and it remains to be seen if the addition of Cam Thomas will solve their issues in the middle. Either way, it remains the most unstable position on the team.

Granted, Woods has been nothing more than a backup for two seasons. But, with the departure of Hood and the team's reluctance to re-sign veteran Brett Keisel, the Steelers will have lost three of their top five defensive linemen from 2013 -- creating a huge void that has already forced them to start re-stocking the position.

After allowing an average of 115.6 yards rushing per game and finishing 8-8 for the second year in a row, perhaps new bodies and a new approach is not a bad thing. It is the second-highest rushing average the Steelers have allowed since 1970 and 53 yards more per game than they allowed in 2010 when they set a club record with a per-game average of 62.8.

Losing defensive linemen has become a recurring theme for the Steelers.

Since the end of the 2011 season, they have parted with Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke and Alameda Ta'amu, in addition to Keisel, Hood and Woods, from their defensive line. That has left them with only three players from last year's 53-man roster -- defensive end Cam Heyward, a former No. 1 draft choice and a rising star in the league; nose tackle Steve McLendon, who could be better at defensive end; and backup nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, who was inactive for 10 of 16 games.

The Steelers signed former San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Cam Thomas (6-3, 330) in free agency, hoping he can help solve the problems they had in the middle of their rush defense. And they have two youngsters who did not play last season -- Nick Williams, a seventh-round draft choice who sat out the entire season with a knee injury, and rookie free agent Brian Arnfelt, who showed some promise in training camp.

There is always the possibility the Steelers could re-sign Keisel as a third-down player, though they are reluctant to do that because he will be 36 in September. But the upheaval on the defensive line has been so drastic that they will have to do a lot of re-stocking in the May draft, probably starting as early as the second round.

It's possible the Steelers will consider Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III in the first round, giving them much-needed help in the interior. But it's more likely they will start looking for linemen in the second round, and the top possibilities are Minnesota's Rashede Hageman (6-6, 310) and Oregon State's Scott Crichton (6-3, 273) -- both defensive ends.

Pitt's Aaron Donald, who could be the second defensive lineman selected in the draft, is projected as a 4-3 tackle and does not fit the Steelers' scheme.

Either way, the Steelers have to rebuild their defensive line. They will start with bodies. Then they have to work on rebuilding the confidence that their once-proud defense can stop the run.

 

THE PAST DECADE

A look at the Steelers' success and failure at the position since 2004: 

10 defensive linemen drafted by the Steelers since 2004; two on the current roster.

DRAFT

The success of the Steelers' 3-4 zone-defense scheme is heavily predicated on the play up front, and to that end the team invested heavily in the defensive line in recent drafts but with minimal returns. In other words, the Steel Curtain is looking a little tattered these days.

Cameron Heyward, a 2011 first-round pick at end, made major strides in a breakout season last year and could be on the cusp of big things. However, Ziggy Hood, the team's top pick in 2009 never developed into a replacement for Aaron Smith and was allowed to walk this offseason. He's now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. After a pair of poor training camps as well as off-field legal problems, Alameda Ta'amu, a 2012 fourth-round selection at nose tackle, was cut last year. In 2013, the Steelers took a seventh-round flyer on Samford's Nick Williams, billed as a raw talent (read: project) at defensive end.

A number of other mid-to-late round picks on the defensive line since 2004 were decidedly lackluster as players such as Ryan McBean, Ra'Shon Harris and Shawn Nua never developed into diamonds like Brett Keisel (7th round in 2002) or Aaron Smith (4th in 1999). Keisel remains an unrestricted free agent and if he were to return to the Steelers, would be in his 13th season.

FREE AGENTS

The Steelers added ex- Chargers nose tackle Cam "Baby Zilla" Thomas this offseason though it's unsure how he'll be used as Steve McLendon, an undrafted free agent in 2009 and long-time understudy to Casey Hampton, became their starter at nose last year after Hampton's departure.

Because they usually had a core group, mostly the team signed only complementary pieces. DE Travis Kirschke was added in 2004 from Detroit and made regular contributions in the 2005 and '08 Super Bowl winning seasons; NT Nick Eason did the same in 2007 and '08. Journeyman backup Al Woods started two games last season when McLendon was injured but signed with Tennessee a few weeks ago. UFAs Hebron Fangupo, Brian Arnfeldt and Al Lapuaho are also on the roster.

-- Dan Gigler

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac


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