Youth on the line could make or break Steelers defense

When the Steelers previously made the playoffs in 2011, the starting defensive linemen at the beginning of the season were all over 30. That over-the-hill gang had accomplished a lot together. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel won two Super Bowl titles and lost a third the previous year.

One by one, they have hung up their cleats. Smith was released after the 2011 season because of a neck injury. Hampton was not brought back after the 2012 season and Keisel was not re-signed after last season.

When things were going well, that trio was called experienced. When the losses piled up, they became ancient. The 2014 defensive line is being called young and fast, but they also lack experience the Steelers usually covet at the position.

No one in this year's projected starting lineup has started for a full season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon, the oldest member of the starting lineup, is 28. Cam Thomas is 27 and Cameron Heyward is 25. The group would get even younger, with an average of 24.6 years, if rookie second-round pick Stephon Tuitt unseats Thomas in training camp.

"Every year is a different dynamic," defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "We have a lot of young players right now who haven't played who are going to have to play. I can remember a few years back when Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton came in and it was the same thing. Every year the dynamic will be different. You have to coach who shows up."

The most experienced player is free agent Thomas, who has 15 career starts but none with the Steelers. Heyward started the final 13 games last season and McLendon has 11 career starts. The players vying for spots in the rotation behind them have little, if any, experience.

Tuitt, 21, left Notre Dame after his junior year. Brian Arnfelt spent most of last season on the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster for the final three games. Nick Williams spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Others competing for spots include Hebron Fangupo, who has dressed for five games in two NFL seasons, and rookies Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro.

"It's definitely different," McLendon said. "We can't let it affect us. We're young so we're just going to have to use that to our advantage. Sometimes when young guys come in they're really, really fast without understanding. Hopefully, we can get them to understand and still play fast, play hard and play smart."

General manager Kevin Colbert has not closed the door on the possibility of Keisel returning. That ultimately will be determined by how well Tuitt, Arnfelt and some of the younger players perform in the first couple of preseason games.

"You just have to be patient," said Heyward, who spent two seasons as an understudy before getting his opportunity to start last season. "You're not going to get it from day one. It's going to take constant repetition. You have to enjoy the process you're going through. No one picks up a 3-4 [scheme] and instantly gets it. But I have a lot of faith and confidence in the guys we got."

When the Steelers drafted Tuitt, Mitchell said he would have been a first-round pick in 2015 had he returned for his senior season at Notre Dame. He has been impressive through the first week of practice, but the learning curve is steep for defensive linemen.

"We'll see in training camp how he progresses and the preseason games and we'll go from there," Mitchell said. "It's a learning process. We have plenty of time."

It will be up to Tuitt to learn the nuances of the defense and know it as well as the veterans, because Mitchell said he will not scale back the playbook for his sake.

"We don't do that," Mitchell said. "We have never done that. He's going to have to pick it up. That's why they hired me. I'm going to coach him, bring him up to speed. We're not going to do that for one player. That defeats our purpose. He's going to have to learn the playbook, spend a lot of extra time. He has no problem picking up things. But we will not scale back. We've never done it."

Arnfelt was good enough to make the practice squad last year as an undrafted rookie out of Northwestern. He saw action in two games against the Bengals and Packers late in the season after getting called up to the active roster. If he can prove to be a valuable part of the rotation, the Steelers might not have to call Keisel.

"He's a smart guy," Mitchell said. "He knows what to do. Last year he wasn't as strong as we'd like him to be. He paid the price this offseason. He's an intelligent guy. He doesn't make mental mistakes. He runs well, so we're going to give him a chance and see what he can do."

The players with the best grasp of the defense will get the most playing time in the rotation.

"We are not going to throw a guy in there and say he'll make mistakes and we'll live with it," Mitchell said. "That will get you beat. We're not that type of football team. We'll put the 11 best out there who know what to do and do it."

Steelers schedule at Saint Vincent College this week:

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

First Published July 31, 2014 9:00 PM

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