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Steelers DL Overview: Deep Group With Huge Potential

The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line is mixed with youth and proven vets, and their upside this season is serious.

Training camp is here for the Pittsburgh Steelers and with the 90-man roster in tact, it's time to take a look at the interior defensive line group as a whole. 

There's a nice blend of veterans and young prospects on the roster which makes this particular position group pretty solid. Beyond the starters, there are plenty of questions about the distribution of labor amongst depth guys which are worth keeping an eye on throughout the summer.

Starters: Cam Heyward, Keeanu Benton, Larry Ogunjobi

The defensive line is still anchored by six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Heyward. After a slow start to the 2022 campaign, Heyward finished the regular season on an absolute tear. In Weeks 9-18, Heyward pumped up his pressure rate to 15.2% and his sack % up to 3.5%, according to Sports Info Solutions. In addition to his pass rushing prowess, Heyward was still a stout run defender once again.

At 34 years old, it’s unclear just how much longer Heyward will be able to produce at an elite level. But it’s pretty clear that he still has some gas left in the tank. Now the longest tenured player on the team, Heyward’s looking to lead Pittsburgh back into the playoffs. It’s likely that they’ll need him to defy Father Time just one more year in order to do so.

Larry Ogunjobi was enjoying a career season with the Cincinnati Bengals before a foot injury derailed his 2021 campaign. That injury resulted in a failed physical with the Chicago Bears before ultimately landing in Pittsburgh. Ogunjobi has always been a talented player, who offers a quick first step off of the ball and has flashed impressive pass rushing skills. Needless to say, his first year in Pittsburgh was a bit uneven.

The biggest knock on Ogunjobi has always been the lack of week to week consistency. The Steelers are betting on him being healthy and more consistently productive moving forward, signing him to a healthy three-year contract in the offseason. He went weeks, if not months, at a time last season without really practicing and there’s no telling how much those injuries nagged him throughout last season. If he’s healthy, he’s a quality starting caliber 3-technique.

Sometimes there are draft prospects that just look like Pittsburgh Steelers and Wisconsin defensive lineman Keeanu Benton fit that bill. In his final season with the badgers, Benton’s productivity increased across the board but especially as a pass rusher, with a career high six sacks. One of the biggest reasons to be excited about Benton as a player is due to his advanced hand usage for his age and block shedding capabilities. 

When he was lined up at nose tackle, he could be pushed around at times in the run game which makes his projection to nose tackle a bit murky. This mainly showed up when asked to take on double teams which he would theoretically be asked to do as the nose tackle in their base 3-4 defense. Regardless, Benton is a very talented prospect and one that should factor into the Steelers future moving forward, regardless of where he plays.

Fighting For a Role: DeMarvin Leal

After a disruptive preseason as a pass rusher, DeMarvin Leal's rookie season was both unfortunate and confusing. 

He suffered an injury that would sideline him for several weeks and was moved around the front so much that it made it seem like the Steelers were unsure about how to best utilize him. The pass rush repertoire that he put on display so often at Texas A&M was nowhere to be found last season but it's fair to acknowledge that rookie pass rushers often take a little bit to adjust. First things first- they need to figure out if he can play a 3-technique moving forward.

Fighting For a Spot: Montravius Adams, Breiden Fehoko, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts

Montravius Adams was productive after the Steelers picked up midseason in 2020, earning himself a two-year deal in the following spring. Adams has a quick get off for his size despite not having the traditional build for a nose tackle. He was an auxiliary piece to the defense last season, accumulating over 280 snaps but with all of the added pieces this offseason, he'll need a strong summer to hold on to his spot.

Breiden Fehoko has had a run stopping reputation since coming out of college. The Chargers were very specific in the ways that they used him last season, rarely putting him on the field for obvious passing situations but there's still value in his skill set, particularly if the Steelers want to utilize more light boxes. If given the chance, Fehoko can hold the point of attack in the A-gap and keep the Steelers linebackers clean. 

Pittsburgh was interested enough to trade up for Isaiahh Loudermilk coming out of Wisconsin. In year two, he saw his playing time decrease significantly, being inactive for the first month of the season before playing sparingly in relief. Loudermilk showed some brief flashes as a run defender as a rookie but is still lacking a feel for rushing the passer. This is a big summer for the former fourth round pick. 

Armon Watts had a breakout season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, posting 33 pressures and five sacks, according to PFF. His role changed a bit with the Chicago Bears last season, which likely contributed to a dip in production. There's very little guaranteed money attached to his contract so there's no risk here. But it's time to find out if that 2021 campaign was a fluke or something that Pittsburgh will be able to tap in to off of the bench.

Fighting For a Practice Squad Spot: Jonathan Marshall, Manny Jones, James Nyamwaya

A former sixth round pick back in 2021, Jonathan Marshall played sparingly for the New York Jets a couple of seasons ago. Pittsburgh signed him off of their practice squad late last season. Marshall did register 29 pressures in his final collegiate season at Arkansas so that's something to keep an eye on this summer.

Manny Jones made his NFL debut with the Arizona Cardinals late last season. At 6-4, 290 pounds, It's likely that he'll get a chance to play some defensive end but with so many other veteran options on the team already, his best bet is to land on the practice squad for the regular season. 

It's not often that Merrimack college produces NFL talent but James Nyamwaya's journey to the league has been everything but unconventional. He went undrafted in 2023 after six sacks his final season in college. As it stands right now, he's one of the biggest unknowns on the 90 man roster. 

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