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Bell: Nick Herbig Ready for Bigger Role on Steelers Defense

Don’t worry about Bud Dupree not signing with the Steelers, because Nick Herbig is ready for a bigger role.

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Steelers OLB Nick herbig
Pittsburgh Steelers OLB Nick Herbig against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 8, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Just days after ESPN’s Adam Schefter revealed that the Pittsburgh Steelers and former edge defender Bud Dupree were in talks about a reunion, the former first-round pick has landed a deal with the Los Angeles Chargers. Both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are locked up on long-term contracts but the team has yet to re-sign veteran Markus Golden, who served as the primary backup for 2023. Even after a productive season, albeit in limited snaps, the 33-year old is still on the open market and might not the answer to the teams quest to find a a third edge rusher. However, that player is potentially already on the roster in fourth-round pick Nick Herbig.

Just months after hearing his name called on draft weekend, Herbig lit the world on fire in the preseason. He quickly accumulated six pressures and four sacks in just 63 pass rush opportunities. To put into perspective just how efficient he was, Herbig’s 30% pass rush win-rate led all edge defenders in the preseason, even outpacing several top-50 selections in recent draft classes. It’s fair to point out that not all of those snaps were against starting caliber blockers but there was no doubt that he passed his first professional test with flying colors.

During the regular season, it was tough for him to find snaps due to playing behind arguably the best outside linebacker duos in all of football. There were certainly flashes of what made him such an enticing prospect. One thing that really works in his favor is his electric first step off the ball, allowing him to cover ground almost instantly. For a speed rusher like Herbig, the explosiveness to threaten the tackles outside shoulder and win on the outside track has to be a calling card to be relied on. 

Down the stretch of his rookie season, you started to see more flashes of his talent. Herbig was only given a pair of snaps against the Seattle Seahawks in their week 17 win to keep the Steelers playoff hopes alive. It’s safe to say that he made the most of them. He beat former top-10 pick Charles Cross with a nice second effort club-rip move before showcasing the ability to dip and rip around the edge. As he collapsed the pocket, he was able to strip the ball away from the quarterback and secure a turnover for the defense. For a rookie to make a play like that in the closing moments of a must-win game is pretty impressive. 

With such a small sample size, it’s impossible to make a definitive determination on whether or not Herbig is a reliable run defender just yet. The fact that he didn’t look completely overwhelmed right off the bat is an encouraging sign.  His 31-inch arms were a big question mark on his scouting profile considering he’s a historical outlier in terms of length. His quickness and savvy hand usage can compensate for his lack of wingspan but it’s definitely going to be difficult for him to overcome and turn into an every down, starting caliber player. But that’s not really what the Steelers need right now, or hopefully anytime soon, on defense anyways. 

Watt is coming off a Defensive Player of the Year-type of season and turns 30-years old in the fall. The organization still believes that Highsmith, who is entering his athletic prime, is still ascending on his development path is well. What Mike Tomlin’s defense really needs is someone to spell those guys whenever they need a breather. Having a designated pass rusher off the bench that has Herbig’s level of juice off the line doesn’t allow for offensive tackles to take any plays off, especially in pass protection. As Herbig continues to improve, Pittsburgh shouldn’t feel as obligated to play the starters on 85-90% of their snaps on a weekly basis. It’s possible that the slightly reduced workload could play massive dividends as well. 

Steelers Nick Herbig

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Nick Herbig talks to head coach Mike Tomlin, Aug. 19, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Herbig’s unique skill set, aided by his smooth movement skills, offer more potential for creative looks defensively that the Steelers didn’t tap into much last season. While at Wisconsin, he was tasked with dropping into coverage quite a bit, with several teams projecting a transition to off-ball linebacker while he was going through the pre-draft process. With the NFL so hyper-fixated on simulated pressures these days, Herbig’s comfortability in coverage can be useful when trying to disguise looks on defense. You shouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of playing all three edge rushers on the field at the same time on passing downs either. 

Day three draft picks such as Herbig shouldn’t dictate the teams roster construction plans too much. If there is a quality veteran option available for a low cost, the team shouldn’t simply turn their nose up at that. If for nothing else, this position is the most important spot in Pittsburgh’s scheme and recent history has told us that if Watt gets dinged up for any amount of time, the unit falls off a cliff. Herbig obviously isn’t nearly ready to fill those shoes but a second-year leap is definitely on the table and he should be given every chance to earn that third spot in the rotation regardless of who else they add to the fold over the summer. 

Being in the room with two big-time sack artists should only help his development. If Herbig can remain a net neutral against the run while further refining his pass rush plan on the outside, there’s money for him to make and a long career ahead of him. 

RELATED: ‘Dynamite’ Nick Herbig Could Make Huge Impact for Steelers

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William R. Maloni Sr.
William R. Maloni Sr.
May 12, 2024 11:35 am

So, I hope with NH’s development, he’s used more and gets on the field when TJ is on, taking advantage of both their skill sets. Then there is rookie LB Wilson…..Where’s Dick LeBeau hen you need him??

Vincent
Vincent
May 14, 2024 7:45 am

Exactly! Having LeBeau dial up his fire blitzes with the speed at off ball linebacker would be perfect. But with Queen being one of the best ILB blitzers, and with how good a blitzer Wilson was in college, I hope we see a lot more pressure up the middle, which will help the edge guys.

Less Tomlin
Less Tomlin
May 13, 2024 12:54 pm

A few games into the season (or before), when the league figures out to stack the box and double team Pickens. The team should trade Alex Highsmith for a legit high end starter at WR, maybe even throw in a day 3 draft pick or two. Young Herbig is ready to step up, plus re-sign Golden to be a fall back option.

Vincent
Vincent
May 14, 2024 7:10 am
Reply to  Less Tomlin

Lol sounds like you have no faith in Pat, or Wilson, winning one on one match ups. I understand why you think that, but also I remember that Pat was a beast his first year, and we finally have a coach that showed the ability to scheme his TE into the passing game.

But even though I get where you are coming from there is no way they trade Herbig. Edge is to important in the defense scheme to not have a backup pass rusher.

Edward Carmichael
Edward Carmichael
May 14, 2024 11:14 am

as a true Steelers fan, I would use both Nick Herbig and DeMarvin Leal to have both play ILB and OLB they will be X factors move around the defensive line