When Alan Saunders noted Thursday that the Steelers were better prepared to handle Stephon Tuitt’s absence in 2022 than 2021, it’s primarily because they have depth players in place who both have experience on the team and look healthy going into minicamp. One of those players is Isaiahh Loudermilk, who the Steelers traded to get in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Loudermilk is a second year defensive lineman listed as 6-foot-7, 293 lbs., and carries 309 snaps of defensive experience from his rookie season. That involved 164 pass plays and 145 run plays, a pretty even split for a first year of experience. He totaled 23 tackles, three pass breakups and a sack on the season across 15 games and two starts.
When speaking after OTAs Tuesday, Loudermilk was open about what he felt he had fortified most since his rookie season. After the Steelers finished as the league’s worst run defense in 2021, Loudermilk knows that he has to be part of the puzzle to getting the unit back to being one of the better run defenses in the NFL.
“I feel like that was a big part of my game last year,” Loudermilk said when asked about his run defense. “Especially coming from Wisconsin that was very similar to this, it’s going to be a big part of my game. I want to be a guy they can leave out there for third down and not have to worry about getting off the field. When it comes to the run, I definitely feel comfortable. I feel like that’s definitely a spot I’m getting better at.”
Loudermilk did show true progress and polish in his game when he was forced onto the field due to several injuries on the Steelers’ defensive line. His best game came against the Titans in week 15, one of the biggest wins of the season for the Steelers.
Watch him on the right side of the play handle his gap in a run when he took on veteran offensive tackle David Quessenberry (No. 72) and maintained his leverage at the point of attack. By using his long, 32.6-inch arms, Loudermilk kept Quessenberry from controlling his frame, and that allowed him to shed the block and make the tackle in the hole:
This became Loudermilk’s most notable positive trait in his 2021 tape. Karl Dunbar noted after the Steelers selected Loudermilk that they loved his frame and size for the defensive line. Though he has to fill in his strength, his height makes him a taller player than both Tuitt and Cam Heyward.
That height and his reach can be a big factor if a player learns how to properly use his hands to win leverage battles at the line. Watch this run when Loudermilk used those arms again against tight end Geoff Swaim.
Not only did Loudermilk maintain the edge on the run, he held his position and limited how far Quessenberry could push with his reach step to widen the gaps for the running back to attack. Loudermilk then finished and kept his outside arm free and make the tackle:
Those are good examples of block shedding on the part of Loudermilk. As 2021 continued, he appeared to become more sounds in his gap responsibility. Watch how he played in A-gap on this run stuff he shared with Derek Tuszka.
The Titans tried to run a zone blocking scheme that would allow their running back to cutback against the Steelers’ defense if he saw an opening. Loudermilk was mindful of that, and made sure to maintain his gap even when the play looked to go in the opposite direction:
It’s very positive that the Steelers found a rookie with the wherewithal to understand gap responsibility and put that understanding on tape. It’s a good sign for Loudermilk’s mental game and a testament to Dunbar’s work as his position coach.
But as with all rookies, Loudermilk does have a lot of work to do.
One thing that becomes obvious in Loudermilk’s film is that he doesn’t bring consistent power to his gap. This looks like it stems from how much he seems focused on trying to mind his gap responsibility against the run.
It’s good that Loudermilk can hold his ground at times and shed against veteran offensive linemen. But he also needs to be able to change the line of scrimmage and push opponents backwards before he sheds a block to make himself more suited to be an NFL starter.
That’s what made Heyward and Tuitt special for years, as offensive linemen got pushed into the backfield to disrupt run plays before they even started. If offensive linemen chose to double team either of them, there would be several times where that double team was stopped at the spot without gaining ground for their run play.
That’s an area that Loudermilk has to show serious improvement on in 2022. Watch this run play when Loudermilk initially took on two Bengals linemen, but doesn’t do enough to keep the guard occupied. The result was the guard chipping off Loudermilk to get to Joe Schobert to allow for a solid gain:
Devin Bush and Myles Jack will need to improve the quality of play for the Steelers’ linebackers. But if they have to deal with linemen hitting them on every play, that task becomes a lot harder.
Beyond just making tackles and rushing the quarterback, Loudermilk has to improve in how he occupies offensive linemen to let the playmaking linebackers behind him be clean so they can diagnose plays and attack without much traffic.
Watch how the Bengals’ guard Hakeem Adeniji (No. 77) and tackle Riley Reiff (No. 71) double teamed Loudermilk in the hole. Loudermilk never slowed their momentum and was pushed backwards until Reiff chipped off Loudermilk to block Bush five yards past the line of scrimmage:
Loudermilk’s best counter to those plays will require him to learn to play with more power. That’s a tough balance to play more aggressive and attack offensive linemen to push them backwards while also being mindful of gap responsibilities and potential cutbacks. But it’s also the steps that make for a reliable starter.
If Loudermilk wants to become that, taking those steps in his second season would make him someone Dunbar and Mike Tomlin want to use more of and be that every down linemen he aims to become.