In the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ win over the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux scraped off a block, shuffled to his right and absolutely planted Dallas running back Tony Pollard.
It was a solid play from the fill-in lineman that was on the Steelers’ practice squad just a couple weeks ago, and the big man with the long hair gave a little fist pump after recording his first NFL tackle.
Mondeaux, a second-year man out of Oregon spent the entire 2019 season on the practice squad, got asked to come back for another offseason and was one of the team’s final cuts on the defensive line in 2020.
So it’s not totally unexpected that after injuries to Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu, the Steelers have been able to turn to Mondeaux, along with 2019 sixth-round Isaiah Buggs and 2020 seventh-round pick Carlos Davis, for depth on the defensive line.
What’s somewhat surprising is that they’ve been able to make those wholesale replacements mid-pandemic.
Players on the practice squad don’t get to make hits like Mondeaux’s pop on Pollard. In practice, they’re tackling the team’s starters, if they’re tackling at all, and so they may get them to the ground, but no one is out there trying to hurt the team’s starting running backs.
This season was played without a preseason, so it’s been an awful long time since Mondeaux hit someone in anger.
“You know, it’s very hard to simulate game speed in practice and especially this year without the preseason,” Mondeux admitted on Monday. “It had been a while for me. Definitely. But we did incorporate a lot of live tackling drills and I think we do a good job our look teams in practice giving game-like, scenarios and hits. But yeah, it’s a balance between, you know, you can’t be hitting like that every day.”
The defensive line isn’t the only place the Steelers have had fill-in success. Little-used linebacker Robert Spillane has taken over for former first-round pick Devin Bush at inside linebacker. Fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson has twice spilled David DeCastro at right guard, prompting the team to released veteran Stefen Wisniewski last week.
From an outside perspective, that might seem like an unlikely combination, especially during the pandemic-modified 2020 season. But for undrafted free agents and late-round rookies, guys on the practice squad, this is what they spend their entire lives preparing for.
“I actually lived with Robert Spillane all last year, and we were talking about moments like this all last year preparing,” Mondeaux said. “We were both on the practice squad last year, and it’s been part of our plan, you know, doing what we can, stepping into the game. So, I think it’s definitely something that we had prepared for and it’s what guys on our team prepare for if they’re not in the positions they are when the season starts. They’re all getting ready, whether it’s on the practice squad or an inactive spot. We try and get guys ready to play and I don’t think anyone bats an eye when people go down. We know we have guys that will step up and take on some of those loads.”
The Steelers have a veteran line with seventh-year vet Stephon Tuitt as the youngest member of the starting three. Alualu is only expected to be missing for a few weeks, while it seems the Wormley’s injury could be more serious, which despite Mondeaux’s efforts has put a significant strain on the Steelers’ run defense.
“It’s a big challenge when a guy like Tyson goes down because he’s such a good player, especially stopping the run,” Mondeaux said. “He’s a veteran and he does a great job. I think me and Buggs and Carlos Davis this last game, have stepped in and helped out as much as we can. We played two great running opponents. It’s always a tough challenge when you go against the Cowboys offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott, and then you have the Ravens with Lamar and all their options running the ball. So I think we’re doing our best and we’re trying to fill some big shoes from a guy that’s been playing for a long time.”
For the Steelers, it’s also a good chance to see what they’ve got in three younger, but unheralded players. Though the three starters on the Pittsburgh line were all first-round draft picks, one doesn’t have to look far back in the Steelers’ history to find some diamonds in the rough that became significant contributors on the defensive line.
Aaron Smith was a fourth-round pick. Brett Keisel was a seventh-rounder. Chris Hoke was an undrafted free agent. The Steelers can use this opportunity to see if they another unheralded gem on the defensive line.