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Slimmer, Smarter Keeanu Benton Ready to Break Out for Steelers in 2024

A smarter and slimmer Keeanu Benton is ready to do a better job of taking advantage of his chances with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2024.

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Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton
Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton at the team's OTAs, May 21, 2024 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Keeanu Benton had an extremely impressive rookie season for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023, but to hear him talk about it right now, Benton’s biggest takeaway was how much better it could have been.

The team’s second of two second-round draft picks last April, Benton became a starter at nose tackle midway through his rookie season, filling in for an injured Montravius Adams, and ended up playing 43% of the team’s defensive snaps. He recorded 36 tackles, eight quarterback hits, one sack, one tackle for loss, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

It was an extremely impressive performance for the rookie. But just getting one sack is something that’s still haunting him.

“When we watched the tape, he left seven sacks on the field,” defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said during minicamp last week. “He has to finish. That’s the thing, I think.”

Benton said the issue was that while he understood his role as an interior defensive lineman, he wasn’t up to speed enough on what the whole defense was doing to take advantage of situations as they occurred.

“I feel like sometimes, I was double teamed and then guys were peeling off because we got a blitzer that in my mind, I’m not thinking about,” Benton said. “He comes off, I’m right here to make a sack, boom, I don’t make it, because I’m not ready. Just knowing the defense in general, when I can take those chances, and get after the quarterback.”

Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Keeanu Benton runs out of the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 24, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Because the Steelers eased him into his role, Benton said that it was the mental challenge of the game that feels like he can improve upon the most, rather than the physical.

“Everybody talks about the rookie wall and how hard it is as a rookie,” he said. “I feel that way mentally, but physically I was just so still in the dream that every time I got to play in the NFL, in this jersey and Steelers helmet, it was amazing, no matter what. So I don’t feel like the physical aspect was a problem for me. Just mentally knowing those plays and taking that next step in the second year.”

That’s not to say that Benton hasn’t changed physically. He lost a little bit of weight from last year, and Dunbar believes that no matter what the scale says, he’s in better physical position to make an impact in 2024.

“You can see his body is changing,” Dunbar said. “He has a professional body. Last year, he did the combine, all the dang old pro days, the banquet circuit. Now, he’s had a whole offseason to train his body and you can tell, just by watching him run around.”

During this spring practices, Benton showed off that increased athleticism by being a huge pain in the butt to the Steelers’ quarterbacks, getting way up to bat down some passes and chasing around even the hyper-athletic Justin Fields.

“I lost some weight,” Benton said. “I feel good.”

Pittsburgh Steelers DT Cam Heyward Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Keeanu Benton work during OTAs on May 23, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“I think the next step is just being consistent,” Dunbar added. “He didn’t start until what, Game 6 or 7 when Montravius got hurt and he’s shown steady progress the whole time. He’s a big guy who is athletic, he’s powerful and he’s smart. That’s the next progression for him, just being consistent.”

Benton also thinks that, as the Steelers begin the process of turning over their defensive line from Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and Adams to a new generation, that he can be a leader of that group.

“I feel like I’m staring become one of those guys that younger guys can turn to and ask questions or new guys can turn to and ask questions,” he said. “I take pride in that, I’ve just got to keep it going.”

“The sky’s the limit for that guy,” Austin said at minicamp on Wednesday. “I think the world of him right now. He’s got a lot of room for growth. He’s going to get a lot of pointers from a guy who is really good in Cam [Heyward]. I just expect him really to take a jump and be a dominant player inside.”