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More Defensive Linemen Could Be Solution for Steelers in T.J. Watt’s Absence

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Steelers DL DeMarvin Leal

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are searching for some answers as to the team’s depth at outside linebacker after the significant injury suffered by outside linebacker T.J. Watt in Week 1.

The team has added former Washington Redskins second-round draft pick Ryan Alexander to the practice and snagged rookie David Anenih from the Tennessee Titans practice squad.

Internally, Malik Reed will start, with Jamir Jones serving as depth and Delontae Scott a strong candidate to be elevated from the practice squad.

But if the team gets into a pinch, they have some edge rusher experience elsewhere on their roster. 

Veteran defensive tackle Cam Heyward has been known to roam around the defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Heyward has taken 570 snaps in his career outside the tackle box, at an edge rusher position. Furthermore, most of those have come in the last two seasons, 107 in 2020 and 117 in 2021.

There’s also another defensive lineman that has plenty of experience at playing edge rusher on the Steelers’ defensive line: rookie DeMarvin Leal. The Steelers’ third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M, Leal played defensive end in a four-man front with the Aggies last season.

“I was the strong end,” Leal said. “The strong end is always the one that’s pass rushing, run stopping, and so that’s usually where I was at, on my own little island with somebody 1-on-1. … They want to throw me in, I could do that.”

Leal said he hasn’t been asked to do any of that with the Steelers, plying exclusive 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle. But he’s certainly willing and capable if the team needs him go rush the passer from the edge.

The Steelers will likely handle things at the outside linebacker position with outside linebackers, as their two acquisitions this week show. But on a game day, it only takes one or two injuries for a position to reach a critical situation with regards to depth. There’s only so many dressed every game day. Leal and Heyward will likely be dressed no matter what, so they can provide extra depth  at outside linebacker from a different position on the roster.

The Steelers could also try another tactic. The team plays a 3-4 base defense, but runs a 4-2 Nickel, with Watt and Alex Highsmith moving from outside linebacker to defensive end in the sub package. 

The Steelers could, though, try a 3-3-5 Nickel, making Reed the player that comes off the field for the extra defensive back, and keeping Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Larry Ogunjobi on the field as three-down players.

That would be a pretty drastic change for a short-term solution, but you know who plays a good bit of 3-3-5? The New England Patriots. Former Patriots assistant Brian Flores is now working as the senior defensive assistant on the Pittsburgh defense, and so perhaps he’ll look to his old playbook for some answers to the Steelers’ current personnel problem.

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