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Steelers Have High-Ceiling Rookie Impressing on Defensive Line



Steelers NT Keeanu Benton
Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Keeanu Benton against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 18, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers got significant contributions from their rookie class. However, one of the more quiet players of those pivotal rookie starters was Keeanu Benton, who has flashed over his first five games in the NFL. Benton’s athleticism and heavy hands make him a handful for offensive linemen. Moreover, his polish within the Steelers’ system is already impressive. Benton played in a similar system at Wisconsin under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, and that has aided his growth tremendously.

Benton is the unsung hero of the defensive line unit on Sunday. While he only had three tackles, Benton had one quarterback hit and four pressures on the day. The players around him credited Benton with helping push the pass rush forward. He was a key sparkplug for the unit that became dominant down the stretch.

Since coming into the NFL, Larry Ogunjobi has seen a lot of defensive linemen. But Benton might just be a little different. His ceiling appears to be sky-high. Benton appeared geared up in a heated rivalry in his first career start. That is the energy he brought onto the field, and Ogunjobi continues to see that growth.

“I’ve told guys this before, man, he’s got a really high ceiling,” Ogunjobi said. “He’s a special player. You love to see it. He works hard and he’s aggressive. The more he plays, the slower the game gets. You’re seeing more and more splash plays from him. I’m excited to see him keep growing.”

Coming into the game, Benton had played just 36 percent of defensive snaps so far this year. However, it changed on Sunday, with Benton starting and seeing significant snaps throughout the defensive line. He did not just play nose tackle but split out to defensive end. He played anywhere from a 0-technique to a 5-technique. But he has the frame and versatility to do that.

Benton’s run defense translates perfectly from his days at Wisconsin. Under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, the run game’s stunts, run gap responsibilities, and general assignments are essentially the same. The most significant difference is that the Steelers will give Benton those chances to pin his ears back and rush the passer. He has some go-to moves, like his club-swim move, that he loves to utilize.

“Man, he’s just got great hands. He’s got more of a feel for the game,” Cam Heyward said. “Mistakes he was making in the preseason, those have been eradicated. I think he feels a lot more comfortable. I loved when I first saw him in preseason, I caught him glaring up in the stands. It’s a different feeling in an NFL game. I thought he really settled down and he is ready for the fight.”

Benton looks like a gem of a pick from general manager Omar Khan in the second round. The defensive line will not officially be set in place until Heyward returns to the field, but until then, Benton is proving to be a force.