With possessing perennial first-team All-Pro players in T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, it came to no surprise that Pro Football Focus ranked the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line as the fifth-best in the NFL, behind only the Miami Dolphins, Washington Commanders, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles. Edge rushers were included as members of the defensive line in the rankings, so Watt and Alex Highsmith were considered.
“Pittsburgh’s defensive line boasts some elite players, even if interior defender Cameron Heyward turned 34 in March and edge defender T.J. Watt earned his lowest grade since 2018 in an injury-plagued year,” PFF’s Zoltan Buday wrote.
“Edge defender Alex Highsmith had a breakout season in 2022, finishing 24th at his position in overall grade (78.0). However, the unit lacks the depth it once had and needs rookie Keeanu Benton to play well right off the bat for the Steelers to retain their place in this top five.”
You can make the argument that the Steelers actually have better depth upfront this year, especially with Markus Golden being the No. 3 outside linebacker. Malik Reed essentially gave the Steelers nothing last year, recording just one sack in 396 snaps as a rotational edge rusher. The Steelers also drafted outside linebacker Nick Herbig in the fourth round out of Wisconsin. In addition, they have the option of playing second-year defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal on the outside, who’s a prototype defensive end/outside linebacker tweener.
They’re also in a better situation at nose tackle with rookie Keeanu Benton, Montravius Adams and Breiden Fehoko competing for the starting spot. Any of the three most likely will be an upgrade from Tyson Alualu last year, who had an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 30.4.
Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi will also be healthier this season after dealing with a serious foot injury last offseason. Cam Heyward, 34, has showed no signs of slowing down either, posting double-digit sacks in back-to-back years. The Steelers are set up pretty well in the interior and their depth at outside linebacker is considerably better than last year.
Of course, the Steelers’ success is heavily depended on T.J. Watt, who missed seven games last year due to a torn pectoral muscle. Pittsburgh went 8-2 in games that Watt played last year. Without Watt, they were a measly 1-6. Overall, the Steelers are 1-10 in games that Watt’s missed since the start of his career in 2017.
Highsmith, who had a breakout year in 2022 with 14.5 sacks, also does a lot better with Watt in the lineup. In 10 games last season with Watt playing, Highsmith had 11 sacks. In the seven games that Watt missed, Highsmith had just 3 1/2 sacks.
On paper, No. 5 seems about right for the Steelers’ defensive line ranking. The Eagles are absolutely loaded upfront. The 49ers added defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to an already impressive defensive line. Washington defensive line consists of four former first-round picks (pending if Chase Young stays). And Miami has a stout outside linebacker duo with Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillps, along with Christian Wilkins in the interior.
The Steelers should not be slept on upfront, however. Highsmith thinks the defense overall has the potential to be the best in the league in 2023.
“I know 100 percent we can be the best defense in the NFL, especially if we all stay healthy,” Highsmith said, via the team’s website. “I am excited about the guys that we have. We have depth at almost every position. It’s been good seeing guys come together and get better and better every day. The sky is the limit for us. I am excited to see how we continue to grow.”