Steelers D-Line Ranking Hints at Record-Breaking Performance in 2020

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree sack Baker Mayfield

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images Bud Dupree #48 and T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers strip sack Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns during a December 2019 game at Heinz Field.

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is poised to set a new franchise record in 2020, and if that goal is realized, one position group will be largely responsible.

Today Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus released his ranking of all 32 defensive lines in the NFL, and the Steelers came in at No. 1, ahead of Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco and Green Bay, who round out the top 5.

“The best defensive lines have both high-end players and depth,” Monson said, noting that “interior defensive linemen and edge defenders have been grouped together for this exercise, so that teams that run a base 3-4”—like the Steelers—“will include their outside linebackers….”

That distinction certainly benefits the Steelers, who not only employ one of the top 5 edge defender duos in the NFL, but two of the 50 best players in the NFL.

Edge Rusher T.J. Watt Leads the Way

Monson notes that T.J. Watt played “at a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year level” in 2019, ending the season “with the highest pass-rushing grade … of any edge rusher in the league in addition to racking up 81 total pressures…. He also forced eight fumbles and had two interceptions.” In light of that, it’s no surprise that one NFL analyst predicts T.J. Watt will repeat as team MVP in 2020.

At the same time, defensive end Cameron Heyward had a career year last season, “the best interior defender in the league outside of Aaron Donald,” said Monson, the latter a college teammate of Steelers running back James Conner, who, believe it or not, played alongside Donald on the defensive line at Pitt.

The Steelers did take a hit with the departure of nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who went to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. But the unit can more than make up for Hargrave’s departure with Stephon Tuitt’s return from injury, plus the addition of Chris Wormley, a former third-round draft pick who came to the Steelers in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens, an unlikely trading partner if there ever was one.

Rookie Edge Rusher Alex Highsmith

The only significant addition to the unit is third-round draft choice Alex Highsmith, who will be groomed to replace OLB Bud Dupree, who had a career year last season and has almost certainly priced himself out of a long-term contract extension with the Steelers. Highsmith “will look to carve out a role for himself as a situational pass-rusher in his first NFL season,” notes Monson, before relating just a single concern about Pittsburgh’s defensive line.

“The Steelers have some of the most proven quality in the league up front, but almost all of those players are coming off the best seasons they have produced to date, so there’s reason to expect some form of regression heading into 2020.”

For what it’s worth, only one other team in the AFC North ranked in the top 10, that being the Cincinnati Bengals, who came in at No. 10. The Cleveland Browns are ranked No. 12 and the Baltimore Ravens No. 17.

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