On Tuesday Pro Football Focus (PFF) released its list of the 32 best interior defenders in the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers placed three players on the list, one of only two teams to do so. (The other was the New York Jets, who had players ranked at No. 27, No. 28 and No. 30 overall.)
Cameron Heyward, For One
Cameron Heyward, 32, led the way for the Steelers, ranked No. 3 on the list behind Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams and Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs, coming in just ahead of Grady Jarrett of the Atlanta Falcons and Deforest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Heyward’s play has only improved with age,” notes PFF’s Ben Linsey. “He has logged 3,416 defensive snaps over the last four seasons (fourth at the position), and his 91.9 PFF grade falls short of just Aaron Donald, Chris Jones and Fletcher Cox over that span. It’s difficult to find many faults in his overall game, with him posting both run-defense and pass-rush grades above 89.0 since 2017.”
The hope is that Heyward can continue to dominate for several more seasons, as in September 2020 he signed a five-year contract that will keep him with the Steelers through the 2024 season.
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Stephon Tuitt, For Another
Fellow defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt is Pittsburgh’s next entrant on the list at No. 11, thanks to another “strong showing” in 2020.
“His 71 pressures last season ranked second at the position, behind only Aaron Donald,” advises Linsey. “It was a continuation of the hot start he got off to in 2019 before an injury prematurely ended his season. He should continue to be a disruptive force for the Steelers in 2021 as offensive lines try to contend with Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt.”
Tyson Alualu at No. 29
Last but not least, the Steelers also have another player who seems to be getting better with age, that being defensive tackle Tyson Alualu.
“From 2010 through 2016, Alualu never recorded a PFF grade higher than 62.0 with Jacksonville,” writes Linsey. “He has graded higher than that in each of the past four seasons with the Steelers, including overall grades of at least 80.0 in each of 2019 and 2020. Despite turning 34 in May, Alualu is on the upswing.”
Notably, the Steelers came kissing close to losing Alualu to the Jaguars in free agency. On March 16, reports emerged that he had agreed to a two-year, $6 million contract with the Jaguars. But a positive COVID-19 test kept him from traveling to Jacksonville to sign his contract and he soon reversed his decision to leave the Steelers, which led to much rejoicing among his defensive teammates in Pittsburgh.
Javon Hargrave Made the List Too
It’s also worth noting that one former Pittsburgh defender made the list, with Javon Hargrave (Philadelphia Eagles) coming in at No. 20.
Hargrave signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Eagles in free agency in March 2020. His Eagles career started slowly after he suffered a pectoral injury in training camp, but he finished the year with 38 tackles (16 solo) and 4.5 sacks despite starting just 11 games.
Hargrave, 28, was a third-round pick of the Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft (No. 89 overall) out of South Carolina State.
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