Analyzing the Steeler Defensive Line: A Three-Way Race

Now that Pittsburgh has a franchise quarterback, now diehard fans can turn their attention to worrying about the line responsible for protecting him.

But while we all spend time worrying about Flozell Adams’ feet and whether Justin Hartwig should make the roster, the Steelers defensive line has been carrying on a very interesting battle of their own. It doesn’t get as much notice because the Steelers’ starting three are set in stone, but among Nick Eason, Sunny Harris and Doug Worthington, the Steelers have three quality linemen battling for either one or two spots.

To get a better idea of how that battle is shaping up, I went back and logged each snap in the Giants game for each of those three defensive ends, plus the snaps of Ziggy Hood. Hood has clearly made the team, but since so many people are wondering about why he hasn’t made more of an impact this preseason, it was worth taking a look at his work as well.

Like I did with the offensive line, I tried to put together some sort of Yes/No grade on each snap. It’s not easy to do that for the offensive line, and it’s even tougher when you are talking about defensive ends. For instance, on a pass play it’s just not fair to expect a DE to consistently pressure the quarterback. So when it comes to grading them out on pass plays, a little bit of penetration into the backfield or in some cases just keeping containment is enough to get a yes on the question of whether it was a good play or not. It’s a little simpler on running plays, but even then your expectations for a DE often have to be downgraded. If a defensive end gets his hands on the offensive lineman blocking him and stalemates him at the line, he’s generally doing a good job, even if it looks like he just stood up and stood at the line.

And even then there are a number of plays where a defensive end is irrelevant. If the Giants run a sweep to the left, left end Ziggy Hood isn’t going to be making the tackle no matter how well he dominates his man. And again, I’m not looking at technique or all the myriad things that a coach grading the film would use in determining a grade. I’m just looking at the results based on what I think the player was being asked to do.

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t know the play call, so there is a chance that there are some misinterpretations, although in most cases I don’t think that’s an problem here — if a player gets driven five yards off the ball by the offensive lineman, he didn’t do his job. Eason actually had 27 snaps, but on one of them the TV feed came back from a worthless interview so late that it was impossible to tell what he did on the play (similar deal for Hood, but he was laying on the ball carrier, so it seemed safe to say he did a solid job).

Ziggy Hood 20 of 24 83.3
Nick Eason 21 of 26 80.8
Sunny Harris 12 of 15 80
Doug Worthington 11 of 15 73.3

Nick Eason: Eason’s play on Saturday makes it clear that making a big play will get you noticed. The general consensus among watchers was the Eason was the standout among the backup defensive linemen. That was based largely on an excellent play he made at the goal line where he got a fantastic jump off the snap, drove a guard into the backfield and shut down the run.

It was a great play. And he made another one that was nearly as good three plays later. But he also was driven out of the play on a 21-yard run to his side of the field and had a couple other running plays where he was blown out of the play. Eason is generally pretty solid against the run, but, like most of the Steelers’ defensive linemen, he’s not going to put much heat on the quarterback. He’s clearly the safest bet among the backup linemen, but he also is on the downside of his career where the two guys he’s battling for the final defensive end spot(s) are young players with room for improvement.

Play Result Good Play
1 Gets some push, but handled on pass rush Yes
2 Driven back on run his way No
3 Not much rush, but helps clear way for Foote’s blitz Yes
4 Handled, but hustles on run the other way Yes
5 Awful play. LT drives him back 7 yards on run his way that goes for 21 yards No
6 Bad TV work. Looks like he got some push Yes
7 Bottled up inside on run outside No
8 Good effort, few results on pass play Yes
9 Stuffed at line on Burnett INT Yes
10 Plays paddy-cake with OL No
11 What you want a Steeler DE to do. Drives LG into backfield which disrupts running play Yes
12 Reads screen his way pretty quickly Yes
13 Reads toss his way extremely quickly, helps jump on pile Yes
14 Quick pass means not much to do Yes
15 Bad TV work again, can’t say ?
16 Driven outside by OT No
17 Double teamed, no pass rush Yes
18 Excellent job. Fires out low to cause traffic jam at POA Yes
19 Solid effort few results on pass play Yes
20 Stalemate at line Yes
21 Both he and Hood serve as decoys in pass rush, looping to outside left as LBs come from right Yes
22 One of his worst plays. LG hooks him and turns him on run right at him No
23 Gets low, causes havoc by creating traffic jam Yes
24 Best play of the night. Amazingly quick off snap, drives LG into backfield. Stuffs play Yes
25 Stuffed at line on pass play No
26 Good push on p/a pass play Yes
27 Again does his job. Fast off snap, moves his man into backfield Yes

Ziggy Hood: With the talk of Hood’s amazing development in training camp, Steelers’ fans were expecting Hood to look like Joe Greene V 2.0 this fall (or at least Aaron Smith V 2.0). Instead he’s been OK but the only time he got his name called on Saturday night was when he was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty.

But Hood’s play isn’t nearly as poor as that makes it sound. He didn’t have many great plays, but he was pretty consistent. He showed that he can drive his man into the backfield at times and he has more pass-rush ability than any other backup defensive end. He did get flagged for going too low at Rhett Bomar, but it’s also worth remembering that he showed excellent burst to get to Bomar.

Play Result Good Play
1 Double-teamed on pass rush Yes
2 Gets good penetration but run is going other way Yes
3 Drives his man back, but not much else Yes
4 Bad play. RT #65 drives him back 8 yards on run his way No
5 Goes outside, not much to do on run other way Yes
6 Hustles, but stuffed at line Yes
7 Bottled up inside on run outside No
8 Gets a little push, but nowhere near QB Yes
9 Little penetration on INT Yes
10 Double teamed on pass play Yes
11 Uses arms to control RG, slides off to help on tackle Yes
12 Some penetration, but screen pass going to other side Yes
13 Had some trouble fending off cut block No
14 Same as Eason too quick a play to do much Yes
15 Bad TV work, but was lying on ball carrier at end Yes
16 Suckered by draw play, RB runs right past him No
17 I know he got a penalty, but good pass rush by Hood, slides off man quickly. Gets flagged for roughing passer No
18 Great job. Gets inside OL, slides down line to help on tackle Yes
19 No real push on pass play Yes
20 Better job staying home on draw Yes
21 Both serve as decoys in pass rush Yes
22 Run other way, isn’t a factor Yes
23 Stalemate, which is good enough Yes
24 Helps push pocket back Yes

Doug Worthington: For a rookie, Worthington offers a whole lot of energy. He played hard, he hustled to the whistle and every now and then you saw some flashes — like when he beat his man to the inside, read a running play and hustled to make a tackle on the Giants’ first play of their last possession.

But he also struggled in goal line play. On back-to-back plays Worthington was so focused on firing out low (something that is important) that he ended up on all fours and out of the play. On the second of the two plays a Giants’ lineman laid on top of him once Worthington had lost his balance.

Play Result Good Play?
1 Unblocked, but ends up crawling on ground. Not a factor in play No
2 Again ends up on all fours, this time with blocker on top of him No
3 Stood up, but slides to outside. Not a factor on run other way Yes
4 Driven three yards inside on run his way No
5 Double teamed on three-man rush Yes
6 Ends up getting double-teamed again Yes
7 Good hustle, slides off block late to help on tackle Yes
8 Quick pass, not much he can do Yes
9 Not generating much pass rush Yes
10 Run at him again, does good job of getting penetration and flowing to ball Yes
11 RT handles him pretty well No
12 Quick screen. Not a factor Yes
13 Outstanding, gets inside of RT, flows down line to make tackle Yes
14 Doesn’t really do much on pass play Yes
15 Good job. Loop gets him into end zone to help pressure Bomar Yes

Sunny Harris: I want to offer up any biases in advance. I was impressed with Harris last year (to the point of watching a Panthers’ game to see how he did for them after his early-season signing). And I liked his work in the Lions’ game. But I tried to grade him to the same level that I did the other three DEs.

Harris also was relatively consistent. His worst play was his first play — he was blown off the ball on a goal line play in the third quarter. But at his best Harris gets good leverage and drives linemen back.

Play Result Good Play?
1 Destroyed and driven into end zone by double team No
2 Much better, gets into backfield Yes
3 Good job of attacking OT’s hip. Yes
4 Overaggressive to outside, but not factor on run other way Yes
5 DT’d on three-man rush Yes
6 Shows strong legs. Gets push to drive OT back Yes
7 Doesn’t anchor well, gets driven out of hole No
8 Too quickly released to get into backfield Yes
9 Works stalemate on pass Yes
10 Gets inside LT and drives down line. Yes
11 Sylvester gets sack before he makes contact with OT Yes
12 Gets into backfield on screen Yes
13 Fires off snap too high, LT gets under him and pushes him back No
14 Shows some strength, gets into backfield. Yes
15 Almost gets a safety on Bomar Yes
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  • Randy Steele

    Worthington is probably headed for the practice squad and Hood is a lock for the final 53. That leaves Harris or Eason, if only one spot remains.

    Both are–at the very least–pretty good back-ups in this defensive scheme. Being younger, Harris obviously has more upside. Eason is more steady and experienced and he played a solid season last year after Aaron Smith went down again. I don’t think he got enough credit for his good performance.

    So the choice is between a good-looking player who’s younger with more upside and a veteran player who’s a solid performer who knows what he’s doing and is less risky.

    Hmm… here’s the thing: If you always choose the younger player who has more potential over the vet, you’re going to end up with a lousy football team. Too much youth is as bad as too much age. Also, do you want to do your best to win this year? Or next?

    The truth is, there’s no wrong decision here. And these are the problems that you want to have. We’d like to keep them all, but we can’t.

    There’s so much demand now for good 3-4 defensemen, that even Worthington might get snapped off the waiver wire before he makes it to the Steelers’ practice squad. Who knows?

    In this case it looks like Sunny Harris isn’t as rock steady a player as Eason, but Harris more likely represents greater value over the long term.

    So, if I had to choose today, I’d choose Harris. But there’s still a lot of pre-season to go and anything can happen.

  • Tranceraven

    If they can’t have Eason and Harris at the 53, let Eason go, andgamble a bit on HArris, if th kid disapoints, release him and bring Eason back by the half of the season. Worthington can go to the PS.