While the Pittsburgh Steelers may be bringing in nearly a completely new inside linebacker room this season, they will be playing behind the same defensive front as last year. They were able to secure that after re-signing defensive end Larry Ogunjobi to a three-year, $28.75 million deal.
And their new top linebacker, Cole Holcomb, is excited to play behind them—one of the reasons he decide to come to Pittsburgh after having the opportunity to play behind a strong defensive front with the Washington Commanders.
“I loved the guys in the locker room at Washington and playing behind that d-line”, he told Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller yesterday on the Movin’ the Chains program on SiriusXM Radio. “I was like, ‘Man, I hope I can find another place that has a stud d-line like we had’, and I definitely think we found that. You got T.J. [Watt], you got Cam [Heyward], Alex [Highsmith], they just signed Larry [Ogunjobi] back. I think they’ve got a tremendous d-line and I think it’ll allow me to really flourish behind those guys”.
Watt and Heyward, of course, are perennial Pro Bowlers at worst, while Highsmith very well should have been last season as well. Ogunjobi, signed as an unrestricted free agent a year ago, is expected to improve upon last season, during which he often played through injury, but he is a well-regarded talent around the league. He agreed to terms on a three-year deal a year ago worth over $13 million a year, but a failed physical proved its undoing.
While the Steelers have some superior talents in the trenches, Holcomb is not unfamiliar with playing behind an accomplished front. In Washington, he enjoyed the services of the likes of Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Chase Young, and Montez Sweat to help make his life easier.
That’s what the Steelers’ front must do while breaking in their new second-level defenders, which also includes free agent Elandon Roberts. The only players returning at the position from last year’s 53-man roster are Mark Robinson, a seventh-round rookie, and Tae Crowder, a former starter added in late December who did not play a snap.
Following a down year against the run in 2021, Pittsburgh’s defense did return to the top-10 ranks in that category, ranking ninth in rushing yards allowed, and first in touchdowns allowed, while holding opponents to the eighth-lowest yards per carry figure.
Of greater concern is how the second-level defenders will hold up in coverage, something that has been a problem for the past several years. Devin Bush was supposed to help alleviate those issues when he was drafted in 2019. Holcomb does have some athleticism, and isn’t altogether without credit in coverage, but it’s an area many will want to keep an eye on. The front four getting to the quarterback more frequently would help.