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Lined Up For Success

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Expectations are high for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016. A revamped defensive line, featuring two of the league's best ends in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, is one of the main reasons why.

The Black and Gold are coming off a 10-6 campaign in 2015, one in which they got into the playoffs as the sixth seed before reaching the divisional round of the playoffs and nearly pulled off an upset of the Denver Broncos. The Steelers did so without three superior playmakers on offense: running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Now healthy, it’s safe to say the offense should be potent once again. The Steelers bring back one of the best one-two punches at running back with Bell and Williams. Two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is putting up career-best numbers. A deep receiving corps is led by Brown, who became the first player in NFL history to catch 130 or more passes for 1,800 or more yards and 10 or more touchdowns.

But the Steelers’ fate could rest on how the defense performs, starting with the line. Familiar names Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are back to lead the charge, but new faces could make significant impacts as well.

Heyward, who has become an emotional leader on the Steelers’ defense since being drafted in the first round in 2011, said he expects his line mates to step up this season.

“We will see,” he said. “We’re expecting guys to step up. Dan (McCullers) has to be a key contributor for us. We’ve got Ricardo Mathews. I think that was a decent pickup. You look for L.T. Walton to step up, and you look for Tuitt to take another step. We have guys in place, but we have to have more guys up to speed and be able to count on them. And we’ll find that out when we get to camp.”

The line will try to take a step forward without defensive tackles Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas, who left in free agency. McCullers and Walton are expected to play a larger role in the rotation this year to fill those shoes. But rookie third round pick Javon Hargrave out of South Carolina State could potentially make the biggest impact.

“He just has unique bursts,” head coach Mike Tomlin said of Hargrave. “It kind of goes beyond the body type. There are guys that play like that. The interior, single gap, defensive tackles who are vertical penetrators. He could be characterized in that family of player.”

Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert has confidence in Hargrave’s abilities, as well.

“He was highly productive at the I-AA level,” Colbert said of Hargrave’s time at South Carolina State. “That was impressive enough, but when he had his opportunity to step up and play with better competition at the East-West game, and then as a late addition at the Senior Bowl, it became more intriguing to us because he showed he could play at a higher level. 

“We think Javon has that confidence. We had him in here for a pre-draft visit and he was not shaken by the challenge. He knows it will be tough but he was ready for it and we are excited about that.”

Hargrave stands 6-1 and weighs 309 pounds. The 23-year-old registered 37 sacks throughout his college career, 29.5 of which came in his final two seasons. He added 63 career tackles for loss.

“Being able to stay on the field that long and play every down, that’s a big thing,” Hargrave said of his strengths. “Being versatile like that. I’m 300-plus pounds but I just feel like I have a high motor. I can be on the field for 30-50 plays, because that’s all I did my whole life, just played every down, that’s a big thing.”

Keith Butler, who enters his second season as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator, likes what he sees in Hargrave.

“Quick, really nimble feet,” Butler said. “He moves really well for a big man. You don’t think a guy that big can move the way he does. He’s really good with that, and we think it’s going to translate. He’s a pretty good rusher, another pretty good rusher for us, so we’ll see.”

Bryan DeArdo covers the Steelers for 247sports.com. He envisions McCullers and Hargrave battling for the majority of the snaps opposite Heyward and Tuitt.

“Their hope is that it’s (Hargrave) versus Daniel McCullers,” DeArdo said. “They do want Hargrave to make an impact right away. He was drafted to start and to make a quick impact. He just wreaks havoc on opposing backfields, and you team him up with Heyward and Tuitt, who combined had 13.5 sacks last year, I think 20 sacks between those three is not inconceivable at all.”

That potentially leaves McCullers as a wild card. The defensive line could take an even bigger step in the right direction if he can realize his potential, according to DeArdo.

“I think McCullers has beenSteelers Stephon Tuitt motivated,” he said. “He really hasn’t made a huge impact with the team so far. I think this (drafting Hargrave) is going to light a fire under him. For all intents and purposes, I think that has been the case so far this offseason.”

As training camp approaches, this defensive line is a mixed bag of proven veterans and young prospects. But if all the ingredients come together this season, it could propel the Steelers into a true championship contender.

“The sky is the limit for Tuitt and Heyward,” DeArdo said. “I think they enter the 2016 season as the best defensive end duo in football. If they get help at that nose tackle position, that is going to be maybe the best defensive line in football.”

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