Stacking AFC North: Holding line minus Hargrave


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Steelers defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt (91) and Cam Heyward (97) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

You'll hear NFL teams talk a lot about winning their division as the first goal for their season.

The reason? The surest way to get into the playoffs is to win a division title. And it assures you a home playoff game.

But to win that division title, you should be as good as — if not better than — your division opponents in a number of areas. That won't guarantee success, but it sure will help.

Over the next week or so, we'll take a look at how the Steelers stack up against their AFC North opponents on a position-by-position basis.

Today, we'll look at interior defensive line:

The Steelers lost a key cog to their defensive front in the offseason to free agency when Javon Hargrave signed with the Eagles.

But in the grand scheme of things, Hargrave, the team's starting nose tackle, was fifth in terms of importance behind Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and edge rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Don't think so? Realize that in 2018, when those other four guys were largely healthy for the entire season, Hargrave played a career-low 43.6 percent of the team's defensive snaps. That number increased to 62.7 percent last season, but that was because Tuitt was lost early in the first quarter of the Steelers' Week 6 win at Los Angeles against the Chargers.

All things being equal, the Steelers would rather not use a true nose tackle much. And with Tuitt back in 2020, the plan will be for he and Heyward, one of the NFL's best interior line duos, to be on the field wrecking havoc.

Heyward has been a dominant force for the past four seasons, ranking only behind the Rams' Aaron Donald in terms of ability to disrupt games from the interior. Tuitt, meanwhile, was actually outplaying his linemate in the first six games of last season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle.

There's a feeling that Tuitt is especially injury prone, but he'd played at least 14 games in three of the previous four  seasons -- playing 12 in the one he didn't -- so a bounce back season can be expected.

Veteran Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley, acquired in a trade with the Ravens, will provide depth and share time at nose tackle.

The Bengals added rising star D.J. Reader to play nose tackle next to aging star Geno Atkins, giving them their best interior defensive line in the past few years. Atkins, who just turned 32, isn't the player he once was, but can still be a disruptive force.

The Ravens were thwarted in an effort to sign massive run stuffer Michael Brockers to play next to nose tackle Brandon Williams. When that deal fell through, they instead added free agent Derek Wolfe to help offset the loss of Michael Pierce in free agency.

Wolfe is a definite downgrade from Pierce, though the Ravens also added Calais Campbell in a trade with the Jaguars. Campbell, however, is considered more of an edge rusher, even though he's a 300-pound-plus player. So he doesn't get consideration here.

The Browns have underrated Larry Ogunjobi and overrated Sheldon Richardson manning the interior of their defensive line.


  1. Steelers -- Heyward, Tuitt, Alualu, Wormley, Isaiah Buggs
  2. Bengals -- Atkins, Reader, Ryan Glasgow, Josh Tupou
  3. Ravens -- Williams, Wolfe, Daylon Mack, Justin Madubuike
  4. Browns -- Richardson, Ogunjobi, Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott

You have to wonder if the Ravens would have dealt Wormley had they known they weren't going to get Brockers as they originally planned. Wolfe, after all, as played in more than 12 games just twice in the past seven seasons. The Atkins-Reader combo gets the nod over that duo and that of the Browns despite not having great depth behind it. But Heyward and Tuitt are the class of the division, if not the NFL, when it comes to interior duos. None of these groups are bad. It's just that the Steelers' duo is, well, dynamic.


  1. Heyward, Steelers
  2. Tuitt, Steelers
  3. Atkins, Bengals
  4. Williams, Ravens
  5. Reader, Bengals

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