It may be a mild surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers have opted to dress six defensive linemen thus far this season, and that one of those six is a rookie third-round draft pick. DeMarvin Leal is no starter, but he has been a meaningful rotational player, seeing 33 snaps over the first two games, knotting three tackles and a batted pass.
I’m not sure the Steelers have ever regularly dressed a sixth lineman in the 3-4 era without that sixth lineman being a regular presence on special teams, which is what makes this decision so notable, but Leal is, at least in the eyes of the coaching staff, stating the case for himself—and the roster just so happens to work to his advantage in enabling it.
But the other linemen see it as well. “He’s fitting in well. He’s transitioning really well. He plays with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, so I’m excited for him”, sixth-year veteran Larry Ogunjobi told reporters yesterday, via the team’s website.
Ogunjobi was himself a third-round draft pick who also played as a rookie, logging 301 snaps (Leal is currently on pace for 281, for anybody out there wondering), so he understands the position that Leal is in right now.
And his role has only expanded, if temporarily, thanks to the injury to outside linebacker T.J. Watt, which caused the defense to shift strategies and make use of a heavy deployment of a ‘big nickel’, or 3-3-5 lineup, with three down linemen, one replacing an edge rusher.
Leal played on that edge for a number of his snaps during Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots, and he will undoubtedly continue to do so at least until Watt gets back as they try to figure out how to supplement for his absence.
But it’s not easy for a rookie to be able to adapt to that role, either, as Ogunjobi understands. “Being able to move around and play different spots, it’s a testament to him as a player”, he said. That he played on the edge in college does help, but it’s still different in this front. And as you can see, they’re even asking him to stand up, and play on both sides.
Will the Steelers continue to dress six linemen all season? And is that the same question as whether or not Leal will continue to dress? It is possible that he works his way up the depth chart and they start making decisions about possibly making somebody like Chris Wormley inactive instead. But the rookie still has a lot to prove before they would consider pulling that plug. Still, the early signs of progress have been encouraging.