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Keeanu Benton is poised to become the Steelers’ next elite defensive lineman

The Steelers have been extremely active this off-season in re-shaping their roster, making moves in both free agency and the draft to fortify some of their weaker position groups.

The quarterback room has been completely revamped. The re-shaping of the offensive line continues. There’s been considerable change at wide receiver and linebacker, and movement in the defensive backfield. Nearly every position group has undergone a transformation of some sort as general manager Omar Khan, sidekick Andy Weidl and the team’s coaching staff maneuver to build a roster comparable with the league’s best teams.

Noticeably absent in this process is the defensive line. Pittsburgh spent a 6th Round draft pick on a developmental player – Iowa’s Logan Lee – and signed a veteran depth piece in Dean Lowry. But there have been no moves of significance to a group whose most prominent players – Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi – are aging and have been plagued by injuries in recent seasons. Why, given how aggressive the team has been in fortifying the roster elsewhere, has the defensive line remained largely status quo?

The answer could lie in second-year player Keeanu Benton. Benton began last season as a backup to Montravius Adams in the team’s base 3-4 defense, where he saw time on a rotational basis and as a situational pass rusher. By mid-season, he’d supplanted Adams on the depth chart. And, by season’s end, with Heyward slowed by injuries and Ogunjobi regressing a bit, Benton was arguably the team’s best defensive lineman.

Benton’s rise as a rookie is perhaps the biggest reason why the Steelers did not spend serious free agent money or draft capital on the defensive line group. Heyward is 35 and near the end of his career but should give the Steelers at least one more season of high-level play. And, while Ogunjobi’s play fell off, he led the defensive line group in total snaps with 767. That was almost 300 more than Benton, who was second with 484. In Heyward and Ogunjobi, the Steelers retain two quality veterans up front. Adding Benton to that mix on a full-time basis gives them a formidable front three.

Benton’s emergence is especially beneficial when you consider that Pittsburgh is only in their base defense between 30 and 40% of the time. The majority of their snaps require just two interior linemen, as they swap one out when playing their nickel and dime sub-packages. With Benton likely the team’s top interior player, he can absorb some of the reps Ogunjobi took last season, or that Heyward has taken in previous years. This should reduce some of the wear-and-tear on Heyward and Ogunjobi and allow them to stay fresh as the season progresses.

Why are the Steelers so high on Benton? You can start with his explosive get-off, which is reminiscent of a young Stephon Tuitt. Benton often beats opposing linemen to contact, which allows him to control blocks. As a run defender, he frequently gets his hands inside and is able to separate from blockers. As a pass rusher, his club/arm-over move often allows him to create quick pressure on a quarterback. Benton had just one sack as a rookie but he led the defensive line in quarterback hits, which indicates he was a step away from several others. With a season under his belt and a better understanding of individual opponents and protections, it seems likely his sack count will increase dramatically.

Of course, Benton has rough edges in his game that must be sanded out. His quick get-off can cause him to play off-balance at times and there are instances where, if his first pass rush move doesn’t work, he gets stalemated and winds up dancing with his blocker. Developing a reliable counter move will be necessary. Still, it feels as though he’s just scratching the surface on his development. As age and attrition inevitably cause Heyward’s play to decline, Benton should step seamlessly into the role of the unit’s star player.

Beyond Benton, Heyward and Ogunjobi, the depth of the position group is solid if not spectacular. Adams and Lowry are reliable players who could temporarily command starting roles if pressed into service. DeMarvin Leal showed promise as a rookie but got lost in the shuffle last season as the Steelers struggled to define his role. If Leal can add some size and strength he could be a solid backup predominantly as a weak side 5-tech. Lee and Breiden Fohoko and will likely vie for the final roster spot in the group.

The defensive line isn’t Pittsburgh’s deepest position group, nor is it their best. But the anticipated emergence of Benton makes it better than many suspect. The Steelers will need to stay healthy up front to avoid having to play their backups in extended roles. If they can do so, this unit should surprise people with the quality of its play.

For my film breakdown on Benton, check out the player below:


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