Tim Benz: Steelers shouldn’t stop adding to defense with Larry Ogunjobi. Another position is in need

Now that the Steelers have spent even more money on the defense by signing Larry Ogunjobi, I’m sure that will regenerate the conversation about the disparity between how much the team is spending on defense versus how little the team is spending on offense.

So I have an idea of ​​what to do next.

Sign another guy on defense. Specifically, an outside linebacker. Another version of Melvin Ingram, except one that actually wants to be here.

As I’ve recently stated, I don’t care about the offense-defense pay gap. There is no salary cap for each individual side of the ball. I’m glad they signed Ogunjobi. After what happened last year along the defensive line without Stephon Tuitt, I embrace the notion of building depth there.

And I feel the same way about the outside linebacker position. We also saw how much the Steelers defense struggled when TJ Watt was out. He missed two full games (the home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and the road defeat at the Los Angeles Chargers) due to injury, and he either played hurt through games (like the regular-season losses in Green Bay and Kansas City) or missed chunks of a few more with in-game injuries (like the losses to the Las Vegas Raiders and Minnesota Vikings).

Ingram had pouted his way out of town before three of those defeats occurred. The Steelers were reduced to relying on the likes of Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka to absorb the snaps. Tuszka had two sacks and a forced fumble in 15 games. Charlton had half a sack and one pass defended in 11 games.

Charlton is now in New Orleans. Tuszka appears to be the team’s best option to back up both Watt and the other starting outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith.

Genard Avery and Delontae Scott could challenge for playing time. Scott played only one game with the Steelers a year ago. Avery was signed away from the Philadelphia Eagles during the offseason. He has totaled 7.5 sacks over five NFL seasons, and just three since his rookie year in Cleveland back in 2018.

I think the Steelers should look to improve the depth at that position through free agency or a trade between now and the start of the season. It’s prospect defensive coordinator Teryl Austin isn’t dismissing.

“You are always looking to strengthen your team,” Austin said during minicamp. “So if there is somebody out there that can strengthen us, just like we did with Melvin last year, then we will bring him in. Until then, we will work and coach the guys we have and see what happens and go from there.”

For his part, Tuszka hopes that doesn’t happen. He feels he made strides with the 247 snaps he got a season ago. That accounted for roughly 24% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps in 2021.

“Coach (Mike) Tomlin always talks about, ‘We’ve got who is in the room right now,’” Tuszka said. “That’s not my decision. We’re unaware (of talks to sign a veteran). I’m unaware. I’m just going to be working and doing what I can to produce. Hopefully, they see that and believe in us as the backup(s) right now.”

But forget just bolstering depth at the outside linebacker position. How about maybe finding somebody to press Highsmith as the starter? Sure, Highsmith made strides from his 2020 rookie season. But by his own admission, he still could’ve been better in 2021.

“I looked at my film from last year, and there are a bunch of plays where I beat a guy, but I really didn’t finish the rush. That’s what I’ve been working on with TJ,” Highsmith said. “Just working on those things at the top of the rush. That’s where it matters most. I can beat the guy, but the quarterback can step up, and I run around him. It’s about bending the corner more and getting the guy’s hands off me so I can finish that rush.”

It was pretty clear that part of Ingram’s frustration in Pittsburgh was that he thought he should’ve been getting starter’s snaps when Watt was healthy instead of Highsmith.

After playing just 43% of the snaps in 2020, that rose to 76% in 2021. But that increased playing time hasn’t yielded the amount of splash plays usually associated with a Steelers 3-4 outside linebacker. Particularly one who should be benefiting from having so much attention paid to stop Watt on the other side of the field. Over two years, Highsmith has eight sacks, just one forced fumble, one pass defended, no fumble recoveries and one interception.

That said, Highsmith insisted the team doesn’t need to add to the outside linebackers room to get more production.

“As a group, we’ve got a lot of solid guys,” Highsmith said. “Derrek, Genard Avery, Delonta, and Scott. I’m excited for those guys. We’ve got a good group. I’m excited for it. We like to make each other better.”

Justin Houston (33 years old, 102 career sacks) is available again, as he was at this time last year. He claimed signing with the Steelers was a possibility back then. He had 4.5 sacks with the Baltimore Ravens in 2021, and was givn the seldom-used unrestricted-free-agent tender in May. Ryan Kerrigan (33 years old, 95.5 career sacks) and Alex Okafor (30 years old, 31.5 career sacks) are potential phone calls, too.

Or maybe they can ventually work a trade for someone who may be off the radar right now, as they did in August of last year when they acquired inside linebacker Joe Schobert from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers had $23 million in cap space prior to Ogunjobi’s signing. Even with that move, the Steelers should still be able to get a quality player at outside linebacker and a decent backup running back, too. Ingram only counted for $4 million against the cap a season ago. Houston was only a $2.2 million hit. Kerrigan was at $2.5 million. Okafor $1 million.

However it gets done, it needs to get done. The Steelers appear to have learned from last year’s lessons when it comes to the defensive line. Apply the same thinking to outside linebacker.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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