PITTSBURGH – Forget the skill positions, the Steelers obviously wanted to improve their run defense in the NFL Draft.
After allowing 4.3 yards per carry last season, the Steelers followed up the selection of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier of Ohio State in the first round of the draft Thursday night by taking defensive end Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame.
In the third round with a compensatory pick they received for the loss of wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Steelers got a player who is actually faster than Wallace in running back/wide receiver Dri Archer of Kent State.
But the theme of the first two days for Pittsburgh was improving the run defense.
“In this division, in this league, if you do not stop the run, you don’t have a chance to win many games,” said Steelers defensive line/assistant head coach John Mitchell.
In the 6-5, 303-pound Tuitt, the Steelers feel they got a player who will help them stop the run as their defense continues its transition from a veteran group to one that will have many new faces. Tuitt, along with Shazier, will be expected to contribute early this season, something the Steelers haven’t always asked of their draft picks in previous years.
“We’re getting quality players and quality depth,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “Both of these players, if it all develops as anticipated, will get a lot of playing time. Sometimes in the past, we’ve been in positions with our draft choices where they don’t have to play for a year or two. That is definitely not the case in this situation. Our depth is a challenge. We’ve got two excellent football players who are going to add depth, if not quality starters right away.”
In the past three years, defensive linemen Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel – all players who spent 10 or more seasons with the Steelers – have left the team or retired.
Tuitt, who doesn’t turn 21 until later this month, will certainly add some talent and youth to the defensive line.
“I had some guys here for a long, long time,” said Mitchell. “You lose those guys and you’ve got to start over. A lot of those guys I had, we grew up together.”
Tuitt (6-5, 303) had a standout season in 2012 as the Fighting Irish advanced to the BCS National Championship Game. But he had surgery to repair a hernia after that season and came into the 2013 season out of shape because of it.
During this offseason, he suffered a fracture in his foot that kept him from working out for a lot of teams. The Steelers checked him out medically.
“He wasn’t able to train. He got heavy,” said Mitchell. “If you look at him from the 2013 season to the 2012 season, you’re going to see a different guy. He knows that he has to be in shape. He’s over that injury. We look for this guy to be here a long time. He’s a guy that can do a lot of things for us.
“If this guy had been healthy, he probably would have been in the top 10 guys. We feel like we got a steal in the second round at our pick.”
Tuitt, who like Shazier came out of college as a true junior, started 29 of the 35 games at Notre Dame. He finished his career with 127 tackles, 21.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
But the hernia bothered him early in the 2013 season, when he played at 328 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than he did in 2012.
“My hernia bothered me half of the season,” said Tuitt, who had 50 tackles and 7.5 sacks despite the issues. “Towards the second half, I got it strong and when the season was over, it got even stronger. Now, I’m ready to roll.”
Archer is slight of build at 5-8, 173 pounds, but was the fastest player in this year’s draft with an official time of 4,26 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine, though the Steelers and others had him running a sub-4.2 40.
“The kid can run,” said Steelers running backs coach James Saxon. “You can see that on tape. There is no denying that part of it. The kid is a special football player with the ball in his hands.”
Archer played slot receiver on passing downs, catching 99 career passes for 1,194 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also gaining 2,342 yards rushing with 25 touchdowns on 325 carries. Archer also returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in the past two seasons despite having just 18 attempts.
The draft will conclude today with rounds four through seven. The Steelers have six remaining selections.