Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau admits he had some anxiety entering this year’s NFL draft.
Normally, the Steelers don’t need to rely on the draft to produce immediate defensive starters. This year, they didn’t have that luxury.
His fears were quickly eased, he said, when Pittsburgh used its first two picks on defensive players, adding Notre Dame lineman Stephon Tuitt in the second round Friday night. The team then grabbed wide receiver/running back Dri Archer from Kent State in the third round.
Tuitt joined first-round pick linebacker Ryan Shazier as another young defensive player LeBeau expects will start this upcoming season and bolster an aging defensive roster. The Steelers ranked 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks last year and finished outside the top 10 in yards allowed for the first time since 1999
“The history of that defense is tremendous, and I can’t wait to help put it back up there,” Tuitt said.
The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt recorded 127 tackles and 21.5 sacks in three seasons. He was an All-American as a sophomore, recording 47 tackles and a team-high 12 sacks and helped lead the Fighting Irish to a national championship game appearance.
An offseason hernia limited his conditioning heading into his junior year and caused Tuitt to gain weight, said Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell.
Without the injury, and the extra weight, Mitchell believes Tuitt would have been a top-10 pick.
“We feel like we got a steal in the second round at our pick,” Mitchell said.
He finished his junior year with 50 tackles, 7.5 sacks and one interception and fell to the Steelers at the 46th overall pick.
“He’s a guy that can do a lot of things for us,” Mitchell said. “He can push the pocket. He can play the run. He can get off blocks, and he can get to the ball. We got a good football player tonight.”
He pulled out of the combine and was unable to participate in the Fighting Irish pro day after a medical scan revealed a left foot fracture that required surgery. The Steelers worked him out privately in Atlanta ahead of the draft.
“My foot is great,” said Tuitt, who had a screw installed in his foot to repair the stress fracture.
Shazier, who posted a time of 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s Pro Day, gives the Steelers speed. Tuitt gives Pittsburgh some girth.
“You’ve got to have some big guys out there, no matter how much of a speed package you put out there,” LeBeau said.
Tuitt is somewhat familiar with Heinz Field, having played their twice with the Fighting Irish. He was ejected from the second quarter of the 2013 game after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Tom Savage.
“As a defensive player, I think that’s the worst call in America,” he said with a laugh.
He expects to visit Pittsburgh on Saturday, one day after the Steelers welcomed Shazier, the 15th overall pick, to team headquarters, complete with a tour that took him past six Lombardi Trophies.
The Steelers entered the draft with stated needs at wide receiver and cornerback and waited until the 97th overall pick to address either. The 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer posted a combine-best 4.26-second 40-yard dash, and Steelers running backs coach James Saxon said Pittsburgh scouts clocked him even faster.
“The kid can run,” Saxon said.
Archer caught 99 passes for 1,194 yards and rushed for 2,342 yards in four seasons at Kent State. He also returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, and the Steelers could use him as a rusher, a receiver and a returner, Saxon said.