Featuring the star power of reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, All-Pro Cameron Heyward and emerging third-year pass rusher Alex Highsmith, the front four of the Pittsburgh Steelers remains one of the very best fronts in defense — when healthy.
After missing Watt for seven games, the front four took a significant dip in disruption, but now that the group is fully healthy — including defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi — the Steelers front four is getting back to its disruptive ways.
That will continue on Monday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts and an offensive line led by star left guard Quenton Nelson and stalwart center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith.
Though the Colts’ offensive line has had its struggles this season as one of the highest-paid groups in football, the big men in the trenches are starting to find their footing under interim head coach Jeff Saturday. Ahead of the Monday night matchup, Saturday knows it will be a significant test for the Colts’ offensive line against Pittsburgh’s front four, one that will play a significant factor in the outcome of the game.
“Listen, their front four is as good as anybody in the NFL,” Saturday said, according to comments made to reporters earlier in the week, via Steelers.com. “Everybody talks about the ends, (Alex) Highsmith and (T.J.) Watt, but listen all four – they’re all dudes and they can put pressure on you at every point, and they will pressure you. They’re not scared.
“So, hats on the o-line, make sure we get our jobs done, protect it. I’ve told those guys since I got here, protection is going to beat coverage, but that’s a big ask,” Saturday added. “So, make sure we put the hat on of making sure we get those guys blocked. But you can’t hide from it. You’ve got to go out, work your techniques, understand they’re smart players, they are going to make plays. It’s limiting the big plays, limiting the moments where the big plays can be had. So, a big challenge ahead but one that we hopefully meet.”
It’s arguably the biggest challenge of the year for the Colts’ offensive line, considering few teams can match the production and overall star power of Pittsburgh’s front four when fully healthy. Two games into his return from the pectoral injury suffered in Week 1, Watt is starting to find his legs again and had a disruptive week in Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals, recording half a sack, multiple pressures and picking off a pass.
Heyward had a sack and a tackle for loss in the run game, while Highsmith was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints, recording two sacks and a forced fumble, returning to his dominant ways with Watt opposite him.
“I think they’re talented. I think it’s a good group, physical on the inside, they’ve got game-changers on the outside, guys that you have to – in that front seven. On the edge rushers, they’ve got a lot of talent but they play with great effort too,” Colts’ quarterback Matt Ryan said, according to the official transcript provided by the team. “They finish and they find ways to get those effort strips or sacks or even plays in the run game. So, I think it’s a good group. It’s certainly going to be a challenge for us and we’ve got to go play our best.”
The front four for the Steelers will have to play a significant role on Monday night against the Colts, setting the tone early and often against the run and the pass, forcing the Colts to get away from their style of play in running the ball, forcing Matt Ryan and his weapons to beat them. In the process, that will allow guys like Heyward, Highsmith and Watt to pin their ears back and get after Ryan in the pocket, hopefully helping out a depleted cornerback room in primetime.
They’re considered one of the best front fours in the league for a reason. It’s time to show it under the bright lights.