How Melvin Ingram can shore up Steelers’ already-great defense

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Last season, the Steelers started off with an 11-0 record, primarily on the shoulders of a defense that placed first overall in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, and then fell off the back of a truck, losing five of their last six games (including an historic wild-card embarrassment to the Browns) as the team’s regressive passing game and nonexistent run game caught up to it. In the offseason, Pittsburgh lost primary slot defender Mike Hilton to the Bengals and secondary pass-rusher Bud Dupree to the Bengals in free agency; if there’s concern about regression for a defense that played as well or better than any other in the league from front to back last season, you can start right there.

Replacing Hilton will be no mean feat, but the addition of former Chargers pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, signed to a one-year deal on Monday, should go a long way to easing the sting of Dupree’s departure. There are caveats here — Ingram missed nine games last season due to a knee injury, and he’s finished each of the last two seasons on injured reserve for similar issues — but when healthy, the 32-year-old can still bring it. Ingram made the Pro Bowl in 2019 despite missing three games, and that was his third straight Pro Bowl season. In 2019, he picked up seven sacks, four quarterback hits, 35 quarterback hurries, and 32 stops.

In last year’s injury-reduced campaign, on just 236 pass-rushing snaps, Ingram recorded no sacks, but he did put up six hits and 22 hurries — based on the tape, it could be argued that Ingram was a more effective down-down edge defender in 2020 than he was in 2019. Again, we have to throw out the “when healthy” thing, and pass-rushers in their early thirties with knee issues aren’t exactly bulletproof, but this is also how you get premier talents on one-year, lowball deals.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – JANUARY 06: Melvin Ingram #54 of the Los Angeles Chargers celebrates after sacking Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens during the third quarter in the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 06, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Going back to his college days at South Carolina, Ingram has always had a rare ability for a player his size (6-foot-2, 247 pounds) to win in every gap — from nose tackle and nose shade to the nine-technique perfected by Ingram’s new edge-mate, T.J. Watt. Add in all-world tackles Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and this could be a defensive line just as dangerous — or even more dangerous — than the one featuring Dupree in 2020.

“I just did the deal not too long ago and just got to the airport,” Ingram told ESPN’s Josina Anderson Monday after the particulars were ironed out. It’s definitely a dope organization and environment; so I definitely feel like it’s the place for me.

“I met with [head] coach [Mike] Tomlin. You can tell he’s very involved, [and] a players’ coach. That’s what stood out to me. He wants to win and that is what I am on. My role is my role. He just told me to come in and be me. Everyone knows how I play.”

Everyone does, but if you need a reminder, Ingram’s 2020 tape represents a pretty impressive showing. While Dupree was (and is) more of a bull-rusher with the athletic ability to beat blockers around the edge and make up for his relatively rudimentary technique, Ingram is a different cat — capable of doing all the base things you want from an edge-rusher, but with the elevated technique and acumen to bring things to a different level. When you add in that he’ll rarely see anything remotely approaching a double-team because of all the talent around him, this starts to look like an amazing deal for both player and team.

The bull-rush

Let's start with Ingram's ability to use his hands, upper-body strength, leverage to make things exceedingly difficult for enemy blockers -- in this case, Broncos right guard Austin Schlottmann, who can't handle Ingram's furious straight-ahead rush. Quarterback Drew Lock, who generally doesn't need a ton of help to throw inaccurate passes, gets some help here anyway.

The "spinner" role

Ingram also has the ability to come right in and make himself a force when the Steelers want to get multi-faceted with their fronts. On this pressure against the Jaguars in Week 7, Ingram rolls pre-snap from the defensive right side to the left side in an off-ball role, and right guard Ben Bartch presages when happened to Schlottmann a week later.

Responding to the quick game

Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, NFL teams threw the ball from 0- to 3-step drops on 11,661 dropbacks -- 58.2% of all dropbacks. As the Steelers led all teams with quick game on 525 of their 674 dropbacks (77.9%), they're certainly aware of the fact that no matter how great an edge-rusher is, unless he's stunting quickly inside or working from the interior, he may not have time to get to the quarterback before the ball is released. What you need in that case is a player creative enough to make something happen without the rush. On this play against the Chiefs in Week 2, Ingram does a great job of faking the curl/flat look to cover running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, moves back to Patrick Mahomes, and deflects the pass. There's more than one way to exert pressure against a passing game.

Working the spin move inside

Of course, it also helps to have a nice spin move if the opposing quarterback gives you an extra half-second with a hitch in his delivery as he waits for his receiver to get open. Here, against the Raiders in Week 9, Ingram starts outside left tackle Brandon Parker, then works the spin inside to get to Derek Carr. The deep throw to tight end Darren Waller has no chance.

What this means for the Steelers

Ingram may not be as productive as he was in previous years, but he's in a defense that will give him tons of easy openings along the defensive line, and a secondary that will force opposing quarterbacks to think twice before throwing. That alone could provide Ingram with a career resurgence, and the Steelers with the cog they need to keep that line firmly established as the NFL's best.

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