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Anthony Chickillo joins Arthur Moats among valuable depth at Steelers outside LB

Joe Rutter
| Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, 8:27 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo plays against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo plays against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.

First, it was Arthur Moats with three sacks against the New York Giants.

Then, it was Anthony Chickillo with two against the Atlanta Falcons.

Bud Dupree is in no immediate danger of losing his starting job on the Steelers defense, but if he didn't know any better, he would think his fellow outside linebackers were trying to turn him into the football version of Wally Pipp.

With Dupree standing on the sidelines the first two preseason games, the player manning his left outside position filled in capably. Moats got the nod against the Giants and his sacks were among six tackles and an interception.

It was Chickillo's turn against the Falcons, and his sacks were among four tackles (plus another on special teams) and a pass defensed.

Dupree said he expects to start Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts and is appreciative of the work that took place in his absence.

“Every time their names have been called, they've performed well,” Dupree said. “They just keep progressing, and it makes us all better. We teach each other different things during practice, so it's good to see the hard work we've put in is paying off.”

When the season opens Sept. 10 in Cleveland, Dupree will start at left outside linebacker and rookie first-rounder T.J. Watt is pegged as the starter on the right side. But as the Steelers learned last season when Dupree missed the first nine games because of core muscle surgery, it's good to have dependable backups.

“It's a testament to the situation we've been put in over the past couple of years,” Moats said. “Guys being hurt, missing time for whatever reason, a lot of young guys and even myself have had time to play and grow up on the field.

“When you are the guy rotating in, you already understand what it's going to be like when you are out there. I feel like that is why guys are playing faster.”

Moats and Chickillo were part of the outside linebacker rotation the Steelers used for parts of the past two seasons. Moats had 3 12 sacks and Chickillo 2 12 in 2016.

At 39, James Harrison will join them as backups this year after leading the Steelers with five sacks last season. And fighting for a roster spot is undrafted free agent Farrington Huguenin, who has gotten sacks in each of the first two preseason games.

“This is a great group that we have as far as depth, as far as talent-wise from top to bottom,” Moats said. “It pushes us to strive to get better. We're best friends and competing against each other like, ‘If he got a sack, I've got to get a sack. If he got two, I've got to get three.'

“Ultimately, if we have that kind of mentality, it's going to make us better as a group.”

Chickillo was the latest to take a star turn in exhibition play. After sitting out the preseason opener with a hip flexor, he announced his return in the second quarter Sunday when he dropped Falcons quarterback Matt Simms for a 13-yard loss. On the first series of the third quarter, he sacked Simms for a 6-yard loss.

It was Chickillo's first two-sack game since November 2012 when he was a sophomore at Miami.

“When your number is called and you get an opportunity to play, the standard is the standard here as coach is always saying,” Chickillo said. “You've got to do your job.”

After last season, coach Mike Tomlin put Chickillo in touch with former NFL defensive tackle Booger McFarland, who is involved with a training and sports performance service in Tampa, Fla.

“The cliché line is (you're) working on getting stronger and faster, but that's part of the game,” Chickillo said. “I was working on technique, having a plan in pass rushing. … I felt I really benefited from that.”

Chickillo is just two seasons removed from playing defensive line at Miami. The Steelers switched him to the outside after selecting him in the sixth round of the 2015 draft.

“He's quick off the ball and uses his hands well. There is a lot of upside for him,” said Dupree, who came to the Steelers in the same draft. “He just keeps progressing. It's exciting to see how much he's grown from last year to this year.”

The evidence was on display against the Falcons.

“The game,” Chickillo said, “is starting to slow down for me.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review sports writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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