Steelers' L.T. Walton earns coaches' trust, 'deserves to play' after recent performance
The Steelers' depth chart at defensive end lists a pair of starters who were blue-chip recruits, went to big-time programs and were taken in the first 1½ rounds of the draft. The top backup is a former top-10 draft choice.
No. 4 on the list? L.T. Walton, a former two-star recruit who went to college at the only place that offered him a scholarship, per Rivals.com (Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference). He was a sixth-round pick in 2015 who quietly has kept his roster spot, working behind the scenes to earn the trust of the Steelers defensive coaches.
“There's not many guys from Central Michigan — as unbelievable as it sounds, given that we have had a really good one (Antonio Brown) — who have come as far as L.T. has,” veteran Cameron Heyward said.
“But he's really grown a lot. You see the growth, whether it's strength or him knowing what he's got to do, and you see his motor out there, which you love.”
That motor has been more on display in recent weeks as Walton has gotten more reps in the absence of $60 million man Stephon Tuitt, a former second-round pick from Notre Dame.
While Tyson Alualu, the No. 10 overall pick in 2010, has been starting in place of Tuitt (back injury) at right defensive end opposite Heyward, Walton is the next man up at a position where rotating bodies is preferable.
Walton had perhaps his best game as a pro in Sunday's victory at Detroit when he played a quarter of the defensive snaps. Walton had a tackle in which he pursued a ball-carrier more than 10 yards downfield, in addition to a play in which he hit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford while batting down his pass.
That second-quarter play nearly resulted in a fumble.
“Just doing my job,” said Walton, who was unblocked on the play. “Honestly, I'm doing what I'm supposed to.”
Signing Alualu helped the Steelers fortify their depth behind Tuitt and Heyward, a former first-round pick playing on a $59 million contract. But the improved play of Walton in his third season has helped, too.
“This guy is a pretty good football player,” Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said of Walton. “This guy could be a starter for a lot of football teams in this league because he's smart. He picks up things. He runs well. He's strong at the point of attack, and he's a good technician.
“He's right there with Cam, Tuitt, Javon (Hargrave) and Tyson.”
Listed at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Walton has become versatile enough to be used at nose tackle and nickel lineman in addition to base end. Walton picked up nose duties this summer.
“He could play anywhere on defense we asked because he's very intelligent,” Mitchell said.
Walton made the 53-man roster as the No. 199 overall pick in 2015, and he has kept his spot. For comparison's sake, neither of the Steelers' sixth-round picks the past two seasons appeared in a game for the team. Though his role fluctuates, it's become apparent Walton has earned the trust of his coaches.
“A guy who comes to work, I'm going to give an opportunity to play,” Mitchell said. “And every chance I get an opportunity to put L.T. in there, I'm going to put him in the game. He deserves to play.”