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Keeanu Benton Ready For Larger Than Anticipated Role, Expects To Expand Versatility


While Pittsburgh Steelers rookie defensive lineman Keeanu Benton saw more than a couple dozen snaps in his NFL debut a week ago, it cannot be ignored that the bulk of that work came after Cameron Heyward had already gone out of the game due to a groin injury.

In other words, it wasn’t in the cards for him to play so much. That came about by necessity. But it’s going to continue to be necessary moving forward, because Heyward is expected to miss about two months or so.

Benton told reporters that he “expected some playing time” in the opener, but “I didn’t know it was going to be this significant this soon”, according to Mike DeFabo writing this past week for The Athletic in preparation for Monday’s game. “But I’m ready”.

Even if it wasn’t by design that Benton played as much as he did, he generally looked the part. There are things that he has to clean up from a discipline and technique level, but the talent is clearly there. The question is how much they can expand his role without hurting his development.

He did say that it is “probably expanding, however, which is interesting in that it is somewhat in contrast with comments made by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. “I think he can play multiple positions along the line, but right now we may try to keep him a little bit where he is and let him grow that way”, he said. Yet Benton suggested otherwise.

“Being able to play a little bit more 4i, five[-technique], somewhere in there. We’ve talked about it”, he said, DeFabo writes. “I’m just kind of learning that, just being ready to go out there if needed”.

We might not see him moving around very much this week, but the Steelers have a couple of months to figure out how to accelerate Benton’s practical versatility by the time Heyward is able to get back from having surgery to repair his injury.

By then, he should be a versatile tool in the Steelers’ defensive front, perhaps capable of playing any position up and down the line, and ideally functioning as the starter at nose. He would also be a primary rotator in their nickel and dime two-man fronts with Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi.

You never want to drown a rookie in responsibility, and the Steelers have erred before in trying to give them too much too soon before. But they’ve also gone the other way and limited rookies beyond what would have been best for their development.

They had better hope they can strike the right balance with Benton, because they need him to play now, and they need him to play effective football. The more spots they can find for him to do that in without detriment to his performance, the better.

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