What at the time seemed like a bargain signing by the Pittsburgh Steelers has become one of the most important players on Mike Tomlin’s defense.

Especially during the absence of T.J. Watt, the Steelers have had to turn elsewhere to bring back their usual old-school identity built on competent defense. Only this time, they’ve found it inside rather than on the edge.

I’m talking about Larry Ogunjobi, who at this pace will get paid big money next offseason. While Ogunjobi probably expected to be a part of an already talented rotation but the Steelers have needed him to become more than that.

Between Stephon Tuitt’s retirement and Tyson Alualu’s decline, Ogunjobi has played in 57% of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps. That trails only Cameron Heyward at the position. The next defensive tackle with the most snaps is Alualu with only 32%.

The Heyward-Ogunjobi duo has been what’s kept the Steelers in many of these recent games. Think about that win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The two defensive tackles put on a clinic in the trenches in the running game and passing game.

Even on last weekend’s loss to the Miami Dolphins, Ogunjobi was a bright spot for the Steelers. The defensive tackle was consistently beating double teams as seen below. In the game, he recorded three stops and three QB pressures, per PFF.

He’s played at such a high level that the Steelers should already be working on a contract extension offer. Before a foot injury in the offseason, Ogunjobi was set to sign with the Chicago Bears on a three-year deal worth $40.5 million. He might be getting ready for a similar deal.

Consider what The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly writes in a recent AFC North outlook piece:

“Ogunjobi has been a disruptive playmaker and stout against the run. And he’s been much-needed since the precipitous fall-off of 35-year-old Tyson Alualu coming off his broken ankle last year. Ogunjobi’s big start could lead to the Steelers signing him long-term and eventually making him the replacement for 33-year-old Cameron Heyward.”

That last part is an important reminder. Heyward – although arguably playing the best football in his career over the past two years – is 33 years old. At that age, NFL players’ careers are consistently in question. Ogunjobi could be a long-term answer for the position.

Featured image via Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports