Best and Worst Case Scenarios for Steelers Defense in 2015


There are many ifs on the defensive side of the football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. This much is not a secret. At this point it’s difficult to be certain who will start most of the year besides Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward. Then there are 9 other positions that are a big question mark.

There are far more questions than answers on this defense and none have truly been addressed so far this offseason. It seems the Steelers are content to more or less leave the matter to chance. There’s still time to draft or sign players, but even that applies some level of chance.

Obviously chance is unavoidable. You can’t be certain of injuries or development. The Steelers, perhaps given insurance from their almost certainly terrific offense, seem willing to accept much more uncertainty and risk regarding their defense. This could possibly be a very, very bad year for this defense. It could develop and stay healthy. If a few things go right it could be solid, but if a few things go wrong, it could be very bad.

Therefore, let’s run down the best and worst case scenario for each level of the defense.

  • Defensive Line

Best Case Scenario – As far as defensive tackle goes the keys here are Steve McLendon’s health and Daniel McCullers‘ development. McLendon has gone from placeholder for Casey Hampton’s replacement to a solid starter. McLendon had always been strong in the pass rush for a nosetackle but packed on a lot of weight last year and it showed in the run defense. If he can finally stay healthy he’ll do well. If McLendon stays healthy then McCullers’ turning from a huge person to a huge NFL nose tackle.

For defensive end, Heyward keeps getting better and better and really starts turning heads next year. On the other side, Stephon Tuitt continues the development he showed at the end of last year and we can all forget about Cam Thomas while Stephon Tuitt stuffs runs and chases quarterbacks with a frame born to play 3-4 DE for Pittsburgh.

Worse Cast Scenario – McLendon struggles with injuries early. This limits his abilities when he’s on the field but also forces McCullers to take on more than he’s ready for. We end up with a giant off balance nose tackle who isn’t sure of his assignments or technique.

On the other side, Heyward stays the same at above average rather than great while Tuitt fails to develop, either due to motivation or injury, and we’re stuck with another year of Cam Thomas, who, like it or not, stays healthy at least.

  • Linebackers

Best Case Scenario – Jarvis Jones is the major player here. If he can play a full season like he played the first two games of last season, we have ourselves an outside linebacker ladies and gentlemen. Another year stronger, smarter, and healthier takes Jones to the pass rushing menace we drafted out of Georgia. Meanwhile, Harrison stays healthy and Moats keeps hustling and they combine to be the other half of a versatile 3 headed pass rush threat.

On the inside, Timmons keeps being Timmons. The other ILB spot works itself out. Shazier turns into a playmaker and stays healthy while Spence keeps pushing for his well-earned time and Vince Williams is able to spell Timmons. There’s a lot of potential for that other ILB spot so one of those three need to pop.

Worst Case Scenario – I don’t even want to say it, but worst case is Jones is a bust. This throws off the balance of our already wildly undermanned OLB spot. Jones is demoted and replaced by Harrison while Moats mans the other side. Harrison is too old to start so deals with injuries throughout the year. Moats shows he’s a backup, not a starter, and does not perform. OLB could really get ugly. If a few things go wrong we could be looking at Timmons at OLB again.

On the inside Shazier proves to be too small to play the run and too young to pass rush effectively. His athleticism proves to sit somewhere between ILB and SS, and not effectively at either. So we are again going with a 3 headed unit of average inside linebackers opposite Timmons.

  • Secondary

Best Case Scenario – Cortez Allen plays well. I don’t know what confidence issues means but whatever it is it really took a toll on our pass defense last year. Allen puts that all behind him and puts it all together. Allen’s problem is, to over simplify, he gets beat for the TD or long throw. If he stops that, everything else is fine, and he’ll be Ike Taylor with hands.

William Gay continues being the best player in the Pittsburgh secondary (if you told me 5 years ago I’d be typing that…). Blake proves to be a more than capable nickel.

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At safety, Mike Mitchell bounces back from his issues last year. His groin is healed, he knows the playbook, he’s used to dealing with Troy now (assuming he’s playing). Mitchell proves to be the player we signed a couple years ago who could run, hit hard, and play aggressively. Mitchell makes good decisions and tackles better.

The other safety spot, basically filling it is the best case scenario at this time. I don’t think Troy coming back is the best scenario, though it might be. The best is probably Shamarko Thomas proves to be worth the time and performs well.

Worst Case Scenario – Cortez Allen does not play well. Cortez turns out to not be capable of playing starting corner at the NFL level. Regardless of confidence, health, experience, it turns out Allen, even in the best case scenario, has just been milking a couple decent games a few years ago for a whole career and a far contract from the Steelers. Blake has to replace him, or a rookie corner. Really, we only have 3 corners. This could get ugly.

At the safety level, worst case is Mitchell keeps playing poorly. Meanwhile Troy either retires and/or plays like he did last year. We end up with Shamarko Thomas and Will Allen, even Robert Golden playing on non-kicking downs and none of them prove to be capable.

So to sum it up, this could be a problem. There are avenues that could lead to success. If even half of the best case scenarios play out the defense will be ok. If they all work out it might even be good. There is a real potential however this could be a disaster.

The safe spots are on the defensive line and inside linebacker. Regardless of how it shakes out there is a very good chance that these positions will be serviceable if nothing else.

On the other hand, at corner, outside linebacker, and safety, these are dangerous areas. These positions could really domino into something bad. There are not enough players for any of these positions to be two-deep, if players start getting injured or playing poorly, there’s nowhere to turn. No old wiseman, no young talented rookies, no mid-career backups hungry to get a chance, no one.

But we are all well aware of that. So what will it be? Well we still have free agency and the draft to alter these possible futures. The defense looks like it has more upside now than mid-way through last year. If everyone keeps progressing as expected we could be solid. If not, there’s no backup plan and this could be bad.

I don’t expect whoever we draft to solve this downside. Let’s reassess closer to the fall but at this point overall the best case scenario is everyone progressing and staying healthy and being maybe a top 1/3 of the league defense, particularly good against the run. Worst-case is the very bottom. We have a ceiling but no floor. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for now and look toward draft day for a little more clarity.

Next: Steelers 2015 Rest on Front Three

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