For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s always been about the defense. From Mean Joe Greene to Troy Polamalu, countless legends have shaped the Steelers defense that has always been adored by fans, and feared by opposition. Defense wins championships, they say, and Pittsburgh proved that, winning four super bowls in the ’70s behind a Steel Curtain defense that simply was unstoppable.
Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau was considered one of the most influential coaches in NFL history, having led a complete reboot of the Steelers defense, and winning two super bowls in the process. With his recent departure, a new era begins, and an era that many are concerned for.
Recently, the Steelers defense has not lived up to its glorious reputation.
The defensive line struggled massively in 2014, only accumulating 33 sacks throughout the season, ranking 26th in the league. With the departure of Brett Keisel, and an aging James Harrison, younger players are going to be asked to step up more next season, and the seasons to come.
Sep 7, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackerJarvis Jones
(95) rushes at the line of scrimmage against the Cleveland Browns during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Entering his third season, Jarvis Jones will be expected to improve his play as an outside linebacker, having been a fairly large disappointment the last two seasons, with only 3 sacks to his name thus far in his career. Rookie, and 1st round pick, outside linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree will be expected to take on a starting role straight out of the gates, and can hopefully add a spark to the stumbling defensive line.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward, fresh to a huge 6-year $59.25 million dollar contract will be expected to take the role as the new leader of the line. Despite the slow start to his career, he has become a force to be reckoned with, and can hopefully continue to improve his play.
While the defensive line struggled mightily with getting to the quarterback, they did well against the run, ranking 6th in the league. In the passing game, though, the defense wasn’t quite as lucky.
The secondary had one of the worst seasons they’ve had in recent memory, and with the recent retirements of cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Troy Polamalu, as well as the departure of cornerback Brice McCain, the Steelers continue to lose key defensive players.
A good chunk of the Steelers’ draft picks were spent on improving the secondary.
In the 2nd round, the Steelers selected cornerback Senquez Golson. Many critique Golson for his small 5’9″ frame, and many analysts have doomed him to the slot position, but he has earned high praise from players and coaches, including Head Coach Mike Tomlin, General Manager Kevin Colbert, and star Wide Receiver Antonio Brown, another player who had formerly been critiqued for his size.
In the 4th round, the Steelers selected another cornerback, Doran Grant. Like Golson, Grant has been ridiculed for his size, standing at 5’10”, but has been complimented, also like Golson, for his quickness, and his ball skills.
Finally, with their last pick of the draft, the Steelers reeled in Jim Thorpe award winner, Gerod Holliman in the 7th round. Holliman tied the NCAA interception record with 14 interceptions during the 2014 season. Why wasn’t be drafted earlier? He can’t tackle.
Overall, the Steelers drafted all around the idea of ball skills, and vision instead of focusing on the physicality of the players. Having ranked 25th in the league in interceptions the season before, it makes a lot of sense to try grabbing players with a knack for interceptions.
Besides the rookies, the Steelers are currently looking at a secondary led by cornerback William Gay, cornerback Cortez Allen, safety Mike Mitchell, and safety Shamarko Thomas. The biggest question mark for the secondary has got to be Thomas. Shamarko is assuming the role of the legend, Troy Polamalu, and while he’s made it clear that he, nor anyone will ever play at the level of Polamalu, Steelers fans will be expecting Thomas to make a positive impact.
As for second year players, expect Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt to make an enormous impact on the defense. Last season, Shazier was held back by injuries, and Tuitt simply did not get enough playing time, and neither of them were able to show all of what they were capable of, but merely flashes of the massive potential they both have. Also keep an eye on players like Daniel McCullers and Antwon Blake, who might not have the largest roles on the defense, but could give necessary boosts to give the struggling defense.
Who’s going to step up?
Expect defensive end Cameron Heyward, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and cornerback William Gay to assume leadership roles amongst the position groups.
Otherwise, it’ll be up to players like Shamarko Thomas, Cortez Allen, Jarvis Jones, and the line of defensive rookies, and second year players to make an impact on the team.
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