The general consensus is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will field a high octane, top five offense this year. The defense, however, has several significant question marks.
Poor play and injuries have a portion of the fan base doubting several of our key players. Those who are more optimistic are hopeful that these same players rebound to pair our monster offense with, at the very least, a respectable defense.
Though there are several players who can be considered “x-factors” as to what caliber of defense we field this year, I want to focus on four of these key “X-men”.
Cortez Allen. Once thought to be the future at the cornerback position, Cortez was given a 5 year, $26 million contract based on what appeared to be above average instincts. Sub-par play got him benched after seven games and he was deactivated for the last 4 games due to a thumb injury that required surgery.
There are several reasons to be optimistic about the Citadel defensive back. Allen has done all the right things to get his mind and body ready for this season. He dedicated himself to working out with James Harrison to being part of a support group among players, giving and getting encouragement through phone calls, text and email. He looks good this training camp and has gotten back to using his size to his advantage.
On one particular play, Martavis Bryant tried to muscle through Allen in an effort to separate. Allen not only stayed with the receiver but seemed to anticipate the break and mirrored it perfectly. At 6’1, Cortez is easily our biggest cornerback. His ability to utilize his frame and improve his instincts are going to be key to his keeping a starting position.
Prediction: I think the boo birds are going to dissect every little mistake Cortez makes. He sometimes has a problem with tracking the ball while mirroring his opponent and last season he didn’t have the confidence or experience to recover from broken plays. I predict that Cortez will have a rebound year and will retain the starting position he currently holds .
The subtle changes in defensive scheme may work to his advantage and he seems to have regained some level of his confidence. I am going to go out on a limb and say that we will eventually see Allen and Boykin at the starting cornerbacks and Gay returns to the slot position in which he excels. The drafting of two young cornerbacks may also serve to light a fire under him.
Jarvis Jones. Regardless of the reason, if you are a first round draft pick and don’t produce immediate results, you are subject to criticism. If you are a first round pick and a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you had better contribute immediately or face SEVERE criticism.
Two years ago, the Steelers nabbed the Georgia outside linebacker prospect when he slid to the #17 slot in the first round. During his first season, as he rotated with starter Jason Worilds, there were some grumblings about his size and his lack of core strength. He had much to prove his sophomore season but a broken wrist put him on the injured/designated for return list and he eventually missed nine games.
Too much has been made of Jone’s lack of production. Rarely does a rookie player make an impact on a Dick LeBeau defense, and the broken wrist/injured reserve excuse is just about as good as a player can have for a lack of production in any given season. Jones is inked in as a starter, but is obviously still an unknown quantity. Another injury in training camp has many fans worried about his durability.
Prediction: Jones has the ability to disappoint more than any other player on this defense, but I believe he may have a good season. Though not as strong as he needs to be, I think his understanding of the defense and his athleticism will work to his advantage.
Much like Cortez Allen, there is a rookie in the wings that might motivate Jones to be more aggressive and productive. I think he keeps his starting slot, but, write this down, I also believe that by the end of this season Arthur Moats will be tabbed as the most productive outside linebacker on this team.
Stephon Tuitt. As the 2014 season wore on, Tuitt saw his playing time increase. He makes this list because his position is an important lynch pin in determining if the Steelers defense succeeds or fails. If the defensive end takes up blockers, the outside linebackers can get penetration. If the outside linebackers are pressuring the quarterback, the cornerbacks will be the recipients of hurried passes and don’t have to cover as long.
Tuitt , perhaps more than any other second year player, has the chance to succeed this year. He is strong. He is self motivated. He showed marked improvement with every game, and started the last 4 games of the season. Cam Thomas was manhandled last year and too often by one blocker.
Tuitt demands a double team if the opposition wants to keep him out of their backfield. As I mentioned earlier, it is rare that a rookie makes an impact on a Dick Lebeau defense, but Tuitt was able to do just that. In training camp he recently mentioned that he has high goals for himself, but when asked to elaborate he was wise enough to keep them to himself.
Prediction: Stephon Tuitt is the missing piece to the Steelers defensive line. Cameron Heyward is elite and Steve McLendon is quietly underrated. I predict that Tuitt only gets better and that he and Heyward should combine for 10 or more sacks this year. They could become the best defensive end tandem in the league.
Shamarko Thomas. Perennial pro bowler and future hall of famer Troy Polamalu is no longer with the team and Shamarko Thomas has been pegged to fill his large shoes. The three-year safety is hard to analyze for the simple fact that he has played so little.
Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Shamarko Thomas (29) warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas has been labeled as a “hybrid” player due to his ability to play close to the line and because of his physical nature. He is strong off the safety blitz and has no problem putting his shoulder into a ball carrier. We will have to keep an eye on his coverage skills to see if he is capable of lifting the Steelers out of their 27th ranked pass defense.
Thomas may see his future balanced on whatever nuances Butler adds to this defense. If they play to his strengths, then obviously he may succeed. If they expect him to be a ballhawk then we will surely see him falter. He has been dinged up in training camp, mainly due to the hard-nosed mentality that I mentioned earlier.
Prediction: I look for Shamarko to struggle at first and wont be entirely surprised if we see him benched in favor of veteran safety Will Allen. I don’t believe it will be a permanent move but Shamarko’s coverage ability worries me immensely. He, too often, is out of position or seems to be a step behind due to poor recognition skills. Perhaps an increase in reps will iron out some of these deficiencies.
Each year there are players that are expected to take the next step and therefore warrant extra attention. These four young players… these X-men… might not have the season riding on their shoulders, but their ability to improve will go a long way in determining if this defense moves forward.
If they falter, the Steelers will be forced to either accelerate the learning curve of younger players or rely on the savvy of its veterans. If they succeed, we could be looking at a team that can go deep into the playoffs.
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