Where Do Steelers Stand Defensively?

Nov 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Pittsburgh Steelers defense huddles against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 30-9.Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Pittsburgh Steelers defense huddles against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 30-9.Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

With all sights set on a Super Bowl run in 2016, will the Steelers defense be able to replicate the success of years past?

It’s no secret that today’s Pittsburgh Steelers are heavily fueled by offense. Ben Roethlisberger has said himself that the unit’s goal is 30 points per game, no matter the circumstances. Passing, rushing, offensive line play – the Steelers offense has a chemistry that few in the NFL can match.

On the other side of the coin is the Steelers defense, whose up-and-down 2015 season was still its best in the past few years.

The Steelers racked up 30 total takeaways and 48 sacks (both third in the NFL) last year as the defense found its knack for big plays. However, an inconsistent pass defense often overshadowed the positives, as the Steelers surrendered a whopping 4,350 yards through the air.

You remember the nightmares: Rob Gronkowski’s hat trick on opening night and Russell Wilson’s 345 yard, 5 touchdown extravaganza, to name a few. More on this in a bit.

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Although much of the regular season was a roller coaster, the Steelers defense did routinely shine in one area: stopping the run. Pittsburgh’s 1,459 rushing yards and mere 6 touchdowns allowed were both among the best in the NFL. This trend stayed true in the Playoffs as well.

One of the primary reasons for such successful run coverage was a noticeably improved Steelers front seven. Ryan Shazier shoots into the backfield like a missle; his nose for the ball and lateral quickness are truly something to behold. The inside duo of Shazier and veteran anchor Lawrence Timmons (who posted a team-leading 77 solo tackles) clogged up rushing lanes week after week.

The Steelers defensive line made strides throughout the season. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are evolving into quite the tandem, as evidenced by their team-leading 7 and 6.5 sacks, respectively.

The question mark of the Steelers defensive line is nose tackle. At this point, it’s unclear whether Dan McCullers or Javon Hargrave will get the starting job. McCullers has only started one game in his two-year career, and Hargrave was just drafted in April. A learning curve is to be expected.

Here’s an interesting statistic: James Harrison, nearing age 40, led Steelers outside linebackers in sacks last year with five. Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree each totaled four. Jarvis Jones had two.

Despite their higher sack totals, Harrsion and Moats serve as rotational relief for Dupree and Jones. Dupree cooled off a bit after a strong first half of the season, but he should achieve higher numbers in his sophomore campaign. As for Jones, 2016 will serve as his do-or-die season.

Lastly, the infamous Steelers secondary will determine if this defense can reach championship levels again. Antwon Blake leaving in free agency likely helps.

William Gay and Ross Cockrell aren’t outstanding, but they’re certainly formidable. Behind them is where things get tricky. 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson still has yet to take a regular season snap. This year’s first-rounder, Artie Burns, needs mechanically polished before he starts. Golson and Burns may battle it out for the nickel corner spot.

Mike Mitchell has free safety locked up. Strong safety is another story. Will the Steelers roll with enticing second-round pick Sean Davis or give Shamarko Thomas his last chance? Could Robert Golden make the transition from special teams to starting strong safety?

No matter what the week one depth chart looks like, the bottom line is this: the Steelers secondary cannot be prone to catastrophic meltdowns like last year.

If Russell Wilson was held to even one less touchdown pass, the Steelers probably win in Seattle. If Rob Gronkowski was properly covered in the red zone, the Steelers could’ve left New England with a huge win.

The Steelers defense is shaping up nicely on every level. Run support emerged as a strength in 2015, and now it is the secondary’s turn to assert themselves.

An array of young players will get the chance to shine on the Steelers defense this season. Should they succeed, the rest of the NFL had better watch out.

All stats via Pro Football Reference