Year in and year out it seems like the Steelers defense could use some major improvement in two areas: their pass rush and their secondary. Let’s check out two prospects eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft from two of College Football’s most prestigious programs who could potentially help the Steelers fix these issues.
Steeler Nation has a lot to be excited about after Pittsburgh’s impressive victory on Monday Night Football. Big Ben and the offense were firing on all cylinders, scoring 38 points. This performance even came without 4 starters (Bell, Bryant, Green, and Wheaton) on the field. However, the Steelers’ defense still showed the usual signs of trouble.
While Kirk Cousins was very inaccurate on most of his passes last night, Washington was able to pick up some long gains in the passing game. DeSean Jackson had a lot of success, racking up 102 yards in the air. Jackson also burned Ross Cockrell and was able to get behind Pittsburgh’s defense on a vertical route near the end of the game. Only a terribly under-thrown pass and a defensive pass interference call prevented him from a huge touchdown catch.
Also, the Steelers didn’t generate much pressure with their pass rush, resulting in exactly zero sacks for the entire game. Keith Butler often only sent 3 or 4 rushers after the quarterback and instead relied upon Cousins making some mistakes with the football. However, against a more experienced quarterback, the Steelers will need to force more pressure in order to win, even if they are only sending 3 or 4 defenders after the QB.
The Steelers will need for their current defense to play better if they hope to realize their dreams of bringing home a 7th Lombardi trophy. However, in the 2017 NFL Draft, here are two possible additions that could fix these defensive issues: Florida State’s Senior DE Demarcus Walker and Michigan’s lockdown CB Jourdan Lewis.
DE DeMarcus Walker, Florida State
Returning for his Senior year after a pretty productive Junior campaign, DeMarcus Walker is an experienced defensive end who has a lot of versatility to his game. Walker lines up at multiple positions on the FSU defensive line. Whether he is playing a 5-tech, 3-tech, or even lined up off the edge, Walker finds a way to get to the quarterback. After racking up 10.5 sacks in 2015, Walker started his Senior year off with a bang, terrorizing Ole Miss’ offense line for 4.5 sacks.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Walker’s game is his overwhelmingly strong hands and how he uses them to set up pass rushing moves. On a routine basis Walker will swipe away opposing blockers’ hands and then utilize his array of abilities, including a very effective swim move. He compliments this elite hand usage with exceptional quickness as a rusher to beat linemen before they have a chance to recover from his initial blow. Walker just has such a violent aspect to his rushes that you love to see out of a defensive lineman.
Walker is one of the more technically sound pass rushers you will find. While he will not blow up the combine with his athletic testing, Walker routinely gets to the QB with his plethora of refined pass rushing moves. Walker has demonstrated the ability to rip through blockers and bend the edge with his flexibility.
Lastly, Walker is naturally gifted with extremely long arms. This allows him to stay clean and keep blockers off of his body while rushing the passer. Walker also uses his monstrous arms to disrupt throwing lanes and deflect passes at the line of scrimmage. He demonstrates excellent timing and awareness in doing so, with 5 pass deflections in 2015.
As I noted above, Walker has less than stellar athletic abilities. Walker isn’t your typical speed rusher off the edge, and instead wins with power and technique. However, Walker could stand to develop a better get-off and create more explosion off the line of scrimmage. At times, he gets too upright off the snap and almost jogs into his blocker without exerting full force. I would like to see Walker generate more explosion out of his stance and maintain leverage in his rushes on a snap-to-snap basis.
In total, Walker could provide the Steelers with a much needed pass rushing threat from the interior. Outside of solid contributions from Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers were unable to generate pressure on 3 or 4 man rushes in 2015. This problem continued in the Steelers’ Monday night victory against Washington.
Adding a solid defensive end like Walker to rotate in would allow Heyward and Tuitt to play with fresher legs. Therefore, I would be a fan of the Steelers targeting Walker as an early-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.
CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Perhaps my favorite corner in College Football, Jourdan Lewis may be the answer the Steelers have been looking for in their secondary. Lewis has the potential to be a shutdown corner on Sundays, and he plays with the swagger that will allow him to fit right in with Pittsburgh’s defense. While Lewis has yet to make his 2016 debut, sitting out the first two games with an undisclosed injury that many speculate could actually be a suspension, he is certainly a corner for Steeler fans to keep an eye on this College Football season.
To start off, Jourdan Lewis possesses excellent quickness at the cornerback position. Lewis seamlessly changes directions and does a fantastic job of mirroring his assignment’s every step. It is amazing how Lewis is able to constantly remain in-phase while in coverage, as he rarely allows any separation. Many times it appears as if Lewis is running the route better than the receiver with his fluidity and anticipation.
Because Lewis is able to suffocate the WR throughout his route, he is always in a position to make a play on the ball and disrupt passes. As a result, Lewis had an outstanding 20 pass breakups in 2015. Lewis beats his opponent at the point of attack with his “my ball” mentality.
Additionally, Lewis plays with outstanding physicality both while in coverage and in his run defense. Lewis is excellent at redirecting wide receivers while in press coverage. He does a fantastic job of pinning his target against the sideline. This technique limits the amount of space he needs to cover. Also, Lewis excels at hand fighting throughout the route to disrupt WR’s timing and win at the catch point.
As a run defender, Lewis is in a class of his own. Lewis plays with extreme aggression and shows the willingness to make plays not only in coverage, but also near the line of scrimmage. He is adept at driving downhill from coverage, breaking on the pass, and taking down pass catchers. Lewis’s defensive coordinator, Don Brown, praised this area of his game, referring to Lewis as “one of the best run defenders at corner I’ve ever been around.”
As one of the more gifted corners I’ve seen in this class, there are not many weaknesses to Lewis’s game. Lewis checks almost all of the boxes you look for in a corner.
However, I would like to see Lewis improve upon his ability to “become the WR” while he is in phase. As I noted above, Lewis rarely allows any separation and is often times tied to the WR’s hip pocket. Therefore, it is odd that Lewis rarely comes down with interceptions, bringing down only 2 in 2015. While interceptions do not always tell the tale of good coverage, you would think one of the more dominant corners in College Football would generate more turnovers.
Ultimately, Lewis’s lack of interceptions stems from his inability to “become the WR” while he is in-phase. Lewis struggles to get his head turned around even when he is stride for stride with the receiver. When a CB is forced to recover, they often try to read the WR’s eyes to contest the catch. However, Lewis is often comfortably in the correct position in coverage. Therefore, he should have the ability to flip his head around and make a play on the ball. Otherwise, Lewis’s turnover potential is severely constrained by his failure to locate the football.
It has been a long time since the Steelers have had a corner the caliber of Jourdan Lewis. Pittsburgh’s hopes are for their current investments in Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Senquez Golson to pay off. However, adding additional young talent into the secondary is always a good idea. In total, Lewis could provide the Steelers with the shutdown corner they have been looking for.
Want to check out either DeMarcus Walker or Jourdan Lewis for yourself?
Watch Walker and #2 Florida State face off against #10 Louisville’s potential Heisman candidate, QB Lamar Jackson. Tune in to see if Walker can top his 4.5 sack performance from Week 1. This highly anticipated showdown will take place Saturday, September 17th at 12 ET on ABC.
Then, check at 3:30 ET to see if Jourdan Lewis makes his 2016 debut against the Colorado Buffaloes.