The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has many more uncertainties than the offense, mostly in the defensive backfield. Let’s review starters, immediate backups and even depth guys. My opinion flows from each end of the river and I attempt to cover all corners of the defense.
• Defensive Line
The Ends – Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt should have a dominant year. I have no worries about them, although I expected more sacks from Tuitt last year. Tuitt is in a contract year, so he will look to increase his value. Tyson Alualu is the best depth player we’ve had at defensive end in a while. Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas were underwhelming. The talent and play drop off from Heyward and Tuitt to Mathews or Thomas was very steep. The drop off to Alualu is not quite as steep. LT Walton has to prove that he is worth sticking around for the future. Johnny Maxey will fight for a practice squad spot with some undrafted free agents. Undrafted free agent Francis Kallon is an interesting player who is raw but athletic. He will be a prime practice squad candidate.
Nose Tackles – Javon Hargrave is a stud and will continue to get better with experience. What a steal. Dan McCullers has always been underwhelming and I believe Alualu can and would supplement the nose tackle position better than McCullers, making him obsolete and opening up a roster spot.
Insiders – Ryan Shazier needs to stay healthy and clean up his missed tackles, but he is also in a contract year looking for a hefty extension. I have full faith in Shazier and the weight on his shoulders gets a bit heavier with the departure of Lawrence Timmons. Vince Williams does not get enough credit for his play in 2016 when he started. He is a tackling machine, not missing many. His biggest deficiency is his play in coverage, which needs a serious makeover. The Steelers didn’t draft an inside linebacker for a few reasons in my opinion: top heavy only class, faith in Williams and bigger needs needed tended to. I think this is a ‘tryout’ year for Williams, as his contract is favorable to be a backup should the Steelers look to draft an inside linebacker high in 2018 if Williams underwhelms.
Behind Williams and Shazier, there isn’t much to write home about. Tyler Matakevich and LJ Fort will need to fend off some threatening their spots on the roster. Steven Johnson knows the playbook. Undrafted free agent Keith Kelsey is a guy who was made a priority by the Steelers. Matt Galambos was a tryout player and earned a spot on this team heading into OTA’s. Better depth is needed; hopefully one of these linebackers in camp surprises and comes along.
Outsiders – Attempting to become younger and more athletic, this position group needs to step up. James Harrison was our sack leader with 5 sacks. Whew, tough to swallow. This should be Bud Dupree’s breakout year and I’m talking double digit sacks. He came back from his injury and performed well while finishing the season on a strong note. James Harrison is a machine; someone needs to figure out a way to copy his DNA. My expectations of Harrison are tied to the progression and plan of first round selection TJ Watt. If Watt is progressing fast, has a good camp and preseason, he could supplement Harrison more than we expect. On the other hand, the same goes if the opposite occurs. I hope they handle Watt how they handled Artie Burns last year. Make Watt earn his playing time, ease him into the process and unleash him when he proves he can handle it. Anthony Chickillo seems to be in the coach’s corner, but I think he is in a three way battle against veteran Arthur Moats and 7th round pick Keion Adams. All three offer completely different skill-sets. If Adams does not have a great camp and a stellar preseason, he may be headed to the practice squad. Adams would have special teams value, which may be his saving grace against Moats, who was benched last year and has a bigger contract.
• Defensive Backs
Boundary Cornerbacks – Artie Burns is the number one cornerback and should look to keep progressing. Burns only got better with more experience, learning from his own mistakes and from fellow teammate Mike Mitchell. It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Ross Cockrell. According to my charting, he led the team in missed tackles. It was evident on tape that he lacks the needed aggression and tenacity needed to play the position. I don’t think he is in the Steelers’ future plans as they placed an original tender on him in the off-season. Cockrell is strictly a zone cornerback who lacks athleticism and I think the Steelers are looking for versatile cornerbacks who are reliable against the run and are athletic. Cockrell just simply doesn’t fit where the Steelers are headed. Brian Allen was drafted in the fifth round but has an uphill battle making this roster. He has to have a great camp and stellar preseason to prove he belongs on the roster. Allen is extremely raw, but has high upside and prototypical size the Steelers are clamoring for.
Slot Cornerbacks – What a question mark. This spot is wide open. Will seasoned veteran Coty Sensabaugh take this spot based on experience? Will Senquez Golson finally be able to plan an NFL down? Is third round pick Cam Sutton going to take this spot by storm? William Gay has started OTA’s as the starting slot cornerback, just to note. So many questions, zero answers. Anything goes, hell in a cell. Blood, sweat and tears will be shed. Personally, I really hope Golson takes the spot by storm and really surprises everyone. Cam Sutton can then provide valuable depth at both cornerback spots.
Free Safety – It is well known how I feel about Mike Mitchell: he is a strong safety playing free safety. Mitchell’s skill set is much more similar to a strong safety and not much like a free safety. The Steelers are in dire need of a true center-fielding free safety that has the range to be a play-maker in the back end. Too often was there an explosive play due to Mitchell unable to cover or unable to make a tackle. Mitchell does not turn the ball over very often, which is heavily needed on this defense (only 1 INT and 0 FF in 2016). The position needs an upgrade, but Mitchell is a decent spot holder until that replacement is found. Robert Golden is just depth with starting experience. I don’t think the Steelers are happy with the depth here.
Strong Safety – Whew, did we hit on Sean Davis or what? Davis came into his own his rookie season after being relieved of his slot cornerback duties. He was a force and a reliable tackler against the run, turned the ball over and was reliable in coverage. I am simply ecstatic about him going forward. Jordan Dangerfield is simply depth, which needs upgraded.
William Gay – Where does he play? Cornerback depth, switch to safety, or starting slot cornerback? I want Gay on this roster, just make it happen. OTA’s arent great indicators, but Gay has been starting in the slot cornerback position thus far.
Image credit: SI.com