A couple of weeks ago we graded the Pittsburgh Steelers offense following OTAs. In this article, we give the defense the same treatment. Because of the Steelers 3-4 defensive scheme, I broke the defensive ends and outside linebackers into their own grouping. This is due to the fact that sometimes the players line up interchangeably at the line of scrimmage. Occasionally that makes T.J. Watt a defensive end or an outside linebacker depending on the play. That being said, let us revisit the Pittsburgh Steelers OTAs and grade the defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Grades for the Defense
The Defensive Tackles
Beginning on the front line of the defense we have the defensive tackles. The two veterans that share most of the snaps at the position are Javon Hargrave and Daniel McCullers. Hargrave has been the starter since being drafted by the team in 2016. He had a career year last season and, for eight weeks last season, was applying more pressure on third and fourth down than anyone except Aaron Donald. McCullers is a serviceable backup to Hargrave, but there are a couple of guys looking to unseat him. Among them is rookie Isaiah Buggs, who was drafted as a defensive end but could be moved to the interior. If Hargrave continues his improvement, this defensive line should be considered one of the best in the game.
The Interior Linebackers
Next up in the heart of the Steelers defense are the interior linebackers. This group consists of seven players as of right now. This group has changed a lot over the past few seasons, including the heart of the defense. Ryan Shazier remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he continues to rehab from his spinal injury. That leaves veteran leadership to Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich as well as an interesting crop of rookies. Steelers first-round pick Devin Bush brings the tenacity and speed often associated with Shazier. Fellow rookies Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III will be given an opportunity to make an impact, but it might only be sparingly or on special teams.
Then there is the addition of hybrid linebacker/safety Mark Barron. Barron joins as a free agent after spending last season with the Los Angeles Rams. As a linebacker, he is of a smaller size than what you would normally find. He is more athletic and would certainly help in pass coverage which was a complete liability for the team last year. His ability to play as safety increases his value to the team, while also providing opportunities for the younger guys to get playing time. This position group last season was a real area of concern. After this offseason, there is a lot of potential moving forward.
Moving on to the defensive backfield, the cornerbacks are the largest group on the defense. They are also one of the most enigmatic groups on the team as well. The most senior member of this group is Joe Haden, followed by a host of guys in their third or fourth seasons. That includes Artie Burns, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, and Brian Allen. Save for Haden and Hilton, this is a fairly sorry group. Haden is a solid corner, albeit very injury prone. Hilton is small, yet physical and has been steadily improving. Burns confidence is shot, and the team feels the same about him as they have declined his option for the following year. Sutton and Allen haven’t really developed well, making this a group that doesn’t inspire much confidence.
The Steelers did make two additions that change the outlook of this group. First, Pittsburgh traded for Steven Nelson from the Kansas City Chiefs. Nelson had four interceptions himself for the Chiefs last season. The entire Steelers defense had eight last season. Immediately, Nelson is an upgrade. Joining Nelson is Justin Layne, the teams’ third-round pick. Layne was considered a steal in the draft, with athleticism and physicality that could see him named a starter in the near future. Haden and Nelson will give the Steelers two strong corners, with Layne nipping at their heels to supplant them very soon.
Pittsburgh Steelers Position of Concern: Safeties
Staying in the defensive backfield, the position of most concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers is the safety position. Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, and Terrell Edmunds are the most experienced members of this group. Davis represents the only true free safety on the roster, with good but not great coverage skills. He doesn’t force many turnovers, with only five interceptions in 47 career games. Edmunds is a physical strong safety but still raw and needs improvement. Allen and Dangerfield are fairly limited in what they can do. Neither player offers much in the way of flexibility or athleticism at their position. That is why Mark Barron will certainly be utilized as much as possible to help shore up the deficiencies the Steelers have at the position.
Pittsburgh Steelers Position of Strength: Edge Rushers
The strongest unit on the Steelers defense is their edge rushers. Pittsburgh is home to strong defensive ends and young, athletic outside linebackers that know how to get to the quarterback. This group includes defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, as well as outside linebackers Watt, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. Heyward and Tuitt combined for 13.5 sacks last season, a slight decrease from the 15 sacks they combined for the year before. Tuitt continues to improve, which spells trouble for opposing quarterbacks.
Watt and Dupree combined for 18.5 sacks last season, a figure that could have been greater. Dupree missed some opportunities that continued to fuel the narrative that he has underachieved in his career. When compared to Watt, it is easy to make that argument. Dupree has underachieved, but he is still a solid option. He has one year to prove he can get it together and at least be in shouting distance of Watt’s production. Otherwise, he could find himself replaced by Chickillo, Adeniyi, or one of the rookie linebackers drafted this season. All told, this group is easily the strongest on the defense and should get better.
Bonus: The Specialists
A bonus group to look at following the Pittsburgh Steelers OTA is the specialists. Kickers and punters are easy to praise or vilify depending on the situation. In 2017, kicker Chris Boswell was considered one of the four “Killer B’s” because of his accuracy and clutch as a kicker. Boswell won a playoff game for the Steelers in the 2016 season, scoring every point. As a result, he received a hefty new contract and promptly bombed it last season. He had a career worst in field goal percentage and extra point percentage. Boswell lost the faith of the coach and many fans. Boswell is still an 85.2% field goal kicker and 94.7% on extra points. He should be given the opportunity to prove he is still a Pro Bowl kicker. He should bounce back, but the question remains if it will be enough to save his job.
Punter Jordan Berry had a nearly identical season last year as he did in 2017. That shouldn’t result in him losing his job by any means. Berry proved to be fairly accurate last season as he did finish in the top 10 in placing punts inside the 20-yard line last season. Basically, he had the absolute opposite season that Boswell had. The specialists could have an interesting season this year.
Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers OTA is over and training camp is around the corner, the team is beginning to take shape. Offensively the team is still quite strong. Defensively, the team has undergone plenty of changes from last season. There have been some solid additions to the linebackers and cornerbacks. If the defense can gell together quickly and improve, the Steelers could be on their way to having a top defense again. Next up is training camp and in two short months, it’ll be football season again.
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