The Pittsburgh Steelers rode their elite defense to a division title and playoff berth last season. Next year, though, the Steelers defense will look drastically different. This off-season, the salary cap was Pittsburgh’s biggest enemy, and they said goodbye to numerous defensive starters and key players. Their elite defense of the past two seasons may be no more in 2021.
The Pittsburgh Steelers Defense Has Been Decimated in Free Agency
Big Losses in the Front Seven
The Steelers front seven, which has led the NFL in sacks for the past four seasons, will be missing some key players in 2021. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree was by far the Steelers biggest loss in free agency, but it was also the most expected. His production over the past two seasons will be challenging to replace; the massive deal he signed with the Tennessee Titans is proof of that. Luckily for the Steelers, Alex Highsmith looked great in his rookie season and should do a fine job of replacing Dupree. Still, just in his second year, it is a tough ask of Highsmith to replicate Dupree’s success.
Other losses will hurt Pittsburgh’s run defense in 2021. Tyson Alualu returned to the Jacksonville Jaguars on a contract that the Steelers probably could have afforded. When Pittsburgh started the 2020 season with the best run defense in the league, Alualu was one of the biggest reasons for it. As he dealt with injuries and missed a few games, the defense was noticeably worse at stopping the run. The release of veteran linebacker Vince Williams was another unsurprising move that will hurt the run defense. Williams has been a bruiser in his eight years in Pittsburgh, doing his best work when he gets downhill and plays smash mouth football.
Even Bigger Losses in the Secondary
The Steelers had one of the best secondaries in the NFL over the past two seasons, but that may not be the case in 2021. Mike Hilton was a big loss. Over the past few seasons, Hilton developed into one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the league. His versatility jumps off the page; Hilton is as good at getting pressure in the backfield as he is at covering receivers in the slot. To add insult to injury, Hilton signed with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh was able to retain Cameron Sutton, a versatile cornerback who was slated to replace Hilton in the slot. But, that changed.
Pittsburgh’s biggest surprise of the off-season was standout cornerback Steven Nelson being cut after unsuccessfully seeking a trade. Nelson has probably been the team’s best cover cornerback over the past two seasons. While the move saved about $8 million in cap space, it depletes a very good secondary. Sutton will likely move to the full-time starter at outside corner and the team will be left with a hole in the slot. In 2020, Pittsburgh’s top four corners might have been the best group in the league. Now, half of them are gone, and some would say they were the best two players of the group.
Domino Effect on the Draft
The Steelers draft strategy will probably look different from what was originally expected. After watching last season, the biggest needs were clearly on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive line is the biggest need, to go with running back and tight end. Prior to free agency, wide receiver was expected to get some love in the draft, but that won’t be the case now that JuJu Smith-Schuster has re-signed. After this set of free agency moves, though, some defensive positions have shot up the list of draft needs.
A serious case could be made that inside linebacker is the biggest hole on the team. Behind Devin Bush (who is coming off an ACL tear) and Robert Spillane, there is no depth. There is minimal depth at outside linebacker, too, after Dupree and Ola Adeniyi departed to Tennessee in free agency. Though it probably won’t be a need early in the draft, the team will probably address EDGE as some point. Cornerback is now a need, both for 2021 and the long-term future, with 2o21 likely being Joe Haden’s last season in Pittsburgh. Safety is the only position on defense that has no chance of being addressed in the draft. With all of these holes opening up on defense, the Steelers will struggle to fill all of their needs on offense via the draft.
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