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Steelers Defense Losing Identity During Free Agency Period

Joey Porter, Jarvis Jones

Although it is still early in the free agency period across the NFL, one thing that is becoming apparent is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are losing the identity they had during the 2014 season.  For many, this is a welcome departure from what was considered a defense not only in transition but in trouble.  A few surprises have created a completely different landscape and where the Steelers go will be closely watched as the team tries to put together a successful defensive squad over the course of the next few months.

With long-time defensive end Brett Keisel moving on, the uncertainty of whether the Steelers would take another look at aging linebacker James Harrison, a possible retirement by safety Troy Polamalu, the surprise exit of outside linebacker Jason Worilds from the NFL and cornerback Brice McCain‘s departure to the Miami Dolphins the Steelers have important voids that need to be filled.

The Steelers used their last two drafts to select younger guys to attempt to retool their defense.  With Jarvis Jones, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers got the youth but not the production they would have liked.  All three players have struggled with injuries.

The Steelers re-signed Cam Thomas at defensive end, but with Cam Heyward and Tuitt the only additional players at that spot, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Pittsburgh were to keep an eye out for at least one player at that position.

The Steelers are dangerously thin at outside linebacker.  After re-signing Arthur Moats, the Steelers have Jones as their only other option on the outside.  This could re-prioritize where Pittsburgh goes after a player in the draft, especially with available free agents at the position being a high commodity this offseason.

Justin Houston would have made a nice addition, but the Kansas City Chiefs placed the franchise tag on him.  The next highest-rated players at the position by are Sean Weatherspoon (left Falcons, signed with Cardinals), Justin Durant (left Cowboys, signed with Falcons) and Danny Lansanah (who re-signed with the Buccaneers).  Akeen Ayers, a DE/OLB with the New England Patriots is only ranked a two-star player by, but did help improve the Patriots’ run defense in 2014.

On the inside, the Steelers are five deep thus far.  With Shazier, Sean Spence, Terence Garvin, Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams, linebackers coach Joey Porter will have plenty to work with.

Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake doesn’t have it quite so well.  With only three cornerbacks on the roster (Cortez Allen, B.W. Webb and William Gay), there is absolutely no doubt that the Steelers will have to address that position immediately.  Whether or not they will find someone in free agency or opt for the draft remains in the air at this point.  It would be safe to surmise that they would use both options.

Darrelle Revis was possibly the highest rated free agent at the corner position.  He left the Patriots to sign with the Jets.  Brandon Flowers, at age 29, re-signed with the Chargers.  Antonio Cromartie (Arizona Cardinals) was playing at a high level until a late-season ankle injury.  Kareem Jackson re-signed with the Texans and Byron Maxwell left Seattle for Philadelphia.  That leaves Tramon Williams (32, Packers), Chris Culliver (27, 49ers) and Parish Cox (28, 4ers) at the bottom of the top eight free agent rankings in the league (according to  Williams is nearing the end of his career but had a decent 2014 season.  Culliver missed time with an ACL tear in 2013, but surrendered a 50.7 completion percentage against opponents despite having a decent year in San Francisco last season.  Cox has been mired in off-field issues and didn’t really take the field until 2014 causing many league insiders to wonder if he is worth the gamble.

At the safety position, the Steelers still list Polamalu on their roster but only have Mike Mitchell at free safety with Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone at strong safety.  Polamalu has been, up to this point, expected to move on.  That creates yet another headache in a weakened defensive backfield.  Mitchell did not play at a veteran level in 2014.  Thomas and Ventrone have shown spark and promise, but many consider both to be untested as starters.

Among the top-rated safety free agents are Devin McCourty, Tashaun Gipson, Will Hill, Rodney McLeod, Rahim Moore, Da’Norris Searcy, Louis Delmas, Mike Adams and Dwight Lowery.  McCourty re-signed with New England and Gipson, considered one of the best young safeties in the league, was tendered by Cleveland.  Hill has been plagued with off-field issues and faced a six-game suspension for violation of the substance-abuse policy last season. McLeod is only 25 and despite his not being drafted out of Virginia in 2014, played good coverage for the St. Louis Rams and developed into a solid starter.  Moore had a scare when he developed lateral compartment syndrome and nearly lost his leg.  He had a decent comeback, but it wasn’t spectacular and he was not nearly as effective in coverage.  Searcy came into Buffalo and replaced Jairus Byrd in 2014 as a starter, playing well overall.  Delmas, at 28, has a history of injury and an ACL tear in December could hamper his placement for 2015.  Mike Adams re-signed with the Indianapolis Colts, effectively taking him off the board.  Lowery is considered a solid safety who has had a non-spectacular career, mainly due to an extensive concussion history.  Despite playing all 16 games in 2014 with the Falcons, he missed 20 games the prior two seasons.

ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported via Twitter that the Steelers may be interested in Saints free agent corner Patrick Robinson.


Robinson was selected late in the 2010 NFL Draft out of Florida State.  In six games started, Robinson recorded 39 (total) tackles and two interceptions.  The Steelers have not indicated that they will host Robinson this week.

The Steelers do have some futures players that may pan out for them, but at this point in the free agency period, the team has been quiet in the marketplace.  It would be unlikely that Pittsburgh would be able to completely retool their defense, especially the outside linebacker and defensive back positions via the draft.  That makes this offseason one to watch.



  1. DrGeorge

    March 12, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Good work, Christine. I admire a journalist who does her homework. You covered all the bases here, and when all the needs are laid out on the table like this, the task looks daunting. And it is.

    The Defense is not so much “losing” its 2014 identity as shucking it — it wasn’t an identity worth keeping, anyway — and it’s Butler’s challenge to mold a new identity in keeping with the new patty-cake rules that reward speed and penalize contact on D. Indeed, the D has so many holes to fill at OLB, CB, Safety, and Line that the coaches could take the best defender available in each round of the draft and fill a crying need every time. Finding players whose characters fit the Steelers’ expectations may be a greater challenge, as Christine has observed among the available free agents. The team must improve the pass rush, improve pass coverage, and build a D-line that can stop the run without much help from the LBs — all at the same time. That pretty much describes a major reclamation project. The needs are so varied they can’t be addressed exclusively via the draft, and so far they haven’t been addressed via free agency, either.

    Which means the coaching staff — by design or by default — will be forced to make do in 2015 with the same young players who failed to step up last year. Like LeBeau before him, Butler is being asked to work magic — and there simply isn’t enough pixie dust in Pittsburgh to make that happen in one year. In my view, it will take at least two solid drafts, a shift in financial resources from the offense, and a lot of luck to make this D competitive again.

  2. DaveB.

    March 12, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    I agree with Dr. George . The job that Butler is being asked to do is in a word , LUDICROUS . This defense is in such bad shape today that college teams could probably have success moving the ball on them . I mean that sincerely . We have two outside linebackers on the roster with playing experience and two cornerbacks with playing experience .Thats it . Its rediculous and thats why with the upcoming schedule this Steelers team is probably looking at a six win season . There have been free agents out there who would have been major upgrades over current Steelers . One example of several is the Ravens letting Haloti Ngata go . This guy has been a huge thorn in the steelers side for years and is considered one of the best nose tackles in the game .What do the Steelers do ? They set they’re on their hands and do nothing while all of the premium free agents are scooped up right in front of them . Bottom line , its not 1975 anymore and the old school way of thinking isnt going to get it done in 2015 in the NFL . Youve got to change your way of thinking and Dan and Art simply arent willing to do it . You can still build through the draft , but you have to be willing to accept that free agency is part of the process to . Until the Steelers start practicing that , they are in for alot of mediocre years . Its as simple as that .

  3. jay

    March 12, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    Hey, they’re bringing in centenarian Deangelo williams and they locked up Matt waste of spaeth! I smell super bowl!

  4. jay

    March 12, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Whoever published this article…let Ed Bouchette read what i just posted…He’d most likely condescend and internally brow beat but it IS TRUE!!!! I been saying what Dave B just said for YEARS now!!! This team sucks when it comes to improving roster through nontraditional means. It worked when there was depth but there ain’t anymore.. And I’m sick of the argument that no one else is doing it. EVERYONE ELSE SEEMS TO BE SIGNING SOMEONE!!!!! Give me a break! Steelers expect their fans to exist exclusively between September and January and never throw us a substantial bone during the offseason. Last years’ signings sucked and none of them were any good or exciting. How come we always up against the cap? Other teams got franchise ab’s that they pay a lot of money yet they make moves! and the apologists will all say that I’m trashing an organization with 6 lombard’s…That’s the same tired bar room argument when say an Eagles fan talks shit to a Steelers fan (which they often do) and the douche bag Steelers fan responds with we got six! Come on man, do something at this time of year to make me feel some enthusiasm!

  5. Christina Rivers

    March 13, 2015 at 12:24 am

    Thank you for your comments DrGeorge. I said the Steelers were losing their 2014 identity mainly because it would be like beating a dead horse to go back a decade and point out the obvious. The Steelers are falling behind on staying competitive. Much of the comments are accurate. Pittsburgh needs to adapt to the modern NFL or suffer long periods of drought in the wins column. The fact that the team has been so quiet during free agency so far gives the impression they will follow the script of not giving away much to get a FA that is above three stars. Mike Mitchell fit that bill in 2014 and was not spectacular. They let McCain get away and should have locked the kid up. Bouchette may get growly, but the fact is that not everyone is a sunshine optimist that is so enamored by history that they can’t see that Pittsburgh would have benefitted from the type of team building Seattle used and took to the Super Bowl. There is no realistic way to completely rebuild your team from untested draft picks or rookie FAs. This team is entering some dark days unless they can do a better job of reaching out to guys who can give them the performance they pay for and exceed that of their own self-interest. Think Antonio Brown vs Cortex Allen.

    • DaveB.

      March 13, 2015 at 5:09 am

      Youre exactly right Christina on Brice McCain . That was pure stupidity on the Steelers part . Youre already paper thin at this position and you let one of better corners from last year just walk right out the door . What is Colbert thinking ? I honestly dont understand they’re thinking anymore .

  6. Christina Rivers

    March 13, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Anyone miss the Kahn brothers around this time?

  7. Christina Rivers

    March 13, 2015 at 12:29 am

    DeAngelo Williams, if brought in, will likely be a show pony who gets maybe 10 carries a game while healthy. Anything over a one-year contract would be a waste of $$

  8. DrGeorge

    March 13, 2015 at 10:46 am

    The players labor agreement and the NFL itself have combined to make it difficult for teams to retain experienced veterans under the salary cap. The idea is to ensure parity among teams, which is all to the good. The strategic effect, however, is for teams to trade or cut high-priced veterans in their prime and replace them with lower-priced youngsters and draft picks. This accounts for the headline making personnel changes and draft swaps in Philly, Seattle, New England and elsewhere. The better NFL franchises are continually rebuilding with younger players at a rate that would have been inexplicable only a few years ago. The Steelers took a flyer after Super Bowl 43 in retaining senior players they should have cut or traded and in losing balance by spending more on offense than defense. Management seems to have recognized the error and is now taking corrective steps, but only tentatively. Unless the team takes a bolder approach, this process will take years.

    As for DeAngelo Williams, you are spot on, Christina. He is strictly insurance. But there isn’t anyone better to be had for the same money. I have been beating the drum for Will Johnson to serve in this back up role; he is a former tailback who catches and blocks well. But Tomlin and Haley do not seem inclined to give him a chance and have now allowed him to explore free agency. The logic of that baffles me.

    But this backup RB controversy misses the larger point. Other top tier teams are running unheralded RBs behind superb offensive lines and flourishing, such as Forsett who replaced R. Rice in Baltimore, or Jamaal Charles in KC (a 3rd round pick), or LaGarrette Blount who was under-utilized in Pittsburgh and then helped New England win a Super Bowl. Rushing excellence begins with the O-line, not the RBs — and our O-line execution is simply not on a par with the best. Our backup RBs are good enough. It’s the O-line blocking that needs fixed.

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