The Steelers defense disappointed down the stretch in 2017-2018 and was labelled “unacceptable”, “soft” and “out-physicaled”. Most concerning is how the defense fell dramatically limp after Ryan Shazier’s injury with its last six games allowing 133.5 yards on average, ranking it 31st in the NFL over that period. Worst still, the franchise’s 5.1 yards per carry put them last. And as defensive coordinator Keith Butler admitted, to improve the Steelers have to figure out a way to stop the running game.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings that there could be “dramatic changes” on defense despite the franchise setting a record in sacks in 2017. Fans and commentators will point out to too many splash plays undermining the volume of sacks leading many to call for Artie Burns to be benched. The University of Miami’s zone-heavy system, from which Burns was drafted out of, might be hindering his development or adaptability to the Steelers’ approach. Tomlin may, therefore, find improvement by benching him for a while.
Tomlin might also look to bring back a pass-rushing game from the linebackers, a tactic that was shelved in 2017 in order to support a struggling secondary. Draft picks might give the Steelers options and offer the opportunity to change tact to provide pressure from the edges. The franchise will also hope to plug the gap in its inability to stop the run between tackles.
It’ll hope its draft picks do just that. A diplomatic approach from Pittsburgh’s front office has seen it focus, in part, on adding to its safety options. Morgan Burnett, Marcus Allen and Terrell Edmunds add ballast to the position.
Many have argued that Jon Bostic isn’t the answer to a Steelers line-up missing Shazier, or that Burnett should have been signed, and it’s still lacking a superstar inside linebacker, but the defense looks a whole lot stronger now than it did at the end of last season. With a powerful offense, it’s unsurprising that Pittsburgh is liked as early NFL betting predictions put it amongst the favorites at +1000.00 to make it to Super Bowl LIII alongside the Patriots, Eagles and Packers.
Burnett adds a whole lot of reliability, for example, and he has championship winning experience too. Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt all have an extra year’s worth of experience on their side, and both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree look like stars in the making. While Bostic might have been signed with an eye on covering for the injured Shazier, it could be Tyler Matakevich who gets the starting role and he’ll be determined to keep it.
Other commentators will point out that the secondary, one of the Steelers’ defensive weaknesses in 2017, has been improved by virtue of the underperforming William Gay and Mike Mitchell being omitted from the line-up altogether.
And by adding Cameron Sutton, the entire defense gets a boost, particularly because there will be less reliance on Dupree and Watt stepping out of what they do best. The Steelers, therefore, gain enhancement on the outside pass rush, with Tomlin now able to call on some of the league’s most combative and effective edge rushers.
Defensively, the Steelers might still look short on paper, but time will tell as the 2018 season approaches. Pittsburgh fans must strap themselves in for a dramatic year which will no doubt have ups and downs but they have reason to be optimistic that the defense is more solid now than it was when Shazier went down.
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