Pittsburgh Steelers: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Analysis
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first thing that comes to mind is the defense. From “The Steel Curtain” to “Blitzburgh,” the defense has been the foundation for the team for over 40 years.
That was not the case last season. Actually, it was far from it.
Since 2000, Pittsburgh’s defense finished in the top seven on nine occasions, including six times as the best in the league. It finished 13th last season, its worst ranking since 1992. Even the great Dick LeBeau couldn’t mask the issues that the defense had.
It could not stop the run. It allowed big plays left and right. It could not generate pressure on the quarterback. It could not rush the quarterback.
A defense that perennially has some of the best talent in the entire league had been drained of its personnel. It was no longer good enough, and it showed on the field. That led general manager Kevin Colbert to make some significant changes.
Colbert released LaMarr Woodley and allowed Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and others to walk in free agency. He replenished the roster with size and strength along the line and speed at linebacker and in the secondary.
Now that the dust has settled, the Steelers will enter the 2014 season with three new starters who will upgrade the overall toughness and speed of the defense. These new additions should help the Steelers get back to their aggressive nature.
With so many new faces in place, here is a position-by-position breakdown of the defensive depth chart heading into training camp.
Left Defensive End
Projected Depth Chart: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Josh Mauro, Ethan Hemer
The left defensive end position will have a much different look in 2014. Ziggy Hood departed via free agency, and Cameron Heyward moved to the right side of the line. There will be no shortage of competition for the job, but Cam Thomas will be the favorite.
Thomas will probably enter training camp as the starter and must hold off rookie Stephon Tuitt if he wants to earn the job. He has the edge in experience, including 10 starts for the San Diego Chargers last season before he was demoted. But the Steelers should not expect much production, as he only had 23 tackles and no sacks.
Pittsburgh originally signed Thomas to provide depth at defensive end and nose tackle, but the lack of a proven starter has forced him to work with the first team. Given the time that it takes defensive ends in the Steelers’ system to develop, Thomas is likely to maintain this role for most—if not all—of the season.
The 6’5” and 303-pound Tuitt already has an NFL frame but is the youngest player on the roster. He comes to the Steelers following a productive career at Notre Dame in which he had 126 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss and 21.5 sacks. Once ready, he will provide a stout defender against the run and the ability to rush the quarterback.
Until then, Tuitt will compete for a spot in the defensive end rotation. Others joining him will be Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer.
Mauro was one of the top 10 undrafted free-agent signings, according to NFL.com. At 6’6” and 282 pounds, he has some room to add weight but does play a physical brand of football that the Steelers like from their defensive linemen. Hemer does not come with the same pedigree as Mauro but does have the potential to make the practice squad.
Thomas and Tuitt are clearly at the top of the depth chart, and Mauro has an outside chance to make the team, especially if the Steelers decide to keep an extra defensive lineman on the roster. However, given the lack of experience in Pittsburgh’s defense, the right defensive spot will be a weak spot—at least early in the season.
Down the road, though, Tuitt has a very high upside, as does Mauro. Until then, the Steelers will have to live with rookie mistakes and count on Thomas to keep the seat warm until Tuitt is ready to step in. Unfortunately, Mauro will likely find himself off the roster and on the practice squad.
Projected Depth Chart: Steve McLendon, Daniel McCullers, Hebron Fangupo, Al Lapuaho
The Steelers had an opportunity to select a pure nose tackle in the draft but decided to pass on Louis Nix—twice. Instead, they added Daniel McCullers in the sixth round. He will join Steve McLendon, Hebron Fangupo and Al Lapuaho.
McLendon will be in his second year starting, and he is looking to improve after a disappointing 2013 season. He was part of a rush defense that finished 21st against the run, and he was never able to offer much in terms of rushing the passer—he did not record a stat. To improve, he took a creative approach to his offseason training by taking up other sports.
More explosiveness from his game could mean that McLendon becomes a more effective three-down player. He has the ability to get to the quarterback, and it may be something that Dick LeBeau wants to explore this year.
Until Thomas moves out of the starting lineup, the depth at nose tackle will be very thin. That may not be an issue, as McLendon only played 32.7 percent of the defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. But if he does need a break, there is a rather large group of unproven, experienced players behind him.
Fangupo has yet to show much in his time with the Steelers, and Lapuaho has had trouble sticking on a roster. However, Lapuaho made a positive early impression on Cameron Heyward, which led to Scott Brown of ESPN.com calling him a potential sleeper.
McCullers has the most potential of the reserves and is the best bet to make the final roster. He is 6’7” and 352 pounds, which makes him a massive presence in the middle of the line. That will not mean a thing if he cannot stay low to maintain his leverage, which is important at the nose. The Steelers may also look at him at defensive end.
In most years, a lack of depth at nose tackle would be a concern, but not in 2014. They do not play enough snaps for it to be a major concern. The Steelers will be fine with McLendon and Thomas at the top of the depth chart and a developmental player, such as McCullers, at No. 3.
Right Defensive End
Projected Depth Chart: Cameron Heyward, Brian Arnfelt, Nicholas Williams, Roy Philon
It took a few years, but Cameron Heyward finally showed why he was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he break into the starting lineup, but he was also one of the best defenders on the team. He finished the year with 59 tackles and five sacks.
The Steelers hope to take advantage of his athleticism here. As reported by Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Heyward will stand up as a pass-rusher in sub-packages. He has established himself as the best defensive lineman the Steelers have, and they are treating him that way.
There is a lot of intriguing depth behind him as well, including Nicholas Williams and Brian Arnfelt. These two do not have a chance to beat out Heyward for a job, but they will compete for the starting spot on the left side and for playing time as rotational players.
Williams has excellent size at 6’4” and 309 pounds. He had the look of a camp sleeper until a knee injury put him on the injured reserve list. There is a lot of work to be done between now and the start of the season, but as long as he continues to progress, he will be a part of the final roster.
Arnfelt, meanwhile, seemed to come out of nowhere and had an outstanding preseason. He was very active in all of his opportunities and even looked dominant at times. Now with a year of experience under his belt, he could be fourth or third on the depth chart—that is if his development stays on track.
Only time will tell if the young defensive ends develop, but if they do, the Steelers will have one of the best defensive lines in a few years. As far as 2014 goes, training camp will show us how far along they are in their development and determine whether they can contribute. Based on what we’ve seen, one or two players will stand out.
Left Outside Linebacker
Projected Depth Chart: Jason Worilds, Arthur Moats, Jordan Zumwalt
Outside linebacker used to be one of the premier positions on Pittsburgh’s defense. Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and James Harrison are just a small handful of the great players to play the position. The Steelers can’t quite match that talent with Jason Worilds as their top outside linebacker in 2014.
Worilds only has an eight-game stretch of high-quality football in his career so far. That came last year when he took over for LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker. Over the final eight games, he had 44 tackles and seven sacks.
That was enough for the Steelers to place the transition tag on him and anoint him as the starter for the 2014 season. While the team has enough confidence in him for this year, there has to be a concern as to whether or not he can maintain a high level of play for an entire season. Another worry is his injury history.
The Steelers will be in dire need of help if Worilds goes down. His top backup is Arthur Moats, who signed to be a backup at outside and inside linebacker. He has never been productive in terms of rushing the quarterback and only has five sacks in four seasons—including none in two years.
Like Moats, Zumwalt is versatile enough to play on the inside and outside, though his immediate impact will be on special teams. That will earn him a spot on the team.
From what we know right now, the Steelers do not have a young linebacker waiting in the wings for his chance to star. There is no Porter or Woodley currently on this roster, and that is a major concern. Because of this, the Steelers should have Harrison on speed dial, as he could be one play away from a roster spot.
Left Inside Linebacker
Projected Depth Chart: Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Kion Wilson
The Steelers never hand a job to a rookie, especially a rookie defender, but they have done everything except name first-round pick Ryan Shazier the starter.
He has been running with the first-team defense since the start of OTAs and has not looked back. Shazier has been learning the playbook and has flashed his athleticism when he made a leaping interception on Bruce Gradkowski.
While it is possible that Vince Williams could compete with him, the Steelers are more likely to leave him as the top backup at “Buck” linebacker. He is a two-down run-stopper and is a better fit at this position.
Instead, Shazier’s top competition could come from Sean Spence. He is healthy and was able to participate in OTA practices, per the Tribune-Review’s Kaboly. The Steelers had big plans for Spence when they made him their third-round draft pick in 2012. However, a severe knee injury kept him out of action for two years.
The mental aspect of the game should not be a problem for Spence. He has had two years to learn and master the defense. Instead, he will have to prove that he can handle the physical part of the game. Running drills during practice is one thing, but getting into full contact in preseason games is something entirely different.
Spence must prove that his knee can hold up at full speed. Even if he doesn’t beat out Shazier, he can be a valuable depth player and member of the special teams unit.
With Shazier living up to his hype and Spence on the mend, the Steelers have some excellent depth at the top of the depth chart at inside linebacker. Add in Williams and Kion Wilson, and you have one of the deepest areas of the team.
Right Inside Linebacker
Projected Depth Chart: Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, Daniel Molls
Lawrence Timmons will make a full-time move from “Mack” to Buck linebacker this year to accommodate Shazier. What does that mean for the defense?
It means that Dick LeBeau and the rest of the defensive staff are trying to maximize the talent that they are putting on the field. Timmons is an eight-year veteran who knows the defense well and should have no problems adjusting. Combined with Shazier, the Steelers will have one the most athletic inside linebacker duos in the league.
Williams will push to be the primary backup behind Timmons, but Terence Garvin will not go away quietly. The former West Virginia safety successfully made the transition to inside linebacker, which “impressed the coaches,” per Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
Garvin made an impact on special teams and eventually worked his way into defensive sub-packages. He even started one game in what was an overall successful season for an undrafted free agent.
Pittsburgh’s coaches have many versatile pieces at inside linebacker and should be very pleased with the depth. There will be plenty of competition in training camp, and there will be some good football players—such as Garvin and Wilson—left off the final roster.
Right Outside Linebacker
Projected Depth Chart: Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, Vic So’oto, Howard Jones
Jarvis Jones had a poor predraft workout last year, and that left some concern in regard to his pro potential. After 14 NFL games—including eight starts—there are still many concerns.
Jones did not have the look of an elite pass-rusher during his rookie season. He did not flash as Porter once did. He did not accumulate sacks in a reserve role as Woodley did. It was quite the opposite, as he finished the season with one sack and struggled to pressure the quarterback.
The lack of splash plays will bring up talk of “bust,” but everyone must remember that Jones was a rookie. He had a lot to learn about the Steelers’ defensive system. He had to learn how to rush the quarterback. He had to get stronger.
After a full offseason, Jones has done all of that and will continue to do so once training camp begins. This will put him in a better position to become the playmaker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him. But until he proves it, there are valid concerns.
There is very little behind Jones, which makes it a tossup as to who will make the team.
Carter only has 16 tackles in 29 games, while So’oto only has played 13 games with four different teams in three seasons. That leaves the door open for Howard Jones, a small-school prospect, to sneak onto the roster. However, playing at Division II Shepherd, he will have a huge adjustment.
Carter has the edge as the fourth outside linebacker based on his experience and knowledge of the defense, but he is by no means a lock.
Projected Depth Chart: Cortez Allen, William Gay, Shaquille Richardson, Brice McCain, Ross Ventrone
The depth chart at cornerback is clear with Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor and William Gay at the top.
For the first time in his career, Allen should be the No. 1 cornerback for the Steelers. Taylor has held this role, but he has shown signs of regression, and it is time for Allen to step into the spotlight. Though he may not shadow the opponent’s top receiver every week as Taylor did in his prime, he is still the most talented cornerback on the roster.
As he enters his fourth season, Allen is poised for a breakout season. He had a terrific sophomore campaign with five tackles, two interceptions, 10 passes defended and three forced fumbles, but he fell back last year when thrust into the starting lineup. In eight starts, he had 51 tackles, two interceptions, 13 passes defended and one touchdown.
Gay had a terrific season last year with 55 tackles, one sack, one interception, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles and a touchdown in 11 starts. He was one of the most consistent defenders and fits in nicely as the nickelback. The Steelers can also have him move to the outside if they want Allen at nickel.
Beyond the top cornerbacks, there is not much to work with.
Brice McCain signed as a free agent but had the worst season of his career last year. His role with the defense would be limited, so he must shine on special teams. The same could be said for Ross Ventrone.
Shaquille Richardson may have only been a fifth-round draft pick, but defensive backs coach Carnell Lake is very high on him. At 6’0” and 194 pounds, he has the size that the Steelers like in their starting cornerbacks.
Besides his size, Richardson has ball skills and can tackle in the open field. He is in the same mold as an Allen or a Keenan Lewis in the sense that he is a developmental project. Given his ceiling as a potential starter, the Steelers will give him a chance ahead of the other options.
Projected Depth Chart: Ike Taylor, Antwon Blake, Isaiah Green, Devin Smith
Earlier this offseason, Ike Taylor took a reduction in pay in order to finish his career with the Steelers. The fact that they did not cut him shows that he still has value for Pittsburgh’s defense.
Taylor was susceptible to big plays last year, but that should not be as much of an issue this year. He should no longer have to match up against the No. 1 receiver each week, which caused him many problems last year. A potentially improved pass rush from the front seven and back-end help with new free safety Mike Mitchell will also help.
As we saw on the other side of the field, the depth at cornerback is very thin. Antwon Blake is the only player at right cornerback who will challenge for a roster spot.
Blake is a terrific player on special teams but is no more than a fourth or fifth cornerback. You may be thinking that is all that the Steelers need. That is true, but if Richardson can fill the same role and has upside as a future starter, why risk losing him?
Expect the Steelers to go with four cornerbacks—Allen, Taylor, Gay and Richardson—unless they need an additional player for special teams. By doing so, they can load up at safety, where they have more talent to work with.
Projected Depth Chart: Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Robert Golden, Jordan Dangerfield
Heading into the offseason, safety was one of the biggest concerns on the rosters. Pittsburgh addressed that with just one move.
The addition of Mike Mitchell to take over at free safety was the Steelers’ most expensive free-agent signing but also their best. He will immediately step into the starting lineup and adds the back-end speed that was lacking with Ryan Clark.
Mitchell can be a playmaker as well. Last year in Carolina, he had 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. Playing under LeBeau, he will have the chance to explode and develop into one of the top free safeties in the league.
Behind Mitchell, Will Allen will be the top backup. He will actually be the top backup at both safety positions to start the year. He knows the defense and has done nothing but play well when on the field.
While Allen won’t be a playmaker, he won’t allow the big play, either. He is a smart player who can play all over the field. Even if both safeties stay healthy, he is an ideal candidate to be an extra defensive back on passing downs.
Allen’s presence is one of the reasons that Robert Golden has never been able get out of the shadows. It is tough to overcome the play of a dependable veteran. Then again, he has not turned heads in his chances, either.
A top three of Mitchell, Allen and Golden puts the Steelers in very good shape heading into the season.
Projected Depth Chart: Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas
Troy Polamalu has been a do-it-all safety over his career with the Steelers. Last year, he was able to add “linebacker” to his resume as well. That should not be the case this year after the Steelers drafted Shazier.
That puts Polamalu back into his traditional role of a freelance strong safety. That is exactly how the Steelers like it.
Polamalu may not be able to move as he used to, but that does not mean he still can’t fly around the field. He was one of the Steelers’ best defenders last year when he finished with 69 tackles, two sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions.
As his career nears the end, Polamalu is doing his best to train his replacement.
According to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, Polamalu invited Shamarko Thomas to train with him in California. Thomas did not have to put much thought into accepting the invitation.
Already one of the hardest workers on the team, Thomas will have the experience of a lifetime training with one of the best safeties of this generation. Anything that he can soak up will help him as he pushes for playing time this season.
Thomas lost his position in sub-packages to Will Allen last season and did not get a chance with the first-team defense when Polamalu skipped voluntary practices. That job went to Allen as well.
Until he proves otherwise, Thomas will remain behind Allen on the depth chart. However, he will not let that get him down, and he will continue to put in the necessary work. Eventually, all of this effort will pay off, and he will be the top backup at strong safety before the end of the year.