Winning four of their last six games, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have saved their season from being a complete disaster. Now with a record of 4-6, the Steelers sit in the middle of a muddled playoff race and actually have a good shot at making the postseason if they can continue winning.
But even with the team’s resurgence, the defense just hasn’t looked like the dominant force we’ve all come to know and love.
In fact, Pittsburgh's defense has been average. It ranks 13th overall in the NFL, eighth in passing defense and 26th against the run so far in 2013. It hasn't been able to create any type of pressure on the quarterback, recording only 18 sacks on the season. Consequently, the unit has generated only six interceptions and just 10 turnovers overall on the year.
|Steelers' Defensive Rankings Past 8 Years|
The team needs improvement on all three levels of the defense, and they’ll need to make some tough offseason decisions on key defensive linemen whose contracts expire at the end of 2013: Defensive lineman Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods are all set to hit free agency.
Though Keisel is obviously towards the end of his career, he has still played at a high level, and I don’t see a scenario where he is not back with the team next year. Woods is a solid backup who can play both defensive end and nose tackle. He doesn’t see the field much; however, his versatility means that he should be back.
The wild card here is Hood, a former first-round draft pick who has been decent when given a chance to play. The problem is that Hood lost his starting spot to Cameron Heyward this year, and another team could be willing to offer him more than the Steelers.
Keisel continues to be solid, and Heyward looks like a defensive star in the making. In limited time this season, Heyward actually has registered more tackles (28) than both Keisel and Hood, and all three are tied for third on the team with two sacks. Heyward has also become adept at batting down passes and has five on the season.
The key position on the defensive line that the Steelers need to upgrade this offseason is nose tackle. I really like Steve McLendon, but he just hasn’t been as stout against the run in his first season as the starter. The only problem is that the team has Hebron Fangupo as the only other nose tackle on the roster, and there doesn't appear to be any potential free agents out there who represent an improvement.
The team could very well try to upgrade the nose tackle position through the first round of the draft. Louis Nix III out of Notre Dame, Ra’Shede Hageman out of Minnesota and Ego Ferguson out of LSU should all be available when the Steelers select in the first round.
|2014 ESPN NFL Draft Position Rankings|
|Louis Nix III||94|
At linebacker, the Steelers have Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds poised to be free agents after the season. Obviously the team is set with Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley as starters on the inside and outside. I wouldn’t be opposed to the team bringing Sylvester back to training camp, though his spot will not be guaranteed.
With Worilds hitting free agency and probably leaving, the team will give full rein of the outside linebacker spot to this year's first-round pick Jarvis Jones. This season was a no-win situation for Worilds with the Steelers, since if he played well, he would command big money on the free-agent market—money which the team probably would not be willing to shell out. Though Worilds is second on the team with four sacks, the team drafted Jones in the first round to be the future at outside linebacker.
Though he has flashed his potential, Jones has only one sack on the season and lost his starting job to Worilds. His biggest problems have been inconsistency in stopping the run and struggles in pass coverage. Given that he's a rookie, it's understandable that it would take time for Jones to adjust to the strength and speed of the NFL; the experience he's gained this season will go a long way in his development.
Vince Williams has done as well as you can expect from a rookie sixth-round pick, and I honestly believe he can become a solid starter. With Larry Foote coming off an injury, I would let him and Williams fight it out in camp next summer for the starting job. With a season of experience, I believe that Williams would have a very good shot at keeping his starting spot and relegating Foote to a backup role.
The unknown in this whole situation is whether or not Sean Spence can come back and be anything like the player the team thought he could be when he was drafted. If Spence returns and is anything close to the athlete he was at the University of Miami, then that would give the Steelers two good young linebackers to develop on the inside.
The secondary is where most of the question marks start to pop up for the Steelers.
Ryan Clark is the only player who will be a free agent, and with his play this season, he may just retire. I won’t be sad to see him come back for another season, but it just seems like a perfect scenario for him to walk away without being cut or beat out in camp.
The team’s top three corners—Ike Taylor, William Gay and Cortez Allen—should be set again for 2014. He's getting up in age, but Ike still appears to have more left in the tank. Gay meanwhile has played very well this season, and Allen continues to develop. Though he hasn't had in 2013 the breakout season that Pittsburgh fans expected, Allen is still young and has the potential to be a number one corner for the team.
The situation behind those three, however, is a complete mess: Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke, and Antwon Blake have proved to be nothing more than special teams players. If the Steelers weren’t in desperate need of an offensive left tackle in the first round, I would definitely be looking at players like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu of Oregon, Loucheiz Purifoy of Florida and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State.
Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas should replace Ryan Clark as the starter, with Will Allen serving as the main backup for both him and Troy Polamalu. Thomas has been a force on special teams this season, and his experience this season should help him in taking over as the starting free safety in 2014.
Polamalu really becomes the biggest question mark on the entire defense this offseason. At times he has looked great running all over the field, but has anyone actually seen him make any plays? Other than the occasional time Polamalu jumps over the center, you might forget he is even in the game.
I might hope for his retirement this offseason if not for the fact that the team does not have a replacement on the roster. It will be a sad day when Polamalu actually makes that decision to leave, but he just doesn't look like the same playmaker he used to be.
Will Allen is a good backup, however, I wouldn’t go into the season with him as the number one guy. We can hope that Robert Golden develops enough to take on a larger role, though he probably won’t be ready for that in 2014. The best scenario is for Polamalu to hang in there for one more season while the team continues to find his successor.
|Projected Starters on 2014 Defense (age in parenthesis)|
|RDE: Brett Keisel (35)||RILB: Vince Williams (23)|
|NT: Steve McLendon (27)||LILB: Lawrence Timmons (27)|
|LDE: Cameron Heyward (24)||RCB: Ike Taylor (33)|
|ROLB: Jarvis Jones (24)||LCB: Cortez Allen (25)|
|LOLB: LaMarr Woodley (29)||FS: Shamarko Thomas (22)|
|SS: Troy Polamalu (32)|
The best way for the Pittsburgh defense to get better in 2014 is for the players on the roster to play up to their potential. Big names like Woodley and Polamalu, along with younger guys like Allen, Heyward, Thomas and Jones just need to play better.
I don’t think the coaching has been a major problem on defense other than in one key area. The tackling on this team has been atrocious all season. If there is one thing that Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake need to do, it would be teach every defender how to actually wrap up the ball-carrier.
A blowout loss to the Patriots aside, this defense is not far off from being really good again next season.